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Returnees’ experiences drive a will to give something back

by Teru Clavel

Special To The Japan Times

As discussed in Part 1 of this two-part series, the skills and international outlook of  kikokushijo, or returnee students, make them ideal candidates to play a key role in Japan’s current efforts to globalize. However, kikokushijo often struggle to re-acculturate to Japan upon their return and have been overlooked by policymakers.

What most kikokushijo share is an experience abroad that forever influences the core of who they are and what they hope to become. The kikokushijo profiled here may not be representative of the majority of returnees, but they do highlight the potential that can be unlocked within individuals lucky enough to have the chance to live overseas and, crucially, receive the right support on their return to Japan.


‘Unique perspective’: Keio University student Kentaro Kawahara (center left) visits a local school in Sudan with his father’s medical aid NPO, Rocinantes. Kawahara spent a total of five years of his childhood in Africa and his father still lives in Khartoum. | NAOYUKI KAWAHARA

A life indelibly marked by Africa

Less than 1 percent of Japanese expats reside in Africa, where Kentaro Kawahara, a kikokushijo student now at Keio University, spent five of his early school years. Born in Fukuoka, where he lived until he was 5, Kawahara and his family then moved to Tanzania for three years, where his father worked as a medical officer for Japan’s Foreign Ministry.

In Dar es Salaam, Kawahara attended an English-language international school, the International School of Tanganyika, with classmates from Britain, Australia, Malaysia, India, China, as well as some Tanzanian children. In the afternoon, Kawahara attended a Japanese school with a total student body of 30; there were only four students in his grade. At 8 years old, he returned to Japan for the birth of his younger sister and spent third grade in a local Japanese public school, where, he says, “I carried a randoseru (school backpack) for the first and only time.”

The family then moved to Sudan for two years, where Kawahara attended an American school. Because he was urged to skip an academic year by his father, he says, “The homework took three to four hours every day with my parents. I had to translate the English to Japanese, then back to English. American history was so difficult.”

The family were the only Japanese where they lived in the capital, Khartoum. Kawahara was able to keep up his Japanese because they spoke it at home and his mother had been a teacher. She dedicated at least one hour per day to Japanese studies, rakugo (comic storytelling) and teaching Kawahara how to sight-read music, a skill taught to students in Japanese elementary schools. He says this knowledge meant that he felt Japanese upon his return to his homeland.

Kawahara came back to Fukuoka with his mother and younger sister so he could attend a local middle and high school. His parents felt it was important that he understood what being Japanese meant and to embrace his culture.

“Everything was really different for me” in Japanese school, he recalls. “They have rules, and it’s not free at all. It was difficult to make friends. It was really tough for me at the time, but I was a good soccer player, so that helped me make friends.”

He says the adjustment period took about three months, during which time his classmates would ask: “Who is that guy from Africa? Who is that guy?”

“Rather than thinking I was being bullied, I put myself out there,” he explains. “Rather than thinking it was different being from Africa, I felt I was the only one who could understand what it was like to be a child in Africa. I had a unique perspective and a unique experience that had value.”

Today, he feels a great deal of gratitude toward his supportive parents.

“My parents were wonderful and they struggled with me,” he says. “I appreciate their hard work.”

Kawahara’s re-acculturation to Japan was eased by his athletic gifts and 182 cm, 97 kg frame. His attention shifted from soccer to rugby and he became one of the stars of high-school rugby in Fukuoka. He plays center for the Keio University team and was selected for the Japan national under-20 squad.

Today, Kawahara says he is proud to be Japanese, and to have had the chance to live in Africa and learn to speak English. His father still works in Sudan, where he has established a humanitarian aid NPO, Rocinantes, that offers medical support and health care to communities around Khartoum. After university, Kawahara hopes to work with his father on a program to enable Japanese children to interact with kids from Sudan.

“I think that will open their minds and make these children’s futures full of greater opportunities,” he says, referring to youngsters in both countries.

California dreaming: Aya Inamori Williams (second left) and friends attend the Big Game, an annual American football match between Stanford University and regional rivals University of California, Berkeley, in 2010.
California dreaming: Aya Inamori Williams (second left) and friends attend the Big Game, an annual American football match between Stanford University and regional rivals University of California, Berkeley, in 2010.

Building linguistic and psychological bridges

By age 15, Aya Inamori Williams had lived in four cities in three countries. At 25, Williams, a Stanford graduate, is now working as a research assistant at the Keio University School of Medicine’s Center for Clinical Research in Tokyo and plans to start studying for a doctorate in clinical psychology at the University of California, Berkeley, this fall.

Williams was born Aya Inamori in Japan but lived in Jakarta until age 5, then Tokyo until age 8, New Jersey until 13 and California until high school at age 15, when she returned to Japan. In Jakarta, Williams attended a full-time Japanese pre-school, whereas in the U.S., starting in grade three of elementary, she attended local state schools.

“It was pretty much complete immersion,” she says. “I didn’t even know the alphabet.”

Like many kikokushijo attending an English-speaking school for the first time, Williams says: “My first year, I did not know what was going on. While all the kids were following along, I was reading picture books.” To catch up, she says, “It took at least a year of ESL (English as a second language), of not knowing what was going on in English and the culture and just copying everyone.”

