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Crowning the Nice Girl

Crowning the Nice Girl: Gender, Ethnicity, and Culture in Hawai‘i’s Cherry Blossom Festival

Christine R. Yano
Copyright Date: 2006
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  • Book Info
    Crowning the Nice Girl
    Book Description:

    After World War II, Japanese Americans in Hawai‘i sought to carve a positive niche of public citizenship in the community. In 1953 members of the Honolulu Japanese Junior Chamber of Commerce and their wives created a beauty contest, the Cherry Blossom Festival (CBF) Queen Pageant, which quickly became an annual spectacle for the growing urban population of Honolulu. Crowning the Nice Girl analyzes the pageant through its decades of development to the present within multiple frameworks of gender, class, and race/ethnicity. Drawing on extensive archival research; interviews with CBF queens, contestants, and organizers; and participant observation in the Fiftieth Annual Festival as a volunteer, Christine Yano paints a complex portrait of not only a beauty pageant, but also a community. The study begins with the subject of beauty pageants in general and Asian American beauty pageants in particular, interrogating the issues they raise, embedding them within their histories, and examining them as part of a global culture that has taken its model from the Miss America contest.Yano follows the pageant throughout the decades into the 1990s, adding corresponding "herstories"—extensive narratives drawn from interviews with CBF queens. She concludes by framing issues of race, ethnicity, spectacle, and community within the intertwined themes of niceness and banality.

    eISBN: 978-0-8248-6206-0
    Subjects: Anthropology

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-vi)
  3. Acknowledgments
    (pp. vii-viii)
  4. Prologue: Sansei Dreams of Beauty Queens and Beyond
    (pp. 1-12)

    I grew up in Hawai‘i during the mid-1950s and 1960s, a third-generation (sansei) Japanese American girl from a middle-class family. Every year my family watched the Miss America pageant on TV. We sat in our living room agog at the spectacle of Atlantic City over 5,000 miles away — the glamour, the lights, and most of all, the long-legged beauties. We studied all of them, trying to pick the winner. We were tough critics, scrutinizing teeth that weren’t even or legs that weren’t long and straight. My mother, aunts, girl cousins, even my grandmother watched the pageant together as part of...

  5. Chapter One Beauty Pageants as Spectacles of Gender, Race/Ethnicity, and Community
    (pp. 13-38)

    The work of femininity is nowhere better seen than in the spectacle of a beauty pageant, “a large-scale, extravagant cultural production that is replete with striking visual imagery and dramatic action” (Manning 1992:291). Spectacles provide “the principal symbolic context in which contemporary societies enact and communicate their guiding beliefs, values, concerns, and self understandings” (ibid.).¹ Beauty pageants spectacularize not only performances of femininity, but also displays of communities, groups, and selves.² Colleen Ballerino Cohen, Richard Wilk, and Beverly Stoeltje argue:

    As universal and diverse as beauty contests are, what they do is remarkably similar. . . . They showcase values...

  6. Chapter Two Historicizing the Cherry Blossom Festival: Engendering the American Way of Life in Postwar Hawai‘i
    (pp. 39-64)

    This chapter examines ways in which the CBF, born in Hawai‘i during the Cold War era of the mid-1950s, mapped onto the “American way of life,” with its singular vision of heterosexuality, the nuclear family, middle-class consumerism, and whiteness. The particularities of this mapping undergird critical refractions of race/ethnicity, core-periphery relations, and the regionalism of that vision. The CBF from the outset and variably throughout its subsequent development was both an expression of citizenship—that is, emplacement within the American sphere—as well as a showcase of carefully crafted difference.

    In this chapter I provide a historical context for the...

  7. Chapter Three The Cherry Blossom Festival as Center Stage in Hawai‘i: 1950s – 1960s
    (pp. 65-94)

    On April 15, 1953, after four years of talk, several months of planning, and $1,000 each from their own pockets, the Jaycees crowned their first Cherry Blossom Queen, Violet Tokie Niimi, from a staggering field of seventy-two candidates before a capacity crowd of 5,000 spectators. (See the Appendix for a chronological list of Queens.) The crowning was only one part of a series of Festival events that had Honolulu abuzz. Two weeks before the start of the Festival, downtown merchants decorated storefronts with paper cherry blossoms to announce the event. Candidates at the media kickoff party posed for photographs in...

