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Cherry Blossom Queen Candidates Announced in S.F.

2018 Cherry Blossom Queen candidates. Top left: Emiri Sakuai. Top right: Nikki Tachiki. Center: Maya Hernandez. Lower left: Rachel Mika Kawawaki. Lower right: Lauren Kieva Matsuno.

SAN FRANCISCO — The Northern California Cherry Blossom Queen Program announced its 2018 candidates on March 11 in San Francisco Japantown.

“Our committee is looking forward to our 51st annual Cherry Blossom Festival and are pleased to introduce our five candidates for the Queen Program this year,” said Benh Nakajo, chairperson of the program. “We are sure that you will be impressed with these young women and enjoy getting to know them. The continuation of our program is critical for the future of our community.”

Following are profiles of the candidates. (“Creative expression” refers to the talent they will demonstrate at the coronation event.)

• Maya Hernandez, sponsored by Japanese Chamber of Commerce of Northern California.

Date of birth: 2/6/1992. Place of birth: Tokyo. Hometown: San Diego. Parents/guardians: Hiroko and Hector Hernandez.

Hobbies: Floral design, piano, painting, crocheting, hiking

Creative expression: Floral arrangement

Education: Lakeview High School, Battle Creek, Mich., 2009. Johns Hopkins University, 2012, BA in psychology

Employment: “I am currently a clinical research coordinator at Stanford University School of Medicine. I work with the pediatric chronic pain population, looking at biopsychosocial factors of their pain and quality of life. I manage and conduct multiple large-scale and multi-site studies across the country, with collaborators all over the world. I manage, organize, and coordinate studies and lab events, as well as present at national conferences and assist with publications. I have been in this position at Stanford for over a year now, but have been with this principal investigator for over three years now.”

Community organizations: “During my undergraduate years, I was involved in multiple extracurriculars, including admissions representative (AR) at the JHU undergraduate admissions office, weekly volunteering at a homeless shelter clinic in inner-city Baltimore (two years), and President’s Day of Service (three years) assisting in restoration projects around the Baltimore communities. I was the treasurer of International Service Learning group at JHU for two years, and held positions in the admissions office as an Executive Board member of the Hopkins Hosting Society for one year and AR for three years.”

Professional attributes or goals in life: “My professional goals include conducting research in the intersections of human interactions with nature and its implications on human health. I plan to attend graduate school for a Ph.D. in the near future in hopes to become a professor and build my own multidisciplinary laboratory.”

What do the JA community of Northern California and the Northern California Cherry Blossom Festival mean to you? “Raised all over the U.S. and Japan, I have experienced a multitude of diverse cultural experiences, but none of them stick out quite like the Japanese American communities I’ve had in every place I resided. Whether it was just one other person in the town, or a whole class of individuals of Japanese descent, there was a special bond that wasn’t spoken for, but always present.

“Living away from my family for quite some time now, I find myself looking for that unspoken bond, and I am lucky to have found that in every person I have met that is a part of the Japanese American community and members of the Cherry Blossom Festival Committee of Northern California. This community, in a large scale, means family to me. I can often find myself relating to the most random experiences, spanning from being in a Nijiya looking for an oddly particular tsukemono, to reminiscing about the breathtaking views of Mt. Fuji and the stellar beaches of Okinawa.

“These experiences I’ve had throughout my life have become much of my identity with my heritage and my home. Asking me where is my hometown is a rather loaded question. Home is where the heart is, and I have been swept away by the support and bond the Northern California Japanese American community has given me during my three years in the area.”

• Rachel Mika Kawawaki, sponsored by Benihana.

Date of birth: 9/30/1994. Place of birth: San Francisco. Hometown: Millbrae. Parents/buardians: Linda Fujitomi and Ronald Kawawaki.

Hobbies: Marathon running, playing basketball and volleyball, traveling, baking

Creative expression: Karate kata

Education: Mills High School, 2012. UC Davis, 2016, BA in communication and minor in managerial economics

Employment: “I have been a workplace effectiveness scenario and space planning intern for Genentech since June 2017. Here I collaborate with managers and communicate with clients to determine the best solutions for work spaces and increase productivity. In addition, I run occupancy and utilization studies and assist in creating accurate scopes on large-scale campus projects.”

