Q&A with TOMODACHI Program Participants and TOMODACHI Alumni: Kellie Tokunaga
Kellie Tokunaga is the 2023-2024 TOMODACHI Alumni Regional Representative of the Kyushu Region. She is an alumna of the 2014 TOMODACHI KAKEHASHI Inouye Scholars Program and also an alumna of the 2018 TOMODACHI Daiwa House Student Leadership Conference in Los Angeles. Kellie is a 5th generation Japanese American born and raised in Hawai‘i and graduated from the University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa with a degree in Public Health. These experiences inspired her to learn more about Japan and her great-great-grandfather’s immigration roots in Fukuoka. She then pursued and conducted graduate studies at Kyushu University as a researcher on a Prefectural Student Scholarship through the Hawai‘i Shima Fukuoka Kenjinkai and Fukuoka International Exchange Foundation from 2017-2018. She is currently the Prefectural Advisor for the Fukuoka Board of Education Senior High School Division with the Japan Exchange and Teaching Program.
Q1. You have experienced several TOMODACHI programs, can you share your experience in the TOMODACHI?
My biggest takeaway from the 2014 TOMODACHI Kakehashi Inouye Scholars Program and 2018 TOMODACHI Daiwa House Student Leadership Program would be the influence of one to believe in change and the power of unity. In both programs, it took just one conversation with one person to feel empowered. This all came from the idea that change is needed, whether it was after a tragic event or seeing that leadership is really important for the future. But when it comes to change, it is a difficult battle but worth fighting for. When you put those components together with a community, amazing results can occur. That would be my biggest learning point from participating in these programs.
Q2. After having joined several TOMODACHI programs, you decided to continue to remain in touch and volunteer. Why did you decide to serve as the Regional Representative?
Actually, it’s kind of an interesting story. When the pandemic started, I was already in Japan working for the JET program from August 2019. I have given myself some time to adjust to the work culture before trying to get involved in too many things that I wouldn’t be able to handle. But when the pandemic started, I found myself feeling quite hopeless at times, having difficulty finding joy in the simple parts of life that did and often powerless over certain situations. I was not very involved and needed to take care of myself first.
I reflected on how in times of hardship and trials, new ideas can be formed, and improvement and betterment is always worth striving for.
I told myself that when I do get out of this slump that I was in, I want to be able to give back to others and to my community. When that time came, I reached out to see if there were any TOMODACHI events in the area as a starting place. An event for ALTs at the time through a TOMODACHI alumni was about to happen at the Fukuoka American Center and was happy to participate. Through that event and talking with the staff, we found the TOMODACHI connection and started to push for a TOMO event.
It was at that time they got me in touch with the former Regional Leader of the Kanto Region, he was working at a school in Fukuoka. Through that event, we were talking to the staff, we had found all of these alumni connections and networking, and we thought about getting an alumni event together.
It was so exciting to be a part of the planning process, and I just felt so alive. I really enjoyed it! Since then I’ve been wanting to help out more and so when asked about this role I was ecstatic to apply and accept.
Q3. Do you mind sharing some of your goals as the Regional Representative?
It’s been really a while since we have had an in-person event, so I would really like to have some networking events for the alumni in the Kyushu Region. Perhaps being able to meet in person for a meal or volunteer activity. I also really hope I can help to connect alumni to each other who are looking for help or opportunities. I understand how important it is to keep these connection lines open and I will do my best to support our alumni community in that way.
Q4. To get to know you a little bit more as the new RR (Regional Representative), you have mentioned that you are working for the JET Programme (Japan Exchange and Teaching Programme). A lot of our alumni, especially those who are living in the U.S. and would like to move to Japan, may be curious about this. Could you explain what your job is all about?
The JET program is a teaching exchange program between Japan and many other countries. When I first came, my Japanese was pretty terrible so I couldn’t really be a translator but I could be an English teacher. So I was really excited to do that. I was placed really really close to where my dormitory was when I was here as a student. So it was really nice to be in my own backyard. I could see how the construction has changed over the years, the new local restaurants, It was really really neat.
So, within this ALT (Assistant Language Teacher) position, you can apply to be a prefectural advisor. So that is what my position is now. Instead of working at a school helping to teach English, I work at the Board of Education office. My role now is to help support ALTs and be a liaison in between.
Q5. Do you have any advice for those wanting to start their careers in Japan?
Ask lots of questions. Networking is always valuable. You never know who you will meet or where an email or phone call can get you. Look for opportunities that align with your own values and interests. Work hard and stay humble.
Q6. For the last question, what do you enjoy most about Fukuoka Prefecture?
Fukuoka feels like a second home and I really like the balance of nature and city. I may work in one of the main parts of the city but take a train for 10 minutes + and out with the rice fields, mountains for hiking or ocean. Great food and a good community around, I really enjoy living here.