By GWEN MURANAKA and MIKEY HIRANO CULROSS, Rafu Shimpo
Kaitlyn Emiko Chu, 24-year-old graduate of USC and a product designer at Apple, was crowned Nisei Week Queen on Saturday night at the 81st annual Nisei Week Coronation at the Aratani Theatre in Little Tokyo.
Chu represents the Orange County Nikkei Coordinating Council.
Sara Emiko Kubo was named First Princess. She is a 26-year-old graduate of Cal State Fullerton and represents East San Gabriel Valley Japanese Community Center.
Nancy Izumi Chin, 26, representing Pasadena Japanese Cultural Institute, was named Miss Tomodachi.
Also serving on the court are:
Isabella Rose Polizzotto, 24, representing Gardena Evening Optimists;
Kamalani “Kama” Higashiyama, 25, representing the Japanese Restaurant Association of America;
Aiko Marie Matsumura Dzikowski, 26, representing the Venice Japanese Community Center and Venice-West Los Angeles JACL;
Kaili Mika Inouye; 24, representing the San Fernando Valley Japanese American Community Center.
The 2023 Nisei Week Court will represent the Japanese American community at events throughout Southern California, as well as travel to San Francisco, Hawaii and Japan.
“It’s been such an amazing experience and it’s a huge honor to be this year’s Nisei Week Queen,” Chu said in an interview with The Rafu Shimpo. “It was pure surprise at first and then I was just overwhelmed by the amount of support and love from my friends and family here and from my fellow court members.”
She revealed that one of her first Nisei Week experiences was being in the 2003 Baby Show.
“I participated, but I don’t think I won,” she said, laughing.
Chu is the author and illustrator of a children’s book, “Smiling from Ear to Ear.”
“I’m looking forward to the opportunity of being queen,” she said. “I would love to take this opportunity to encourage the younger generations to learn more about their culture and more learn art and be really creative. I hope to host workshops and host different events in Little Tokyo and beyond.”
Chu’s mother, Holly, said she was caught very much by surprise when Kaitlyn first floated the idea of becoming a queen candidate. It was 20 years ago that Kaitlyn entered the Nisei Week Baby Show, and they hadn’t thought about engaging in such a public showcase since then.
“We asked her, ‘Are you sure,’ because this was something out of her comfort zone,” Holly said. “For her age, she’s very aware of community issues, and I think she has a solid foundation to make a real difference through this platform.”
Her father, Chris, was beaming with pride as several rounds of photos were being taken after the coronation.
“She grew up playing basketball. I was involved with her in [scouting], and she was always involved in what was happening all through school. Those were special times,” he said. “But this, Nisei Week, she really did this by herself.”
Holly added that when the initial excitement subsides, there will be the challenge of time management, to balance her work at Apple with the demanding schedule of a Nisei Week Queen.
“She’s known for being very active with friends and in the community,” she explained. “We’re here to support her, 100 percent.”
Chu was also joined by her younger sister, Kara.
The evening was emceed by actress Tamlyn Tomita, wearing a shimmering silver gown, and David Ono of ABC7 Eyewitness News, who flew in at 5 a.m. Saturday morning after covering the devastating fires on Maui. As is tradition, Tomita started the night with a rousing “Aloha!” and encouraged the audience to repeat the greeting.
“Let’s send our love to Maui!” Tomita said.
The 2023 queen candidates first appeared on stage in formal kimono and performed a dance choreographed by Bando Hidesomi.
During their prepared speeches, the court members shared events in their lives that shaped who they are today.
Higashiyama said she learned how to appreciate all living creatures when she attended Ho’omāka’ika’i, an immersive experience teaching Hawaiian culture and values, at Kamehameha Schools.
“I cultivated an open heart accepting every life as they are,” Higashiyama said.
Polizzotto said she learned about bravery when she made the decision to leave Michigan, where she attended college.
“Today I prioritize my well-being so that I can show up for myself, in order to show up for others,” Polizzotto said.
Dzikowski spoke about how she loved to make the students smile at the middle school where she taught in Korea.
Chin said she and her mom would enjoy urouro unten (aimless driving) and eating at places like Cream Pan bakery.
Inouye shared how she taught a group of fourth-graders how to become a basketball team and overcome their own challenges.
Kubo described learning how to speak in public and overcome shyness, with a family motto: “No monku” (complaining).
Judges for this year were Bill Fujioka, Naomi Ono Sognefest, Scott Keiji Takeda, Masahiko Yamamoto and Adele Yoshioka.
Dignitaries included Nagoya Mayor Takashi Kawamura and a sister-city delegation; Consul General Kenko Sone and his wife, Mami; Hawaii Cherry Blossom Festival Queen Samantha Marumoto and court; and Northern California Cherry Blossom Queen Hannah KC Mukai and court.
Accompanied by the Grateful Crane Ensemble’s Back in the Day Band, Brian Yamamoto and Keiko Kawashima performed music from different eras of Nikkei dances.
The crowd cheered as the 2023 Nisei Week Court in a modern dance number to songs by bands such as BlackPink; while Tomita, wearing a gold jumpsuit, led a performance of dances from disco to Madonna’s “Vogue.”
For the impromptu question, the candidates were asked, “As a young JA, what do you see as the top challenge in sustain our culture in today’s society and what can you to do make a difference?”
“I would like to see a stronger connection between the younger and older generations and I would love to do that through community events and promoting on social media,” said Polizzotto.
“The top challenge that our Japanese community faces is preserving the stories of our legacy businesses and of the Nisei soldiers. Something I would do is promote that through culture workshops and would love to spread teach and spread positivity about our culture,” Chu said.
“The top challenge facing our community today is technology. We have the ability to connect but also disconnect. One thing I would do is to talk to people about how to support our local businesses and get to know more people,” Higashiyama said.
“In today’s culture I believe one of the top struggles in keeping our culture prevalent is social media and prevalence of fake news … I do believe we can work together so that special moments like this and Nisei Week are shared properly throughout the Internet,” said Chin.
For one last time, 2022 Nisei Week Queen Kristine Yada and court members Audrey Nakaoka, Maile Yanguas, Amanda Hiraishi, Lorie Meza and Faith Nishimura took the stage to say farewell and share memories of their time on the court.
Once the judges’ votes were tabulated, the court gathered and embraced as they waited to hear the results. Chu did her first walk as the new Nisei Week Queen to the cheers of the audience.
On Sunday, the Nisei Week Court made their first public appearance riding in the Nisei Week Grand Parade.
Rafu Shimpo photos by MIKEY HIRANO CULROSS, JUN NAGATA and GWEN MURANAKA