Since 2002, JOI coordinators have reached more than a million Americans in the South and Midwest of the country. Learn who these impressive cultural ambassadors are and how they have impacted—and continue to impact—their U.S. communities.

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Complete List of Participants

From planting elementary school students’ first seeds of interest in Japan to strengthening sister city/state relationships and linking high schools and colleges with partner institutions in Japan, JOI coordinators bring Japan and the U.S. closer, one person at a time. Learn a bit more about past JOI coordinators along with their activities, impressions, and impact by perusing the biographies and reports below.



Yoko Watanabe posing in front of trees

Yoko Watanabe was born in Niigata prefecture, which is famous for rice and ski resorts. She graduated with an education degree from Teikyo University and got her teaching license for children with disabilities, kindergarten, and nursery school because of her interest in supporting self-reliance. Upon graduating, she did a short-term study abroad in New York City. That experience helped her realize that she is a citizen of the world, not only of Japan. Her dream is to support people, especially children, when they are faced with difficulties. The JOI Program allows her to connect with global communities and support others as they follow their dreams. Yoko has many hobbies and interests such as dance, wearing kimono, creating kid’s clothes, and environmental issues. She also has worked with Japanese musicians and hopes to bring their music to Colorado. Most of all, Yoko hopes to work with and learn from the local community to make both the US and Japan a better place to live for generations to come!


Nanaka Okamura posing in front of trees

At university, Nanaka Okamura majored in Computer Science and also took a Teacher-Training course and a Teacher Education Program for Teaching Japanese to Speakers of Other Languages course. She mainly studied Computer Science and pedagogy. Nanaka took the Japanese language teacher training course because it allowed her to obtain qualifications, but as she learned more she became interested in teaching Japanese language and culture and international exchange. She also had a strong interest in the field of education, as she had been working as a tutor at a cram school throughout university. When she was looking for a place where she could utilize her experience and knowledge, she discovered the JOI program and decided that she wanted to work as a JOI Coordinator. Nanaka is eager to share Japanese culture with everyone, whether they are already familiar with it or just learning about it for the first time. She can’t wait to do many kinds of outreach activities in North Carolina!


Masahiro Yamamoto posing in front of trees

Masahiro Yamamoto was born in Kawaguchi, Saitama. He is passionate about Urawa Reds, a professional soccer team in Saitama. He also has been playing soccer since he was child, and this inspired him to be interested in the world. He received a degree majoring in Spanish and went to Toluca, Mexico for study abroad for a year. This was his first time to experience a new culture, different lifestyle, and language. These were confusing at first, but he learned a lot about Mexico. At the same time, he could appreciate the beauty of his home country. After graduation, he worked for a company in manufacturing, and although he felt satisfied he could not forget his experience overseas. He decided to leave and went to Michigan to study English for a year. After that, he worked at a French-owned company in Tokyo for couple of years. He hopes he can reach out as many people as possible and teach them "Cool Japan" in "Hot Arizona".


Friends from Japan and the U.S. wearing kimonos during a cultural exchange activity

Mariko Nagai is originally from Fukuoka. She has a Bachelor of Arts degree in Intercultural Studies from Seinan Gakuin University. Her first experience in the U.S. was when she was a high school student. She joined a 2-week sister city cultural exchange program between Fukuoka city and Oakland in California. From this experience, she decided to join a 1-month summer language school program in Minnesota, as well as a study abroad program at Middle Tennessee State University for 2 semesters. She worked for 6 years as an English instructor and program coordinator, and 1.5 years as a conference organizer. She has always wanted to be a bridge between Japan and other countries, especially America because of the experiences she had as student. She is looking forward to engaging in her host site at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, connecting with many people, and strengthening their understanding about Japan as a JOI Coordinator. She hopes she can increase both Japanese and American fans of Nebraska!


