Finding Your Place – University of California Golden Bears Track and Field
Enjoying a meal with friends as a child, one of the JT OkadaHis companions asked him to pass the chopsticks. Okada, Cal’s half-Japanese, half-American men’s gymnastics head coach, gave his friend a puzzled look and asked him – “What are chopsticks?”
Raised in a Japanese home in the Bay Area, chopsticks have always been known to Okada by the Japanese terminology – hashi.
“I was brought up with a lot of Japanese customs,” Okada said. “It was a Japanese house, but I live in an American culture around it. It was confusing because sometimes you have to negotiate your cultural identity. Being Japanese American is also a title that didn’t really speak to me. I I am not Japanese and I live in America, I am Japanese and American. “
Like his sister before him and his younger brother after him, Okada traveled to Japan with his father, Tatsuo, after graduating from high school to reconnect with his roots before beginning his studies at Cal. .
Although not his first trip to Japan, this trip inspired Okada to learn more about his ethnicity. He enrolled in Japanese classes at Cal and then decided to study abroad in Japan for the fall semester of his senior year.
He studied at ICU – Tokyo International Christian University – with many other UC students.
“I grew up in the United States feeling very Japanese, but there I stayed on the side of my appearance,” Okada said. “I realized how American I was in comparison. I wanted to show them that I was Japanese. I was trying to reclaim my culture, my roots and my heritage. Usually they didn’t think I was very Japanese. They considered me to be American. . I was really trying to assimilate. But I wasn’t kidding him. “
Okada needed a niche to connect with his Japanese colleagues. He found the opportunity when the ICU listed clubs, organizations and sports that students could participate in, including football – known in Japan as ame futo. Okada played fullback and linebacker at El Cerrito High School, so he decided to enroll.
“I didn’t have any gear, obviously. I went there with just sneakers and shorts,” Okada said. “They thought it was great because I had played football before. It’s not as popular there. They welcomed me with open arms.”
Gaining a place on the field and the respect of his teammates, however, proved more difficult. Coaches didn’t want Okada to go on the offensive due to language barriers with appeals, and the program respected the upper class hierarchy, so he started out as a backup linebacker and played on special teams.
His teammates, including those who spoke him, refused to speak to him in English. Even when he said he didn’t understand what they were trying to say, they still refused to speak to him in English. Okada said in hindsight that he really appreciates this because they push him to master the Japanese language, a key goal on his to-do list while living in Japan.
Still struggling to bond with his teammates, Okada considered quitting at some point. But things started to tip in his favor when the ICU starting linebacker picked up an injury early in the season. Okada took the field and racked up several tackles for losses and broken passes. Finally earning his stripes for his strong work ethic, his coaches and teammates began to turn to him for advice on games and strategy.
“I felt really embraced by the team at this point,” Okada said. “That’s when I felt I belonged. I was playing an American game that I knew well in Japan with Japanese teammates. That’s the definition of part ‘B’. by DEIB [Diversity, Equity, Inclusion, Belonging] tome. It was a time when it all came together. My cultural identity came together. It was what I was supposed to do, play football here. “
Okada wasn’t the only US-born player at ICU. Yuichiro Motoe, from Washington, was also on the team and said he could understand how Okada felt when he arrived.
Motoe said Okada made an effort to connect with his teammates, adding that it was never something that came automatically. But Okada deserved it.
“I can understand that adapting to the sport culture in Japan is always difficult,” said Motoe, who now works in sales for Japanese chemical company Mitsui Chemicals. “In the end, the fact that he stayed after considering quitting paid off. He ended up leaving in the middle of the season and has never looked back.”
The ICU had to win the last game of the regular season in order to qualify for the league championship game. Okada made his presence felt with game-changing play, intercepting a pass and sending it back for a touchdown. His team won this match and later the league championship. As a result, Okada helped elevate the ICU to a higher division.
During the season, Okada noted cultural differences between futo ame and the American style played in the United States.
Competing on a clay court, players raked it before and after each practice to equalize. Seniors have always led the way. Unlike similar situations in the United States where freshmen typically do the less desired tasks, in Japan it is an honor to lead the charge by taking care of the terrain.
“Part of Japanese culture is humility,” Okada said. “You’re supposed to humiliate yourself. There’s a lot of ego in American football, but in Japan even the celebrations aren’t someone fighting their chest and saying, ‘Look at me. “The game is played with humility. It’s not about personal statistics. It’s about the team playing together to win.”
Now, in his role as Cal’s head coach of men’s gymnastics, one of the most relevant values Okada tries to instill in his team that he learned in Japan is gratitude.
Yu-Chen “Miles” Lee, a junior on the Golden Bears gymnastics team, is in a situation comparable to Okada’s. Born and raised in Taiwan before moving to the United States shortly before high school, Lee studied in a foreign country while trying to earn a college degree as a student-athlete. He said the customs Okada learned in Japan showed in his coaching methods today, especially that he never took credit for the hard work he put into as a coach and collector of funds.
“Coach JT has helped me in so many ways over the last three years I have spent at Cal,” Lee said. “He has helped me in many different aspects including academic, personal, gymnastics, mental and social, which makes me respect him even more. I feel like he understands where I come from and what is most useful to me. “
Okada was lucky, in a way, to have had the opportunity to use football as a way to connect with his Japanese colleagues. But it’s not always so easy for other people of mixed ethnicity.
“I can relate to people who think a certain way but are seen another way. It’s prejudice,” Okada said. “You see someone based on their outward appearance, and you make that judgment only on appearance. You just read the cover and think you know the book. Just because someone has a Japanese last name doesn’t mean they don’t feel American or follow American customs. It’s important to take the time to get to know people, and you might learn something about them that you didn’t expect before. ”