  8. Chapter Four Herstories I: 1950s – 1960s
    (pp. 95-122)

    Anna Tokumaru stands erectly, moves gracefully, and speaks carefully. When she sits, her hands fold neatly in her lap and unfold only to gesture quietly. Hers is the story of a shy, young, reluctant Queen who never thought she was “pretty” enough — or “Japanese” enough — to run in the CBF pageant. Hers is also the story of a full-blooded Japanese American whose looks, height, and body shape appeared Eurasian, a source of consternation for her mother. Ironically, these very physical qualities made a big hit in Japan and elsewhere precisely because they were atypical. Here was a Queen who fit...

  9. Chapter Five Struggles toward Reform: 1970s – 1990s
    (pp. 123-156)

    With the exception of the passage quoted above, the slowly mounting struggles of the CBF from the 1970s on are fairly invisible to a peruser of its souvenir books. One has to read between the lines of the smiling faces and glowing words that fill the pages of these books every year. They typically paint a picture of the Festival proceeding unabated, filled with activities, crowning “nice girl” Queens, staunchly supported by the praise of politicians and community members. One does not see the increasing number of activities in urban Honolulu that splinter the potential audience for the CBF or,...

  10. Chapter Six Herstories II: 1970s – 1990s
    (pp. 157-182)

    Kathy Horio’s reputation well precedes her. Different Jaycee members told me I must talk with Kathy, describing her as great, wonderful, fantastic. With each superlative, she became the super Cherry Blossom Queen. So it was with considerable anticipation that I drove to the top of an exclusive urban heights area of Honolulu to interview her on December 17, 2001. I was not disappointed. With one movement she ushered me in, welcomed me warmly, and offered me a seat in her casual but elegant living room. Her hair was short, layered, and highlighted. It was a far cry from the long...

  11. Chapter Seven Controversy and Reform: Finding a Place in the Twenty-first Century
    (pp. 183-208)

    For the most part, changes to the CBF throughout the years have occurred incrementally and without fanfare. As discussed in Chapter 5, the Jaycees sensed dwindling public interest, but did not make any major changes until 1998. It took a maverick individual to break through the general conservatism and complacency of the institution. That individual was Keith Kamisugi, president of the HJJCC in 1998, whose major reforms for the CBF included the acceptance of mixed-race contestants and the deletion of beauty from the criteria of judging.

    This chapter discusses these reforms, focusing in particular on the blood-quantum rule. I frame...

  12. Chapter Eight Herstories III: 1999 – 2000s
    (pp. 209-228)

    The Jaycees were lucky. In the first year of the blood-quantum rule change, they had among contestants a woman of 100 percent Japanese blood who was unquestionably qualified to be Queen. Lori Murayama is pretty, gracious, humble, intelligent, articulate. She is also ambitious. The fact that she is of 100 percent Japanese ancestry is irrelevant given her obvious qualifications. She eased public acceptance of the change in bloodquantum ruling: her winning assured critics that the reform would not affect the kind of Queen they were going to get.

    I found Lori busily studying for her medical school exams at the...

  13. Chapter Nine Crowning the “Nice Girl”: The Politics and Poetics of Banality
    (pp. 229-248)

    What startles observers of the CBF since the 1998 change in blood-quantum ruling is how little controversy remained only a few short years later. Since Catherine Toth completed the transition to a 50 percent Japanese-haole mixed Queen with a non-Japanese last name, nearly all vestiges of doubt or questions of appropriateness have disappeared. The following year, 2002, when Lisa Okinaga — half-Japanese, three-eighths Chinese, one-eighth Hawaiian — became Queen, newspapers called her “the perfect mix for a Japanese Queen representing the Islands” (Suzuki 2002:A5). Okinaga, a graduate of Kamehameha Schools (private school that gives preference to students of Hawaiian ancestry) and an...

  14. NOTES
    (pp. 249-266)
  15. Appendix: Cherry Blossom Festival Queens, 1953 – 2005
    (pp. 267-270)
    (pp. 271-286)
  17. INDEX
    (pp. 287-294)
  18. Back Matter
    (pp. 295-296)