By J.K. YAMAMOTO, Rafu Staff writer
The WaKAmono are a diverse group — different ages, different backgrounds, different professions. What they have in common is that when they were in college, they spent a year or more in Japan as students of the International Division or Kokusai Gakubu (Kokusaibu for short) at Waseda University in Tokyo.
The program, established in the 1960s, enabled mostly American students, many of them from the California State University system or California private colleges, to study Japanese language and culture while living with Japanese host families. The grades and units the students earned were transferred back to their home campuses.
A gathering of about 35 WaKAmono was held on Oct. 10 at the Japanese American Cultural and Community Center in Little Tokyo. The nickname is a play on words — “wakamono” means “youth” and “WaKA” stands for “Waseda Kokusaibu alumni.” The event was organized by people active in the Japanese American community but was open to anyone who went through the program.
Bill Watanabe and Michael Okamura work together as leaders of the Little Tokyo Historical Society and found out that they both were at the Kokusaibu in 1967-68 and 1984-85, respectively. “It turns out that every now and then we bump into people, we chat, and we find out that they went to Waseda … We thought maybe if we could pull together a gathering of people who shared that same experience it might be kind of fun, even though we all might have gone different times,” Watanabe said.
Watanabe, who went from San Jose State University, recalled, “I wanted to experience the whole country of my parents … I wanted to improve my Japanese because I could never talk to my parents except for ‘When do we eat?’ … I’ve worked in Little Tokyo for about the last 35 years, so I think learning to speak the language, seeing some of the culture and history has just helped me to be a part of this community and to appreciate the culture that I come from. It’s become a huge part of my life.”
Amy Kato (1975-76), formerly of Visual Communications, noted that attendees came from as far away as San Diego, Santa Barbara and San Francisco, and were at Waseda as long ago as 1967 and as recently as 2011, with the 1982-83 alumni as the biggest group.
“A lot of people … have gone on to do big things,” Kato said, pointing out that Watanabe became executive director of the Little Tokyo Service Center and Alfred Birnbaum, who was not present, has translated Haruki Murakami’s books into English. “We have an L.A. Times writer and I’m sure there are a lot of other really accomplished people that have come out of this program.”
Kato, a USC student at the time, grew up speaking Japanese and had family in Japan as her parents came from Iwaki, Fukushima Prefecture. “I got to meet my grandfather, my relatives, and came to understand my parents a little bit better,” she said. “I stayed at my grandfather’s house … If my mom and dad didn’t come to the states, I’d be living in this house.”
She added that the exchange rate at the time was 360 yen to the dollar, “so it was a great deal.”
Jon Kaji (1974-75) from USC said jokingly — or not — that he went to Waseda because “I needed a legitimate reason to get away from my parents.”
Kaji, who also attended Sophia University in Tokyo, later became a member of the President’s Export Council under President George H.W. Bush, director of the California Office of Trade and Investment, a member of the American Chamber of Commerce in Japan, and a member of the Japanese American National Museum’s Board of Governors, among other posts.
Gwen Muranaka (1990-91) said she graduated from UCLA but didn’t want to go to Japan through UCLA’s program with International Christian University in Tokyo. Instead, she went to Waseda through the University of Oregon program. After her year at the Kokusaibu, “I worked in Tokyo for a number of years (at The Japan Times) and came back and worked in Little Tokyo at The Rafu Shimpo.”
Bette Hiramatsu (1974-75), a USC graduate, said she went to Waseda out of “intellectual curiosity.” “As a Sansei, I just didn’t know or understand the culture very much and I wanted to learn more about why I was me. I was 18, 19 years old, I was trying to find my identity (and) trying to get away from family … I decided that I wanted to have a career in business where I could work between Japan and the States.”
Although she found “it wasn’t feasible for a woman to be in management, especially a Nikkei woman” at the time, she later became vice president of commercial banking at Union Bank and Chemical Bank and now has her own management consulting business.