Maika Yamaoka posing in front of trees

Maika Yamaoka was born and raised in Tokyo, Japan. She was exposed to traditional cultures such as koto (traditional musical instrument) and kimono at an early age and has been interested in introducing Japanese culture. At university, she majored in Social Anthropology, and she traveled though Asia, Europe, and South America as a backpacker. She learned that each culture has a different worldview and that it is enjoyable and valuable to learn about them. When she was an exchange student in Wales, UK, she was involved in a Japanese culture club. Through presenting Japanese culture, she was delighted to be called an ‘Ambassador’ by people. After graduation, she worked for International Exchange programs for students and young professionals to progress her ambition in life: creating the bridge between Japan and the rest of the world through Japanese culture. As a JOI Coordinator, she would like to provide many opportunities so that people can enjoy cultural exchange and foster future leaders in cross-cultural exchange.


Aya Iwamoto posing in front of trees

Aya Iwamoto is from Kyoto located in western Japan.  She had her first experience with international culture when she was 7 years old during a family trip to Saipan. From that time, she became interested in culture and people around the world and dreamt about contributing to world peace and international exchange in the future. At her high school, she met a lot of friends who used to live in other counties and came from many backgrounds. She also learned how important international understanding is and went on to study global regional studies at Doshisha University. She studied abroad in Michigan and joined a local school activity program to teach Japanese culture. The program was managed by a former JOI Coordinator, and through this experience she discovered JOI. After graduation, she worked at an electronics manufacturing company in international sales for 3 years. As a JOI Coordinator, she hopes to get involved in her community and leave an impact through Japan outreach activities in Oklahoma.


Aiko Hatano posing in front of trees

Aiko is from Kanagawa Prefecture. Her interest in connecting people in Japan and other countries began as a child, hearing stories of her grandmother working at the British Embassy as a Japanese calligraphy teacher. While she was in university, she had many experiences of cultural exchange, including studying English in Dublin for 4 weeks in summer, joining the International Student Conference, and taking a Japanese language education course. Aiko realized that sharing culture and language is a good way to make friends who have different backgrounds. She believes that knowing people of different backgrounds and becoming friends can address problems such as discrimination or prejudice. After graduating from university, she worked at a Japanese trading company and oversaw U.S. beef imports, which increased her interest in America. Aiko is so excited to be in North Dakota as a pioneer to broaden cultural exchange programs. She hopes to build sustainable relationships between North Dakota and Japan.

Coordinator from Japan in Tennessee to raise awareness about the Japanese culture among Americans

Yumi Shimada was born in Gunma Prefecture in Japan but lived in the U.S. briefly as a child. Since then, she has been interested in travel, international exchange, and cultural identity. In college, Yumi worked at a traditional Japanese restaurant in Sydney, Australia. After graduating from Dokkyo University in Saitama, she spent two years living in Tokyo. In 2017, Yumi spent nine months teaching in Manado, Indonesia with the NIHONGO Partners Program (facilitated by The Japan Foundation). She has visited 15 countries in total. Spending time abroad has helped Yumi realize Japan’s true beauty, deepening her connection to her cultural roots. Looking back, Yumi’s experience living abroad at a young age made her a global citizen: she had the opportunity early on to think about stereotypes, cultural differences, and international friendship. Now she is happy to be contributing to a better understanding of Japan in Chattanooga, Tennessee. Through the JOI program, Yumi hopes to increase awareness about Japan and build a mutually beneficial relationship with her community.

Participants of the Japan Outreach Initiative sharing the Japanese culture in Alabama

Yoko Minami was born and raised in Fukuoka, Japan. She had her first international experience at a young age, when she took a family vacation to Hawaii. She was extremely impressed by the local culture, people and natural beauty, sparking a strong interest in learning English. Yoko went on to major in English at university. While studying abroad in Sydney, Australia, she volunteered at a Japanese club to teach Japanese language and culture at the local university. This brief experience with teaching led her to pursue a career teaching Japanese in other countries. After graduating from university, Yoko attended a technical college to learn how to teach Japanese as a second language. As a JOI Coordinator in Alabama, Yoko hopes to inspire as many people as possible to learn about Japanese language and culture in the hope that they might visit Japan in the future.