Community organizations:

– JACL Kakehashi Project (2017- present), cultural ambassador

– Delta Sigma Pi, professional co-ed business fraternity (2014-present), Junior Committee facilitator (fall 2016), retreat coordinator (spring 2016), VP of community service (fall 2015), health and wellness chair (spring 2015)

– North Davis Elementary School teaching intern (fall 2016)

– Foster City Flyers Basketball, assistant coach (2014-2016), player (2011-2012)

– Shinkyu Shotokan Karate (1999-present), webmaster (2012-present)

– Mills High School Athletics (2012-present), JV girls assistant basketball coach (2012-present), freshman girls co-head volleyball coach (2017-present), JV girls assistant volleyball coach (2012-2013)

Professional attributes or goals in life: “Giving back to the community has always been an important value of mine. I have always admired companies that not only aim to excel in their respective industry, but also strive to have a strong and positive impact in their community. My goal is to be a part of a company that is passionate about their business, hoping that it can contribute to a better world.”

What do the JA community of Northern California and the Northern California Cherry Blossom Festival mean to you? “My first memory of the Northern California Cherry Blossom Festival was marching down the streets of Japantown dressed in a blue happi and a paper sakura headband with my Nihonmachi Little Friends classmates. I was excited to see how many people came to watch the parade and cheer us on. As a reminder of my culture, my family and I continue to attend it every year and look forward to eating the takoyaki and teriburgers.

“As a Gosei, I always felt distant from my culture. Growing up, in order to maintain my Japanese identity, I practiced karate, played Asian League basketball, and took Japanese language classes. Last spring, I was fortunate to be able to participate in the JACL’s Kakehashi Project. While in Japan, I formed a better understanding of U.S.-Japan relations and built close friendships with other Japanese Americans. Since our trip, I have volunteered at an Executive Order 9066 remembrance event in Portland and attended an Obon Festival in San Jose.

“The Northern California Cherry Blossom Festival and the Japanese American community of Northern California are significant parts of my identity. It represents my first memories of the festival, my present desire to become more involved, and my hope for a better future that generations to come can experience and keep our cultural traditions alive. They both have shaped and continue to shape who I am, pushing me to never forget my heritage, and continue to better myself and become more involved within the Japanese American community.”

• Lauren Kieva Matsuno, sponsored by Nikkei Lions Club.

Date of birth: 11/30/1993. Place of birth: Torrance. Hometown: San Jose. Parents/guardians: Catherine Leung and Craig Toshiro Matsuno.

Hobbies: Drawing and watercolor painting, cello, drinking coffee and finding new cafes, going to beaches

Creative expression: Cello

Education: Prospect High School, 2012. UC Berkeley, 2016, BS in molecular toxicology

Employment: “I currently work as a Scribe America medical transcriptionist at Washington Township Medical Foundation in Fremont, Calif. for the past year. I work under an internal medicine and infectious diseases physician, Dr. Martin. As a scribe, I synthesize preliminary chart notes for the reasons why the patient is being seen, the patients’ health complaints, the physical exam findings, physician’s recommendations and patients’ take-home instructions.

“Patients range from all ages, classes, races, nationalities, genders and sexualities with different health conditions such as hypertension, diabetes mellitus, hyperlipidemia, and HIV.”

Community organizations:

– Planned Parenthood Mar Monte, 3/2017 – present. “As a community outreach volunteer, I table at local community health fairs throughout San Jose to inform the general public about the reproductive health services Planned Parenthood offers.”

– Suitcase Clinic volunteer, 5/2015-5/2016. “As a caseworker, my main duty was to converse with Berkeley/Oakland’s homeless and low-income clients to best meet their needs. I also helped with preparing and serving free dinners, led a social media project, stepped up as a media resources director, cut hair, washed feet, and distributed health supplies.

