Japan, America, and My Heart as a Japanese American

This month I was accepted into the 2015 TOMODACHI Emerging Leaders Program, which includes becoming an Associate Member of the U.S.-Japan Council. It’s a tremendous honor, one I hope that I can steward to strengthen bilateral relations between my two home countries of Japan and America.

I wanted to share the personal statement I wrote so that friends could better understand the way I see myself between the two cultures. Thanks for reading!

When I was fourteen-years-old, I saved up all my money to buy a plane ticket so that my oba-chan could visit Los Angeles. Having only met her twice, she was a warm mystery to me. Although my parents were thrilled by my idea, they eventually told me that it was an impossible dream. There was only enough money for one ticket. Oba-chan couldn’t make the trip from the Wakayama countryside alone and I couldn’t go to her by myself.

This experience represented the whole of my relationship with Japan as a child. As the son of a Sansei father and Issei mother, I wanted to know the half of me that was from Japan. For reasons beyond my comprehension and control as a child, this desire was kept from me. After my failed attempt to connect with my oba-chan, I decided that I would never know my family in Japan or have any relationship with the country.

I grew to be content with my upbringing as a Japanese American, a family and heritage I knew very deeply. My best friends were fellow Yonseis from my Japanese American church and CYC/CBO basketball clubs. I played in the Japanese American North/South basketball game, had family meals in Little Tokyo, and hung out with friends at summer Obon festivals.

At the same time, I grew up with the gift of a multi-cultural community in Pasadena, developing strong relationships with friends of all backgrounds and learning how to lead diverse teams through adversity. During my time at Maranatha High School in Pasadena I was given the opportunity to be a four-year varsity letterman in basketball, captain of the varsity basketball and football teams, and serve as class president and school chaplain.

In many ways, I lived the American Dream.

In November of 2003, during my final year of high school, my father was diagnosed with cancer. He died in May, two weeks before my graduation. Needless to say, this was the hardest year of my life and the beginning of a massive life change.

Before my father died, he encouraged me to pursue my desire to attend his alma mater, Seattle Pacific University. Two unexpected things happened when I moved to Seattle. First, I found myself feeling very close to my mother and began to wonder again about my Japanese identity. Second, unlike Los Angeles, I rode the bus frequently and often overheard people speaking Japanese.

I became friends with Japanese exchange students who graciously taught me about Japan. I also learned about their struggles living as foreigners in America. Though my resources were limited, I thought that as a Japanese American I could help them have a better experience abroad. I couldn’t help but see my own mother in their struggles.

In the summer of 2005 I was invited to volunteer for a summer program in Tokyo led by a close family friend named Josh Morey, Vice President of The J Morey Company and Chairperson of the JANM New Leadership Advisory Council. From the moment I first got off the plane at Narita Airpot, I had the sense that I had come home. Through the help of bi-lingual Japanese students, I had an amazing summer in Tokyo and was able to meet my mother’s family for the first time.

It was the first time dual-citizenship felt like it meant anything to me. From that summer, I thought of Japan as my country, my people, and began to move my life back towards Japan.

During my final year of college I had an opportunity to interview two Japanese American WWII veterans. As a history major, I chose to focus my capstone project on their experience. My time with them had a profound impact, instilling a desire to follow their example and achieve the impossible for the sake of others. They taught me the core of what it meant to be Japanese American, and in their words, “to be damn proud to be Japanese.”

Before graduating from college, I wrestled with deep questions related to my beliefs, purpose, and future career. Years earlier, during our final conversation, my father had encouraged me to become a man who would give his life away for the sake of others. It was something I never understand until growing in my relationship with Jesus Christ and also developing this same desire. All of these influences came together and formed a desire to bless the people of Japan.

While co-founding a new church for students at the University of Washington, I learned more deeply about the dreams and challenges of Japanese students and began to take small steps of action in order to create change for them. This led to the founding of the Megumi Initiative, a non-profit organization committed to blessing Japan through initiatives in business, education, arts, sports, and Bible teaching.

In 2012, we started a volunteer English education program in Seattle called Eigo Cafe that currently serves over 120 Japanese people a year with language partners (ratio of 3 Japanese to 1 native English speaker). We also started an entrepreneurship program called Sekai Creator, which began as an experimental project to help Japanese exchange students’ get closer to the Seattle business community.

After discovering that Sekai Creator could play a significant role in helping Japan develop a new generation of global entrepreneurial leaders, I resolved to commit myself 100% to growing the program, and from 2014 my wife and I decided to live in Tokyo indefinitely.

I am currently working with entrepreneurs and business professionals, American and Japanese universities, and young Japanese leaders to develop Sekai Creator into a program that enables Japanese youth to drive new ideas in new markets — to “create new worlds.”

Last month I had an opportunity to speak at TEDxWasedaU about the unlimited potential of Japanese students. I believe, against the backdrop of adversity and uncertainty, that there is tremendous hope for Japan within the millions of Japanese youth among us. My dream as a Japanese American is to unlock their hidden potential and support their development — as a leader, a mentor, a coach, and a friend.

I hope that my participation in the TOMODACHI Emerging Leaders Program will help this dream become a reality.

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