How Shuko Ebihara creates space by connecting people through art

Happyplaces stories (video)

Marcel Kampman
Jun 6, 2020 · 8 min read

Shuko Ebihara is the founder and director of kuriya, a non-profit organisation which provides career education and capacity building opportunities for immigrant youth (age 16 to 26) in Japan. Shuko also launched an international exchange project with NPOs and individuals from Hong Kong and Malaysia, which received funding from the Toyota International grant program. She worked at the International Organization for Migration in Helsinki and Tokyo, and the Japan Foundation where she was in charge of various cultural exchange projects. She has participated in the European Commission’s Global Cultural Leadership Program and the Japan Women’s Leadership Initiative hosted by the Fish Family Foundation. Additionally, she works as an interpreter and translator. Raised in Peru, Japan and the United Kingdom, Shuko holds a Bachelors of Law in international relations from Keio University, Tokyo. We met in SHIBAURA HOUSE.

Connection lost

I have founded a non-profit organisation called Kuriya. We provide educational programmes for an immigrant youngster like high school students. We use art as a medium to engage and empower these students, which otherwise will be isolated from society. I have been doing this for ten years now. This work is related to my own background. I was born in Japan, but I grew up in Peru and England. In England, I was a middle school student, and I couldn’t speak any English at all. I grew up there as a foreigner who couldn’t understand the language and the culture. But some adults helped me to survive in society. When I grew up, I wanted to be like those adults who supported me.

I still remember my first day in Peru, although I was only three years old. I went to kindergarten en realised that I couldn’t speak Spanish and didn’t know how to communicate. I was terrified, and I cried. That is what I remember. In England, I was a teenager, and I also remember my first day there when I went to the local school. I wanted to talk with people, but the only things I could say was ‘yes’, ‘no’ and ‘hi!’. That was pretty terrifying as well. A bit of a lonely experience.

In England, I was already a teenager, and I very much struggled with everything. Like for example, going to classes and taking lessons. I couldn’t understand anything the teacher said. So every day, until three o’clock in the morning, I would look at each and every single word. And compare the words in the textbooks to the dictionary trying to understand what people were talking about. My parents couldn’t speak English either, so they couldn’t help me either. Even though I was still young, I needed to deal with it by myself. I had to be strong, and I had to get over it. I did not have someone to consult in the beginning.

The first year London and England wasn’t anything like a home to me at all. It did not only have to do with the language. I just couldn’t make any friends. For a whole year, I had no friends and no one to talk to. That was very tough. You go to a school and the language you gradually start to understand, but making friends is something different. If you don’t have any friends at school, you very much feel lonely. That was hard in the beginning, but that got better over time. I now consider London, not as a home, but it is a place that I relate to.

When I went to England I couldn’t talk with people, but I could draw, and I loved art. There were a bunch of other people there who loved drawing, liked to go to the art galleries, and that helped to start talking. Art helped me to engage with society, to engage with the whole world. In connected me. Where it first was somewhat lonely, art makes my life more colourful.

Art makes colourful connections

Art helped me to make friends. I couldn’t speak any languages, but I took art classes back in Japan as an after school activity. When I went to England I couldn’t talk with people, but I could draw, and I loved art. There were a bunch of other people there who loved drawing, liked to go to the art galleries, and that helped to start talking. Art helped me to engage with society, to engage with the whole world. In connected me. Where it first was somewhat lonely, art makes my life more colourful.

Because of my own experience, how art helped me to be engaged with society and to make friends, I started doing what I’m doing right now. And when I came back to Japan as an adult, and I was working, I met these highschool migrant students. We do this work now for over 10 years, so I have met over 300 youngsters already, and they all say the same thing: they all don’t have a friend or a Japanese friend.

It is so hard and challenging to make friends here. I talk to a lot of youth about this subject. So I decided to turn it int my job. The first workshop we did was a video workshop where 20 high school students, both locals and migrants were divided into groups, and they created video’s together. It was straightforward: they got some themes, made video’s together and although they met each other for the first time, they became very good friends at the end of the workshop. I could feel that they were very much enjoying it, and they started to talk to each other. The youth that has been participating in our workshops told us that what we do, the art workshops or other workshops help them to meet people they otherwise wouldn’t have met. And they said that their world opened up. Every workshop provides an opportunity for them to be linked with Japanese society.

The youth that has been participating in our workshops told us that what we do, the art workshops or other workshops help them to meet people they otherwise wouldn’t have met. And they said that their world opened up.

Space is fluid

I have moved around the world since I was little. Which makes that I think I have a different perspective when it comes to space or community. To me, space or community is not something that lasts forever. Sometimes space is not even physical. I know eventually, I will be leaving again two or three years later. My life always has been like that, jumping from one place to another. Therefore I know that I will always be leaving again. That makes that I know that I have minimal time and that the time I spent with people and friends is very precious. Because it doesn’t last. For me, a workshop could already be that pop-up space or community for connection. That is maybe different from the Japanese culture because when you say ‘space’ or ‘community’ in Japan, it usually relates to local space or community. Then it is very much a physical area, local and bounded. Where I consider it to be more fluid and something that you can create, space and community. It does not need to be physical. I always needed to create space and community for myself, wherever I was.

Home can be everywhere. I always had to throw away a lot of stuff. You simply can’t take everything with you. That also influenced my way thinking and concept of home. You can probably only take your memories with you. The stuff, products and goods are sweet reminders, but at the end of the day, people die. And you can’t take anything with you. So maybe home is having memories with people, your experiences. I think that is what really counts the most.

Home is memories and experiences

When people ask me where my home is, I don’t know. I live in Tokyo for ten years now, but I wouldn’t call it home. I feel very much attached to London because I was so much influenced there by the culture and my way of looking at things. That changed when I went to London. Peru I don’t remember that much, because I was really young then. I still remember what we ate. The food, the vivid colours, I still remember that. I think home is something that I create, for me, it is not related to a particular place. I think home is what I create wherever I go. I can be at home everywhere, wherever I live. I would say that home is where you have your family, friends or peers, your life.

Because I was always moving, I never could take things with me. I always had to throw away a lot of stuff. You simply can’t take everything with you. That also influenced my way thinking and concept of home. You can probably only take your memories with you. The stuff, products and goods are sweet reminders, but at the end of the day, people die. And you can’t take anything with you. So maybe home is having memories with people, your experiences. I think that is what really counts the most.

nl/minato is an educational platform that aims to create a dialogue from social, political and cultural perspectives. In this programme, the Embassy of the Kingdom of the Netherlands and Shibaura House, as well as various groups in the Minato-ku area, collaborate to organise events to make Minato-ku and its neighbouring area a stage for study, with citizen participation and lively discussions.

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Happyplaces Stories

A library of perspectives from the Happyplaces Project

Happyplaces Stories

A library of perspectives from the Happyplaces Project, a playful research project to better understand all dimensions of space to eventually create happy places.

Marcel Kampman

Written by

Founder of Happykamping & Happyplaces Project, author, sensemaker

Happyplaces Stories

A library of perspectives from the Happyplaces Project, a playful research project to better understand all dimensions of space to eventually create happy places.

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