It’s been a whirlwind year for young Jodo Shinshu Buddhists Hannah KC Mukai and for Kylie Tamura.
Their lives really kicked into high gear beginning April 8 — when Mukai was crowned this year’s Northern California Cherry Blossom Festival Queen and Tamura was selected as First Princess. The well-attended event was held at the Fort Mason Center for Arts & Culture in San Francisco.
Since the Cherry Blossom Festival program, life for Mukai and Tamura, and the rest of the Queen Court — Maya Isaka, Samantha Teshima, and Emily “Emi” Wagner — has been nonstop, especially on weekends.
Their itinerary has included appearances at the Davis Cherry Blossom Festival, Cupertino Cherry Blossom Festival, San Jose Nikkei Matsuri, Soy and Tofu Festival in San Francisco, as well as several of the Obon festivals in the Bay Area, including San Francisco, San Jose, San Mateo, and Tamura’s hometown of Concord.
They also attended the San Francisco Japantown Pride flag-raising ceremony on June 5 — which Mukai says was “an amazing celebration of queer joy, resilience, and community” — and the Nisei Week Japanese Festival in August in Los Angeles.
Mukai and Tamura reflected on the impact that Jodo Shinshu Buddhism has had in their lives, especially in helping to process the Cherry Blossom Festival experience.
“The Cherry Blossom Festival itself and all the events we have attended after have been so much fun, a rush of joy and action which can sometimes feel like a blur,” said Mukai, who was sponsored by Takara Sake USA, Inc. “I’ve been striving to approach each experience with intention and live in the present so that I can look back on these days, not with bitterness that they are over, but with fondness and appreciation that they happened. I know that the Queen Program experience is just the beginning of a long and beautiful relationship with the community. By practicing gratitude, I am reminded to live in and appreciate the moment.
“The teachings of Jodo Shinshu give me a lens to look at the community around me to both appreciate it and challenge it,” she continued. “It allows me to observe the ways that our community is filled with vibrance and resilience, but also it has room to change and evolve. Caring for my community means also being a voice for change and social programs in the Japanese American (JA) community and beyond.”
Tamura, who was sponsored by the Concord Buddhist Sunday School, said: “It played a big part in my mindset through it all. The first thing that comes to my mind when I think of anything associated with church is always ‘The Golden Chain,’ and it’s the first thing I memorized while I was sitting in church as a kid. It reminds me about impermanence, interdependence, and to put my best foot forward whenever I can.
“When I was nervous and panicking about the Q&A portion of Northern California Cherry Blossom program night, to decompress, I would try to remind myself that no matter what, if I was doing the best that I could and was representing myself and those around me well, that it would all work out and everything will be OK. I think if I hadn’t gone to church growing up and continued with it as I have, it would have been harder to ground myself.”
Mukai, 24, is a Yonsei (fourth-generation) on her father’s side and a second-generation Chinese American on her mother’s side. She grew up in the Central Valley, but now resides in the East Bay.
In 2021, Mukai graduated from the University of California, Berkeley, where she studied Sociology and minored in Global Public Health. She now works for UC Berkeley as an Assistant Director of Parent and Family Philanthropy, where she connects parent donors with opportunities to elevate the student experience at Cal.
Mukai dedicates her time to organizations and causes that are important to her culture and identity. She just finished her term as the Northern California Western Nevada-Pacific (NCWNP) District Youth Representative of the Japanese American Citizens League (JACL), and currently serves as the Social Justice Chair of The Young Buddhist Editorial, and the Police, Prisons, and Detention (PPD) Working Group Co-Chair in Tsuru for Solidarity.
Mukai grew up attending the Reedley, Kingsburg, Fresno and Fowler Buddhist temples and participated in the summer Medaka no Gakko at the Buddhist Church of Parlier. She went to Dharma School at Fowler, and helped to establish the Fowler Jr. YBA. She currently attends Berkeley Buddhist Temple, where she hopes to become more involved with the BBT’s Buddhists Living with Equity and Non-Discrimination (BLEND) Committee, which focuses on inclusive outreach and activities.
“Growing up in the temples, I learned the ways that this community is cared for and cultivated as I saw my elders selflessly give their time, knowledge, and energy to the temple,” Mukai said. “Everything from cooking food at Dharma services to setting up at Obon to taking leadership positions on the temple board, the essence of these acts was what Dana and ‘community’ mean to me. This inspired me to seek out involvement and leadership positions on my own path in the JA community.”
Mukai also says her Buddhist heritage inspires her advocacy and activism in the JA community. “With familial ties to World War II incarceration, I know that the temples stand strong today because of the community members that practiced Buddhism in the camps and worked to reestablish the temples post-incarceration, despite being more harshly persecuted than their Christian counterparts,” she said.
“The history of mass incarceration that happened to our community should not be repeated,” Mukai continued. “And most important, the teachings of compassion and interdependence remind me that my liberation is tied to the liberation of those around me, and therefore, it is important to speak up for communities facing injustice today.”
Tamura, 25, was born and raised in Concord, California, and is a Gosei (fifth-generation) Japanese American. In 2020, she graduated from the University of Oregon with a bachelor’s degree in Economics and a minor in Business Administration.
She is team lead at Vaco, where she manages a team of seven employees working in content localization and project management. Tamura, like Mukai, is involved with The Young Buddhist Editorial.
Growing up, Tamura attended church, Dharma School, and Jr. YBA at the Buddhist Fellowship of Concord, and volunteered at the Diablo Japanese American Club in Concord.
“The Concord Buddhist community is definitely on the smaller side, especially when you compare it to others, like the San Jose community, but I think that is one of my favorite parts and it has helped me gain so much confidence and leadership experience,” she said. “In my time with Jr. YBA, there were usually about five to seven of us in the Concord chapter and because of that, I was on the chapter’s executive board every year.
“Being able to grow in an environment that was comfortable but unfamiliar and changing gave me the tools to have a great college experience away from home, and gave me the encouragement to keep wanting to grow, be involved, and take on leadership positions or lead by example in the Japanese American community,” she said.
Both Mukai and Tamura said the support from, not only parents, relatives, and friends, but the Japanese American and BCA Sangha community has been amazing.
“Because of my prior involvement in the JA community, I feel lucky to have so much love and pride poured in from the community, and this has pushed me to be a better leader and connector in my organizations and relationships,” Mukai said. This experience has brought me closer to both sides of my family, allowing me to reconnect with the Mukai side of my family in the Bay Area and share my Nikkei identity with my Chinese American side. It’s also been so encouraging seeing the love and support from the Central Valley.”
Tamura said: “The love and support has been overwhelming in the best way possible. I’ve told many people that I have never heard the words, ‘I’m proud of you,’ more than I have since program night. With the Concord Buddhist Sunday School being my sponsor, not only did my friends and family get to come out, but some of my church family that I’ve grown up with were able to come and sit up close, and it meant so much to me.
“One conversation I don’t think I’ll ever forget was during the Children’s Day Festival in San Francisco Japantown,” she continued. “The court and I were volunteering at the arts and crafts table and one little girl I was talking to told me she always wished she had a big sister just like me. That’s something I never thought would happen and it showed me how much we could really reach the next generation — I almost cried, too.”