Yuko Watanabe

Reflection from Yuko Watanabe (ELP ’17)

It’s hard to describe the Emerging Leaders Program without sounding a bit cultish. You go to this three day long program and come back feeling like a different person. Totally cultish, right…? At least that’s what I thought before joining the program.

ELP had an amazing impact on my personal and professional life, which is hard to quantify. The biggest change that I had going through ELP was that I started embracing my identity as a Japanese American.

I’ve never identified as Japanese American before. I’ve never had a spam musubi, never been to Hawaii and never had a single Japanese American friend in my life. I’m a first-generation Japanese immigrant, who has spent as many years on this side of the ocean as on the other side.

At the ELP training session during the 2017 Annual Conference in Washington, DC

My biggest fear going into ELP was that I wouldn’t fit in. So when Britt Yamamoto, Executive Director of iLEAP, who led the leadership training session, asked us to discuss what it means to be Japanese American, I hesitated. I didn’t think I was one.

Then I realized that I have more in common with my cohort than I imagined. I learned that we all shared the experience of struggling as a minority, especially at work. It was a relief to realize that it was a shared challenge, and not a personal one.

My daughter Emma (ELP 2035 hopefully) proudly wearing USJC Annual Conference gear

The time I joined ELP also coincided with a significant pivot in my professional life. I just left my previous job as a Japan relations lead for a large nonprofit, and started looking for a new adventure. I initially wanted to continue working on something related to Japan. But I also thought that I needed to stop being “the Japanese person in the office” and become “a person in the office.” And that felt a little sad.

So I looked around. I reached out to many in my cohort and several other senior USJC members who all graciously took the time to help me through my job (or really, soul) search. Slowly, I came to embrace the idea that I don’t have to work directly on Japan relations to continue being the Japanese person in the office. Many did so naturally by finding the right place to be, and being plugged into communities like USJC.

Now I work as Director of Operations at a FinTech startup called Stably in Seattle. I don’t do anything related to Japan, but I get to be the Japanese person among several different cultures that the company represents. After hours, I manage a blog that curates self-reflection essays written by Japanese women of my age all over the world. And I have an army of Japanese American friends to call on now.

Mini ELP reunion at the wedding of Danielle Higa (ELP ’17) in Seattle earlier this month

I’m very grateful to be part of USJC and ELP, and cannot thank sponsors enough for being so generous. I very much look forward to meeting the new cohort in Tokyo next month.