Cultural exchange program participant from Japan pointing at her host state Ohio on a map

Hirashita was born and raised in Osaka, Japan. She became interested in other cultures and languages because she grew up with a Korean-Japanese family living next-door. During her high school years, she had the chance to visit Germany and Australia on a sister-school program, and she became even more interested in getting to know people from all around the world. She graduated from Kwansei Gakuin University with a bachelor’s degree in International Studies. Mai studied at Nebraska Wesleyan University in Lincoln, Nebraska, as an exchange student for two semesters. During the time studying abroad, she learned that many people had only a vague idea of what Japan is like because they didn’t have the opportunity to interact with people from Japan. While working with K-12 aged children in the Kansai region as an English instructor, Mai applied to the  JOI program, hoping to help more people in the US--as well as people from countries around the world--to feel closer to Japan.

Japanese and Americans sharing their culture in South Dakota as part of the culture program Japan Outreach Initiative

Kirika Shimmei is from Saitama, Japan. She likes exploring and trying new things that people around her have never experienced. She studied abroad in New Zealand for three months during middle school. The experiences she had there were life-changing. Kirika dreamed of becoming a bridge between nations. She loves to interact with people who have different cultures and languages from her own. When she learned about JOI, she thought that the goals of the JOI program perfectly reflected her dream. She loves art, so she hopes to hold art events in the US featuring styles such as chigirie (colored, torn paper), etegami (simple ink paintings with thoughtful words/characters), and suibokuga (ink wash painting). After arriving in South Dakota, Kirika quickly launched a club called Japan Aberdeen Club (JAC) for her local community. She hopes to develop this club as a long-term project and plans to hold a lot of club events for all ages. The JOI Program is giving her many experiences and opportunities to learn about Japan and the U.S.

Japan Outreach Initiative coordinator sharing the Japanese culture with U.S. Americans in Mississippi

Daiki Suematsu is originally from Osaka, Japan. Through a volunteer opportunity in his middle school boy scout troop, he meet other scouts from around the world. This sparked his interest in international travel. Since his school days, his personal travels to various countries have inspired him to share Japanese culture with other people. Daiki also wants to inspire Japanese students to think globally. After a few years working at an auto-parts company, he discovered the JOI Program. His goal is to promote positive relationships between the US and Japan at the grassroots level through his work as a JOI Coordinator in Mississippi. Daiki also hopes to learn about the various peoples and cultures of the US. When he returns to Japan after JOI, he hopes his experiences will better prepare him to pursue his long-term goal of becoming a world-class teacher.


Japan Outreach Initiative coordinator in Texas teaches young Americans about Japan

Nina was born in Osaka, Japan. When she was seven, she had her first opportunity to speak with English-speaking people. Though she could only introduce herself, she was surprised and happy to communicate in another language. Nina became interested in English and pursued international studies. While a student at Ritsumeikan University, she joined a program for international students to study Japanese and experience Japanese culture. As a result of this enjoyable volunteer experience, she went on to work in customer service for a hotel in Kyoto after graduation, helping to introduce Japanese culture to visitors from around the world. However, eventually she felt she wanted to share Japanese culture on a greater and deeper scale. Now, her aim is to create as many fans of Japan in Texas as possible and help people enjoy experiencing Japanese culture. Nina ultimately hopes that through her programs, more people will want to visit Japan.


Virginia coordinator teaches young children about Japan during a cultural presentation

Minae is from Okinawa, the beautiful southernmost islands in Japan. She studied English culture and communication at Okinawa International University. During university, she studied abroad in Victoria, Canada for a year. From that experience, Minae became more interested in Japanese culture and international cultural differences. She also studied Japanese teaching as her minor and worked as an English teacher at an elementary school in Japan. This gave her the opportunity introduce cultures from other countries to Japanese children in the class, and she realized it would be exciting to promote Japanese culture overseas as well. She believes that exchanging culture broadens our horizons and helps us be more open-minded. As a JOI coordinator, Minae aims to reach people of different generations through her activities, and improve understanding between the U.S and Japan in Virginia.


Japanese coordinator presents his culture to Americans in West Virginia

Masahiro Yamaguchi is from the Kansai region and spent most of his time in Kyoto and Shiga. Growing up, he was encouraged to learn about other cultures and to contribute to his community through volunteering and rescuing animals (11 dogs and 20 cats, so far). In addition, he has visited 15 countries, including studying abroad in Moscow when he was a student at Kyoto Sangyo University. After graduating from university, he worked in business in Kyoto and Tokyo for two years but wanted to do more as a volunteer or cultural ambassador. Masahiro was motivated by interacting with expatriates and tourists as they faced various challenges in Japan. When he discovered JOI, it seemed like an ideal opportunity. As a JOI coordinator, he hopes to serve as a bridge between Japan and West Virginia and to nurture cultural awareness. Currently, he is working with local educators to improve Japanese cultural studies in the region.


