By Ryan Pangilinan
Northwest Asian Weekly
This past Saturday, May 23, the Seattle Japanese Community Queen held its 50th annual coronation ceremony at the Illsley Ball Nordstrom Recital Hall at Benaroya Hall. Hosted by Jeopardy Clue Crew member Kelly Miyahara and longtime API community leader Terry Nakano, the two-and-a-half hour ceremony was filled with culture, laughs, tears, cheers, and, of course, elation.
The evening started off with an odori dance set to “Fuji Murasaki,” featuring the four contestants — Julieanne Hamasaki, Mary Pearl Kawamura, Kiana Kobayashi, and Mackenzie Walker — gracefully performing in traditional garb.
Following the opening performance, each contestant, still dressed in kimonos, spoke a bit about their lives. Throughout this portion, each young woman displayed her connections within the community through personal interests and struggles.
Walker, both Japanese and white, talked about being in a “racial limbo.”
“Being American is too easy,” she said. “[Being] half means so much more. It’s not a challenge; it’s an opportunity.”
The evening was peppered with appearances from queens and princesses of past pageants, dating back from the inaugural ceremony five decades ago — it even included Nancy Sawa, the organization’s first queen. Also making an appearance at the affair was royalty from Los Angeles, San Francisco, and Hawaii.
As the night continued so did the competition, and the nearly-packed auditorium filled with sponsors, members of the Japanese community, and the princesses’ friends and family.
During the creative expression/talent portion, Hamasaki played the shamisen — an instrument she learned to play in three months, which normally takes about a year — which was punctuated by a woman in the audience loudly saying, “Wow!” during the climax of the song. The other contestants executed equally impressive performances, which ranged from Kobayashi’s Tibetan dance set to pop music and Kawamura’s take of a Handel song on both clarinet and piano (the latter of which was pre-recorded).
Walker, however, may have received the biggest applause during this portion, as she opted to highlight her Celtic heritage by playing the tenor drum alongside her father, who played a bagpipe. They were both decked out in kilts.
The final contest was the evening gown competition, in which each princess talked about her passion. They also answered prepared questions by Nakano regarding what important time in Japanese American culture they would want to be a part of and how they would utilize college opportunities in their lives.
These questions largely drew moments of pause from each contestant, but Kawamura may have given the most candid answer to the question about her education.
“College is the baby real world,” she said. Kawamura, who majors in cinema studies and digital and experimental art at the University of Washington, related her studies to help a goal of hers come into fruition.
“[I want to] … create a lengthy, in-depth film before I leave [school],” she concluded.
Each princess was approached by Nakano, who interjected quite a bit of humor throughout the evening. At one point, he requested a stool when questioning Walker, who was visibly taller than him.
Nakano himself was the subject of a surprise honor: The Greater Seattle Japanese Community Queen program established the Terry Nakano Service Award. Obviously touched by the honor, the plaque that he was presented with, and the audience’s standing ovation, Nakano still cracked a joke while holding back tears.
“I’m like a keychain. I just hold it together. Every year, there are new keys. This is a terrible metaphor,” he said. “The bright shiny keys make my work gratifying.”
During the intermission, the judges deliberated while the crowd convened in the lobby. Several people spent time talking about the goings-on of the community rather than speculating on who was going to be the winner.
After a farewell presentation of last year’s royal court and a final presentation of the 2009 contestations (including a choreographed dance number relating the different ‘chic’ milestones of the past 50 years), Kobayashi was awarded the crown as the new queen, while Walker became the first runner-up.
Pockets of the crowded shouted and cheered in support and continued on as people filtered out of the room.
For the winners themselves, the evening’s end had closed one chapter of recognition for their hard work, yet they are aware that there’s more to come.
“I was shocked when they called my name,” said Kobayashi. “I just want to make sure that the Japanese community is being recognized within the greater Seattle community.”
Walker offered the most forthright of perceptions in regards to her recent honor. “It’s been a trip. It’s a ride,” she said. “You never know what to expect when you’re applying. When you’re filling out that application, you don’t know if you’re going to fit that role.”
For the candidate who spent much of the evening lampooning her own height and talking about her own biracial struggles, she seemed to have fit very well in earning her own title of sorts. ♦
Ryan Pangilinan can be reached at email@example.com.