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Social Encore: Cherry Blossom Festival kicks off
BY JERMEL-LYNN QUILLOPO / Special to the Star-Advertiser
So there is this little something that I think you readers would like to know. I used to be a pageant queen. Yes me, a pageant girl.
61st Cherry Blossom Festival Contestants
» Stephanie Masako Chiang
I competed a lot to earn scholarship money for college and as much as I enjoyed bonding with other girls and learning more about the organization that was hosting the pageant, I’m going to be honest — it is intense.
One of the longest running festivals in Hawaii is about to kick their calendar of events into high gear. Sponsored by the Honolulu Japanese Junior Chamber of Commerce, the 61st Cherry Blossom Festival spans from January to March. At the end of it all, a Cherry Blossom Court will be crowned.
Preparing for the Cherry Blossom Festival doesn’t fall under what I would call “ordinary” pageant guidelines. Read on, and I’ll tell you why. I attended the festival’s opening ceremony last weekend and learned more about what it means to a lot of people who are involved in the process.
Cherry Blossom Festival contestant coordinator Gina Maeda-Caluya knows what it is like to be a contestant because she was one. Maeda-Caluya was a princess during the Cherry Blossom’s 57th Festival in 2009 and said her experience was so enjoyable, she wanted to help create the same experience for more young women.
IN ORDER TO become a contestant, you need to be at least half-Japanese, female by birth, a US citizen and Hawaii resident, and between the ages of 19 to 26 years old. Contestants must also be high school graduates with community service experience and an interest in learning more about Japanese culture.
The biggest event of the Cherry Blossom Festival is the festival ball. Each contestant’s performance is based on three categories — preliminary activities (20%), judges interview (40%) and festival ball (40%).
Preliminary activity scores are based on contestant performance, focusing on attendance, completion of assignments, compliance with rules and regulations and teamwork.
The judges’ interview is approximately one week prior to the festival ball where a panel of judges meets with each contestant.
For the festival ball segment, there are two phases, western and eastern. During the western phase, contestants share a self-composed speech; during the eastern phase, contestants answer an impromptu question and display a silk kimono.
This year, there are 15 contestants. What makes this festival pageant so unique is contestants are required to take cultural classes. Caluya even admits that from the time that she competed, there are more classes that the girls have to take.
61st Cherry Blossom Festival Events
» Public Appearance: Noon Saturday, Feb. 2 at Kahala Mall; free
Since September the girls are taking 15 classes that range from Manju making, calligraphy, Kimono dressing and the list goes on. Maeda-Caluya said when she competed, she really appreciated the classes because it opened her eyes to things she was never exposed to.
“I didn’t see it then but there was so much philosophy behind everything,” she said. “I see how it works into everyday work ethics, everything actually. You have an opportunity to truly find and be yourself.”
She hopes that many of the girls that are participating this year will push themselves outside of their comfort zone in order to grow not only on a professional level but on a personal level as well. The reason why Caluya returned this year to help with the festival is because it helped her become the woman she is today.
“The way that I look at it, my experience as a contestant was made possible by other people paying it forward,” she said. “Now I get to pay forward to these young women in the hopes that they will carry on the Japanese culture and give back to the community as much as they can … seeing them receptive to that makes me very hopeful.”
KNOWN AS THE vanguard of taiko drumming, Kenny Endo has sponsored the Cherry Blossom Festival for almost 20 years. Endo believes the festival is a great event and has seen first-hand the positive impacts it’s made on contestants — and wished there was a similar program for young men because of the cultural opportunities.
“Everything that they go through from the flower arranging to the kimono, to the public speaking … I see a real difference from when they first start to the ball, just in their poise, the way they speak,” said Endo.
Endo teaches contestants an opening number each year. This year Endo has composed a piece called “Sakura Taiko,” which means “cherry drum.” Teaching the girls a lot of drumming basics, he wants to make sure that they also walk away with knowledge of why taiko is some important in the Japanese culture.
“Taiko has a long history with the Japanese. It’s used at festivals, temples and celebrations,” he said. “They say that the sound of the taiko drum drives away the evil spirits and brings good luck.”
Teaching the girls how to play and the history of the drums is just a small portion he wants the girls to learn during his time with them. The one thing that he wants to pass on to the girls is the cultural pride that he hopes they share with others, hoping to leave an impression not only on the girls but having them transcend that same feeling to the audience.
“To expose the aspect of Japanese culture and to be able to perform it after 10 weeks, it is a big responsibility,” said Endo. “I see it as na honor even after 37 years to get up on stage and to honor the people.
“I feel like when I see someone in the audience, they are seeing taiko for the first time or seeing taiko for the last time.”
The 60th Cherry Blossom Festival Queen, Erin Mie Hi’ileialoha Morimoto, said her interest in the becoming a contestant grew after having several conversations with friends who participated. After graduating from the University of Southern California in 2009, she returned home and wanted to give it a shot.
Morimoto said she thought all the classes were equally interesting because she was not too familiar with many of the subjects — but she did have a favorite.
“I think that Gyotaku was a personal favorite in my heart because we got to get real down and dirty with the paints while doing the fish printing,” she said.
Morimoto is a fifth generation Japanese-American, or in Japanese, “nikkei go-sei.” The middle school language arts teacher said it was important for her to immerse herself in her culture and was grateful to have the opportunity to interact with people that had a wealth of knowledge to learn from.
“I know my grandmother tries to share with me what she can but it’s something that I realize that could be lost over time and that is why I was personally motivated to seek out my own culture,” she said.
Like others, Morimoto said the festival is a great way to learn about Japanese culture and traditions, but it also helps many Hawaii people learn more about our unique sense of community.
“Since we have so many cultures here, the festival is a unique way to show other people that Japanese culture does not just have to be for the Japanese people,” said Morimoto, “We as local people tend to melt our cultures together and I think the festival is a unique way to show the local twist in both our local Hawaii culture but Japanese culture as well.”
Jermel-Lynn Quillopo is a multi-faceted, energetic individual with experience in both print and broadcast journalism. “Social Encore” aims to tell diverse stories about Hawaii’s food, events and people; share your tips with Jermel via email or follow her on Twitter.