Japanese coordinator wearing a traditional kimono during a culture program in Arkansas

Chiemi is originally from Yamanashi Prefecture. Inspired by her junior high school English teacher, she became interested in other cultures and speaking English. After studying Music Education at Shinshu University, she was a music teacher and children's event organizer for over seven years at an elementary school and outdoor activities company. She then volunteered as a teacher in Cambodia with the Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA), an agency similar to the Peace Corps. She learned the importance of respecting the lives and cultures of other people. She also practiced Japanese culture, primarily traditional Japanese musical instruments, since she was a child. She would like to share these experiences with many people of various generations and backgrounds in Arkansas. Chiemi hopes that by teaching about Japan, people will develop more global and kind perspectives. She believes that having an interest in one's own culture is the first step for the world.


Americans learning about the Japanese culture as part of the Japan Outreach Initiative

Airi Mori was born in Hokkaido, northern Japan. She is very active and has been brimming with curiosity since her childhood. Throughout her life, she participated in many international programs. She won first place in an English Oratorical competition in middle school which allowed her to visit Lexington, Kentucky. She won another competition in high school and travelled to Portland, Oregon as a Sister City Cultural Exchange Ambassador. Ms. Mori has a double major in English Education and Japanese Language Education from the Hokkaido University of Education. While in university, she was chosen as a Japanese Language Teaching Intern at Alaska University in Anchorage. After graduation, she went on to work as a teacher at a Japanese elementary school in Singapore.


Young Americans learning about Japan through the Japan Outreach Initiative

Graduating from the Tokyo Institute of Technology with a degree in Engineering, Yoshio spent 42 years working in international development. Earning a Master of Science degree in Economics in Britain, he started working as a consulting economist in overseas development projects, including a three-year posting in Baghdad, Iraq before joining the Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA) as a senior advisor at the age of 40. Over the course of 24 years with JICA, he was stationed in Mexico for four years and in Hungary for two years as a long-term policy advisor. After retiring from JICA, he became a Japanese language teacher, since he likes teaching young people overseas. Yoshio found that JOI is an ideal chance to utilize his past experience. As a JOI Coordinator, his aim is to create links and partnerships between APSU and Japanese businesses in the region, which represent the largest contribution to job creation among foreign businesses in Tennessee. Yoshio also offers a free Japanese Language and Culture class once a week for students and the community.


Students in West Virginia learn about the Japanese culture through a cultural exchange program

Shintaro “Shinn” Takase was born in Kyoto. During his elementary, middle, and high school education, he participated in many international education activities which instilled in him a fondness for international travel, learning new languages, and living in America and other countries. Shinn enjoys practicing karate, playing rugby football, and is passionate about travel and enjoying local foods. In university, Shinn decided to major Education and English with the goal of being an English teacher in Japan. After graduation, he continued his education studies as a graduate student at Kyoto University of Education. In 2015, he taught Japanese to high school students in Portland, Oregon. In 2016, while teaching English at a high school in Japan, he completed his postgraduate thesis and applied for JOI Coordinator. In August of 2017 he returned to the United States as a JOI Coordinator. He aims to expand and strengthen the understanding of Japan at the local level, and to foster networks and capacity-building to support U.S-Japan exchange and outreach.


Japan Outreach Initiative coordinator with her American friends in North Carolina

Nana is from Ibaraki Prefecture, a state-like area north of Tokyo. Interactions with JET Program ALTs (Assistant Language Teachers) at junior high school broadened her horizons and made her interested in intercultural exchange and language acquisition. She received a BA in English from Tsuda University, where she pursued her interests in communication, Japanese language education, and translation. After graduation, she worked for a local food factory with people from many different backgrounds. Nana became a JOI Coordinator hoping to inspire others to become interested in Japan and the world, just like the ALTs inspired her years ago.

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