Monday, September 25, 2017

An Interview with Japanese YouTuber Koichi Kuwabara (Free Hugs for Peace)

Koichi Kuwabara is a popular Japanese YouTuber who several years ago caught worldwide attention through his “Free Hugs” videos.  In them, he visits countries such as China and South Korea – countries that have historically had tensions with Japan - to interact directly with the people there by offering free hugs to people who choose to do so.  His videos gather hundreds of thousands of views, and his Free Hugs for Korea-Japan has over a million views. 

But more than the numbers, what stands out is the meaning behind these videos.  Through these videos, the viewers come to understand that what is really meaningful are the direct, person-to-person interactions that we have with others.  In the videos, the local people – no matter if they are mainland Chinese, Korean, Singaporean, or Hong Konger – all come alive as individuals.  No matter the country, the people are diverse, from young to old, men and women, but their smiles capture the same joy.  In essence, Kuwabara breaks down the stereotypes and barriers that divide people, and in doing so creates the opportunity for heart-to-heart cross-cultural exchange.

I had the pleasure to talk to him via Skype.  To begin, I shared a message from my friend, a third year student from the same Soka University from which he graduated, in which she spoke of how she was moved by his actions.  Then we moved onto our interview.

[Interview below]

Derek:  Just as you’ve inspired others like my friend, I’m sure that you’ve also received inspiration from others, too.  Please tell me a little bit about what got you started?  What was your inspiration? 
Koichi:  Basically, I went out into the world, and was very impressed by the kindness from the Korean people that I had met overseas.  I thought to myself then, just what kind of image had I had of Koreans up until that point?  Originally, the images of Korea projected by the media, whether through the TV or newspaper or magazines, were not very good.  That’s why when I actually went out into the world and met people from South Korea, and saw how kindly they took care of me and how they were so generous, I was taken aback.  So I started questioning what I had been thinking up until then.  And that was my starting point.

I also received inspiration in making videos.  This came from this series of YouTube videos, “Where the Hell is Matt?”  I was really impressed after watching his video, and I thought that I also wanted to make my own videos that could also move others.

Derek: Through what circumstances specifically were you able to meet those Korean friends that you mentioned? 
Koichi: In the beginning, I had the intention to be a teacher.  At university, I was able to obtain my teacher’s license.  But before actually becoming a teacher, I wanted to see and travel the world.  I wanted to be a teacher who could share that experience with children.  So I graduated university and spent one year working part time, saving my money. 

The first country I went to was the Philippines.  My purpose was to learn English, and so I had decided to attend a language school there.  The total number of students was about 400, and among them there were only about 12 Japanese students, so we were the minority there.  It was there that I was able to meet Korean people in person for the first time.

The school population was in fact like a mini Korean society.  I could hear students speak in Korean, when we had our meals there was a lot of Korean cooking, and the sign boards also had Hangul written on them, too.

Of course, I had come to study English, so it wasn’t something that I thought much about at first, as my main purpose had not been to make Korean friends.  I just happened to find myself enrolled in a school with that environment.

Yet the Korean friends that I made were really kind, and were always providing me company.  And in that mini-Korean society, although I didn’t understand many of the rules in that school, they nevertheless took really good care of me.  I thought at that time, these people showed a real human kindness.  From that point, my perspective changed. 

I was there for three months.  I probably would not have changed if it had just been one week.  Because I was there for three months, my thinking changed in many ways.

At that time, I didn’t really think about improving relations between Japan and Korea or China.  But I did come to a realization that if I hadn’t actually gone out into the world and seen what was really out there there, I would not have been able to really understand it, and my perspective would not have changed.

Derek:  I understand that you were also a Japanese teacher in China.  Could you tell me a little bit about your experience as a Japanese teacher in China? 
Koichi: I was in China for about only half a year.  I went to a Chinese university there to learn Chinese.  But I also wanted to do something else, too.  In my area there was a Japanese language school.  There, I had the opportunity to teach Japanese as a Japanese teacher. 

It was 2010 when I was there.  Right at that time, throughout China there were anti-Japan demonstrations going on.  A Chinese fishing boat had collided with two Japanese Coast Guard patrol boats.  There was also a demonstration where I was, in the city of Xi’an.  That demonstration had a size of around 10,000 protestors.  In my city, Japanese store properties such as Canon, Mizuno, Toyota, and Japanese restaurants were destroyed.  Signs on our Japanese school were also destroyed. 

But even then, the Chinese students still came to my Japanese class to learn Japanese.  They remarked that those demonstrators were really just a small part of the population.  They said that they couldn’t understand those protestors. 

Derek: So the opinions were quite split among the Chinese?
Koichi: Yes…  So I thought that the very existence of my Chinese students was the hope for China and Japan. 

When the demonstrations were going on, I went in and took a lot of pictures and videos.  During that time, I thought that it would be impossible to try to change the opinions of so many people.

At the same time, what was more important for me was treasuring the Chinese students in front of me.  It was not about trying to change the minds of a whole lot of people.  What mattered was really, really treasuring the people before me right now, and protecting the beacon of hope that they represented so that it would never disappear.

Derek: When did you start to think to yourself, “Yes, international understanding is possible”? 
Koichi: This may be an odd example, but after the Philippines, I went to Australia on a working holiday visa.  I was staying at a sharehouse at that time.  It was a sharehouse where other Asian students also stayed – people from Taiwan, Hong Kong, South Korea, and Japan. 

There was one point where I came across several Taiwanese gathered together, maybe five or six, and they all had these really serious expressions on their faces.  When I asked what’s wrong, they told me that they were all worrying about their job hunting situation when they returned to Taiwan.  When I heard that I thought, “Ah, it’s the exact same as us Japanese people.  ” So I realized that we were able to relate, as fellow human beings, on day-to-day matters such as job hunting.

Another example is also from the same sharehouse.  During our stay there, we would also all do work on the fields, picking apples and oranges and such.  We all did this together and earned some money that way.  But more than work, for all of us - Japanese, Taiwanese, Korean, Hong Kong – it was kind of like a barbeque party.  We had someone playing on the guitar, we had drinks, singing, and at some point I was looking at that scene and realized how perfect this was.  How could all these people from different countries come together and get along so well?  And yet this scene was something that actually appeared directly in front of me before my very eyes, and I thought it was so interesting.  Perhaps this circle of companionship could be something we could spread, and maybe affect change.  This ideal scenery materialized right there in reality, and it made me truly believe that international understanding was possible.  It clicked in my mind then: the possibility was there.

Derek: You mentioned you'd like to be a teacher in the future.  When do you think you’ll be a teacher?
Koichi: Probably sometime after the Olympics, after 2020.  I still don’t see an end to my Free Hug activities… I still haven’t felt like I’ve accomplished what I want.  And I would like to also get out in other parts of the world, too.  I’ve only been active in Asia, and I’d like to go to places like the Middle East, Africa, South America, Russia…  Little by little I’ll keep going.

Derek: Finally, we have a lot of students in the US studying Japanese.  Do you have any message to those people who are now studying Japanese?
Koichi: Understanding a language is connected to understanding that country’s culture, isn’t it?  In Japan’s case, Japan is approaching the world with its own unique and crazy peculiarities.  By learning Japanese, perhaps people can understand that a little more and become a bit more charming themselves, too.  Best of luck to everyone!

You can find his channel on YouTube here: 桑原功一 Koichi Kuwabara
Thank you very much, Kuwabara-san!  We wish you the best on your future activities!

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