In this three-part interview, former CNN/NHK anchorwoman Karuna Shinsho speaks about her childhood in Japan and Hawai'i, as the child of a Buddhist minister, now an avid spam-eater and mother of a possibly tri-lingual child.
First part: Background
in her own words:
I was born in Hawaii on February 19, 1968. My parents (both Japanese; dad from Toyama prefecture and mom an Edo-ko) were studying at the university of Hawaii's east-west center... Met, fell in love, got married, and then I was born. Initially my father was a classical music DJ, but later became a Buddhist minister (his side of the family has a temple in Toyama; my uncle now heads it). My mom taught Japanese and French at a local high school. I grew up in Hawaii going to a bunch of different public schools (because my dad had to move around to different ministries). I also attended Japanese language school after regular school. With that, and being the daughter of a Buddhist minister, I kept in touch with a lot of Japanese traditions and culture (i.e. bon odori, calligraphy and tea ceremony lessons, etc.). But at that time, I really didn't make the effort to learn the language much. I remember my parents speaking to each other and also speaking to me in Japanese, but I always seemed to talk back to them in English. I'm not quite sure why, but I guess I felt more comfortable in English as it was my mother tongue. And I think that even at that young of an age, I was aware that rightly or wrongly, speaking in Japanese somehow made you look less American. In any case, I wasn't too hot on being "the minister's daughter" (pressure to behave, got picked on by other kids who thought that I was "special", etc."), but I generally had a good childhood in Hawaii. It's quite laid back and the people are nice.
At 13, we moved to Japan. My mother's grandfather was sick so she wanted to return to take care of him. It was quite a shock for me. Despite the Japanese language and culture lessons, I wasn't quite ready to cope with the country. It was hard because I looked Japanese, but when people tried to talk to me, they realized I was "different" and branded me a "henna ko." Initially, my parents sent me to a local junior high school during the summer. I wore the seifuku and went through all the motions of a typical Japanese student. I say "going through the motions" because it was just that... I couldn't really understand any of my classes, except for English. But it was fun because the teachers and students treated me very well. At that time, there really wasn't any stigma yet for the so-called "kikoku shijo" (although I technically wasn't one). But after realizing that I wasn't going to make it at a Japanese school, my parents enrolled me at A.S.I.J. I spent five years there from 8th grade to 12th. It was obviously a huge change from the Japanese school.
After A.S.I.J. I went to Sophia university in Tokyo. There was great pressure on me to stay in Japan from my parents who thought I had become too "American" and that I should really learn what it is to be Japanese. At the time I was dying to go to the States like everyone else, but in retrospect, I think my parents were wise in steering me in the direction of staying home. I studied political science because I wasn't good with numbers and thus business/economics turned me off.
While at Sophia I started working at NHK anchoring their daily English language news program called "Today's Japan," which was broadcast in Japan and around the world. It was a valuable stepping stone for my future career in television. After working at NHK for four years, I felt it was time to go back to school. After learning, living, and working in Japan, I wanted to get away and see Japan from a different perspective. So I went to study international affairs at Columbia university in New York. It was a 2 year master's program. During that time, I also worked part-time at NHK's New York bureau reporting on U.S. Financial markets and business news in Japanese for their morning show "Ohayo Nippon." I have to say that it was a "trip." in Japan I was anchoring news in English and in the states I was anchoring in Japanese. How weird can that be???
After finishing my program at Columbia, I moved to Singapore to work at an American financial TV Network called Asia Business News. It's funny how I hated economics and business, but I ended up working for such a channel. I guess the challenge of overcoming my fear/dislike of business/finance and the opportunity to live in Singapore and learn about a new culture took me to the lion city.
About 3 1/2 years later, it was time to move on. I wanted to return to Japan and contribute in some way. But it was really hard to find any opportunities. I freelanced at NHK, worked on a TV project with the foreign ministry, but couldn't really find anything that challenged me enough. It was great being back though and spending time with family and old friends. But in the end, I moved to Hong Kong to take up a job with CNN. I initially helped launch their new morning show and later moved to evenings to anchor their prime-time news show. I loved working for CNN, a network that had such a powerful, global reach, and so many talented professionals.
