In 1949, Honolulu Japanese Junior Chamber of Commerce Vice President Akira "Sunshine" Fukunaga, returned to Hawaii from visiting the Nisei Week Japanese Festival in Los Angeles. He brought back with him the idea of starting a similar Japanese cultural celebration in Hawaii. It took four years of dedication and hard work by HJJCC members and other volunteers to put on the first Cherry Blossom Festival. Each HJJCC member generously invested $1,000 for a start-up fund.
Under the leadership of General Chairman Takaaki Nakata, the HJJCC introduced the first annual Japanese Ethnic Festival in Hawaii with a window display contest, kabuki drama, radio personality show, fashion show by Hariuchi Uchida, kabuki doll-making and ikebana exhibits, and demonstrations of Japanese cooking, painting and classical dance.
Highlighting the first Festival was the Queen Pageant. In the inaugural year, 72 young women participated in the Queen Pageant, culminating with the crowning of Violet Niimi as the 1st Cherry Blossom Festival Queen. The event ended with an ondo and fireworks show at the old Honolulu Stadium in Moiliili.
perpetuating culture in hawaii
Over the years the Cherry Blossom Festival continued to celebrate and perpetuate the Japanese culture and heritage in Hawaii. Every year new projects and events were added to the Festival. In 1955, the Festival brought the world-famous Takarazuka all-female revue to Hawaii. In 1966, the first all-Hawaii Shirooto Nodojiman Taikai (statewide amateur song contest) was jointly presented with KZOO Radio. In 1974, Japan's national treasure, the Awaji Puppet Theatre was featured. In 1984, a 6-kilometer fun run and a golf tournament debuted as official Festival events.
In 1990, the culture show was transformed into the Culture and Craft Fair to showcase and celebrate the talents of local entrepreneurs and artists. In 1995, an essay contest for local high school students was created. In 1998, the Community Service Award was added, recognizing an individual who has helped perpetuate the Japanese culture in the community and lent support to the Festival. In 1999, the first International Taiko Festival was introduced, and the Queen Pageant and Coronation Ball were combined into one event. Today, the Festival includes a golf tournament and mall appearances.
a multi-ethnic community
Perhaps the most significant change to the Festival, however, was the revamping of the Queen Contestant program. For the first 46 years of the Festival, women of only Japanese ancestry were considered for selection as a contestant. Recognizing that the Japanese-American community in Hawaii had become more diverse - and with the intent to place more emphasis on leadership and community service - in 1999, the HJJCC opened the Queen contest to multi-ethnic Japanese-American women.
Although it was considered a very controversial move, the Festival and the HJJCC succeeded in expanding its reach to the local multi-ethnic community that Hawaii is known for. In 2000, Vail Matsumoto became the first Queen of less than 100 percent Japanese ancestry. The following year Catherine Toth became the first Queen without a Japanese surname.
violet niimi oishi scholarship
In 1953, Violet Tokie Niimi was crowned the 1st Cherry Blossom Festival Queen. Although she passed away in 2001, her legacy lives on through the generosity of her son, Dr. Scott Oishi. Since the festival was dear to her, and because she was a lifelong educator, Dr. Oishi felt a scholarship award would be the ideal way to honor the memory of his mother. The Violet Niimi Oishi Scholarship Award was established in 2002. A committee of judges will select a Queen Contestant based on her educational excellence, essay submission, character, and community service efforts. The recipient of this award will use the $5,000 to continue her education.
In 2016, the contestant age limit was increased from 26 years to 28 years of age. Raising the age limit allows more women with the opportunity to experience the benefits of the Festival.
The HJJCC continues its proud sponsorship of the Cherry Blossom Festival, which has earned the reputation of being one of the oldest, uninterrupted ethnic celebrations in the state. The Cherry Blossom Festival, along with the HJJCC and Festival supporters, hope to continue this long-standing tradition in the Islands for many more years to come.