She’s had a schedule packed with as many as 12 hours of events every day — including the Japanese stone lantern lighting at the blossom-fringed Tidal Basin, sorting donated clothing at Bread for the City and reading to D.C. students at Cleveland Elementary School — in her final week of duty.
On Friday, in one of Washington’s more arcane rituals, Barfield’s reign comes to an end. At the official Grand Ball and Cherry Blossom queen coronation, her title passes to one of this year’s 55 Cherry Blossom Princesses — young women who are selected on the basis of their public service. The massed princesses could be spotted around Washington this week, dressed in shiny state sashes bearing their Disneyesque titles.
Run by the National Conference of State Societies, the 65-year-old tradition of crowning a queen, instituted as a way to promote friendship with Japan after World War II, feels a little like a trip back to 1948, when the first Cherry Blossom queen (Doris Sheldon, from Delaware) was chosen. The highlight of the queen’s tenure is a two-week goodwill trip to Japan, where she helps foster Japanese-U.S. friendship by planting cherry tree seedlings from the Potomac, visiting historic and religious sites and attending official functions.
Until last year, Cherry Blossom queens have been overwhelmingly white and often blonde. So Barfield’s tenure has been a wild, history-making ride, full of cultural curiosities and awkward moments. After winning a princess spot in her state, the queen is chosen by a Japanese official — in Barfield’s case, the governor of Tokyo, Shintaro Ishihara — who spins a “Wheel of Fortune”-style spinner inscribed with the name of every state.
“It’s purely luck to win,” Barfield said. “I never thought it would happen.” Before going onstage, she recalled, she left her “strappy, uncomfortable high heels,” under the table. She was up on the crowded stage with the other princesses when she heard, “Maryland! Maryland!”
“I had to push Delaware aside,” she laughed. “I had to push everyone aside.” Then the Japanese paparazzi swarmed her. “The whole time, my first thought was, ‘I don’t have any shoes on!’ ”
Barfield accepted the crown shoeless and even danced barefoot with Ishihara, a Michael Bloomberg-like figure in Japan — the celebrity leader of the country’s most well-known city. Which made it all the more scandalous when he kissed Barfield on the cheek — politely, she said — after their dance. The incident shocked the nation and was a top story in the Japanese media for weeks. When she visited Japan three weeks later, she was greeted by a headline in a local paper: “Barefoot Queen Comes to Meet Japanese Boyfriend.”
The Japanese were surprised by the African American Cherry Blossom queen — but Barfield found that fascinating rather than offensive. Japan is one of the world’s most racially homogenous countries and, the Japanese told her, they often assume that all Americans are skinny blondes.
“People saw me and were not afraid to stare and ask for a picture. It felt like I was more a curiosity, and not like it was mean-hearted or anything,” she said. “I think they were intrigued that a princess could be black.”
At one point, she said, her Japanese chaperone asked whether she needed a straightening iron. “I explained that some black women wear their hair naturally. I told her I love my hair, and then she understood and was nice about it. ”
Officials at the Japanese Embassy in Washington said they were delighted to have an African American Cherry Blossom queen. Learning about American culture, they pointed out, is the point of the exchange.
“It’s true, people were used to seeing non-African American queens in the past, and this brought some new wind to our tradition, and that’s such a great thing,” said Masato Otaka, minister of public affairs at the embassy. “She’s been so gracious and full of big smiles in representing the U.S.”
Barfield says she overcame some cultural assumptions of her own. She was surprised, for example, to learn that the Japanese are huge fans of D.C. go-go icon Chuck Brown.
And on Thursday, before sitting down to one of her last Cherry Blossom lunches as queen, she made a whispered confession when asked whether she liked Japanese cuisine. “I don’t eat sushi,” she said. “But luckily, no one gets offended.”