An ethnic pageant that hasPhoto Illustration By David Swann
clung to custom will now allow
women who are not 100 percent
Japanese to compete
Photo By Craig T. Kojima
Story by Cynthia Oi
THE Cherry Blossom Festival is forging another link in Hawaii's multi-cultural chain. For the first time in the festival's 47 years, women who aren't 100 percent ethnic Japanese will be allowed to compete in its queen pageant.
The change for the Cherry Blossom pageant seems in sync with the times as ethnic lines blur through interracial marriage, and as younger generations move away from the traditions of their grandparents.
Keith Kamisugi, president of the Japanese Junior Chamber of Commerce, which organizes the festival and pageant, said contest changes -- reducing the blood quantum levels from 100 percent to 50 percent and not requiring a Japanese surname -- mirror the ethnic make up of the community.
"The Cherry Blossom queen and court represent the Japanese community but the Japanese community today is multi-ethnic, so the Cherry Blossom queen and court should reflect that," Kamisugi said.
The move to be more inclusive was necessary for the Chinese Chamber of Commerce, which in 1995 changed the requirements for its Narcissus queen to allow women with 50 percent blood quantum to participate. (A woman must have a Chinese surname for the Narcissus contest.)
Wen Ling, Chinese Chamber executive vice president, said the change was made because it had been difficult to find women with 100 percent Chinese blood.
Kamisugi said the Cherry Blossom contest had no shortage of pure blood candidates. The change came about because of the Chamber's desire to revitalize itself.
Although the change is viewed positively inside the Chamber's ranks, there are some who don't like the new rules. One woman with close ties to the festival would only discuss the matter if her name wasn't used, saying, "You know how some Oriental people are. If you don't agree with them they think you don't like them, or then they don't like you."
She said although she believes the Chamber made the right decision, "there are still some die-hards who aren't happy with it."
For one thing, ethnic looks are one of the reasons the pageant exists. Women with Asian features often did not conform to the stereotypical beauty of Miss Americas. Because of that, minority groups such as the Japanese, Chinese and Filipinos created their own pageants in the '40s and '50s to honor their women, as well as to preserve their cultural traditions.
Kamisugi said revising the blood quantum requirement had been considered twice in the past 10 years, but both times it was defeated. That it was adopted this time is seen as step forward, he said. Still, the group made sure to ease the way for the change.
"Before we made the final decision we did consult with a number of people, including our major sponsors, corporations in town that donate money to us. All supported the change," he said.
Dennis Ogawa sees the change as "more embracing, more inclusive." He has a lot of qualifications to speak on the matter: He is a professor of American Studies at the University of Hawaii at Manoa, an expert on Japanese-American history, and he's married to 1969 Cherry Blossom queen Amy Fukuda.
"The Japanese community is diverse. It is not a singular group of individuals. For some, (the change) is a step forward because it recognizes that most marriages are interracial," he said. "And Hawaii has always been symbolic of interracial marriage."
Richard Fassler, author of "Rainbow Kids: Hawaii's Gift to America," a book that celebrates diversity, agrees.
"If they maintain the requirement that the contestants learn as much as possible about their Japanese ancestry, their roots and their customs and culture and their ethnic heritages, I think it's wonderful," he said.
"You just can't gauge a person's interest in their cultural heritage by their blood quantum," he said, pointing to his Caucasian-Chinese daughter who is studying Chinese at Iolani School.
"She's very interested in her Chinese background," he said and it would be a shame if a girl like her was kept from participating in a cultural festival because she's only half Chinese.
Fassler said winners of such cultural pageants should not be chosen because of "ethnic stereotypical good looks."
If there is such a thing. Ogawa said Japanese Americans in Hawaii somehow look different from Japanese nationals. He said while helping a production team from Japan film Japanese Americans in Hawaii, the team didn't believe the local people used were really of Japanese ancestry.
"They had Japanese names, but they looked so different to them," he said.
The Cherry Blossom contest enjoyed enormous popularity in its early days when thousands would attend the pageant and queens were really treated like royalty. The first queen, Violet Niimi (Oishi), was heralded and feted by the community when she won the contest in 1953. Her career on the television program "Televi Di-gest," her marriage and her travels received heavy press attention.
These days, the pageant doesn't draw a lot of coverage. The governor still crowns the queen at a coronation ball, but the hoopla has diminished through the years.
Kamisugi said the decline in media coverage of the pageant "certainly reflects its newsworthiness to the general public" and the beauty-contest aspect is being toned down in favor of other qualities.
"Although for many years the organization has said the Cherry Blossom Festival queen pageant was not a beauty pageant, when we actually scoured the criteria there were remnants of that still in there," he said. "We made sure to eliminate that and boost the criteria that reflect leadership, cultural appreciation, poise -- more substantive attributes."
Loretta Yajima, whose daughter Lennie won the contest in 1986, said the contest has always been one to focus on cultural values.
"We stressed the fact that it isn't a beauty pageant," said Yajima who was honored by the Chamber last year for her 45 years of service to the festival. "The person who is chosen is the one who the judges feel will best represent Hawaii."
The 1998 queen, Lori Joy Morita, said the blood quantum change is "a positive one that will open up the festival doors to a broader part of our community."
"I think that the fact that for 46 years, the group has been able to keep the contest to 100 percent Japanese girls is wonderful. But society changes and it's time to move with society," she said.
"It may take a little time, but I think everybody, after a while, will see that this is really good. It's something the festival needed, the community needed," she said.
Oishi, the first festival queen, is ambivalent about the change, according to her representative Ginny Machado. "It was very hard for her to decide because there's the traditional thing, but at the same time she has Caucasian grandchildren," Machado said. She's endorsed the idea, although she'd prefer that candidates have Japanese surnames, Machado said.
Yajima, whose husband was the head of the first Cherry Blossom Festival, looks at the change philosophically. She points to this year's festival theme, "Winds of Change," as appropriate.
"We need to open up the culture to other people, people who wouldn't maybe get involved with Japanese things," she said.
"When I see a haole speaking Japanese, looking at Japanese art, when I see a haole who can use chopsticks properly, I'm thrilled," Yajima said. "You have to be grateful that someone who's not Japanese is willing to join your group because they're that interested in your culture."
Cherry Blossom FestivalSome of the 47th annual festival events:
Opening ceremony, 1 p.m. Sunday Hilton Hawaiian Village. Queen contestants will be introduced.
Fashion show, 11:30 a.m., Feb. 14, Sheraton Waikiki Hotel
Cultural expo, 10 a.m. March 6, Ala Moana Center
Hawaii International Taiko Festival, 8 p.m., March 12, Blaisdell Concert Hall
Festival ball, 5 p.m. March 20, queen pageant and coronation at Hilton Hawaiian Village
Click for online
calendars and events.