Having majored in chemistry and played American football at university, Tomoyuki Banba never imagined he would lead an organization to promote relations between Japan and South Korea in the future.
“I visited South Korea for a friendship match but never thought I’d get a job related to South Korea,” the 39-year-old said.
Banba will become director of the planned Japanese branch of Korea NGO Network, which is a group of civic and religious organizations active in South Korea.
“I’d like to discover the future possibilities for Japan-South Korea relations through exchanges among the younger generation,” Banba said.
While at Kyoto University, Banba played on its American football team as a running back. The team won the national championship in both 1995 and 1996.
After graduation, Banba was involved in volunteer work while serving as an official at a vocational school in Tokyo.
In the aftermath of the Great East Japan Earthquake and tsunami in March 2011, he volunteered and sent drinking water to victims, through which he got to know a member of the group engaged in private-sector exchanges between Japan and South Korea, and was asked to become director of its newly formed Japanese branch.
Banba accepted the challenge as his wife is South Korean and the country is not unfamiliar to him.
“Whenever we watch a soccer game between Japan and South Korea, I cheer for Japan in front of the TV, whereas my wife roots for South Korea,” he said.
“Looking at my sons, I doubt they’ve developed any sense of national boundary,” Banba said. “As a parent, I hope to improve Japan-South Korea relations, which are often disrupted by emotions.”
“In particular, I’d like to join hands with Korean residents in Japan so we won’t have future generations continuing to struggle with the issue of history,” he said.
Banba, who has long been interested in education, also established in April 2013 a group called East Asia Youth Initiative to promote exchanges among young people in the region.