People | WHY DID YOU LEAVE JAPAN?

Aya Tasaki: Empowering women abroad

by J.J. O'Donoghue

Contributing Writer

Aya Tasaki was 5 when she first moved from Tokyo to Illinois. The details of that departure are still etched in her mind. Her father had already gone ahead of the family to take up a job in the United States, and Tasaki’s grandparents and aunt had come to the airport to see her and her mother off.

“I do remember thinking, ‘Oh something major is happening,'” Tasaki said by phone from New York, where she’s been based since 2009. Earlier this year she joined Womankind, a nonprofit that supports survivors of gender-based violence — particularly survivors from the greater Asian community.

“I got on the plane and thought it was disgusting. I still remember the smell of it, it was kind of like burned coffee, a weird smell. I still wasn’t even used to riding cars at that time, so getting on an airplane made me super sick,” Tasaki says.

The shock of leaving Japan, was equaled and exceeded by the shock of arriving in the U.S. and finding her feet in the suburbs of Chicago.

“I would get on the school bus in the morning. My mom’s memory of me at that age was that she was so impressed that I just got on that bus without looking back.”

“But (the whole time riding that bus) I was thinking, ‘What is everyone talking about? What the hell is happening?'” Tasaki says, laughing.

She was heading into a school environment that was very different to that of the one in Tokyo she had left behind: She didn’t speak a lick of English beyond “a few numbers and colors” and she was the only person of color in her class.

“The (other) kids only liked me when we had a math competition,” she says. “We had to divide into teams and do addition or some other task really fast and I was really good at it.”

But even with the strangeness that comes with being the new girl in a strange place, Tasaki got on with school life and soon found support and friendship.

Four years later, the family returned to Tokyo. Tasaki had grown and was settled in America during that time. “I definitely picked up English,” she says in an accent that sounds, at least to my not-so-discerning ears, Midwest born and bred.

Looking back at photos from the fourth grade in the U.S., Tasaki says she looks like she’s made it.

“I look confident,” she says. “I started feeling like I belonged and I had a good group of friends.”

Returning to Japan age 9 brought unexpected difficulties: Between regular school and juku, or cram school, Tasaki felt constrained.

“I don’t know if things have changed now,” she says. “But I think I was in shock, it just felt like it lacked creativity and color compared to what I had experienced in the States.”

The irony is, or was, that even though Tasaki is Japanese and had lived here until age 5, at the age of 9 she had to learn to be Japanese again.

To do so she relied on code-switching and the instincts she had developed from first moving to the U.S. Being an only child made it a challenge, too, as she “didn’t have anyone to share these feelings and experiences with.”

Thinking back this second period of living Japan full time — also her last — Tasaki recalls that it was “complicated.” What stood out to her was the “intense culture of fetishizing young girls and I really felt it in my bones.”

Tasaki completed her education back in the north suburbs of Chicago at a high school with 4,000 other students. When her father’s term in the U.S. was cut short, Tasaki opted — with her parent’s blessing and full support — to stay in the U.S. and attend college, or colleges, as it turned out. As well as a masters degree in international relations, Tasaki gained a degree in law.

In all her decisions, whether it was moving to Chicago and then New York, working in the nonprofit sector or not returning to Japan, her parents have stood by her.

“I’m very fortunate for that,” she says.

After law school, Tasaki worked at a number of nonprofits before joining Womankind earlier this year. Her job entails shaping policy and advocacy, and involves everything form drafting statements on behalf of Womankind to meeting with elected officials and advocating for survivors of gender based violence.

Given how accusations of sexual violence played such a polarizing part in the appointment of Brett Kavanaugh to the U.S. Supreme Court, “this year has been really difficult in a way that I don’t think any of us anticipated,” she says.

Tasaki, who identifies as a survivor of sexual violence from an incident when she was living in Japan, notes that justice looks different for everybody.

For Tasaki, justice means publicly sharing that she is a survivor.

“My interest is really in saying ‘these are the parts of Japanese culture and the ways that people in Japanese society condone the kind of stuff that’s allowing (sexual violence) to continue,'” she says.”We deserve better; we are better.”

While Tasaki admits that her relationship with Japan is complicated and she’s still working through grievances, she also says that it’s important for her to honor her Japanese roots. One of her dreams is to move cross-country to Los Angeles, which has long been a hub for Japanese and millions of other Asian immigrants crossing the Pacific.

“I think it’s really important for me to experience life within or around a Japanese community that’s thriving outside Japan, because I’ve never really been around that,” she says.

“The U.S. is where I was able to really build my identity and understand different ways to look at the world.”

To learn more about Womankind, the nonprofit Tasaki works for, visit www.iamwomankind.org.

Profile

Name: Aya Tasaki

Profession: Manager for policy and advocacy at Womankind

Hometown: Tokyo

Age: 33

Key moments in career:

1991 — Moves to Illinois, U.S.

1995 — Returns to Japan

2001 — Returns to Illinois

2008 — Graduates from Lake Forest College

2011 — Graduates from The New School with an M.A. in international affairs

2016 — Graduates from Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law

2012-2016 — Serves on the board of National Queer Asian Pacific Islander Alliance

2018 — Starts position as manager for policy and advocacy at Womankind

Words to live by: “Always from a place of abundance, not scarcity.”