While in elementary school, Williams went to hoshūkō, or Japanese Saturday school, to keep up with the Japanese curriculum. Later, she attended after-school juku (cram school), as hoshūkō was not available for higher grades.

Williams resisted the course load.

“As a child, I felt I had to do double the work. I used to think that even if I did 80 percent of both English and Japanese, it still added up to 160 percent, which is a lot more than 100 percent! I wanted to play with my friends and play sports. But now, looking back, I am really glad that my parents did that for me, because I can speak Japanese and feel comfortable in the language.”

To prepare for their return to Japan, the Inamori family toured various public and private schools in Tokyo, both local and international. Ultimately, Williams felt most comfortable at St. Maur International School in Yokohama, which has about 35 students in each grade and offers the International Baccalaureate program.

“At international school, my first impression was that there were a lot of kikokushijo like myself — so many Japanese students who felt comfortable speaking English and who had experienced living abroad. And for me, that was a first, because wherever I went, I was the new kid and had a lot of experiences that other local kids did not usually have,” Williams recalls. “Everyone I talked to, none of them had one specific home; they had lived in lots of different countries and were in Japan for the time being.”

At St. Maur, Williams continued with her Japanese studies. She says her Japanese teacher was pivotal in her coming to terms with her Japanese identity.

“Instead of just learning about the language, she — for the first time — really made me think about what Japanese culture is to me, what home means and what Japan means to me.”

At Stanford, Williams was a double major in psychology and linguistics — fields that resonate with her personally considering her experience as a returnee.

“I realize I can never rid myself of my roots, though there was a point when I wanted to cut myself away from my Japanese heritage,” she explains. “I have realized it’s not something that can be taken away. With that realization, and with the lack of mental health resources in Japan in terms of psychotherapy, my big dream is to contribute to the mental health services in Japan.”

Williams continues: “Because the English language doesn’t come easily to most Japanese, there is a block when it comes to publishing and writing papers. My English language abilities came as luck — with how I grew up — and I would like to give that back and serve as a bridge.”

Looking east: Shiro Kuriwaki sports a Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs T-shirt in his dorm in Princeton, New Jersey.
Looking east: Shiro Kuriwaki sports a Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs T-shirt in his dorm in Princeton, New Jersey. | CHRISTOPHER COCHRAN

Polyglot sees future role in minding Japan-China gap

Now a senior at Princeton University, Shiro Kuriwaki was born in Tokyo and moved to New Jersey at the age of 4 due to his father’s job. Then, after four years of being educated in local U.S. schools and the Montessori system, his father was transferred to his company’s Paris office. There, Kuriwaki attended the American School of Paris, where all the classes except French were in English.

When Kuriwaki was 13, his father was called back to Tokyo and Kuriwaki attended the first year of Japanese junior high school.

He says of that time: “I didn’t know anything about Japanese school except the two weeks in summer I spent sitting in class in Tokyo” says Kuriwaki, referring to the school he attended every year in Japan during summer break. “Honestly, I was not thrilled to go back to Tokyo — I was worried about the bullying.”

With that in mind, Kuriwaki was planning to attend a boarding school in the U.S. instead of high school in Japan.

However, everything changed when Kuriwaki enrolled at the highly competitive Shibuya Kyoiku Gakuen middle and senior high school, “a very good school that established the foundation about where I come from.”

The school runs a returnee program attended by 10 percent of its overall student body.

“That high school was the main thing that enabled me to come here” to Princeton, says Kuriwaki. “It enabled me to be sure of my identity as a Japanese person. I came to think I was a Japanese citizen first and a citizen of the world second.”

English-language courses for returnees are taught by native English speakers at a level on par with those in the U.S.

“I had a pretty tough English class,” he says.

Kuriwaki decided to apply to a U.S. college during his second year of high school. In Japan until that point, he says, he “hadn’t even given it a thought.”

Having labored over numerous drafts of college application essays with the invaluable help of his support network — his school English teacher and a journalist who was a family friend — and devoting himself to getting top marks on the TOEFL English test and SAT college admission exams, he was admitted to his top-choice college, Princeton.

Though he was also offered a place at Japan’s top universities, Kuriwaki opted for Princeton because it offered more course flexibility; a global perspective and an international faculty and student body; an academic challenge; and a healthy balance between academic and extra-curricular activities.

Kuriwaki is a public policy major at Princeton’s Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs, with a focus on health policy and social psychology. He also minored in Chinese and neuroscience. He has spent two summers in China, the first to study Chinese through the renowned Princeton program at Beijing Normal University and the second as a political intern in Shanghai.

“Learning Chinese is hugely important to Japan. You can learn a lot about Japan by learning Chinese,” says Kuriwaki, who speaks Japanese, English, Chinese and French.

On his future, Kuriwaki says: “I feel that there is much-needed and exciting work in being a communicator about Japan to the global community. But if I were to go further (in this field), I would want to have some policy implication, perhaps in China-Japan relations. . . . I think that’s what drives me.”

He is now looking into pursuing a doctorate focusing on East Asian politics.

Comments: community@japantimes.co.jp

  • Mark Makino

    “The kikokushijo profiled here may not be representative of the majority
    of returnees, but they do highlight the potential that can be unlocked…”
    It sounds like you’re trying to rationalize profiling obviously elite students. The stories as they are are compelling but come across as simply profiles of outstanding students.