I would have continued working, but I became pregnant with Justin last year. It really didn't take a lot of thinking on my part to quit, as my philosophy is that at least one parent should be home to take care of the kid(s) in the beginning. I chose to do it because I really didn't want to miss any of Justin's milestones and I also didn't want my child to be raised by a domestic helper, as many children here in Hong Kong and around Asia are. I have nothing against moms who work. But it's just my philosophy. Eventually, I may work again, but for now, I'm enjoying motherhood very much. It's a totally different kind of challenge than busting my bottom to get ahead professionally.
So here I am, a mother of a one-year-old son and a wife of an American diplomat living in Hong Kong. I'm learning Mandarin on the side and looking into doing some volunteer work soon. All in all, I'm very happy with my life.
Second Part: Quick Q & A
Can you tell us one story about when your chanpon background helped you?
My chanpon background helped me to be more open to different cultures in general, and specifically helped me land my first job in television. The fact that I was Japanese (knew the language and culture), but also was American (spoke English) enabled me to anchor a Japanese news program for an English-speaking audience.
Can you tell us one story about when your chanpon background hurt you?
As other chanponites would say, being chanpon is a double-edged sword. There are positives as well as negatives. Being chanpon was a disadvantage in the beginning, especially when I first moved to Japan. I wasn't conversant in the language and not used to all the customs so I was treated differently. But later, with more experience living in Japan, I didn't feel like a stranger as much. I think it also depends on the cultural awareness of the host country at the time. In Japan, there was a time when kikoku-shijos were looked upon badly... That they didn't fit in and were just showing off. But later the Japanese turned around and thought that being a kikoku-shijo was "cool." So I think how people perceive you is just as crucial as how you interact with them. Ultimately though, I think how comfortable you are as a chanpon depends on your state of mind. If you concentrate on the positives more than the negatives, then you can really thrive as a chanpon.
What do you miss most about Japan when you are away?
When I'm away from Japan, I miss the food (especially sushi, ramen, and gyoza), the attention to detail and cleanliness, onsen, the appreciation of some traditions (i.e. Hanami, local matsuris, etc.), and the chance to use my Japanese!
What do miss most about the US/Hong Kong/Singapore when you are in Japan?
When I'm away from the U.S. (especially Hawaii), I miss the "aloha" spirit, the fact that spam is considered a legitimate part of a meal, and that I can speak my mind freely.
When I'm away from Singapore, I miss the orderliness, the airport and how close it is to get into town from it (I know, it's a smaller country than Japan... But the journey from Narita is a killer!), and fresh cut chili peppers that accompany many of your meals there.
When I'm away from Hong Kong, I miss the authentic Chinese cuisine, the magnificent view of the skyline at night, and the incredible hiking up a mountain that's right behind my apartment!
What makes you feel Japanese?
I feel Japanese when I speak to Japanese people (especially older ones) and feel myself bowing my head a lot.
What makes you feel you aren't Japanese?
I don't feel Japanese when I read about and hear Asian countries like China, Korea, and the Philippines talk about Japan's war-time aggression and the country's lack of atonement.
Please let us know web sites related to you and your work, or any other favorite sites.
I don't have my own website. The only websites I regularly log onto is chanpon and baby-related ones!
Third Part: Interview
MI: Mimi Ito, JH: Justin Hall
MI: Did you hang out with other Japanese kids and families in Hawaii? Or were you getting most of your exposure to Japanese language and culture (other than your parents) at schools and classes?
KS: I think I was fairly lucky to be exposed to other Japanese families mainly because my father was a Buddhist minister. Within the Buddhist community, there were many Japanese families so when there were festivals or Sunday church activities, then we'd all get together. Some had come from Japan long ago and others were born and raised in Hawaii. Also, as you know, the Japanese community is quite big in Hawaii (I don't have the most recent numbers, but Asians as a whole make up the bulk of the island's population). But I must say, my experience with Japanese families in Hawaii is quite special. I didn't really have the same kind of feeling when I moved to Tokyo... I think it's a blend of things. People in Hawaii are sort of "mixed up" (in a good way)... We have many races living together... We are American, but our mentality is not quite like people living on the so-called "mainland" (the continental U.S.)... Yet we try to keep up our ethnic customs and traditions... Do you understand what I'm trying to say? Even if I had exposure to Japanese families... It's not like knowing Japanese in Tokyo... It was much more cozy and tight-knit in a way... Perhaps like living in a small village in Japan, not a metropolis like Tokyo.
MI: Were you in Honolulu?
