By ANNAKAI HAYAKAWA GESHLIDER, Rafu Shimpo
On March 15, 22-year-old Kiyomi Arimitsu Takemoto was crowned the 39th queen of the East San Gabriel Valley Japanese Community Center in West Covina.
Born and raised in Alhambra, Takemoto has been part of the ESGVJCC’s community for nearly 18 years. She enrolled in the center’s Gakuen Japanese Language School at age five, and has been active in several of the center’s programs since. She had seen past queens participate at the ESGVJCC and in the Nisei Week Queen Program, so applying to be the 2020 ESGVJCC queen felt like a natural progression in her involvement.
In college at UC Irvine, Takemoto found herself choosing between studying for tests and attending meetings with the Nikkei Student Union. “I really missed that — being able to dedicate as much time as I was used to in being a part of a Japanese American community,” she said.
When Takemoto returned home after college, she wanted to get back in touch with the center’s community. She describes the center’s Queen Program as “a cultural ambassador program” and a way to provide outreach to ESGVJCC members and organizations.
In high school, Takemoto participated in the center’s student exchange program, where she traveled to Ohtawara in Tochigi Prefecture — West Covina’s sister city. The trip deepened her appreciation for her ties to her culture.
Takemoto has also volunteered as a counselor for elementary and middle school students at Camp Chibikko, the ESGVJCC’s summer camp. As a member of the center’s Nikkei Youth Organization, Takemoto and fellow members volunteered at various center events. The group also took trips to Little Tokyo to learn about local businesses and study the neighborhood’s history.
Takemoto’s favorite things to eat in Little Tokyo are the rainbow dango from Fugetsu-Do and ramen from Kouraku, where her family has been dining since as far back as she can remember.
Takemoto also participated in the Community Mentorship Program as a mentee. Hosted by ESGVJCC and Little Tokyo community organization Kizuna, the program’s mission was to mentor high school students and engage young adults with the Japanese American community after college. Now, Takemoto wants to keep that same energy alive.
Takemoto believes queens have the opportunity to build community throughout the East San Gabriel Valley. She is brainstorming ways to do this in light of stay-at-home requirements. Along with queens from previous years, she is crafting videos to share with her community on social media. Although this year’s Nisei Week events have been canceled due to COVID-19, she still has plans to continue moving forward.
“The biggest thing we’re tackling right now,” she said, “is how to keep the young adults more involved.”
Takemoto has recently attended board meetings for the center’s Gakuen Japanese School. She hopes to focus on sustaining students’ involvement at the center after their college years, perhaps through creating an alumni association for the Japanese School.
“Our candidate really put a lot of time and effort into her training,” said Pearl Omiya, executive director of the ESGVJCC. Takemoto trained at the center for nearly a month and a half in preparation for the coronation, working with coaches to practice public speaking, interviews, and presentation.
At the time of the coronation, social gatherings were still permitted, as long as they involved under 30 people. Event attendees sat six feet apart from each other, and staff served food rather than folks serving themselves. “We usually hug … This year we did the elbow bumps,” said Omiya.
For Takemoto, the coronation “may have looked physically different, but…the purpose, and the feeling, remained the same.”
She says she feels drawn to the center because of its strong community. “That sense of community is not something that happens overnight. It’s more of something that you develop over time, seeing familiar faces, and interacting with center members.”
Takemoto currently works as a systems engineer for Northrop Grumman, in the aerospace industry. She manages engineering projects and their finances. Her favorite green engineering project so far has been implementing reusable crates to reduce the company’s cost and waste.
Since she was a kid, Takemoto felt drawn to science and math. At UC Irvine, she studied chemical engineering. She recalls the shock she felt when applying to college and learning how many types of engineering majors existed.
“I feel like if I was exposed to a wider range of careers earlier on, it wouldn’t have been such a difficult decision at the time,” said Takemoto. “I want students to be introduced to more career options to help them feel less overwhelmed when picking a major.”
While she ended up enjoying her major, she recognizes that this isn’t the case for everyone. Now, one of Takemoto’s biggest passions is promoting STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) to younger generations.
“I see so much need for mentorship as a woman in engineering, and especially in the aerospace industry,” Takemoto said. While she is glad to see women in engineering, she feels their presence is still underrepresented. As a member of the Society of Women Engineers, and Northrop Grumman’s Women’s International Network, Takemoto cares about exposing girls to the opportunities in STEM.
Last year, Takemoto pulled together some employees from the Women’s International Network to volunteer at the Orange County Girl Scouts’ annual STEM Expo. The volunteers hosted a table demonstrating basic electrical engineering concepts — such as how to set up a circuit with batteries and turn on a lightbulb — and shared their experiences working as engineers.
As Girl Scout troops made their way from table to table at the fair, one fourth-grader was particularly intrigued by the demonstration. Takemoto told the girl that electrical engineering could be a possible career option. She remembers, “It was so inspiring to see her excitement and be able to expose her to engineering at such a young age.”
Takemoto has watched the ways people support each other during the COVID-19 crisis. She’s inspired by her community’s projects, such as senior lunch deliveries and reaching out to one another online. While the past few months have been difficult, she said, “it’s shown how the Japanese American community has been able to stay strong and help each other during the current climate.”
She added that while many events have been cancelled, she looks forward to the time when we can come together. Until then, “ganbatte — hang in there.”