New England - Japan Exchange: Hinako Sato Interview


If you follow the social media of the Government of Japan, you'll often see posts about the changemakers in Japan. Similarly, the Consulate General of Japan in Boston would like to bring more attention to those doing great work in New England. (If you would like to nominate someone for an interview, please contact our Public Relations Department.)

We spoke with Hinako Sato at the end of December about her year in retrospect and plans for the future. Learn more about her work with Women in Music, Boston Jyoshikai, and B-LEAP:

With the start of a new year, how does it feel to be working in music now?

My music career, compared to other colleagues my same age, is longer. I got my head start really early when I was 8 years old semi-professionally. If I count that in, I already have 25 years of performance experience.

Back when I entered Berklee, I was trained in more styles of jazz and contemporary music. I’ve always been very much interested in various styles of music, folklore for around the world.

I’ve worked with Women of the World (Boston)— that was a good introduction to experience and dig into styles of music.

Since 2017, my focus has been on the Balkans. Turkish. Arabic. There’s a really good Balkan music community in the US. They produce a huge, music festival in NY: Golden Festival. They also run a non-profit EFFC. They produce summer camps twice a year. I participated in both events. That was an eye opening event. The music from that region is so alive and so very different from traditional music in Japan. Turkish music, on the other hand, shares certain traits similar to Japan, so that’s interesting.

If you start looking into languages, it’s said we share the same language family. The reason why I love studying traditional music is that it serves as a window into another world. Understand history of human kind. It’s about languages. It’s about people.

I’m just following this passion to see where it’s taking me. Having lived in Boston and New England for 15 years, now I’m more honest with the music I want to play.

Did you feel pressure to stick with music because your family was adamant about it?

Oh definitely! [laugh] yeah, yeah… this is where it gets interesting because music and the arts are in the field of entertainment. Show business even.

It can be educational too, but some people will perceive this as kind of a privilege. “Oh, you have this fancy life” / “You got the spotlight, good for you” – it’s an interesting dichotomy.

Some people are envious maybe.

For those on the outside who haven’t experienced everything you went through, it becomes easy to see success and say “I want that” and “why not me”.

That was always hard.

I didn’t specifically choose [music] when I was little, right? It was just kind of there. You were surrounded by instruments. I always wondered if I was surrounded by scientists and doctors instead of musicians and artists, my interests probably would have been very different. Sometimes it’s a matter of access. My family might’ve been different from other Japanese families, but they really wanted me to pursue music. To become this pianist, and that was it.

But that’s not the full me, you know. So that was the problem. I don’t really know if that point really comes across especially in small rural towns of Japan. I think that’s part of the reason why it propelled me to pursue opportunities here in the United States.

I’m here.

I paved my own path in this country.

You’ve been in Boston for 15 years, and now you’re in New York. Is there a reason behind your preference of the East Coast? Why the US instead of another country?

East and West. Different vibes, yeah? My first study abroad experience actually started in Los Angeles. I’m from Yamagata, and the international high school I went to had a course— kokusaika. They had a partnership with a school in Los Angeles. We did kind of a language immersion homestay program there for a couple of weeks. Then, I went to Florida to another school. I studied there for one year.

That was definitely the first exposure and experience to the different sides of the coast. And it was good because I even went down south. I saw amazing opportunities there. But lifestyle wise? It was too spread out. You know, the cars. The commute. It’s not so easy for people to meet after work.  It just doesn’t happen. There’s too much traffic.

On the East Coast… I never knew that much about the East Coast until I was studying at Berklee College of Music in Boston. I got in with a scholarship and audition. Then after I got here, year after year, I’ve been discovering the richness of resources and history that New England has. Historically speaking, this place has so much to offer. I’ve been a lover of history in general. A very big history buff. Naturally Boston felt like a good place. And I’m from the north, so the winter doesn’t bother me.

It’s a good place to be.

I love the winter. I love the cold. Where I’m from in Tsuruoka, the wind is much harsher. I’m from a harsher climate, so this is fine. There’s something about winter that is kind of nice. It’s cozy. It gives you an opportunity to stay in, read, and do your own thing. [laugh]

You really seem to have all your winter activities planned out. In another life, you must have been an amazing tour guide.

Yeah right?

But people in the East Coast are just interesting, especially in New York and Boston. All the people here, I mean, many of who I meet from Japan are often researchers. They specialize in something. They have interest. There’s passion. Some sort of big dream. Something. Ambitions. I’m a learner by nature…

Sounds like it.

