Pasadena teen Camille Kennedy will preside over the 131st Rose Parade on Jan. 1, after she was crowned the 2020 Rose Queen. (MIKEY HIRANO CULROSS/Rafu Shimpo)

By MIKEY HIRANO CULROSS, Rafu Arts & Entertainment 

Growing up in Pasadena, the locals – yours truly included – come to accept the flurry of activity leading up to New Year’s Day as a simple fact of life.

Well it’s hardly simple, and to imagine being at the center of that celebratory hurricane is all the more unfathomable.

This coming Wednesday, one local teen will be that focal point, after being raised amid all that comes with the Tournament of Roses Parade.

“You see it on TV every year, but there’s no way I ever imagined that could be me,” said Camille Kennedy.

The 17-year-old senior at La Salle College Preparatory will have the most prestigious seat in the parade on Jan. 1, after she was crowned the 2020 Rose Queen.

Speaking to The Rafu at the Tournament headquarters, she recalled her own experiences of being reared in the home of what the organization calls “America’s New Year Celebration.”

“We drove by this house every day, and we hear about it all the time,” she explained. “When I was elementary school, I had the opportunity to attend events and meet past queens, and learned more about his organization. It was exciting when I finally learned that I could try out myself.”

Kennedy carries herself with a grace and confidence well beyond her years, and in an instant, can reveal a wholly unexpected part of life when starting a conversation.

The high school senior happens to be fluent in Japanese, having spent a year living near Tokyo. She hopes to attend Waseda University. “When people would ask about the culture or the experience, I wanted to tell them everything about this personal and touching experience,” the new Rose Queen said about her year as an exchange student.

“Nihongo ka eigo? Dotchi demo ii desuyo.”

Camille Kennedy is fluent in Japanese.

“I was fascinated by the idea of doing a cultural exchange in Japan,” she explained. “I always had this kind of inexplicable, long-standing love of the culture,” she said … in English. “The people, the language, the food – I guess it started when I was really little.”

As a kid, she liked Disney movies well enough, but something about the films from Hayao Miyazaki’s Studio Ghibli touched her heart in a more direct way.

“Miyazaki’s films are the ones I more readily associate with my childhood.”

As she grew, she discovered new and increasingly intriguing aspects of Japanese life that fed her growing desire to be there and experience the culture firsthand.

Describing herself as “super local,” she says – as far as she knows – there’s no Japanese blood in her family tree. Well, not biologically, anyway.

“My dad was born and raised in Honolulu, so he grew up surrounded by a high concentration of Japanese people,” Kennedy said. “As a child, I was over there a lot, so in turn, I also grew up around a lot of Japanese people.

“It definitely introduced me to a culture that was very different from my own.”

From left to right: Cole Fox (South Pasadena High School), Michael Wilkins (Maranatha High School), Emilie Risha (Flintridge Sacred Heart Academy), Rose Queen Camille Kennedy (La Salle College Preparatory), Reese Rosental Saporito (Marshall Fundamental School), Rukan Saif (Arcadia High School), and Mia Thorsen (Marshall Fundamental School) (Tournament of Roses)

By the time she had reached the sixth grade, her passion for Nihon was firmly established, and a meeting with particular high school student set her life path toward a new goal.

“I met an Italian exchange student, and I understood for the first time that I could live in another country, and still be in school,” she said. “That was very appealing to me.”

Her parents, Tim and Jennifer Kennedy, were caught somewhat off guard when their daughter expressed interest in living overseas. It was pretty heady stuff for a sixth-grader, and Mom and Dad might easily have brushed it off, but young Camille had a dream and was holding steadfastly to it.

“I kept up the idea, and I had three years or so to warm them up to the idea. By the time I was a sophomore in high school, it wasn’t so shocking or absurd anymore, it was more like, ‘I guess she’s really doing it.’”

Kennedy’s mother had spent some time living in Australia and New Zealand, so she could understand her daughter’s passion for the notion.

By her sophomore year in high school, the future world traveler was already armed with two years of Japanese language study.

Living with host families in Fuchu and Oya near Tokyo, Kennedy described her school year in Japan as “miraculous,” so perfect it was almost frightening, with never the slightest notion of homesickness nor loneliness.

“I think the biggest challenge for me might have been navigating through a new life on my own. It is a whole new experience,” she said.

Kennedy has forged lifelong bonds with her former host families, even earning the nickname “Rain Child,” after the weather always seem to turn when she was along for an outing.

During the exchange year, she also became aware of post-secondary opportunities in Japan, and is currently in the application process to attend university there. Last summer she toured several schools, including her top choices, the prestigious Waseda University in Tokyo and Kyushu’s Asia Pacific University.

Kennedy, who also dabbles in Korean, said she is drawn to pursue studies in media and entertainment, as well as linguistics.

At this point, college might seem a distant endeavor, as the matter of Jan. 1 and her year as Queen looms ever larger. Kennedy said she hopes to bring everything she has come to know and love to her duties as a representative face of the Tournament of Roses. She recalled how she struggled to explain her year in Japan once she returned home.

“When people would ask about the culture or the experience, I wanted to tell them everything about this personal and touching experience. There was so much, I just wanted to say so much, to share all of it.”

Come Jan. 2, she will have just begun a new journey that will undoubtedly provide a lifetime’s worth of sharing.

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