For over 50 years, the Northern California Cherry Blossom Festival Queen Program has been dedicated to developing young women of Japanese descent to become future community leaders. One of the highlights of our Festival is Queen Program Night, where candidates showcase their speech, interview, and creative expression, and it takes a tremendous amount of time and dedication to put on this memorable event! We were fortunate enough to interview the 2021 Queen Program Night Tri-Chairs – Yuka Walton, Asaki Osato and Maya Hernandez. We asked them to share with us their volunteer experiences and their favorite memories of the Festival.

Yuka Walton

I am half shin-nisei and half Irish American and was born in Misawa, Aomori, Japan. My parents wanted to raise us in San Francisco – a city known for its vibrant Japanese American community- and I am truly blessed to have grown up here since the age of 5. Whether it be through the Japanese Bilingual Bicultural Program (JBBP) in elementary school or J-league basketball, San Francisco’s Japantown has always been my home.

I am currently one of the Chairs of the Northern California Cherry Blossom Festival Queen Program and an executive board member of the Japanese Cultural and Community Center of Northern California (JCCCNC). I am also the Co-Chair of Japantown for Justice (J4J), which is a coalition of San Francisco Japantown leaders working locally to dismantle systemic inequity and promote economic and cultural sovereignty in the Fillmore and Japantown. J4J and Black leaders in the Fillmore have worked in coalition to create the Fillmore Marketplace, an outdoor marketplace that supports Black-owned businesses. I am passionate about the work of J4J because the histories of Japantown and the Fillmore are so intertwined and I believe that in order to thrive, Japantown and Fillmore need to continue to support each other. Currently, I work as a third-grade teacher in SFUSD at Bret Harte Elementary School in the Bayview. When I’m not working or volunteering, I love spending time with my two-year old cat, Ryder. 

Yuka Walton (right) with her mother at the Japanese Cultural and Community Center of Northern California (JCCCNC/the Center)

All of my earliest memories from the Cherry Blossom Festival are from my times with Kagami Kai. Because my Japanese relatives live in Japan, Kagami Kai has been my Japanese family here in San Francisco. I have been raised by my aunties and uncles in this organization. Every April, our group has an agemochi and kakigori food booth right by the Webster Street Stage. As a young child, I was tasked with shouting “Irashaimase!” to the passing people. This booth is our homecoming in a sense, with friends and family dropping by to greet each other and helping out as a group. Eating the delicious agemochi and listening to September by Earth, Wind & Fire coming from the Webster Street Stage is one of the best moments from the Festival every year.

Yuka Walton (middle) with Kagami Kai performers

I am very passionate about the work that the Queen Program does, and I believe it is one of the most effective leadership pipelines in our community. It is particularly important because it is a women’s leadership program and the more we invest in our female leaders, the stronger the community we will have. I truly and deeply believe in the mission of our Queen Program. 

Asaki Osato

The most significant Festival experience was definitely 2012, when I got to participate as a member of the court. We learned about the many organizations of our community and how they contributed to the Festival. It really opened my eyes to the countless ways I can stay connected to the Japanese American community. I was immediately welcomed into the community, and I will be forever grateful!

Asaki Sato (right) with Michiko Kealoha at 2019 Queen Program Night

I was so grateful for my experience in 2012 that I decided to get involved as part of the committee. Our Queen Program committee members are primarily recent court members who want to continue improving our program. When you have a group of motivated, skilled, and hardworking women all with the same mission in mind, the things you can accomplish are incredible! Who wouldn’t want to be a part of that?

Asaki Sato (right) with Benh Nakajo and Queen Program committee members at 2019 Festival

I see the Festival continuing to evolve with younger generations getting involved and contributing their unique perspectives. As we leverage new skill sets and technology, I hope the Festival can share what it has to offer to an even larger audience. 

Maya Hernandez

I’m a shin-nisei relatively new to the JA (Japanese American) and SF Japantown community. I lived in the Bay Area for a few years before moving to the not-so-far-away land of Southern California. Despite not being physically in San Francisco, I definitely left my heart in Jtown and continue to be involved from afar. Currently, I am pursuing my PhD studying Latine and AAPI teens, social media, and mental health. While I didn’t anticipate the current global pandemic to happen right in the middle of my studies, this work has never been more relevant, and [I’m] very fortunate to be a part of an effort to better support teens in the digital age!

First Princess Maya Hernandez (2018 Court)

It was after [my] first experience at the Festival when I started exploring ways to get involved. My best friend from college had introduced me to someone who has been involved in the NCCBF Queen Program for many years… Needless to say after a year or two of being convinced, I decided to apply to be a Queen Program candidate and then became the 2018 First Princess. I was humbled and grateful to be a part of this incredible women empowerment and leadership experience where I further engaged myself into the community through service alongside my now closest friends and fellow sakura sisters (shout out to Nikki, Emiri, Lauren and Rach!). Meeting many members of the community and learning about the histories and shared experiences gave me an even deeper appreciation for my heritage and the strength in the community. If it was not for the Queen Program, I certainly would not be as passionate and committed to the Festival as I am today! 

Maya Hernandez pictured by San Francisco’s famous Golden Gate Bridge

We are living through a pivotal moment in history. We, as a community, have been faced with the many, many challenges of 2020 that have touched every single person in one way or another. Despite the obstacles, we are incredibly fortunate to be able to share the many Festival traditions and feel a connection to our community through the power of modern technology. I believe the creativity that blossoms from these virtual experiences will enable us to expand our Festival in the future, which is very exciting. I’m confident that the resilience and strength in our Jtown and CBF (Cherry Blossom Festival) community, as well as our growing virtual community, will allow for an even bigger celebration once in-person activities resume. I look forward to the day I can weave through the crowds on Post Street with my CBF and Queen Program ohana on the hunt for good eats and fun times. The future of the Festival is bright! 

Learn more about the Northern California Cherry Blossom Festival Queen Program and keep up with current and former court members via their website and Instagram. Replay their virtual event, 2021 Queen Program Night.