KS: I was born in Honolulu. Lived there until fifth grade. Moved to another city called Aiea... Finished elementary school there. Then moved back into town for seventh grade. Then moved to Japan for eighth grade.
JH: Growing up in Hawaii, did you find it to be a tolerant place for you as an ethnic Japanese?
KS: Racism exists anywhere... Including Hawaii. But I think it was a generally tolerant place for me. I think a lot of Japanese went to private schools. But I went to public schools until I left. I think it was because my parents weren't that well off. They had me when they were grad school students. Initially my dad was a classical music DJ, while my mom taught Japanese and French at a high school. Then my dad joined the Buddhist ministry (we come from a Buddhist family... My father's side of the family heads up a Buddhist temple in toyama prefecture) and my mom quit to help my dad. In a nutshell, they didn't earn much money. So I ended up going to public schools that had an incredible mix of races (i.e. Hawaiian, Samoan, Filipino, Chinese, Korean, etc.), but funny enough, I was in the minority as a Japanese. But I never really felt left out. Maybe Japanese who went to private schools acted differently, but I grew up through the public schools system so I didn't know otherwise. There were fights among girls (!) Every day after school... Fortunately I never got into one myself... But you really had to watch yourself and not tick off anybody.
JH: You said your parents realized you weren't going to make it at a Japanese school - was there any one event in particular that might have tipped them off to this?
KS: Basically because I couldn't keep up with the classes... I couldn't do algebra, history, science in Japanese at the junior high level. I don't think my Japanese language ability was at such a level. Maybe if my parents were insistent and after I dropped a few grades then I would eventually survive. But I think my parents decided that it was better to keep learning in English and not become "chuu to hanpa" in both languages. I don't recall saying that I wanted to go to an American school (I probably didn't even know it existed) or that I hated the Japanese school. In fact, I had a lot of fun making Japanese friends and being treated like a "different" Japanese. I think it was my parents' call.
MI: We are trying to figure out what to do with our kids schooling here in LA. The Japanese Saturday school seems to be the most conventional option, but we have also found one public Japanese immersion school that we would like to get Luna into next year if we can. All the instruction is in Japanese. Did they have anything like that when you were growing up in Hawaii?
KS: I'm really no expert. All I can tell you is what I learned from my experience. I think I learned a lot about my roots through the Buddhist church. The Japanese schools were affiliated with it (but the schooling had nothing to do with religion... Just the language was taught). And after Sunday services, I would go to ikebana/shuji/tea ceremony classes. I don't think I necessarily learned the "deeper" meanings of the Japanese arts, but it does open your world to discipline, Japanese aestheticism, etc. Which I think is a good start and a good contrast to the western/Hawaiian way of life (freedom, independence, etc.). I know this may sound like a cliché. But I think for kids, it's important to keep them exposed to their other culture (s) frequently and in a fun way. When it becomes a chore (which it often does for young kids who want to play or do other things) then they start to resent you and that culture. It's a challenge I think to keep up with your various cultures and identities. What I think also helps is to later take your child to the country of their culture at some point (perhaps when they're old enough and mature enough to appreciate it) to see what it's REALLY like. I never knew how different my perception of being Japanese was until I actually left Hawaii and lived in Japan!
JH: You said you were moving around to many different public schools - did your background, culture, two languages make that easier or harder?
KS: Moving has to be hard on anyone... Especially when you have to leave friends. I think it was hard for me too. But when you do it often, you get used to it. When you belong to a Buddhist minister's family, you kind of realize early on that you'll be moving around every few years. And even if Hawaii is such a small place, I was too young to drive and keep up with my old friends. So I ended up making new friends in my new home. But the move to Japan was a totally different story. It was a completely new territory.... I had zilch friends... And I must say, even if I did go to Sunday school activities and had been exposed to other Japanese, it was a whole new way of life. But without that exposure, I think the culture shock would have been worse.
JH: Why do you respect now your parents' interest in keeping you in Japan after high school?
KS: If I left Japan after high school, I would have become more American and missed out on further learning to appreciate my cultural heritage. I've said this before, but you really grow up fast in international schools overseas. You can often exist in a bubble (international school) within a bubble (Japan) and not have to conform to the rules/traditions of the bigger bubble (Japan) and therefore never "really" know the country you live in. I think going to a Japanese university and working in Japan opened my mind to another level of understanding of all things Japanese. And of course, you're more mature (hopefully) in your approach to things as a grown up than as a pimpled teenager with your hormones raging!
MI: Most important question: do you still eat spam musbi? You can get them in the Japanese groceries here in LA, but I don't know how to make them. And I have never actually eaten one.. Tara tara... (Justin, do you know about spam musubi? They are the Hawaiian adaptation of onigiri)
KS: Funny thing. We do eat spam musubi. My husband absolutely loves it. He especially likes to munch on it after he golfs! I like it anytime. It's easy to make. Just make some rice. Fry the spam (there's also low-fat spam now)... You don't need oil because they're greasy enough! After you've browned them on both sides, let them cool on paper towels (they suck up all the extra oil). Then make the rice into rectangular shapes (like the spam)... Then top them with the spam. Then get nori and cut into thin strips... Wrap a strip around the spam musubi.... And voila you got your spam musubi. When I went to New York to grad school, all my dorm mates would laugh at me when I ate spam musubi... They said it was poor people's food!
JH: How was the NHK bureau in America different from the NHK bureau in Japan?
KS: I think my experience with NHK in Japan or New York is two-fold. One is that I was young, particularly when I was in Tokyo I was still going to university, so my colleagues treated me like a daughter and also like a student. I think I was good at that time because I had no experience in journalism/TV. Whatsoever so it was necessary for me to absorb all my knowledge and know-how from the senpais. But as I gained more experience and insight, that relationship changed a bit. I was able to express my opinions about stories/scripts more.
JH: Did you find anchoring in Japanese or anchoring in English felt more natural to you?
KS: English is my first language so I felt more comfortable anchoring in English. I also think my personality comes out more when I'm speaking in English. When I anchor in Japanese the pitch of my voice is much higher and my personality takes on a more reserved nature. I have noticed this after viewing recordings of my shows and also other people have said the same things. It's quite interesting how one's personality can change so much just with the language usage.
JH: How did you meet your husband?
KS: I met my husband at an alumni Christmas party in Tokyo. He also went to Columbia and was studying in the same master's program. We overlapped a year, but never met then! So it was quite exciting how our paths crossed in Japan. He loves Japan... Speaks, reads, and writes Japanese... Which is great. But the most important thing is that he loves to eat in Japan! (Mimi, I know you can relate to this!)
JH: Between Japanese, Chinese and English, how do you plan to raise your Justin?
KS: Wow, this is a challenge. I haven't quite come to terms with this yet. I'm still trying to raise him as a human being! So far I've been speaking to him in English. My husband mixes English and Chinese. I thought about doing the English/Japanese thing. But it's so hard to keep that up. And then I hear conflicting reports about speaking in one language vs. Speaking two languages at a time. So I guess you could say it's a work in progress. I think the hard thinking will come in when we think about education and extra-curricular activities. It's easy to expose him to Chinese in Hong Kong, but keeping up with Japanese would be a challenge. Unless I take him to a class or something. Then I worry about inundating Justin's poor little brain with so much just to make him multi-cultural and multi-lingual. I'll let you know how it goes!
Soledad O'Brien anchors American Morning with Bill Hemmer. Based in New York, O'Brien began anchoring CNN's flagship morning program in July 2003 when she joined the network.
O'Brien came to CNN from NBC News where she'd anchored the network's Weekend Today since July 1999. During that time, she contributed reports for the weekday Today Show and weekend editions of NBC Nightly News and covered such notable stories as JFK Jr.'s plane crash and the school shootings in Colorado and Oregon. In 2003, she covered the Space Shuttle Columbia disaster and later anchored NBC's weekend coverage of the war in Iraq. Additionally, in 1998, she traveled to Cuba to cover Pope John Paul II's historic visit.
Before Weekend Today, O'Brien anchored MSNBC's award-winning technology program "The Site" and the cable network's weekend morning show.
O'Brien joined NBC News in 1991 and was based in New York as a field producer for the Nightly News and Today.
Before her time at NBC, she served three years as a local reporter and bureau chief for the NBC affiliate KRON in San Francisco. She began her career as an associate producer and news writer at the then-NBC affiliate, WBZ-TV in Boston.
O'Brien's work has been honored several times, including a local Emmy for her work as a co-host on Discovery Channel's The Know Zone. In 1998, O'Brien was named to Irish American Magazine's "Top 100 Irish Americans" list and in 1997, she was awarded the Hispanic Achievement Award in Communications.
She is a member of National Association of Black Journalists and the National Association of Hispanic Journalists.