2019 Northern California Cherry Queen candidates (from left): Nami Katie Saito, Elena Anne Harumi Nielsen, NaOmi Leilani Furukawa, Stephanie Reiko Gee, Yuki Nishimura. (Photos by Mark Shigenaga)
SAN FRANCISCO — The Northern California Cherry Blossom Queen Program introduced the five 2019 queen candidates on March 10 at the Union Bank Community Room in San Francisco Japantown.
The new queen will be selected on Saturday, April 13, the first day of the 52nd annual Northern California Cherry Blossom Festival.
“The 2019 Queen Program is extremely excited as we move into a new era with the appointment of our two new co-chairs, Asaki Osato and Yuka Walton, who will bring a new energy and direction to our program,” said Benh Nakajo, advisor. “They will be working very hard to keep the Queen Program focused on developing the new leadership of Japanese American women for the future of the Northern California Japanese American community.”
“We are very excited for everyone to meet our five candidates,” said Osato. “They have been immersing themselves in learning about the history and culture of our community in preparation for being excellent representatives of the Northern California Japanese American community.”
“Asaki and I know that we have very big shoes to fill because Benh Nakajo has been such an incredible chair to this program for the last 30 years,” said Walton. “With Benh’s continued mentorship and guidance we know we will help lead our program continue to thrive.”
The new queen and court will serve as goodwill ambassadors for the Northern California Japanese American community at various events throughout the year, including the Nisei Week queen coronation and parade in Los Angeles.
Queen Program leaders and candidate sponsors (back row, from left): Asaki Asato, Queen Program co-chair; Geoffrey Perry, general manager, Benihana; Steve Hirabayashi, president, Nikkei Lions Club; Shigeki Azuma, senior manager of sales and marketing, Takara Sake; Benh Nakajo, Queen Program chairperson emeritus and advisor; Richard Jue, chairperson, Nihonmachi Street Fair; Manabu Hotta, first vice president, Japanese Chamber of Commerce of Northern California; Yuka Walton, Queen Program co-chair. 2019 queen candidates (front row, from left): Nami Katie Saito, Elena Anne Harumi Nielsen, NaOmi Leilani Furukawa, Stephanie Reiko Gee, Yuki Nishimura.
Following are profiles of the candidates.
• Stephanie Reiko Gee
Sponsor: Nihonmachi Street Fair
Stephanie Reiko Gee is 26 years old and received her bachelor’s degree from San Francisco State University. She works at UC San Francisco as a clinical laboratory scientist. Her hometown is San Francisco and her hobbies include dancing, baking, hiking.
She is active in Nihon buyo and is a member of the Michiya Hanayagi Dance Group. She volunteered as a tutor for San Francisco State University GEAR UP.
“When deciding on a career path, I knew that I wanted to be in a field that focused on helping others,” she said. “As a clinical laboratory scientist (CLS), my job is to work together with doctors, nurses and fellow lab professionals to provide the best health care possible to the members of our community. As the need for CLSs increases, I hope to bring more awareness of this hidden profession. A diagnosis is only as good as the test results used to make it.”
• Nami Katie Saito
Nami Katie Saito is 18 years old and graduated from Sacred Heart Cathedral Preparatory. Her hometown is San Francisco and her hobbies include basketball, spoken word and making music playlists. She currently works at American Eagle Outfitters as a brand ambassador and sales associate.
She is team captain of the SF Enchantees, an Asian League Basketball team, and served as class president and sports coordinator of the Japanese Language and Culture School (Hoshuko). She also is a member of the Buddhist Temple Youth Association.
“I naturally love children and I have always been told that I should become a teacher,” she said. “However, the past few years have allowed me to realize that I am interested in pursuing a field in clinical psychology. Along with volunteering at my former pre-school, coaching young girls the sport that I love (basketball), and taking both AP psychology and a psychology/sociology unit in high school have furthered by interest in striving towards this field. I hope to become a pediatric psychiatrist, specializing in children with disabilities. I am aware that in Japan, people with disabilities are stigmatized for their incapabilities and are separated from the ‘normal’ people. Growing up facing the struggles of a learning disability, I hope to make this world a better place by helping the next generation live easier and in acceptance of their differences.”
• Elena Anne Harumi Nielsen
Sponsor: Nikkei Lions Club of San Francisco
Elena Anne Harumi Nielsen is 27 years old and received her bachelor’s degree from UC Berkeley. Her hometown is Clayton, Calif. and her hobbies include singing, traditional Japanese dance, ikebana, taiko, sketching and taking pictures, and trying out new recipes she finds online. She worked in Tokyo for three years as an English teacher and returned to California to pursue a career in law, politics, or nonprofit work.
Nielsen is the co-founder of Japanese Americans in Japan and volunteers as a phone counselor for Tokyo English Lifeline. She is certified intermediate in the Koryu School of Ikebana and is a member of the Diablo Japanese American Club in Concord.
“My goal is to find a career that allows me to combine my passion for Japanese American heritage, politics, and international issues between Japan and America all in one,” she said. “There are a lot of people I really care about living in Japan, so a career that allows me to travel back and forth between the two countries would be ideal. I started a Japanese American club in Japan (Japanese Americans in Japan) about a year ago, so I prefer work that could link the members of that group with future opportunities. For these reasons I’m considering a career in Japanese American nonprofit work or law (international or civil rights).”
• NaOmi Leilani Furukawa
Sponsor: Takara Sake USA Inc.
NaOmi Leilani Furukawa is 24 years old and received her bachelor of arts from San Francisco State University. Her hometown is Davis and her hobbies include cooking, dancing, reading, singing, travel and exploration, and hiking. She works at Takara Sake USA Inc. during the weekends as a Tasting Room associate, facilitating group tastings and providing customer service.
She was a member of JSA (SFSU) and the International Education Exchange Council, where she was an exchange student buddy for Japanese students studying in the U.S. She studies Nihon buyo with the Onoe Ryu and performed in their program “Dancer from Japan” at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C. in January 2018.
“I am driven by curiosity and community,” she said. “In my personal life, that translates into a thirst for knowledge and self-improvement. I love exploring, and I am committed to lifelong learning. I believe that I will never stop learning new skills and developing my worldview. In my professional career, I want to establish myself as knowledgeable, confident, driven, and collaborative. I want to bring my passion into everything I do and encourage others to do the same. I hope to become a person to inspire others, as I have been inspired by the leaders in my life.”
• Yuki Nishimura
Sponsor: Japanese Chamber of Commerce of Northern California
Yuki Nishimura is 26 years old and received her bachelor of science from the University of Toronto. Her hometown is Sendai, Miyagi Prefecture, and her hobbies include naginata, rock climbing and singing. She currently works part-time in a lab at Stanford University, where she manages administrative matters, Japanese translations, and hosting guests from Japanese governments and universities.
She is active in the Northern California Naginata Federation as a member and competitor for the past year and a half. She was the first-place winner of U.S. Naginata Championships, Mudansha Women’s Individual Shiai for 2017 and 2018. Nishimura is currently a member of the San Jose State University Kendo and Naginata Club.
“I love bringing people together towards a common goal,” she said. “I plan to attend graduate school to learn policy-making, particularly in the health-science field.”