And that’s how I live! I’m not pursuing a dream like an end game. Buying a house? I don’t live by that. It’s curiosity that drives me. I want to understand the world. I want to keep on learning. Stimulating conversations are interesting.

And going back to what you were saying about why this country, this is just my impression and experience, I think at this time I feel there’s more freedom of expression. Freedom of choice. Freedom of thought. Speech. Compared to where I grew up. Especially for women. I think women are pressured to fit in gender roles, to fill certain…

Having to choose between career and family?

In the music industry, there are a lot of women that are starting to work. Not just as singers. A lot of people behind the scenes? They’re women. Often times, do they have a good balance between family life and career? No. It’s usually just one or the other. Start a family? Quit your job.  Or, they just dedicate their life to their career, and that’s it. I think the struggle is more severe in Japan.

Living here [in America] has really taught me to navigate my own way. To speak about my own truth. I think that’s why I do some of the community work I do in Boston. That might be a faster way to make an impact for the Japanese community.

As you know, there are a lot of people who come from Japan to either study or work here for a temporary amount of time. And then they go back. I think Boston has the potential to serve as a very unique hub and platform for people to not only network but also inspire each other to do positive things.

This is why I started Boston Jyoshikai with my friend Lia. This is one of the big projects I’ve been doing in Boston. We started it in March 2018 with Lia Camargo who used to work the Japan desk at CIC. It was just supposed to be a get together for Japanese speaking women in Boston to let off some steam. Have fun.

I was so shocked by the energy these women had. This wasn’t what we thought Japanese women were like.
We thought we should do this more often. And so I started planning monthly events for this community. Now after a year and a half, the membership of people who like this page and people who are participating has grown to 350. It’s a lot!

And it’s a very active group! We’ve planned networking events where usually it’s working Japanese-speaking women, but sometimes there’s university students too, or retired. Age doesn’t matter. Occupation doesn’t matter. All you need to do is speak both languages and identify as a woman.
Do you touch base with the Japan Women’s Leadership Initiative?

JWLI? Oh yeah! Definitely. We know all of them. Fish Family Foundation too.

We’ve been doing networking events with Japanese restaurants around town. But then we started doing wellness events. Mental health. Physical health. Yoga. We also did other workshops and panels. Seminars. A cruise! Just all these variety of events. It was just our way of trying to bring the community together.

Think about it: if you’re a university student, all you meet are university students. When do you interact with other Japanese people, especially women who are from different walks of life, different backgrounds, and different age groups?

I think there’s something fundamental about multigenerational interaction. That’s something that just makes people happy. We’re social beings, but if you only hang out with peers that are the same age as you…

You don’t grow.

You don’t grow, and I think the competitiveness is more featured sometimes.

That reminds me of music. If you want to get better, you have to play with people who are better than you. There should be a gap in between you.

It’s really a win/win situation for everybody, and this mentor-mentee relationship naturally evolved out of this community. Right now after a year and a half, I’ve developed this admin team of women who run events together, who are awesome. And after conducting surveys asking for what our people need or what they’re looking for, we decided to create a non-profit starting January [of 2020], called B-LEAP.

Be seen. Be heard. Be valued.

We’ve mapped out all the events for this coming year. This is sort of our experiment, our try to really build a platform for women to network and support each other. I’m sure there will be some struggles. Some things won’t go as planned, but that’s part of the deal.

We’ve gotten a glimpse of who you are with how you’re curious and how you like to explore things. Now that you’re taking on these additional tasks, do you find that these administrative tasks come to you easily?

I’ve always been good at multitasking. Fortunately, I got a start at a career very young, so maybe there was an advantage from that. My grandparents did community back at home, so I always had the mindset in the back of my head. My father also had a live performance venue: a place where people gathered, interacted, and built community. This is just part of my vocabulary. It makes sense.

All these fantastic women have different strengths they bring. Some are good at finance and accounting. Others are good at coding and building websites. Others are good at writing. I’m more of like a public spokesman: good at talking to people, good at connecting people, good at drawing visions and ideas in a more flexible and abstract way of thinking.

I think it’s a matter of finding the right team of people to surround yourself with. People who are compatible.

Often, the conception stage for people is the most exciting part. Your ability to map out the entire year is impressive.

It’s not just me! TEAM!

It’s really thorough. They’ve put a lot of thought into it. This is a good model because we didn’t just start out with an idea. We started off from the demand. People need this. We know it. We feel it.

So okay, who’s doing it? Okay, we’ll do it.

