Finding His Place
Enjoying a meal with friends as a kid, one of JT Okada's companions asked him to pass the chopsticks. Okada, the Cal men's gymnastics head coach who is half-Japanese and half-American, gave his friend a puzzled look and asked him – "What are chopsticks?"
Raised in a Japanese-centric household in the Bay Area, chopsticks were always known to Okada by the Japanese terminology – hashi.
"I was raised with a lot of Japanese customs," Okada said. "It was a Japanese household, but I'm living in an American culture around it. It was confusing because you have to negotiate your cultural identity at times. Being Japanese American is also a title that didn't really speak to me. I'm not Japanese and living in America, I am Japanese and American."
As his older sister did before him and his younger sister after him, Okada trekked to Japan with his father, Tatsuo, following high school graduation to reconnect with his roots before beginning his studies at Cal.
While it wasn't his first trip to Japan, the journey inspired Okada to learn more about his ethnic background. He enrolled in Japanese language courses at Cal and later decided to study abroad in Japan for the fall semester of his senior year.
He studied at ICU – International Christian University in Tokyo - with numerous other UC students.
"I grew up in the United States feeling very Japanese, but there, I stuck out by the way I look," Okada said. "I realized how American I was in comparison. I wanted to show them that I was Japanese. I was trying to reclaim my culture, roots and heritage. Generally, they didn't think I was very Japanese. They considered me to be American. I was really trying to assimilate. I wasn't making it work, though."
Okada needed a niche to connect with his Japanese colleagues. He found the opportunity when ICU listed clubs, organizations and sports that students could participate in, including football – known in Japan as ame futo. Okada played fullback and linebacker at El Cerrito High School, so he decided to sign up.
"I had no gear, obviously. I went out there with just some sneakers and shorts," Okada said. "They thought it was great because I had played football before. It's not as popular there. They welcomed me with open arms."
Gaining a spot on the field and the respect of his teammates proved to be more arduous, though. The coaches didn't want Okada to play offense due to the language barriers with calling plays, and the program respected upperclassmen hierarchy, so he started as a backup linebacker and playing special teams.
His teammates, including the ones who spoke it, refused to speak to him in English. Even when he said he didn't understand what they were trying to say, they still refused to speak to him in English. Okada said in hindsight he's very appreciative of that because they were pushing him to master the Japanese language, a key objective on his to-do list while living in Japan.
Still finding it difficult to bond with his teammates, Okada considered quitting at one point. But things began to swing in his favor when ICU's starting linebacker injured himself early in the season. Okada took the field and racked up multiple tackles for loss and pass breakups. Finally earning his stripes for his tough work ethic, his coaches and teammates started turning to him for advice on plays and strategy.
"I felt really embraced by the team at this point," Okada said. "That was when I felt I belonged. I was playing an American game that I was familiar with in Japan with Japanese teammates. That's the definition of the 'B' part of DEIB [Diversity, Equity, Inclusion, Belonging] to me. That was a moment when everything came together. My cultural identity came together. This was what I was meant to do, play football here."
Okada wasn't the only American-born player on ICU. Yuichiro Motoe, a native of Washington, was also on the squad and said he could relate to how Okada felt when he first arrived.
Motoe said Okada put in the work to connect with his teammates, adding that it's never something that comes automatically. But Okada earned it.
"I can understand that adjusting to culture within sports in Japan is always tough," said Motoe, who now works in sales at the Japanese chemical company Mitsui Chemicals. "In the end, the fact that he stayed after considering quitting paid dividends. He ended up starting midway into the season and never looked back."
ICU needed to win the final game of the regular season in order to advance to the league championship game. Okada made his presence felt with a game-changing play, intercepting a pass and returning it for a touchdown. His squad won that game and later the league championship. As a result, Okada helped elevate ICU to a higher division.
During the season, Okada noted cultural differences between ame futo and the American style played in the United States.
Competing on a dirt field, the players raked it before and after every practice to even it out. The seniors always led the task. Unlike similar situations in the United States where the freshmen typically perform the less-desired chores, in Japan it's an honor to lead the charge in taking care of the field.
"Part of Japanese culture is humility," Okada said. "You're supposed to humble yourself. There's a lot of egos in American football, but in Japan, even the celebrations aren't somebody beating their chest and saying, 'Look at me.' The game is played with humility. It's not about personal stats. It's about the team playing together in an effort to win."
Now in his role as Cal's head men's gymnastics coach, one of the most pertinent values Okada tries to instill in his squad that he learned in Japan is gratitude.
Yu-Chen "Miles" Lee, a junior on the Golden Bears' gymnastics team, is in a comparable situation to what Okada experienced. Born and raised in Taiwan before moving to the United States shortly before high school, Lee is studying in a foreign land while trying to obtain a college degree as a student-athlete. He said the customs Okada learned in Japan show in his coaching methods today, specifically that he never takes credit for the hard work he puts in as a coach and a fundraiser.
"Coach JT has helped me in so many ways during the past three years I've been at Cal," Lee said. "He's helped me in many different aspects including academics, personal, gymnastics, mental and social, which makes me respect him even more. I feel like he understands where I'm coming from and what is most helpful for me."
Okada lucked out, in a sense, that he had the opportunity to utilize football as a way to connect with his Japanese colleagues. But it isn't always so easy for other people of mixed ethnicities.
"I can relate to people who feel one way, but are seen in another way. That's the prejudice," Okada said. "You see somebody based on how they look on the outside, and you make that judgment on looks alone. You're just reading the cover and thinking you know the book. Just because somebody has a Japanese last name, it doesn't mean that they don't also feel American or follow American customs. It's important to take the time to get to know people and you might learn something about them that you didn't previously expect."