Cherry blossoms in Japan 1

Japan Sakura Foundation and the US Cherry Blossom Princess Program Cultivate Stronger Ties between the Two Allies

Since 1948, exchanges between the Sakura Queen from the Japan Sakura Foundation and the Cherry Blossom Princesses from the US Cherry Blossom Princess Program have cultivated the US–Japan alliance.

In 1912, Japan gifted 3,000 cherry blossom trees to the United States in a symbolic effort to strengthen ties between the two countries. The gift was inspired by then First Lady Helen Herron Taft’s “landscape diplomacy”; she was inspired to beautify Washington, DC’s Potomac River by decorating it with cherry blossom trees.

The US-Japan relationship has strengthened since the signing of the US-Japan Mutual Security Treaty at the end of World War 2 in 1951. Today, Japan is one of the most important US allies and the two have a robust economic, military, and cultural relationship.

The relationship is celebrated by the exchange between the Japan Sakura Foundation and the US Cherry Blossom Princess program. Every two years, two “Sakura Queens” are selected by the Japan Sakura Foundation to travel the world and promote good relations with different countries. In the United States, the Cherry Blossom Princess Program selects 50 princesses from each state, from whom one Cherry Blossom Queen is chosen via a spinning wheel selection process. The selection process includes numerous essays and interviews.

During the annual National Cherry Blossom Festival in Washington DC, the two programs come together through meetings and events to cultivate the strong relationship between the US and Japan.

The East-West Center in Washington spoke to the chaperone of the US Cherry Blossom Princesses and Queen, Valerie Crooker Clemens, as well as the chaperone of Japan’s Cherry Blossom Queen, Yumiko Tamagaki, on the importance of the US-Japan exchange.

Valerie Crooker Clemens has volunteered with the Cherry Blossom Princess program for 11 years. She is the President of the National Association of Miss America State Pageants and was crowned Miss Maine in 1980.

The Cherry Blossom Princess tradition is a chance for the US and Japan to strengthen their historical relationship. What instances during your time with the program make you feel like you saw this happening in real-time?

When the 50 Cherry Blossom Princesses arrive from their states at the start of their program, they attend a lantern-lighting festival, where they light Japanese stone lanterns. This traditional ceremony goes back hundreds of years, but the stone lanterns in the US were gifted from Japan in 1954. At this inaugural event, individuals from both sides of the program speak and express their mutual support and connection.

Another aspect of the program where I have observed the bilateral relationship being strengthened is when the Cherry Blossom Princesses, Queen, and others involved were received by the Japanese Ambassador in Washington, DC. It increases the cultural awareness between the two countries as they visit the Ambassador’s tea house and converse with him.

Previous Cherry Blossom Princesses and Sakura Queens have met with decorated politicians like the Speaker of the House, the First Lady, and the Prime Minister of Japan. What other programming for the Cherry Blossom Princesses and Sakura Queens would you like to highlight?

The programming is very robust. We have visited the White House, met with first ladies, various senators and congressmen, and even the first dog of the Obama administration! In Japan, we met with the late Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, the Crown Princess of Japan Kiko, and the Governor of Tokyo Yuriko Koike. Other ministries, such as the Japanese Ministry of Land, Infrastructure, Transport, and Tourism, also received us. The meetings are a cultural and candid exchange, where we deliver letters outlining our intent of cultivating a strong relationship between the two countries. We are honored to be received by such great hosts.

What stands out to me about this year's programming is the theme of women’s empowerment. We will have a women empowerment conference with women leaders in business and government, which enforces the idea that women from the US and Japan can cooperate to empower each other.

And lastly, from a cultural perspective, why do you think the US matters for Japan, and Japan matters for the US?

Our relationship is highly symbolic, and we mutually benefit from the strong relationship. Washington, DC’s tidal basin is a testament to our support for each other, and such a beautiful symbol speaks for our emotional connection. I think there is a lot of support and respect between each other, which strengthens our relationship. I am honored to be able to work on the relationship.

From left to right: Yumiko Tamagaki, Valerie Crooker Clemens, Cherry Blossom Queen Samantha Olsen, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, Sakura Queen Yuki Shimono. Courtesy of Valerie Crooker Clemens.

Yumiko Tamagaki has been involved with the Queen Committee of Japan Sakura Foundation and was previously crowned the Sakura Queen.

You have been involved in various aspects of the Sakura Queen Festival for many years and have also been the Queen yourself. What is your favorite memory of your involvement with this program?

The highlight of my time as Sakura Queen was traveling abroad from Japan.

When I won the title of Sakura Queen, I was only 22. Being so young, having these experiences abroad opened my eyes to the world beyond Japan. As I traveled, I began to understand the political weight the title of Sakura Queen held. Being involved in meetings with government officials, it became exponentially clear.

I particularly enjoyed traveling to Taiwan – in Taiwan, we planted a Sakura tree on Alishan Mountain. It was symbolic and fantastic to see the cherry blossom tradition being welcomed abroad.

When helping with the festival in the US, what aspect of Japanese culture are you most excited to bring to foreign countries?

When I go abroad, I want to bring Japan’s “sensaisa” (delicacy), “yuugasa” (profundity), and “miyabisa” (elegance) to foreign countries. As the former Cherry Blossom Queen and a current chaperone, I believe that the Kimono tradition not only catches one's eye but portrays the essence of these three elements. The process of arranging the kimono is highly detailed, and the Sakura queen wears a specific kimono style. This style -- “furisode” -- has long sleeves, is made of silk, and is only worn by younger women, embodying these three elements.

And lastly, why do you think the Japanese exchange with the US Cherry Blossom Princess program is important?

The most important part of the program is the cultural exchange – from the Japanese perspective, I think it is a wonderful opportunity for Japan to share its traditions with the US. I want American people to appreciate the different parts of our culture, and vice versa. I believe this also contributes to the strength of the partnership between Japan and the US.

Thank you to Valerie Crooker Clemens for permitting us to use her photograph.

Lei Nishiuwatoko is a Spring 2024 Young Professional at the East-West Center in Washington. She recently graduated from Northeastern University, where she obtained a B.A. in International Affairs. Lei has previously interned at the NATO Defense College, WorldBoston, and L.E.K. Consulting.