In one of your older interviews, you said that one of the best things you can do is find a mentor. I’m sure the people in your group have been able to give lots of advice and help. With your process of critical thinking and evaluation, how do you determine a good mentor?

I had this privilege of meeting this woman who would become my mentor. She really coached me in how to think and understand people’s personality and speech patterns. Cognitive patterns. This vocabulary is something I’ve always thought about, but I didn’t have the vocabulary to describe it. So that was super helpful. She’s a scientist so she can break things down into terms that are specific and tangible, not like artists, you know. [laugh]

Finding someone that has different sets of strengths that will compliment whatever you have. And someone that is able to point out your blind spots. That’s important, and of course trust is very, very important.

How do you build trust or how do you know who to trust? For me, when you converse with someone, you can tell a lot of different things. If they’re empathic, they can listen to you. A lot of people just talk, and they’re not full listening or really sitting in your situation with you. They have their own agenda. They want to sell that.

I want to avoid that.

It’s pretty clear when you have a good sit-down conversation.

How is it when you’re tasked with mentoring others? I’m sure many people must be turning to you for advice.

I’m just always very careful to not pull in my own biases. Of course I have my own beliefs, but that’s based on my own unique sets of experiences and perspectives. It’s very different for whoever’s coming for advice, so it’s important for me to carve out that space to listen to the person. To really see what it is that they’re looking for. What is it that they’re struggling with? To identify that is super important.

Are they looking for emotional support? Are they looking for specific tools? A mindset of how to construct their ideas?

It’s always case by case. It takes a lot of energy, so I can’t just mentor so many people all at once. But I also work with a lot of Japanese high school students, and many of them come as a group. And when I go to Japan and work as a guest speaker… well, again, having awareness is the least you can do. It’s the best thing that you can do!

Maybe it’s not fair to phrase it as “looking back on your career” because in my ways you might feel like it’s only just starting to take off. However, in hindsight, is there anything you wish to have started sooner?

Of course if you start that conversation, you can always go “I could’ve…” and “I would’ve…” and there’s no end. But at the same time, systematically-speaking, I went to this private high school in Japan, right? I had a scholarship. They had this amazing English-centric program. That part was really great. We had access to great teachers who were inspiring.

At the same time, they weren’t really focused on STEM subjects. There weren’t lots of adults or mentors who would open my eyes to that field. That’s something I’ve always wondered. As I grow older, I’m reading up on not just history and art and music and linguistics, but I’m branching out to biology and astronomy. All these other genres.

You could’ve been some sort of entrepreneurial surgeon.

Right? Or maybe I might be innovating something in the medical field. I don’t know. Doing something with clean energy projects? It might have been a very different path. This is why when I go into education it’s not just about what you as an individual can offer to the group of students. It’s important to have a team of people who can offer different insights. And that includes different personalities.

Not everyone has to have my kind of personality. Maybe someone will groove with someone more reserved and soft-spoken, you know what I mean?

You can’t offer everything to everybody. Knowing your limits is super important.

And, there’s always somebody who doesn’t like what you do, in whatever situation! You can’t be thinking about that.

I think the impact of B-Leap/our group is very local, but I hope it can help 1 or 2 people, if not more. And that makes a difference.

Aside from B-LEAP, what’s in store for you in 2020?

Women in Music Japan, I started last January. This whole year we’ve been operating on a smaller scale, but we’ve been creating panel discussions and seminars to get to know how the music industry in Japan works. Eventually, we want to open up the gates to enter the music industry in Japan. Sometimes people don’t know how to get in, especially when you’re not a performer but you somehow want to get involved.

Who do you talk to? How does that work?

It’s very complex, so we’re creating music seminars to tackle some of these points in smaller sections. We’re also conducting lots of interview series to feature different musicians from around the world who are Japanese speaking. Just to showcase diversity of music and musicians. And when I say musicians, again, not everyone’s a performer. Not everyone’s a composer. There are a combination of different things. Sometimes they’re a mother also.

All of that’s been going on really well, so I hope to expand on that. And then maybe eventually find a media partner because we need more outreach.

We’re doing great things. I think the quality and content is good. We want to make it even more official. Maybe register in Japan. Or work under the umbrella of the international Women in Music network. I don’t know how it’s going to work out.

Personally speaking, continuing this music passion project, studying Balkan music. Studying Turkish music. And, I want to do something tangible. I don’t know what it is. I have to figure it out. Maybe gardening. Maybe sculpting. A new way of expressing oneself. I think I need that for myself. Outside of music and art, which I already have. I want to expand my vocabulary of expression.

Follow Hinako Sato: