Big changes from life’s small lessons

Tae kwon do black belt Naotaka Aoki learned early the transformative power of modest victories

by Kris Kosaka

Naotaka Aoki, a black belt in tae kwon do, stands tall among his students. A few days later, he stands at ease while leading 160 service members from the U.S. Navy’s Yokosuka base on a recent tour of Kamakura, Kanagawa Prefecture. Fluent in English and Japanese, he laughs quickly in every language.

Despite his current appearances, the 45-year-old Aoki was a shy child.

As a first-grader at a school in Kamakura, Aoki hovered on the outskirts among his neighborhood friends, watching silently as they played dodge ball.

For two years, Aoki passed errant balls to someone else, never joining the game himself. Finally, in third grade, he unexpectedly caught the ball, and as he threw it back in amazement, he realized, “That was easy.”

Aoki still lives by this lesson, how small things can change your life.

He realized a similar transformation when he was studying in the United States as a young adult, hesitant with English, isolated in rural Alabama with few other foreigners nearby. As Aoki explains, “The KKK have their headquarters in Birmingham, very close to where I lived. I was called ‘Jap’ or ‘Yellow Monkey’; yet even if some people were mean, most others were helpful and friendly in every way to make me happy.”

Aoki home-stayed with one of his college professors; she was also a minister at a Presbyterian church. “It was mandatory I go to church every week, Wednesday night and Sunday morning. I found a great, warm Southern hospitality in Alabama.” The small kindnesses shown him in Alabama motivated him to keep up his studies.

Twenty-five years later, back in Japan, Aoki returns that kindness to America in his everyday life. Aoki works for the Fleet and Family Support Center, which covers the Yokosuka base and the Ikego housing complex, as an Inter-Cultural Relations training technician.

The Yokosuka base and the surrounding U.S. military facilities have roughly 4,000 new arrivals each year. Aoki takes care of the newcomers first: His job includes introducing Japan and basic cultural survival skills to the service members and their adult dependents.

New arrivals spend three days learning about and directly experiencing their new home, under Aoki’s tutelage. His division of ICR, Information and Referrals, also supports the entire area military population, with information or specific questions about life in Japan.

Every base in Japan employs some kind of ICR department, but Aoki is proud of their work in Yokosuka. “Some Americans come to Japan from big cities such as New York or from the West Coast, but some come from the middle of the States, and they have never seen public transportation; only school buses were available in their hometowns. Some of them are kind of scared to go off base.

“There’s also a great age difference. Some have just graduated (from) boot camp and are 19 years old, while others are retired Department of Defense civilians, in their 60s.”

Aoki had to construct a course that could fit the needs of such a broad spectrum of people, at the same time focusing on common problems or questions about life in Japan.

Although the program is now mandatory, ICR was a small department when Aoki joined in 2000, offering optional cultural services. Only 50 to 60 service members visited each month. Determined to improve relations between the local Japanese communities and the Americans stationed here, the commanding officer needed someone to expand and rebuild the program.

Before taking up the current position, Aoki had spent more than 15 years in the travel industry, honing his intercultural skills by organizing and leading trips overseas. He worked with a few different companies, finally ending up as a vice president for a travel agency in Tokyo’s Ginza district.

“Commuting from Kamakura, I just didn’t have any outside time. I was a Japanese workaholic ant, morning to night, without seeing my children. I realized money was not my main project in life. I wanted more time to deal with people, local people and my own family.”

Aoki decided to make a change, and with Kamakura’s proximity to Yokosuka and his intercultural experiences, he pursued a job on-base.

Even applying for a job was an intercultural experience: “In Japan, private companies here look for a person who can do something good for the company. In America, companies are looking for a specific position, and the person has to fit the position.”

After applying for two different positions at the U.S. base, Aoki found the perfect fit with ICR, and he has now worked in the same department for 10 years.

Aoki had wanted something different from early on in his life. A childhood classmate moved to America when his father was transferred on a business assignment, and the two friends kept in touch by mail. By the time Aoki reached high school, lands across the sea beckoned.

“I attended Shichirigahama High School, right in front of the ocean. It holds a pretty high academic ranking among universities, and I would say, 44 out of 45 students in my graduating class were planning on going to university. I was the only one who wanted to do something different.”

Aoki first left for the U.S. at age 17, finding a job in San Francisco at the Japan Center. Eight months later, he was back home before his visa expired. “This was not what I expected, working at the center, surrounded by Japanese only. I didn’t learn any English.”

Aoki came back to Japan and switched gears. He applied for a student visa and went to school in Alabama, later moving to a university in Florida to pursue his degree in hospitality management.

While in Florida, he discovered another aspect of his life that he now uses to promote intercultural understanding: tae kwon do.

After his confidence-building catch in dodge ball at the Kamakura school, Aoki started kendo, and by the time he reached Florida in his early 20s, he was comfortable with a variety of martial arts. Required to take a PE elective, Aoki observed a tae kwon do class, and became curious about the then-unknown Korean martial art.

“The instructor of the class was a German, but he had lived in Japan for 10 or 15 years, so he knew I had a strong martial arts background. He invited me to spar with one of his students. He was only 12 years old, and I was 20. We sparred for two minutes, but I couldn’t touch him.”

Aoki studied tae kwon do for the rest of his time in the U.S., but after his return to Japan the busy life as a businessman left him little time to keep up the sport. After the 1988 Seoul Olympics, when the sport was first introduced as a demonstration event, tae kwon do became more accessible in Japan, and Aoki resumed the art at the age of 30, joining the International Taekwon-do Federation.

“Most Americans count on power, but tae kwon do does not depend on power. Although I am a middle-size Japanese man, on the base I am always the smallest, but I do not need power to compete. Martial arts is all about discipline and finding confidence.”

Aoki enjoys the chance to help a child find confidence; he recognizes there are lessons to be learned from both sides of the cultural divide. After starting a class for local children in Kamakura, Aoki began offering classes on the base under the Moral, Welfare and Recreation Department. He currently teaches 80 students, with more than 30 children on the waiting list.

He uses tae kwon do to further construct a bridge between the cultures, offering many chances for the local and base kids to practice together, with a yearly overnight trip in addition to the tournaments. “When we first go camping, the kids don’t really speak to each other, but after practice, taking a bath together, eating together — then they are talking.”

Aoki relishes the small kindness, the pleasure he can give to newly arrived Americans as he introduces them to Japan, and the confidence a child finds inside himself.