– American Medical Women’s Association, 10/2013-7/2016. “As a UCB Branch co-founder and national pre-medical advocacy chair 2015-2016, I helped empower gender minorities and established a welcoming community on UC Berkeley campus for students interested in pursuing careers in healthcare. I was also elected to be the first national advocacy chair for the pre-medical division and created multiple online resource toolkits to educate AMWA members nationally.”

– Alta Bates Summit Medical Center, 10/2013-5/2016. “As an Emergency Room volunteer, I helped increase efficiency in the Oakland ED by walking back patients, distributing warm blankets to cold patients, flipping beds, cleaning rooms, and restocking essential supplies to each room.”

– American Red Cross, 9/2011-5/2014. “As a treasurer and Youth Committee member, I volunteered at high school and college blood drives and led educational disaster preparedness presentations to young elementary school students.”

Professional attributes or goals in life: “I am an aspiring physician with dreams of improving the overall health of my community and standing up for the underserved.”

What do the JA community of Northern California and the Northern California Cherry Blossom Festival mean to you? “When I participated in the San Jose Obon Odori for the first time this past summer, I couldn’t help but smile with tears. Not only did I find a dance I couldn’t stop dancing and an inviting community in San Jose, I felt a step closer to learning more about myself and my cultural heritage.

“As a Japanese and Chinese American, I am constantly balancing between two cultures. It has been difficult to accept not fully belonging to one culture. However, from my interactions with patients at Alta Bates and throughout other community service events, I saw how culture is integral in defining a person’s identity and has since inspired me to learn more about my own cultural background and myself as a person.

“Reflecting on my life now, being Japanese American has been core to my identity. From growing up surrounded by the Japanese American community in San Jose and Honolulu, to celebrating holidays like New Year’s with mochi, soba and firecrackers, to eating Japanese food regularly, I am constantly encountering various aspects of Japanese culture. Although my knowledge about my heritage may be limited now, I only hope to learn more about the Japanese American community, to continue celebrating important cultural traditions and to share the joy I experienced at the S.J. Obon festival for finally feeling a sense of belonging.

“Life may be fleeting like the cherry blossom, but I am motivated that during my life, I will uphold something larger than myself — my community and my culture.”

• Emiri Sakurai, sponsored by Sho Chiku Bai/Takara Sake USA Inc.

Date of birth: 7/2/1993. Place of Birth: Kobe. Hometown: San Jose. Parents/guardians: Noriko and Yasuhito Sakurai.

Hobbies: Dance, fashion, yoga

Creative expression: Dance

Education: Lynbrook High School, 2011; San Diego State University and Kedge Business School, 2016. BS in marketing and international business.

Employment: Sephora / assistant manager, SEM / August 2017 – present

– Supporting my direct manager with Sephora’s paid advertising efforts

– To make sure that our vendors are executing promotions and changes to Sephora’s ads in a timely and effective manner

– Pull and analyze reports based off of request from internal stakeholders

– Creating POs and making sure vendors are properly paid on time

– Analyze trends of the company as well as keeping an eye out for competitors in the beauty industry

Community organizations:

– Lynbrook Valkyries Dance Team / 4 years / lieutenant and co-captain

– 220 Second to None Dance Team / 3 years / team member

– Super Galactic Beat Manipulators Dance Team / 1 year / team member

– Alpha Kappa Psi Business Organization / 2 years / member

– CoachArt / 1 month / volunteer

Professional attributes or goals in life: “My goal is to start a business and have the proceeds help support/create an org that focus on building confidence in women living in Japan.”

What do the JA community of Northern California and the Northern California Cherry Blossom Festival mean to you? “The Japanese American community of Northern California and the California Cherry Blossom Festival is my home away from home. Since I was born in Kobe and moved to Northern California before I turned 1, all I knew was the Japanese community in Silicon Valley up until I left for San Diego for college.

“But just like everyone else, I never really appreciated what I had until it was gone. I did not realize that because I surrounded myself with Japanese Americans, I was able to retain the knowledge learned from attending Japanese school on Saturdays. I did not realize that because my parents were not the best at English, I had to always speak in Japanese within the household, which helped me continue to practice my listening and speaking skills.

