Haruna Kamezaki Houchen hails from Yokosuka — a city in Kanagawa Prefecture famed for serving what was arguably Japan’s first curry on rice, an American naval base and Momoe Yamaguchi’s 1976 mega-hit “Yokosuka Story.” Back in the late 20th century, many Tokyoites saw Yokosuka as exciting and exotic — a slice of USA they could only dream about. This is Kamezaki’s hometown — a place she holds dear even as she lives in Atlanta and works toward a career in the U.S. film industry.
Kamezaki was born in the mid-1980s and grew up in a household “full of American records and movies, because my parents — and especially my dad — loved American culture.”
“Combined with the whole ambience of Yokosuka, I grew up thinking America wasn’t that far or unattainable,” Kamezaki says.
When she was 19, Kamezaki went to Los Angeles for three months as a language student and returned with the conviction that she should live in the U.S. someday.
“It sounds a little corny but I really fell in love with LA,” she recalls. “I wanted a more permanent relationship with the U.S. And once I knew what I wanted, I was going to make it happen.”
The other thing Kamezaki wanted was to learn English properly.
“If I was going to live in the U.S., I didn’t want to do anything half-baked like settle into a Japanese community and live as a Japanese. I wanted to lay down some roots and really learn the language,” she says.
Her family couldn’t support her financially to go to college in the United States, so Kamezaki bided her time and started working.
“Going to the U.S. just out of high school was one thing, but I knew that going there as an adult was something else entirely,” she says. “I knew I needed language skills and I needed funds. In my early 20s, I had neither.”
She planned to overcome the first obstacle when she got to the U.S. by enrolling in an English school. The second was more difficult.
“I got a job at an esthetic salon in Yokosuka,” she recalls. “I was in charge of hair removal, and American women were a big part of my clientele. I had to rely on my phone’s translation app to explain procedural details and that was kind of embarrassing. I wanted to speak fluent English, but couldn’t.”
The pay was good, but not enough. Kamezaki took a second job “in the night-workers industry,” as she describes it. “I had a dream and a goal, and I looked upon the whole thing as a means to an end.”
Now 32, Kamezaki looks upon that time with nostalgia, but she’s not the type to waste any sentiment.
“Some of the clients would ask me what a nice girl like me was doing, working in such a place,” she recalls. “When I told them, they would act all surprised and tell me to quit the job or be condescending. And I would smile but inside, I’d be thinking, ‘Yeah, well, I pity the likes of you because obviously you don’t have the guts to go after your dreams.'”
On the days she could unwind, Kamezaki went to billiard bars in Yokosuka’s “Dobuita Street” district.
“I met a lot of American navy people and people from abroad, and I would practice talking to them,” she says. “It gave me a chance to interact with native speakers and that was so instructive.”
Otherwise, she concentrated on saving money. So exactly how much money would a Japanese need in order to study English in the U.S. and live there as a student for one year? Kamezaki believes you’d need around ¥3 million for such a trip — not an easy sum for anyone to raise.
“Of course, it’s possible to do it cheaper,” she says. “Some people do it on ¥2 million. But that would mean I would have to find roommates and I would have to compromise on the quality of the language school. I didn’t want to do either of those things. I worked hard for this, so I wanted to go to the U.S. on my own terms.”
She’d also heard that getting an F1 student visa was difficult if your funds were low, she says, adding that she didn’t want to take any chances.
She looked into schools in LA, and crossed off the ones that had a lot of Japanese students — “because I didn’t want to find myself talking Japanese all the time” — and in the spring of 2014, a decade after her return from LA, Kamezaki arrived at Los Angeles International Airport at the age of 29.
“My mother and sister came along to help me find an apartment. They were so supportive,” she recalls. “I took the precaution of reserving a hotel for 10 days and renting a car in advance. This made it a lot easier to find a place to live, set up utilities and Wi-Fi and get to know the locale.”
Kamezaki admits she is certainly not the kind of person to make random choices on the spot.
“If nothing else, I consider myself a prepper,” she says. “I plan and prepare and do the work. It’s just how I am, but when you’re about to up stakes and live in a foreign country, extensive planning makes all the difference.”
Kamezaki has since moved from LA to Atlanta, where she resides with her husband. “He was my English teacher and he had lived in Japan for 10 years so we became close pretty fast,” she says.
She got her green card in Atlanta and has been working as an “extra” on movie sets.
“When I first got to the U.S., I didn’t know what kind of work I wanted to do or what was actually there for me,” she says. “But in Atlanta, I got my first job on a TV show and the ball started rolling.”
Kamezaki has since worked on a number of movie sets including the soon-to-be-released “Jumanji 2.”
Her big coup came with the filming of “Godzilla: King of Monsters” when she became the stand-in for Chinese actress Ziyi Zhang.
“Movie work is exciting but, ultimately, I want to do something on my own,” she says. “I would like to do some support work for the Japanese wanting to study in the U.S.”
She says she and her husband have discussed opening their own language and acting school.
“I know a lot of Japanese want to live and work in the U.S., but they’re not really sure what they want to do after knowing their way around town and acquiring language skills,” she says. “I hope to set up a program so they can plan on living here for a long time, updating their dreams and goals. That’s my version of the American dream.”
Name: Haruna Kamezaki Houchen
Key moments in career:
2004 — Visits Los Angeles for three months
2014 — Returns to Los Angeles as a student
2016 — Moves to Atlanta and starts working as an “extra” on films
Life philosophy: “Always believe in yourself and your dreams.”
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