Michelle Heckert

Pacifica's Michelle Heckert is a member of the Queen's Court at the Cherry Blossom Festival for 2022. Photo courtesy Mark Shigenaka

A Pacifica woman’s ties to her Japanese heritage and to the city of San Francisco earned her a position as a princess of the city’s annual Cherry Blossom Festival. Michelle Heckert, 25, is one of five young Japanese American women in the 2022 Queen’s Court who will represent their heritage at events and appearances throughout the year.

The Cherry Blossom Festival is the premier cultural event for Northern California’s Japanese community. Each year, for two weekends in April, it showcases Japanese traditions both ancient and modern, including food, dance, martial arts, anime, tea ceremony and such skills as origami, bonsai and sword-making.

For most of the event’s 55-year history, choosing the Queen’s Court has been a highlight of the festival. After judging night, the women preside over the festival, wearing traditional kimono and their crowns.

Heckert, who grew up in Pacifica, attended the Cherry Blossom Festival throughout her childhood and spent many days in Japantown with her grandparents, immersed in the sights and tastes of the cultural district. Her family has deep roots in the city. Her great-grandparents emigrated from Japan (she’s Yonsei, a fourth-generation descendant), and the family lived there until they were removed and incarcerated with other Japanese Americans during World War II.

“My grandparents instilled in me the value of keeping traditions alive,” she said. “I do this to honor them.”

Music was one of those traditions. “They signed me up for piano and dance early on,” Heckert said. “My grandmother wanted to go to music school, but was never able to.”

Heckert loved dance best, and danced all through school, but recently has been concentrating more on music. The queen candidates were judged partly on their creative abilities. For her program, Heckert danced a piece she choreographed, to music she wrote, recorded and produced.

The candidates also each gave a speech and participated in Q&A sessions with the judges. The Queen Program “develops young women of Japanese descent to become future community leaders who will preserve and continue traditions and bring forth new ideas,” according to the festival’s website.

“The program does a good job mentoring young women in leadership skills such as speaking and presentations, so we can speak on behalf of our organizations and communities,” Heckert said.

The experience has solidified Heckert’s Japanese identity, especially through the time she’s spent with the other women on the court. “We’ve become very close. We all grew up in the Bay Area, many of us with mixed parentage,” she said. “We have all wondered, ‘Are we Japanese enough?’”

Although Heckert’s grandparents made sure she was steeped in her culture, “I didn’t fully realize the value of that connection to my heritage until later in life,” she said.

She’ll spend the year as an ambassador for the Japanese community — and as a role model for younger girls. When she was young, she admired the women of earlier courts.

“I thought they were so educated, so professional,” Heckert said. Now she’s one of them, looking forward to sharing her experiences growing up Japanese American. She hopes she can inspire other Japanese American girls to be proud of their heritage and confident in their abilities to shine and make a difference. 

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