Perhaps Kumiko Imai-Duxfield was destined to live in New Zealand. In the aftermath of World War II, her paternal grandfather, who was working as an interpreter for New Zealand troops stationed in Japan, invited some of the soldiers to visit his home. Kumiko’s then 8-year-old father, Tsuguo Imai, was captivated by the strangers, and when one of the men pointed out where New Zealand was on a map, noting that it had a similar shape and size to Japan, Imai instantly decided he would one day live in New Zealand.
Now 53, Kumiko tells this story from her living room in her home near Sandspit, a sleepy seaside village north of Auckland. It’s one of many anecdotes she has to tell of her family’s history, including her own battle as a newborn with melena neonatorum, a rare condition that she survived against the odds. “I’ve been given many chances,” she says, smiling.
Today, Kumiko is director of arts and culture for the New Zealand-Japan Society of Auckland (NZJS) and she runs her spacious and perfectly tidy home as a small bed-and-breakfast, with the help of her husband, Stephen, and her mother, Kikuko.
Growing up in Japan, she remembers that her father, Tsuguo — who became known as Frank — was only in Japan for three or four months per year, traveling the rest of the time as part of his job in a large Japanese textile firm.
“We had a big world map in the lounge with pins in it to show where he had been,” Kumiko recalls. “He would bring guests back home from overseas, which created the foundation for a life that was yet to come. I was always told that we would one day live in New Zealand.”
Her father eventually got his dream posting to New Zealand and, in December 1977, the family touched down in Auckland. Kumiko, who was 11, remembers the long flight, and then the difficulty of starting school with almost no English ability. “They didn’t know what to do with me,” she says. “They put me in a class with my brother, who was three years younger.”
She hated it so much that she started to skip classes, hiding somewhere in the school or sneaking home to hide where her mother couldn’t find her. It wasn’t until she was eventually moved to a class with kids in her age group that she began making friends and learning English.
To help Kumiko, her parents also brought in a tutor, who turned out to be cruel: “The first word I learned from her was “swine,” because that’s what she called me. She would say ‘You’re so stupid, why can’t you understand?'” But when Kumiko complained to her parents, they told her that perhaps not liking the classes would make her learn faster.
The original plan for the family to stay in New Zealand for three years kept being extended. When Frank’s company asked him to return to Japan, he quit his job and started his own textile business. There was just one problem — he had promised his elderly mother in Kobe that they would return to Japan to care for her. In 1982, this responsibility fell to 16-year-old Kumiko.
“I was happy to go, because I knew my grandmother was going to spoil me,” she says with a grin. “And knew my parents wouldn’t be able to tell me what to do — freedom was waiting for me.”
Shortly afterward, Frank became the first Japanese business person to be granted permanent residency in New Zealand. Kumiko’s grandmother was horrified by this development, but Kumiko, content with her life in Kobe, stayed to study English literature at Kobe University and marry her high school boyfriend, Hideki.
In 1994, however, her father became ill and he asked her to return to New Zealand to take over his business and look after her mother. “I wasn’t very adventurous at that time, but I thought I can’t leave dad dying, not knowing what’s going to happen to his business or to Mum,” she says, explaining that she agreed more out of a sense of duty than enthusiasm. Somewhat reluctantly, she booked a plane ticket for the evening of Jan. 17, 1995.
“I remember the sky was blood red, I’d never seen the sky like that, it was really spooky,” she recalls of the night before her flight. She and Hideki went to a farewell party arranged by friends and arrived home around 2 a.m., still a little tipsy. Then while they were sleeping, the Great Hanshin Earthquake struck.
“It was like something living, moving like a dragon or a snake,” she says, making a wave motion with her arm. “It was very violent — we couldn’t move or do anything. Within 10 seconds, everything started to collapse — there was smoke and dust, and people screaming and crying.”
Trapped in a tiny space under a collapsed ceiling, Kumiko remained strangely calm. “Something just told me that ‘this is not your time,'” she says. “I had a very strong, spiritual sense of safety.” She stared to pray, and promised God that if she got out, she would find a way to serve the community. Eventually, after five long hours trapped in the rubble, she and Hideki were rescued.
Needless to say, she was not on the plane to New Zealand that evening. To fulfill the promise she had made, she spent a month going back and forth from Osaka to the affected area in Kobe, bringing supplies and helping in any way she could. When she finally did go to Auckland, she landed with just one backpack.
“When I arrived there were several boxes of clothing and essentials waiting for me that people had donated,” she recalls. “I was extremely moved by the generosity and felt that I needed to repay it.”
The trauma of surviving the earthquake, directly followed by dealing with her father’s illness and eventual death in 1996, has left Kumiko with only vague memories of the period just after returning to New Zealand. She explains that adding to difficulties, she and Hideki divorced and he returned to Japan.
Gradually, she started to piece her life back together. Frank had been a longtime member of the NZJS and, after his death, she was persuaded to get involved with the society. She set up a softball team called Frank’s Butterfingers in memory of her father and one of the players she recruited for the team was Stephen Duxfield, her future husband.
“He was hopeless,” Kumiko says, laughing. “He’s a good runner but he couldn’t catch. Once when he missed the ball, it broke my nose.” Not an ideal start to a romance perhaps, but the couple have been married for 20 years now, and Stephen is the current president of NZJS.
As Kumiko became more involved in the NZJS, she re-discovered her talent for organizing events, something she had developed at university. Among many projects, she started the festival that evolved into Auckland’s annual Taste of Japan event and helped set up the Haere Mai Taiko drumming troupe.
“My passion is to support those who have a dream but are not sure where to start,” she says. “‘When I am stuck, I ask myself, ‘What is in my hand now?’ (what do I have already). No matter how insignificant it is, it will get you started. It is hard to move a motionless car but easier to steer one that’s moving.”
Kumiko has also volunteered in schools to help educate children about earthquake safety and helped fundraise and organize remembrance events for victims of both the Christchurch earthquake in New Zealand and the Great East Japan Earthquake and tsunami in 2011. In 2018, she was made an Honorary Member of the New Zealand Order of Merit for services to the Japanese community.
As Kumiko talks of past difficulties and what she’s seen, she touches a small gold cross that she wears around her neck and explains that she is grateful for everything that she’s experienced.
“I think that going through difficult things enriches people,” she says. “Nothing we experience in life, good or bad, is ever wasted.”
Name: Kumiko Imai-Duxfield
Profession: Director of arts and culture for the New Zealand-Japan Society of Auckland (NZJS)
Hometown: Ibaraki, Osaka Prefecture
Key moments in life and career:
1977 — Moves to Auckland, New Zealand, with her family
1982 — Returns to Japan to care for her grandmother
1995 — Survives the Great Hanshin Earthquake and later returns to New Zealand to help run her father’s business
1996 — Joins NZJS
1999 — Marries Stephen Duxfield
2015 — Moves to Sandspit and sets up a bed and breakfast
2018 — Is made an Honorary Member of the New Zealand Order of Merit for services to the Japanese community
What I miss about Japan: “Convenient public transport”
Words to live by: “Remember to be grateful for everything”
IN FIVE EASY PIECES WITH TAKE 5