The Olympic gold medalist served as the grand marshal in Saturday's celebration of Japanese culture in New York City
"I think it's so important, especially after the rough few years we've had with COVID and some of the anti-Asian hate sentiments, to celebrate all of our cultures in a positive light," Yamaguchi, 51, tells PEOPLE.
Yamaguchi greeted attendees during the celebration on the Upper West Side, which brought out roughly 2,500 participants to Central Park.
"New York is always an exciting destination to be visiting," says the current Bay Area resident, who adds that New York and San Francisco "have very close ties to Japan."
In both New York and San Francisco, "There are a lot of opportunities to take part in certain cultural celebrations," Yamaguchi explains.
New York Mayor Eric Adams attended Saturday's celebration, as well as members of the General Council of Japan. Yamaguchi was "excited" to meet them, she says.
Yamaguchi's grand marshal title allows her to follow in the footsteps of actor George Takei, who was the parade's first grand marshal the year prior. "It's an honor to be asked after having George Takei, who is a huge icon in the Asian American community," she says.
The celebration of Japanese culture in New York City allows Asian American voices to be heard, says Yamaguchi. "I think it's just a lot of Asian American stories I think are still new or unknown to a lot of the population here in the US. So I think anytime new voices can be heard and listened to, then that's all great stuff."
The champion skater, an Asian American icon in her own right, hopes the support for Japanese culture continues for "the new generation that's come after me," she says. "I think the more we all support each other, the better it is. The tide rises and everything rises with it."
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Continuing to share Japanese culture is "always important" to Yamaguchi, who recalls a childhood tradition she loved growing up.
"Growing up, and even in my early teens, one of my favorite traditions was on New Year's Day, my aunt would make a special ozoni soup, which is for good luck."
The family would drink the soup for breakfast, says Yamaguchi, and "then in the daytime, we would father at my aunt and uncle's house and everyone would bring food."
She explains, "It was literally just a buffet of Japanese food all day long, and then we'd play with the cousins and things like that. It was one of the few times a year that side of the family would gather and have time together."
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