Nanci Nishimura (1974-75) from USC said, “I gave my grandparents the gift of conversation before they died, and I’m sure a lot of us did that … I used it to learn not only where I came from but where I went. I’m now an attorney and do primarily civil litigation in Asia. I also serve on the board of the Asian Art Museum in San Francisco, and the White House Initiative on Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders … I think I share with all of you why we went and what we can do with it.”
Paul Abe (1974-75) from USC did not have a typical Sansei background. “I was born and raised in New York, so I didn’t have much exposure to Japanese culture or Japanese language, so I thought this was a great opportunity … I was an architecture major but I enjoyed Japanese language, Japanese culture … I wanted to go into a field where I could use Japanese language and be part of the Japanese community.
“So all these years I’ve worked for a Japanese bank, Union Bank, and I’m the branch manager here in Little Tokyo, so I get to use Japanese all the time and I get to be part of the overall Japanese and Japanese American community.”
Camryn Sugita (2011-12) was by far the youngest attendee. “I went from American University in Washington, D.C. and I studied at Waseda because I was actually born just outside Tokyo, so I wanted to go back and learn about where I came from specifically … I now work at the Japanese American National Museum … I’m also part of this year’s Nisei Week Court as well.” She was about to leave for Japan as part of the Nisei Week delegation.
Arlene Yee (1975-76) from USC wanted to apply for the program ever since she heard about the Kokusaibu from her sister’s best friend. “Originally, I thought I would be going into some kind of interpreting or some kind embassy work … but I think I realized once I was there that my Japanese was never going to be good enough to do that,” she recalled.
Instead, she went into social work. “A group of us who are in mental health and Asian started … the Asian American Christian Counseling Service, and we’re celebrating our 30th anniversary next year,” she said, noting that the group offers counseling in such languages as Japanese, Mandarin, Cantonese, and Korean in Los Angeles and Orange counties.
Teresa Watanabe (1977-78) is a Seattle native who was attending University of Washington and applied for the program as an independent student. She reflected, “My year at Waseda completely changed the trajectory of my life … While I was there I met all these Trojans who told me that I should really transfer to USC, which I did. So I went to USC, majored in journalism and in East Asian languages and culture, and that solidified my career goal, which was to be a Tokyo correspondent.
“So I joined The L.A. Times and I was there as Tokyo correspondent from 1991 through ’97, had a great time, loved it, but came back.”
Gael Pullen (1975-76), a businesswoman, philanthropist, and founder of Girls Fly! and Sylvia Global Media, said that many of her Kokusaibu classmates became part of her extended family. “This increased sensitivity or awareness associated with what we have in common instead of just looking at our differences, and growing and building on that, has expanded my experiences, my whole perspective, how I raised my children — and that started at Waseda.”
Attendees included a married couple, Mark and Reiko Sonday (1967-68), who met through the program. Mark recalled, “I made a deal with Waseda that I would study art two-thirds of the time and take classes one-third of the time,” and as a result of that experience he has had “a nice life of enjoyment and the arts.”
Reiko said, “When I finished high school, my mother took me to Japan with my sister for one month and I was just jazzed about it. So I came back and I tried flower arrangement, I tried odori dancing, but neither stuck with me. But I did start tea ceremony, which I stuck with for a long period of time. So I wanted to return to Japan … If I met someone — which I didn’t want, I was fed up with boys — but if I meet someone he’ll be Japanese and maybe my parents will be happy.”
She did gain a husband, though not a Japanese one, as well as a second family that she is still in touch with today. “In fact, I’m going to visit the mother at the end of this month,” she said.
Greg Fry (1967-68) grew up around Japanese art and was “really interested in Japanese culture, everything from Hiroshige and Hokusai prints to more formal artwork.” At Cal State L.A., he was “so frustrated because in those days there was no Japanese major at our college, not even an Asian studies major … Political science and international relations was the closest I could get.” He was approved to go to Japan and had “a wonderful experience, (but) I can’t say that I used it a whole lot in my career (in the) motion picture industry.”
He reported that the biggest remuneration he got from his boss for a translation job was “a six-pack of beer.”
His wife, Elly Fry, who had also lived in Japan, said, “It stood me in good stead when I came back to L.A. and I met this handsome guy at a party and we had something to talk about right away.”
