The Next Generation of Leaders: Kiyoko Sugimoto

Yonsei and hailing from Toronto, Kiyoko Sugimoto (she/her) is a 24-year-old filmmaker living in Vancouver. Her most recent project, “The Hafu It”, is a podcast she co-hosts where discussions range from the Japanese Canadian experience to current affairs and pop culture. Kiyoko is also working on her documentary, “Finding Hapaness”: a film that shares the story of her retracing her family’s roots back to Japan.

Thank you so much for meeting with me today, Kiyoko! As you know, we’ve requested to interview you because we consider you an upcoming leader within the community!  Whether it’s through your podcast, through your directorial work, your content creation – it’s unique and the Japanese Canadian Community and VJLS-JH is here for it! Just in terms of who you are and what you do, could you provide a description of your involvement in the Japanese Canadian (JC) community?

A lot of this involvement within the JC community is new to me, it comes with a whole new perspective that has opened up my eyes in the last couple of years. It’s something that I’ve always wanted to be a part of – but I didn’t really know how. I was too young to be involved in the JC community in Toronto, and then I lived with my mother, who isn’t Japanese, so we didn’t get involved with stuff like that. Living on my own in Vancouver and being here for the last seven years has given me more of an opportunity to be closer to JC related events.

I also have a podcast, The Hafu It, with my co-host, Sakura Yoshida.  She was actually, I realized – the first mixed Japanese person that I had possibly – ever – met outside our family. It was cool because we would have conversations like, “my Obasan used to fold up her plastic bags and put it in the dishwasher – they didn’t use the dishwasher!” And Sakura had a similar experience too! We’d always talked and joked about creating a podcast where we could discuss these kinds of experiences because they felt so important to us when we first met and even before we knew each other.  I’ve been so inspired by anyone that I’ve come across within the Japanese Canadian community, I just felt like it was time to try and contribute to those kinds of conversations.

Is this the main project you’re working on in 2021?

The podcast has definitely been at the forefront of what I’ve been working on so far this year. I work fulltime outside of my projects – somehow, I find time to do our other things too! I started this other project in 2019, which was a film –[tentatively] called, “Finding Hapaness”. I had a conversation with my dad about what we knew about our family – we both realized how little we knew. I know that this is not a unique experience within the JC community. I thought, why don’t I go find out and document it! [The project] took me really far between 2019- 2020, taking me to Japan and was supposed to be a much longer trip than it was! Obviously COVID-19 has hindered a lot of creative projects. We didn’t get to film one of the major parts of the documentary: we were supposed to head down to Kumamoto, which is slightly north of where I’ve discovered where my family is from. We’re from a little town that was once called, Ogawa-machi – now a part of Uki City. But we were called back by Mr. Trudeau and it just got put on hold. I’ve been waiting for an opportunity to return.

In one of our recent conversations, you mentioned that you were intending on going back to Japan pretty soon for something else. Could you elaborate a bit more on that?

Yes – you may have heard of the JET program. This is something that I’ve felt I’ve needed to do. I’ve actually contemplated teaching for a while – I love working with people! I love the collaborative aspects of learning and teaching. This program would be an easy way for me to connect with the family that I’ve found and would allow me to also resume filming in Japan. I am currently in the interviewing process – if I were placed, the usual departure time is the end of July or early August.

What would you tell to your younger self?

Something I did learn when I was about 18 or so was the importance of moving on. Sometimes when you have to make decisions for yourself that take you out of a situation that you feel that you don’t belong to anymore. I had so much responsibility for an 18-year-old. I was looking after my mother and my sister in Toronto – they were people who really depended on me and I wasn’t sure if I wanted to leave them behind. I felt like that was going to be a selfish decision. But the life that I was living in Toronto wasn’t for me anymore and that it was time to move on. That was really difficult. I feel like situations like that come up a lot in your life.

Was there anyone in particular that inspired you growing up?

Without a doubt it’s my dad. My dad and I have always been close but he wasn’t really physically present in my life growing up. A lot of the adversity that my dad faced growing up with parallel with mine. It’s a good example of how your circumstances can bring people together and shape who you are. He put so much emphasis on the Sugimoto name. “Sugimotos are successful – it doesn’t matter what you do!” I’ve tried my best to embody Robert Sugimoto as best as I could because that’s what I aim to be like.  I’ve always seen my dad as less of a parent and more as a mentor; he’s someone I really look up to. Every part of who I have become today is because of that man and the example he’s provided. Anytime that I falter or second guess myself – he’s the one to say, “of course you’re going to do it, of course you’re going to be successful!”  He’s allowed me to be who I am and always found a way to support me.

How do you see yourself as a leader or, what kind of leadership style do you use when you’re working with people?

I think an aspect of leadership that gets misconstrued is that leadership is like a sort of dictatorship. I’ve learned over the years that it’s not the case. My favourite professor at university would do something in his films that I don’t think I’ll ever forget: he would credit everyone who worked in his movies as the filmmakers. If it’s a person who was in the village he shot in – they would be on the title card too. That’s what leadership is to me, it’s a collaboration. It’s never just something that one person is doing. You’re shaping it with other people. I’ve used this style of leadership through my managing style over the years. It’s definitely a sort of unconventional style of leadership. I make sure that we’re all on the same boat. Communication and trust are huge components of that.

Goals? What you’d like to accomplish or what do you want to do?

I’d really like to work with people as much as possible. Something that has become increasingly important to me is to have a better understanding of different cultures and people. I would love to do something in the future that involves me working at an embassy, maybe teaching. Or something that takes me overseas. I am a storyteller, someone who loves listening to stories – and everyone has a story. It’s always my favourite thing about meeting someone new. Working somewhere where I can hear as many stories and experiences as possible, that would be amazing. Through filmmaking, If I was able to help tell other people’s stories as accurately and as honestly as possible – that’s also something that I would love to do.

Your favourite place in the world? AND your favorite place in Vancouver.

In the world, Scotland. Japan is pretty up there too. But Scotland is just so gorgeous. The people are so kind, and they’ll always tell you what is up – but never in a condescending way. If you’re into the outdoors at all…. In Vancouver, the Museum of Anthropology.

VJLS-JH and The Hafu It will be collaborating for a 4-part heritage related podcast series for Asian Heritage Month!
Make sure to follow our social media for updates as May approaches! @vjls.jh @hafuit

Follow Kiyoko’s journey:
Instagram: @hafuit @thisiskiyoko @findinghapaness
Twitter: @thisiskiyoko1
Kiyoko’s Films:

By Mika Kobayashi Embury
Community Programming Coordinator