“Being a part of this community has helped me create a foundation leading to the acceptance of an internship in Japan, where I was able to put my skills to the test. Without this community, I would have not been able to go through the experiences that I had which inspired me to strive towards my current life goal.”

• Nikki Tachiki, sponsored by Nihonmachi Street Fair.

Date of birth: 4/25/1992. Place of birth: U.S. Hometown: Anaheim Hills. Parents/guardians: Serafina and Randall Tachiki.

Hobbies: Spending time outdoors, both hiking and water activities, exercising, reading

Creative expression: Spoken word

Education: Troy High School, 2010. UCLA, 2014, BS in environmental science

Employment: “I work on water quality at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). My responsibilities include reviewing and approving the water quality standards and various other water quality reports of states, tribes, and the U.S. territories. I have been in my job for one year and previously interned at the EPA Headquarters office for 1.5 years.”

Community organizations:

– Emerging Leaders Network (ELN) at EPA, Professional Development Crew lead in Headquarters (HQ) Office (2015-2016)

– Member (2014-present). “In HQ ELN, I helped schedule speakers and brownbags in a forum called the Fellows Spotlight Series. EPA employees or members of academia shared current research with the rest of the group.”

– Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) Special Emphasis Program, member (2016-present). “In this capacity, I volunteered to be on the AAPI Heritage Month Planning Committee and we developed a series of events to showcase AAPI culture throughout the month of May in our office. I also attend activities such as speaker presentations and brownbags that enrich my understanding of AAPI history and culture.”

– UCLA Bruin Partners, mentor (2012-2013). “In this capacity, I provided academic support to a 7th-grade student and helped her achieve straight A’s for the academic year.

– UCLA Watts Tutorial Program, mentor (2010-2011). “I mentored a 5th-grade student from a low-income community on her academics but also motivated her to care about education and set goals to attend college.”

– Best Buddies International, member (2006-2010, 2015-2016). “Best Buddies is a program that creates opportunities for people with intellectual and developmental disabilities. Each year of high school, I was paired with a student from the special education program and developed relationships with these students through social and volunteer activities. In 2015 and 2016, I volunteered at the Best Buddies Friendship Walk, which is the number one walk in the country raising awareness and funds to support individuals with intellectual and developmental disabilities.”

Professional attributes or goals in life: “I hope to spend my life working to improve the visibility of underrepresented populations. Working at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is a dream come true for me because every day my job is to protect Earth’s natural resources and improve the environment in which people live. Environmental degradation often occurs near underrepresented communities, and it is important to have people who are mindful of these occurrences work to make them right. One goal I have is to see more representation of diverse communities at the highest levels of decision-making in our federal government. I hope that throughout my career, I can help underrepresented voices have a say in shaping U.S. policy.”

What do the JA community of Northern California and the Northern California Cherry Blossom Festival mean to you? “The Northern California Japanese American community and Cherry Blossom Festival represent opportunities for me to learn more about my Japanese American roots. As a fourth-generation Japanese American citizen, there is so much of my culture I would love to learn.

“My beloved grandmother, Miyoko Tachiki, was the woman I admired most growing up. I admired her strength and her resilience. She never talked much about her evacuation experience as a result of Executive Order 9066. I know that she was a strong young woman who learned to adapt from high school valedictorian to a household maid in Utah, where my father was born. Her resolve to always move forward in the face of life’s challenges also meant she never dwelled in the past.

“My grandmother’s history is lost to me, but the history of the Northern California Japanese American community is kept very much alive. I hope to hear many community members’ stories and learn about the culture of Japanese American life back then and now. My grandmother was a resilient woman who always faced challenges without batting an eye. Now in her honor, I want to do everything I can to learn the stories and traditions she knew growing up, so I can continue to keep them alive.”


Held in San Francisco’s historic Japantown, the 51st annual Northern California Cherry Blossom Festival will be held on the weekends of April 14-15 and 21-22. The Queen Program will take place on Saturday, April 14. For more information, visit

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