Mike Okamoto, past president of the Nisei Week Foundation, is a 1974 graduate of Waseda. He noted that although he would be in Japan on Oct. 18, the date of the Waseda Alumni Association’s annual festival, he would be unable to attend as he would be at a parade in Nagoya with the Nisei Week Court. But he invited the Kokusaibu group to the festival. “They open up the campus, let you walk around Okuma Garden … Also they have the International Waseda Alumni Association dinner … It’s a great event.”
Diana Ando Ono (1976-77) from CSU Long Beach said, “The reason I went is I grew up with my grandparents, they were Issei and I was a Sansei, so the communication wasn’t there … I went to J-school on Saturday, but you don’t learn anything in J-school, so I thought this is a good opportunity. I went and was so lucky that I was able to come back and speak to my grandparents and that bond was there … Out of 25 grandchildren, I was the only one that could really get to know them, and I think that’s the best thing that came out of that.”
Her language skills come in handy in her volunteer work with Orange County Buddhist Church, and she is also involved with Kizuna, JANM and JACCC. She concluded, “I always encourage all the young people, go abroad … It really makes you a better person globally and you can give back to your community when you come back.”
Kathy Nishizu Tanaka (1976-77) went to the Kokusaibu from San Jose State University. “I came back, graduated with a Japanese language degree … I did use it somewhat in travel and I was in JALPAK for a short time,” she said. “I was able to speak to people like my relatives (but) my father kept saying my hatsuon (pronunciation) was dame (no good).”
In addition to lifelong friends she made at Waseda, Tanaka is still in touch with her host family from a six-week visit to Japan on a Lions program.
Susan Oiwake (1978-79) from Cal State L.A. thought she would spend a couple of years in Japan, one with the Kokusaibu and one with Waseda’s Gogaku Kyoiku Kenkyujo (language education research center), but something unexpected happened. “I met my husband there and that changed my life … I lived in Japan for more than 25 years and came back just a few years ago and readjusting to life here.”
Mika Matsui (1994-95) from Cal State L.A., where she is currently an administrator, also became a long-term resident of Japan after Waseda. “My parents told me stay there, enjoy New Year’s and then come back … I ended up staying there for 11 years. I just came back in 2006.”
She worked for the publisher Kodansha and Citibank in Japan and with Nisei Week and the Japanese American Credit Union since coming back. She is also a real estate agent.
Francis Shima Matsumoto (1979-80) from Pitzer College said that as a result of her experience at Waseda, she took her children on a trip to Japan and encouraged them to learn more about it. One of her children went to the Tohoku area to help out after the 2011 tsunami, another went to Japan through a sister-city program, and the third went through the Tomodachi program.
Dave Matsukawa (1976-77) from CSU Dominguez Hills learned a lot about Japan from his Nisei father, who served in the U.S. occupation of Japan, and his Issei mother, and wanted to learn more. In his current job at Dell Computers, he was able to use what he learned.
He added that another member of his group, Sapporo resident Phred Kaufman, is now a celebrity in Japan. “He has his own bar up there and he does a beer festival every year.”
Wing Leung (1984-85) from Cal State L.A. recalled, “My parents were very upset I went to Japan. My mom was actually was one of the villagers that ran away from the Japanese army during World War II.” However, he enjoyed his experience, feeling that “I was able to bridge two worlds,” and last year attended a 30-year reunion on the Waseda campus.
Also at the gathering were 1982-83 alums Jim Gottleib, John Iino, Judy Miyashita, Ken Nishida, Jennie Shikashio, Yuki Okada Woo, Marlene Yamane-Chan, Emile Yanagi and Scott Konishi; 1975-76 alums Linda Inouye and Joe Parker; and Fred Fujioka (1970-71).
In addition to lunch, the get-together included a video presentation, anecdotes from alumni, and the singing of the Waseda fight song. Although there are no solid plans yet, it was generally agreed that there should be another gathering.
J.K. Yamamoto was at the Kokusaibu from 1979-80 and assisted the WaKAmono planning committee.
Photos by J.K. YAMAMOTO/Rafu Shimpo