Interview with ICU Alumna and Author Kumiko Makihara

Kumiko Makihara.jpg

Kumiko Makihara is an ICU alumna who writes about her impressions of life in Japan and the United States, two countries she has been traveling back and forth between for most of her life. Her columns have appeared in the International Herald Tribune, the New York Times Magazine and Newsweek, as well as in the books Reimagining Japan: The Quest for a Future That Works and Tsunami: Japan’s Post Fukushima Future. She is currently working on a book about her son’s experiences in a Japanese primary school. 

Kumiko is currently serving as an Adjunct Associate Research Scholar at the Weatherhead East Asian Institute at Columbia University in New York. Her areas of focus include comparative education, mass media, and contemporary world history. Kumiko received a BA in Languages from International Christian University (1980) in Tokyo and an MA in American Studies from the University of Hawaii (1983). JICUF had the great opportunity to speak with her for this recent interview:


JICUF: Thank you so much for speaking with us today! Could you tell our readers about you and your background?

Kumiko: I moved around a lot as a child due to my father’s overseas postings. I attended elementary school in England, Japan and the U.S., junior high and high school in the U.S., ICU and then graduate school in Hawaii. As an adult, I have lived mostly in Tokyo but also in Berlin, Moscow and Beijing. I have been in NYC the last four years. Most of my career has been in journalism, first in the Tokyo bureaus of the Associated Press and Time Magazine, and recently as a freelancer. I was also the features editor for the English-language newspaper the Moscow Times.

JICUF: How did you first decide to attend ICU?

Kumiko: My father was being transferred back from Washington DC to Tokyo and wanted me to move back as well. He recommended ICU as it was one of the few universities that welcomed students from high schools overseas at the time. I was also happy to return to Japan in order to reacquaint myself with the culture after so many years away. 

JICUFWere there any particular Professors or classes at ICU that stick out in your memory?

Kumiko: I took many classes that in retrospect turned out to be helpful to my career even though I was not thinking about such practicalities when I was a student. They include classes on simultaneous interpretation and public speaking taught by Professor Mitsuko Saito. It was very interesting to learn how interpreters are trained. I did not pursue that profession but think of some of the tips I learned there when I am called upon to interpret in informal situations. I rarely give speeches, but when I do, I remember to scan the audience and try to have a strong beginning and end as I was taught in the speech class. I also took a translation class, Japanese language teaching class and journalism class; all of which gave me a bit of preparation for the jobs I have had over the years.

JICUFWhat has your career path been like since your ICU graduation? 

Kumiko: I first went to work at a Japanese bank as an “Office Lady.” That was the most common route for women at that time. After one year, I really wanted to do something other than clerical work and happened to see a flyer on an ICU bulletin board for a scholarship from the East West Center in Honolulu to attend the University of Hawaii. On that program I received my MA in American Studies. After I returned to Japan I began working as a journalist. I currently write on a freelance basis and also do some translation work from Japanese into English. 

JICUFYou contributed two impressive articles to Reimagining Japan: The Quest for a Future That Works (Shogakukan, 2011), and Tsunami: Japan's Post-Fukushima Future (Foreign Policy Magazine, 2011), respectively. How did you come to write those pieces? 

Kumiko: In both cases I was fortunate enough to be contacted by the editors who had read my other columns. My article in Reimagining Japan was about my son’s experiences in a Japanese elementary school; the good points and bad points of which there are many in both categories. The latter article was one of a number of pieces I wrote about the earthquake and tsunami and their aftermath. I have written two pieces about Fukushima, and in both cases I visited with and spoke to friends from ICU who are from there and returned to work there after graduation. 

JICUFYou are now an Adjunct Associate Research Scholar at Columbia University's Weatherhead East Asian Institute. What is the current focus of your research?  

Kumiko: I am hard at work on a book about Japanese primary school education. 

JICUFAs a single mother raising a son in both Japan and the U.S., what have been some of your biggest challenges?

Kumiko: I am actually far better off than most single parents due to the support I receive from my family and friends and the fact that my bilingualism pretty much assures me some employment. I believe the biggest issue facing single mothers, especially in Japan, is financial. I remember when my son was young, I would often be bicycling home, carrying him and a heavy load of groceries after a long day at work, and thinking, “If I am feeling this exhausted and hard up in my relatively fortunate circumstances, it must be so hard for the majority of single moms."

JICUFYour writing deals quite perceptively with the processes of navigating between different languages, cultures, and spaces. What advice would you have to share with recent ICU graduates who are starting their own professional lives in Japan, the U.S., or other countries?

Kumiko: ICU has such a strong English language (and Japanese language) program. Use your linguistic skills to explore other cultures. Stay in touch with your college friends. My closest friends from ICU are the people who were in the tennis club that i was a member of, and we have a lot of laughs when we get together every year.

JICUFThank you once again for sharing your time and great insight with us! 

You can read more of Kumiko's considerable body of work on her website: