I Thought I Recognised Her - Sara Aiko

All photos by Brendan Kitto.

All photos by Brendan Kitto.


If you asked me three or four years ago, I would have said I’m from New Zealand, but my mother is from Japan. Now, when I’m travelling, I say I’m from Japan but my father is kiwi. So it’s flipped around a bit. I’ve lived in Japan for 7 or 8 years. Kyoto is my home. Since my mother has moved back, she lived in New Zealand for 30 years, but she moved back to Japan three years ago and she lives near me. So I have my mother and partner and my business there, so Kyoto is my home.

I just came back to visit New Zealand, and I didn’t know how I was going to feel having been away for so long, but I’m like, OK hang on a minute, this is home as well. A girl can have two homes.


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I grew up with both cultures, I’m so thankful to my mum for that. But I hated it when I was growing up. I went to a Japanese school in Wellington and had to go through a Japanese education system as well as learning English. The school was made for Japanese kids who came to NZ because of their parents' jobs. So my sister and I were the first mixed, not full Japanese kids that went there. So I grew up with my culture and the language, I’m fluent in Japanese and English. 

I hated it and resented my mother for making me go to this school and learn Japanese, I just wanted to be a kiwi kid, but now I’m so grateful. It’s because of her that I’m doing what I’m doing now. I wouldn’t have been able to go to Japan and have these jobs and have these opportunities. Also, growing up with both cultures has given me an advantage in Japan because I know both perspectives.


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I think maybe it was just me, when you’re a child you just want to blend in with other people, you don’t know what kind of advantage you have. I was a little ashamed of being Asian as well, people would say, ‘Oh, you’re Chinese, oh, you’re sushi.’ Those things would bug me. You’re just a child, and my kiwi friends would come to my house and my mum would come out serving rice crackers, and I’m like ‘Mum, cookies!’ It was so cool that my mum was giving out rice crackers, but you just don’t understand. I would say even in university I didn’t fully embrace who I was.

I think I’m someone who is heavily influenced by my surroundings as well, so as a child being Asian didn’t seem that cool, or people made fun of you. But when you hit junior high school suddenly being Asian is exotic. It shouldn’t, but my confidence slowly grew from there. Like, cool, suddenly I’m desirable. Confidence shouldn’t come from there, but it came from there at that time.


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Before I moved to Japan I was working in Māori TV and I was at a point of life where I wasn’t sure what I was doing at the time was what I wanted to be doing long-term. It was something that didn’t feel right and I knew I wanted to go and explore more. I was doing marketing and sales with clients, not really production and I had studied Communications at AUT wanting to get into production. I was surrounded by great people, but something was missing. My mother said, why don’t you just go to Japan? I thought, why not? I went there thinking I’d just stay for the year, but it’s been 8 years now.

I went over teaching English. That wasn’t really my choice in career. I did it for a year, but I really wanted to work in the media. I was in the south of Japan, then I moved to Osaka. I was still teaching English, but teaching at companies like Nintendo as well as working at a jazz record label doing international sales for them and communication. A year later I got a job in Kyoto working in media there, basically pimping Kyoto out to the world and being in charge of videos, photos, content. That job led me to my path now.


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This year in March, I started my own travel boutique/media company Curated Kyoto that introduces creative travellers to a new way of enjoying Kyoto. It’s basically a Kyoto that’s loved by creative locals there. What I found from working in the media was that the Kyoto that was introduced to the world was your typical touristy spots, like the Golden Temple, which of course is beautiful, but there is so much more going on - and that’s what I wanted to introduce to people. I wanted people to connect to the city and vice versa, I wanted the local people to connect to the people coming in.

Because I introduce more the creative Kyoto, the people who come in are designers or people doing cool stuff. For example, I did an inspiration tour for a global sports brand - executives and creative directors who design shoes were there and needing inspiration. So, connecting them to the locals and the traditional stuff. I’m hoping they’ll be like, 'that’s cool', and find a new product to design that will help the local culture as well. So they’ll design something using the traditional material so that it keeps the local culture and traditions going.

What I’m doing now is what I want to do. It totally makes me happy. I do media as well, my business partner, his name is Alan, he's a film maker from LA and he moved to Kyoto. Together we run film productions lanfilms, he helps me make videos for my tourism stuff, but we also target businesses and make videos for them. We made a video for VSCO, a 10 minute Kyoto video for them.


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When I went to Japan I knew from the get go that I wouldn’t be accepted as 100% Japanese, but I didn’t think that I would be treated as a complete foreigner. I guess it’s how I look as well, people just assume I’m a tourist or a foreigner. Even people I’ve spent a lot of time with still treat me like a foreigner. It was really hard at the start, I was like, 'No, I’m Japanese, I speak the language'. My partner is full Japanese, and if we go out for dinner I’ll be talking in fluent Japanese, I’ll talk to people but they’ll talk to my boyfriend in Japanese, answering my question. I’m like, 'Hello? Excuse me.'

A long time ago I came to the realisation that I’ll never be accepted as 100% Japanese, but what is important to me is strengthening the identity of being mixed. Because from now, there is going to be a lot of mixed children, a lot of interracial marriages going on and I think it’s really important to pave the way. OK, I’m not 100% Japanese but I’m 100% mixed race.


All photos by Brendan Kitto.

All photos by Brendan Kitto.