@API Exclusive with Kay Makishi

transcribed and edited by Albert David R. Valderrama (茨城県)

Third-year JET Programme Fukuoka CIR, Kay Makishi, talks to @API about her special relationship with Japan, her journey of self-discovery in Okinawa and Peru, and her goals as Chair of the AJET National Council.

Makishi in Peru
Makishi in Peru

Study Abroad in Toyko

I think the first time it hit me was when I studied abroad in Tokyo. When I came to Tokyo, I could understand Japanese, but I couldn’t really speak it. You know, people look at me, I’m Asian, and they expect me to speak fluent Japanese.

Makishi with cousin, aunt, and uncle while studying abroad in Tokyo.
Makishi with cousin, aunt, and uncle while studying abroad in Tokyo.

One time I couldn’t get my Suica card to go through, and the train attendant came over, and he just [started] yelling at me. I don’t know what he was saying because at that time, I didn’t really understand Japanese that well. I was just so frustrated because I just wanted to be like, “I don’t understand you. I’m sorry. I know I look Japanese, but I don’t understand Japanese.”

Because both my parents were from Japan, the way [people] reacted and just their surprise reaction [to] me not knowing Japanese kind of made me feel ashamed and just really embarrassed.

My first week, I was just in tears. But, for the first time, I felt like I started to understand. I developed a sense of appreciation for my parents for the very first time. I think [about] all the struggles that they went through immigrating, moving from Japan to America, not knowing the language, having to find a job, having to raise kids, just daily tasks, you know, with not knowing the language.

Okinawa and Peru

While I was working, I got a full scholarship to study in Okinawa for a year, where both my parents are from. I really got in touch with my roots, met my relatives for the first time. I met eighty to ninety of them.

It wouldn’t be an exaggeration to say that I felt overwhelmed with the sense of, “Wow, I’m in the right place at the right time, right now. And I’m so meant to be here.” It was just really powerful to just know where I came from.

Makishi with relatives while studying abroad in Okinawa.
Makishi with relatives while studying abroad in Okinawa.
Makishi at a traditional tea ceremony while studying in Okinawa.
Makishi at a traditional tea ceremony while studying in Okinawa.

I went and visited my “butsudan” (Buddhist altar). It had this huge family tree. Literally, it’s a huge document. And there’s a published book of my family’s heritage. In this, I saw that a lot of my relatives…there was a section that was “Overseas Immigrants,” and South America and America, and then Peru, Bolivia, Brazil.

That inspired me to search a little bit deeper [about] my cultural heritage. So after Okinawa, I actually backpacked South America for 3 and a half months. And I went to Peru with the aim of finding my distant relatives that immigrated there before WWII. And I put in an article in the Japanese Peruvian newsletter. And I also searched the Lima public phone book.

There [were] about 15 Makishis, and so with my Peruvian friend, we called every single one, and we asked them, sort of a really quick self introduction: “My name is Kay. My parents are originally from Okinawa. We’re from Okinawa City, where my parents are from, blah, blah, blah.”

I told them that I’m searching for my distant relatives, “Do you…Are you my relative? Do you think you might be my relative?”

And then we found somebody that kind of matched the description, and I was like, “Great. Would you be willing to meet me?” And they’re like, “Sure.”

So I actually went to their house and just heard their story. I was crying. I was in tears afterwards. It was really great.

I recorded all the information. I took pictures of all the documents. And then, when I went back to Okinawa, my aim was to kind of figure out where in the family tree they fit in. This was 2011.

Since then, I’ve been to Okinawa many times. And I visited the family tree stuff, and I was able to piece together where they fit. So it was really, really, really cool. It was probably one of the best experiences in my life.

After Okinawa, I just felt like a complete person fundamentally. There’s always room to grow and stuff, but I mean the fundamentals of me, I just felt like, “Oh wow, I am a hundred percent confident of who I am and my life.”

There was the missing link in my life. I mean, my life is very short. I’m twenty-four years old. I’m talking like I’m ninety, but I know even when I’m ninety, that’s definitely going to be one of the milestones in my life.

Life on the JET Programme with Makishi and friends.
Life on the JET Programme with Makishi and friends.

On the JET Programme

It’s really great, honestly, and I don’t mean great as in flowers and la-la music. Every single day is a great experience because I feel like I’m really experiencing Japan full-on in different ways. I experienced it as a student, and now I’m experiencing it as a “shakaijin (full-fledged member of society),” and working as a public employee, and going through a lot of difficulties and challenges and struggles.

I’m honestly very grateful for going through all the struggles that I’ve been going through, and seeing how people around me react to that, and how I react to it. I think it’s just amazing because I’m learning more about myself and I’m learning more about Japan.

The first time I heard about [AJET] was through Connect Magazine, and then actually my first year, I called the Peer Support Group hotline because I just went through a drastic culture shock, because I…was in South American mode. And then I went to America, back to the U.S. in Pennsylvania for a week before coming to JET. And even within that week, I just felt reverse culture shock, from South America to America. And then going from America to Japan, it was like even more of a reverse culture shock. And South America to Japan is just totally, very, very different….

A lot of the struggles I was going through, a lot of the micro-aggression stuff that just goes in the beginning, I think got more dramatic for me because of that. I was coming from this curious venture to Japan, with people saying, “Oh, wow, you’re great at chopsticks,” or “Nihongo jouzu desu ne.” And trying to teach me things about Japan that I already experienced and I already knew was a little bit frustrating. And I got stressed out; there were no other foreigners in the area.

In the beginning, I didn’t have any money, so I couldn’t go out, so I didn’t attend any of the block events. I didn’t go to the city because I was like a poor college student, basically.

So I called the PSG hotline. The person I talked to was really, really great. And after that, reading the Connect Magazine, reading the articles, especially the “Winter Blues” article. Seriously, everyday, I was like, “Oh my gosh. I have to quit. I can’t do this anymore.” That helped.

And through the Connect Magazine again, and attending my prefecture’s Fukuoka AJET events. I didn’t really understand that AJET was the JET community, and so I just kind of started getting involved in that.

Makishi with AJET Treasurer, Alan Inkster (left), and Vice Chair, Martin Barry (right).
Makishi with AJET Treasurer, Alan Inkster (left), and Vice Chair, Martin Barry (right).

Becoming the AJET Chair

I kind of came into JET thinking, “All right, I don’t want any foreign friends. I want all Japanese friends. I really want to improve my Japanese. I want to contribute to Japanese society.” I came with that mindset. But then, after everything I went through in the winter, I was like, “No. I think that’s great, but there needs to be a balance, and you’re definitely going to have days when you’re like, ‘screw Japan’. If you don’t, then you’re doing something wrong, I think, and you’re not getting the full experience.”

And I realized how important that support structure and the JET community really is to just your health, your “seishin (mind or spirit).” Seriously and mentally, working and supporting each other. I think that’s part of being in Japan and the JET experience. It’s not just about you and your country and Japan. It’s about you making connections and all these other people.

Because AJET and the JET community–well, AJET is the JET community–helped me so much, I really wanted to help make it better, even if a little bit, or wanted to do something to contribute to that.

I had three goals when I ran for chair. One was to increase more grass roots opportunities between JETs and Japanese people. It’s not so much about going through a formal process of creating an event like I do as a CIR. Through AJET events, I think more “kokusai kouryuu (international exchange)” can happen through those avenues, especially for ALTs who don’t have the opportunity to create events.

Another goal of mine was to increase personal and professional development opportunities for JETs. Again, that was fueled by my feeling of not having any professional development in my workspace. Especially in the first couple months, not having any work and then not having that support structure in work, I was like, “Oh, man. There are so many talented JETs out there, and it’s such a shame that it’s not being put to use, or that they’re not developing themselves.” So even just a little bit. Even if it was just introducing opportunities post-JET, or different conferences, or different speakers, or whatever. Being able to increase that for everybody on the JET Programme, ideally.

My third goal was to make more volunteer opportunities. If that wasn’t my original goal, it is now. Again, that could be collaborated through JETs and Japanese people organizing more events with each other together.

Things to Look Forward to

What am I looking forward to the most? There are so many things. We have Tokyo Orientation coming up. The Opinion Exchanges and the Opinion Surveys because people need to understand that they may be disappointed in their current situation in Japan. Great! That’s awesome! I’m glad that they’re disappointed. That means that there’s always room for improvement, and there’s always going to be room for improvement. But they need to understand that complaining about it and having a negative attitude about it isn’t going to change it. What’s going to change it is being able to collectively have these opinions sorted out in a scientific way.

We’re in Japan, we got to do it the Japanese way. And what they want is they want to see papers, they want to see statistics. Any policy-oriented thing, they always want to see research and statistics. And so, one of the biggest goals for AJET National Council is to provide the Japanese government with these numbers and with these statistics to back up all those feelings and all those thoughts and ideas that we see all these JETs write on Facebook, frustrations or joy or whatever….

That’s what I’m most looking forward to. I probably won’t be able to see it this year or my time in Japan, but making those changes in Japan. That’s my biggest motivation and what I’m looking forward to the most is just seeing things get better within Japan, Japanese people, and the JETs. And just everyone to be happy.

Makishi with nephew back in Elizabethtown, Pennsylvania.
Makishi with nephew back in Elizabethtown, Pennsylvania.

Advice for JETs

I have three pieces of advice. One would be to live in the moment, and don’t worry. I think when I first came to JET, I was worried about what I was going to do after JET. Like, “Oh, gosh. JET is a finite time. I need to find a job after JET.” Especially in the winter time, I was like, “Oh, man. I hate Japan. I’m going to quit Japan, so I need to find a job now.” Just live in the moment and live every voice. So when you’re going and you have a great day, have a great day. When you’re having a crappy day, have a crappy day, but realize that that’s part of the experience. And realize that if you decided to join the JET Programme, you decided to come to Japan, obviously you wanted something different. So when you’re having a bad day, remembering that this is what you wanted. You’re not going to grow if you’re not struggling, which is something I always tell myself every time I have a hard day. Just keeping that mindset. Just living in the moment.

Always, always, always keep an open mind. Always, always, always keep an open mind. I hear a lot of stories of people saying, “Oh my gosh. These people are so closed-minded,” but I’m thinking that, “Well, if you’re saying that, that means that you’re sort of closed-minded as well if you can’t accept that about their culture.”

And just to have no regrets is my third advice. No regrets. If there’s something you want to join, join it. Don’t be shy, and just be yourself and don’t have any regrets. ◆

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