Friendship… It sounds like a lifelong quest for all of us regardless of whether you want just one true friend or you are just interested in getting connected with as many people as you can. For me, yes, it is also my wish to find some true friends throughout my lifetime but when it comes to friendship, I cannot put aside a particular situation given to me – twins. I was born as an identical twin, so wherever I was, I would always be with my twin brother. We had nothing to hide and even when either of us had a girlfriend, we would spend time together with her as if we were triplets! In my childhood, my parents often yelled, “Don’t stay in your own world! Get down here and talk to us!” When I was in my teens, my twin brother and I were given ‘our’ own room on the second floor of our parents’ house, so as soon as we got back from school or we finished our dinner, we would go upstairs and close the door of our room.
(A scene from my childhood, Kawasaki, Japan) – Hiro at right
We were so happy that we didn’t want anything but ‘our world’ that was taken for granted. Even each of us didn’t think deeply about to figure out what it really meant to us. But, perhaps, it could be thought of as an ultimate form of love and friendship that would be pursued by generations to come! I am so thankful for God to give my twin brother and me the greatest gift to sense and touch what love or friendship is all about beyond any social and biological boundaries. On the flip side of it, however, one problem came up to us: How might we get away from our comfort zone, or ‘our world,’ and leverage and apply what we have sensed, touched and learned through our ‘twin’ world into another real world of human society? This genuine question together with my relevant life experiences shaped my passion to make this real world a better place and commit myself to the wellbeing of next generations through friendships and things I love.
It was Dad’s death that made me realize something I really lost that made me feel loved and valued (from Dad). That vacuum forced me to find out an alternate to fill it – friends. My father once said, “Remember, one day, parents will die, normally earlier than you. Then, who’s gonna support you and make your life sweeter, later? Not your brothers but friends. True friends! Hiro, are you confident enough to say that you feel happy now? Is your current work what you really want to do throughout your life?” It made much sense to me not just because he was a successful business man as a Global Executive Vice President of Toyota but also because I have heard a lot about how much he had put others’ needs before his own and cared about and for others. His relationship with others always started off as friendship.
A year later since he passed away, I ended up quitting my high-paying consulting job and, while staying connected with my friends and exploring new friendships, I followed my authentic path to become who I want to be, as a co-creator in education innovation.
(At the opening ceremony for SEELS, Tokyo, Japan)
It was along the way when I met Billy – that was in June 2015. I was invited as an awardee, together with the co-awardee, Mr. Frank Furtan, then President of the Swatch Group (USA), to the 5th World Children’s Festival that took place at The Ellipse behind The White House. Billy was also invited as a guest speaker and came there on that date. Sure enough, this condition might seem insufficient for Billy and me to come across despite the fact that both of us were merely at the same place on the same day. We had a mutual friend, Chris, a British senior guy, and Chris kindly asked if I had any time to meet up with him and Billy together for lunch. Then, we hit it off right away by sharing a common vision – to commit ourselves to making a positive impact on society. It was a natural way of making friends because of the nature of friendship, which is built upon trust and respect, first and foremost.
(After the ceremony of World Children’s Award 2015, Washington D.C.)
I must acknowledge, however, that some may argue that it is not called ‘friendship’ but ‘acquaintance.’ Yes, that argument would be justifiable if I merely bumped into Billy not through a trusted person like Chris, or our mutual friend, without any common values and thoughts. Rather, our meetup showcases the magic of friendship: A good friend always brings out the best in me and helps me expand my social circle as I wish! So, not surprisingly, Billy and I had stayed connected with each other since then, and a year and a half later, he kindly invited me to his house in Palo Alto and we made our friendship to the next level! (I met his wife, Lucille, as well, and we spent New Year’s Eve together, wishing us a wonderful new year 2017 full of laughter, health and happiness!)
(At Billy’s house on the New Year’s Day, Palo Alto, CA)
That is why I am writing this to him and his fellows. Such reciprocity in friendship represents how my life has been shaped, and you can easily grasp it if you trace the thread of my friendship. Let me run the clock backward, quickly, from the time when I met Billy for the first time. First, why was Chris there at the venue of the World Children’s Festival? Because I let him know that I was invited to the Festival. Okay, then, why was I invited? Because the host, International Child Art Foundation, awarded me the World Children’s Award 2015. Why so? Because they thought my Foundation (Akira Foundation) deserved the award after recognizing my Foundation’s activities to promote social innovation and support and engage youth as leaders of social change in Japan and beyond. Then, what activities made ICAF believe that Akira Foundation would deserve the award? The following two outstanding activities – TOMODACHI U.S.-Japan Youth Exchange Program and SEELS, or Social Enterprise English Language School led by Filipino migrant women in Japan. To make the long stories short, these two projects were brought to life through new friendships. For the TOMODACHI Program, one Director of American Councils for International Education approached my co-founder (my twin brother!) of the Foundation through LinkedIn. For the SEELS, Cesar Santoyo, who then had worked on supporting Filipino migrants across Japan and helping them improve the quality of their lives, approached me by email just right after the massive earthquake and tsunami hit northeastern Japan in March 2011. Then, how did Cesar know me before sending an email to me? Actually, he was an attendee at an international conference where Akira Foundation was an institutional partner and my name was listed as a guest speaker in the brochure. As with the meet-up between Billy and me, we hit it off immediately when we met up in person, and it turned out that Cesar and I founded the new social enterprise together to create jobs for Filipino migrants women who used to have no choice but to work as hostesses at a night club or pub.
(With CLS Directors worldwide at the head office of American Councils, Washington, D.C.)
So, the question may arise like this: Why did Chris, a Director of American Councils, and Cesar trust us? Maybe, Akira Foundation’s activities and track record, for sure. Yet, it is not good enough. Friends and friendship – they endorse me for what I have done, and the halo effect of trust has been accumulated through friendships and brought me closer to who I want to be, over time.
Four years have already passed by since I closed my Foundation as time-bound. I am currently an external advisor in international relations at a national university in Japan and help them explore international opportunities. And still working with American Councils to develop and implement another national program called the Critical Language Scholarship Japan Program that is sponsored by the U.S. Department of State. Meanwhile, I decided to go back to school and pursue a doctoral degree (Ed.D. in Penn Chief Learning Officer) at the University of Pennsylvania. Anyway, no matter where I am and what I do, I stay connected emotionally with my friends even while staying away from them, socially and physically amid the COVID-19 pandemic. No doubt that friends enrich my life and the world around us, and make me get through the complex world much easier than it would otherwise be. It sounds like I were still in another parochial world with my twin brother because I feel so happy and alive!
Hiro – Hirofumi Yokoi (横井博文), Japan
Hirofumi is an external advisor in international relations at the Institute of Global Human Resource Development (GHRD) at Okayama University, Japan. He supports the University’s international activities, as well as promoting and enhancing a culture of global engagement across and beyond the campus.
Until recently, Hirofumi was a professor at GHRD at Okayama University and an institute director of Critical Language Scholarship (CLS) Program sponsored by the U.S. Department of State. Prior to the position at the University, Hirofumi had led Akira Foundation since its inception in 2009 and kept front and top of mind its vision and mission, “Social Bridge Between Japan and Global Village,” for seven years.
Hirofumi had taken several advisory roles in national and international organizations including as a strategic partner for the UN-led World Summit on Innovation & Entrepreneurship (theWSIE) and a country director in Japan for the TOMODACHI U.S.-Japan Youth Exchange Program at American Councils for International Educations. Hirofumi was also a project assistant professor in the Global Leadership Program (GLP) at The University of Tokyo (2013-2015).