By ELISE TAKAHAMA, Rafu Contributor
Trading in her basketball shorts for a glittering tiara, Sara Kuniko Hutter was crowned the 2015 Nisei Week Queen last Saturday night at the Aratani Theatre.
Coronation is known for being a night of excitement and energy, bringing together the community to celebrate the court and, at last, the queen. The night did not disappoint.
Friends and families crowded into the packed theater, cheering loudly and waving posters in support. The judges announced not only the queen, but also Miss Tomodachi Karen Nana Mizoguchi and First Princess Veronica Toyomi Ota. The rest of the court includes Michelle Kaori Hanabusa, Kelsey Nakaji Kwong, Camryn Michiko Sugita, and Tamara Mieko Teragawa.
Hutter, 22, was born in Los Alamitos and grew up with a younger brother, Ross, and their parents, Ralph and Joy. She graduated from the University of Southern California with a major in communications. Her platform is the National Psoriasis Foundation and she officially represents the Orange County Nikkei Student Council.
As a part of the verbal communication presentation, Hutter decided to share a story about her high school basketball team, where she had never been a “star.” However, during her senior year, to her surprise, Hutter was named team captain.
“You don’t have to score the most points to be a leader,” Hutter said. “It’s all about heart.”
Hutter has brought the same amount of heart to the Japanese American community, especially in the past few months of preparing for Nisei Week.
Coronation itself required months of planning and rehearsing, but the beautiful evening seemed well worth it.
“We’ve probably had three months of training multiple times per week, dance practice for our production number, and just lots of prep on how to speak and walk and everything like that,” Hutter told The Rafu Shimpo. “But it’s all been worth it, and it’s paid off tonight.”
Nisei Week President Terry Hara opened the night with a warm welcome, introducing the mistress and master of ceremonies, actress Tamlyn Tomita and broadcast journalist David Ono. With some light-hearted banter and a couple of crowd selfies, the two set the mood for a spirited night.
The curtain then went up for the first time, making way for the introduction of the 2015 Nisei Week Queen Court, who appeared on stage in colorful, elegant kimonos. The court was welcomed by music and cheers, which continued throughout their traditional Japanese fan dance.
Following their performance, each queen candidate exhibited her verbal communication skills by presenting a speech that expressed her inspirations, personal growth, and feelings toward the Nisei generation and the broader Japanese American community. Each candidate spoke from her heart, whether describing the challenge of embracing flaws, lessons learned from adoption, or the determination to reject expectations.
Tomita and Ono then introduced the judges for the night: actress Keiko Agena, playwright Velina Hasu Houston, Japanese Business Association Foundation President Yuko Kaifu, Little Tokyo Service Center Executive Director Dean Matsubayashi, Chef Roy Yamaguchi (parade grand marshal), and 1986 Nisei Week Queen Jennifer Ahn Yoshitake. Together, the judges chose a queen based on her performance in the judges’ interview, coronation program, and preliminary activities.
UCLA’s Kyodo Taiko took the stage next, picking up the energy in the room with three songs. Kyodo, as Tomita and Ono reminded the crowd, has two meanings – “family” and “loud children.” True to these two meanings, the taiko group brought the entire room together as a family with the enthusiasm of loud children.
Following Kyodo, Tomita and Ono returned to the stage to introduce dignitaries and visiting royalty, including Los Angeles County Supervisor Mike Antonovich, Nagoya Vice Mayor Masamichi Tamiya (representing L.A.’s sister city), Miss Chinatown Alice Wong, Honolulu Cherry Blossom Queen Kimberly Takata and her court, and Northern California Cherry Blossom Queen Kelli Sum and her court.
To close off the first part of the night, the candidates and coronation planning team performed a modern dance number, combining history and talent.
“We’re 75 years old, but we’ve only gotten bigger and better,” Tomita said.
After intermission, the candidates reappeared in long white evening gowns for the question-and-answer segment. Tomita and Ono began by asking each candidate a “fun” question, ranging from “What kind of alien would Tamlyn be?” to “What would you change about David?” This year, for their “real” question, Tomita and Ono asked the girls, “What do you hope your generation will be known for?”
Many of the other candidates shared that they hoped their generation would continue to honor the Nisei legacy and preserve past generations, as well as begin new, lasting traditions. Hutter responded a little differently.
“I hope my generation will be remembered for being inclusive and open to all cultures and backgrounds,” she said. “With Little Tokyo constantly growing and changing, it’s important to embrace all who hope to find a home in the community.”
As the judges quickly added up the points, the 2014 Nisei Week Queen and Court came to the stage for the last time to say their goodbyes with a short video and words of gratitude.
Once the decision was made, an envelope made its way on to the stage, and a few pauses and a drumroll later, Miss Tomodachi, the First Princess, and the Nisei Week Queen were announced.
“I’m still waiting for it to sink in,” said Hutter in an interview with The Rafu after the ceremony. “I’m extremely honored. This was a huge surprise to me, so I’m pretty overwhelmed and excited. It’s going to be a great year.”
Hutter also elaborated on her call for inclusivity. “I really loved how Miss Chinatown was here. I think that if other courts from other towns are able to come here, we can share our support and work together to raise that cultural awareness, embrace mixed culture and mixed backgrounds, and learn about each other.”
Photos by MARIO G. REYES/Rafu Shimpo