The Cherry Blossom Princess Tradition, Explained

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There have been over 3,000 princesses since 1948.

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Wednesday’s peak bloom announcement kicked off the start of cherry blossom season: The Tidal Basin will reach peak bloom from March 22 to 25, according to the National Park Service.

Longtime Washingtonians know the drill: Blossom-themed specials are already popping up at restaurants and hotels all over town, and the Tidal Basin will soon be crammed with eager photographers. But did you know about the Cherry Blossom Princesses and Queen? The tradition has been around for 75 years, but we thought a refresher was in order. 

So, what is the tradition exactly? 

First, it’s not a beauty pageant. Rather, the Cherry Blossom Princess program recognizes women between the ages of 19 and 24 for their personal accomplishments and community contributions. Its original purpose was to rebuild the friendship between Japan and the U.S. after World War II, says program director Gigi Galbraith. (DC’s first cherry trees were a gift from Japan to the U.S.) It’s since focused on cultural education and exchange and holds a weeklong event in DC for the princesses with panels, community service, and sightseeing. Every year Japan also crowns their own Sakura (cherry blossom) Queen, who then attends DC’s program. 

The first four Cherry Blossom Princesses were chosen in 1939 by the Cherry Blossom Festival committee of the Washington Board of Trade. However, the program officially dates back to 1948, when the National Conference of State Societies took control and began to emphasize a post-war relationship with Japan. Two notable alumnae: Both Senator Lisa Murkowski of Alaska and Senator Shelley Moore Capito of West Virginia were Cherry Blossom Princesses. 

Who are the Cherry Blossom Princesses and how are they chosen?

There have been over 3,000 princesses since 1948. Each state society selects a princess from a pool of applicants to represent its state or territory—55 in total. There can also be international princesses, but they can’t be crowned queen. The princesses are chosen based on things like leadership and academic and professional achievements. Besides the age limit, applicants must be single (and never married, with no children) and have a high-school degree. 

The night before the Cherry Blossom Festival, a queen is chosen from the group at a gala, where they all wear white dresses with pink sashes. This year’s gala takes place on April 14 at the Capital Hilton hotel. 

The 2023 DC Cherry Blossom Princess is Sarah Nordlinger, currently a sophomore at William & Mary and a sixth-generation Washingtonian. Nordlinger also went through the Junior Princess Program for girls ages 5 to 12.

The princesses at the Cherry Blossom Festival parade. Photograph courtesy of the Cherry Blossom Princess Program.

How do they pick a Queen?

They spin a wheel, if you can believe it. The Board of Trade, which was originally in charge of the program, decided that because the program takes place in DC, there was too much risk that politics would get involved. So instead? They spin a giant pink wheel. First, the wheel is spun to select a runner-up, and then a second time to name the year’s Cherry Blossom Queen. 

The crown is decorated with pearls and is so heavy that Galbraith says the queens can only wear it for five minutes.

Last year’s queen was Sarah Eustace of Colorado. Photograph courtesy of the Cherry Blossom Princess Program.

What does the Queen do? 

Each Cherry Blossom Queen has the opportunity to visit Japan on a “goodwill tour,” hosted by the Japan Sakura Foundation. There, she visits with local dignitaries and the prime minister. In 2022, the queen visited the research laboratory where the Tidal Basin’s original cherry blossom trees were developed. 

Have there been any queens from the DC area? 

Unfortunately, the District itself hasn’t seen a queen on the throne, but Maryland and Virginia have. Most recently, Virginia’s Margaret O’Meara won in 2018 and Maryland’s Taylor Barfield won in 2012. Barfield was also the first Black woman to be named Cherry Blossom Queen, and, since she won, Barfield says other Black women now come to her asking how they can be involved too.

Editorial Fellow

Keely recently graduated with her master’s in journalism from American University and has reported on local DC, national politics, and business. She has previously written for The Capitol Forum.

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