”If you want it, if you have the desire, you can do it. Keep on persevering, and someone will notice, someone will extend their hand to you like they did to me.”…more
The man on the mountain
It was a normal day for Jun Sengoku. Earlier that day, he had participated in Sports Day at school, and went to bed at his home in rural Gifu Prefecture after a full day of activity. But in the middle of the night, his father woke him, and Jun knew that something was amiss.
His mother had left.
His parents had often fought, but this was something more. Jun’s life was disrupted, and the disruption would continue. Soon after his mother leaving, his father also departed.
Left to his own devices, Jun had to take care of his brother at the tender age of ten. He cooked and cleaned and ran errands and still managed to go to school, too. At the age of 12, Jun was in junior high school. Under a great deal of strain and with no one to tell him different, he started to run with a crowd that stayed out late, loitering in the streets, and even stealing motorbikes and cars.
Finally, at the age of 13, Jun’s wayward lifestyle captured the attention of the authorities, and after a juvenile consultation, he landed in a “juvenile self-reliance support facility,” a kind of juvenile detention center where he was made to live a regimented lifestyle.
At the facility, he disdained team sports and group activities, preferring more solitary pursuits. It was here that he first read about the adventurer Naomi Uemura, an introverted but intrepid outdoorsman who was the first person to reach the North Pole alone, along with many other solo achievements. Attracted to the adventure and to the danger, Jun set his 14-year-old sights on becoming a mountain climber.
Life at the facility continued, and Jun applied to automotive technical school, passing the entrance exam. Due to his background however, he was denied entrance. Angry and defeated, he took up smoking and drinking, and was the cause of a fire at his home, and had no where to go. At the age of 15, he rented an apartment with a girlfriend, whom he married when he turned 18. The relationship soon ended in divorce.
Jun found a place with his maternal grandmother and brother. During this time, his brother, whom he had cared for when they were children, attempted suicide, and thereafter went to stay with their father. Remembering his mountaineering aspirations, Jun redoubled his efforts to work and save money with a goal to go to Chamonix, France, the locale of Mont Blanc and a place that Naomi Uemura also spent time as a young climber.
At the age of 24, Jun made his first trip to France, where he was able to get a job in the tourism industry and a place to live with the help of a mountain climbing guide contact. However, upon his return to Japan the next year, he learned that his brother has committed suicide during his absence. Stricken with sorrow and guilt, he resolved to be a better person, one that his brother might be proud of. He fled back to France after only four days in Japan.
Back in France, Jun began to climb in earnest, taking on dangerous Alpen climbs with many hair-raising close calls. Lacking a proper work visa, he supported himself by participating in clinical trials and attempting to conquer his sadness and solitude by doing treacherous climbs. His climbing at this time was fearless to the point of recklessness. During one climb, he fell on the Grandes Jorasses, and was on the brink of death; as it was the off season, there were no other people on the mountain who might have happened by to help. He was finally able to access his cell phone and call for rescue.
The fall acted as a wake-up call. Jun had been acting and climbing as if he were alone in the world, flaunting his risky behavior as if taunting death. After his rescue, the friends he had made in the climbing community and in Chamonix rallied around him, showing him care and concern and he came to realize he wasn’t quite as alone as he had thought.
Jun continues to work as a mountain climber, and has made many friends and connections in the climbing community, gaining sponsorships as well as friends. His world, thanks to climbing and this community, has expanded beyond measure.
Contact with Mirai no Mori
Jun had run into Jeff Jensen a few times in the mountains, and was impressed with his fluency in Japanese and the ease with which he tackled Japanese peaks. Though they crossed paths a few times, Jun did not make a habit of revealing his past. One night over drinks, Jeff talked about his involvement with Mirai no Mori, and something clicked into place.
Naomi Uemura was a great adventurer, but he was also a philanthropist at heart. He had hoped to build a school for developmentally disabled children, but failed to fulfill his dream before his untimely death on Mount McKinley. Like his idol, Jun too wanted to help kids with disabilities or troubles. He thought, though, that the time would come further into the future. Meeting Jeff was a kind of fate. The time had come.
Jun says, “石の上にも三年, 継続は力なり,” which is a proverb meaning, “Even after three years on the rocks, persevere.” “I was scrawny, had no money, had no language, and just liked mountains.” His road has been tough and long, but he has come out on the other side and is realizing his dreams, and he thinks that the children who are in a tough situation now can do it too. He hopes they will keep on trying, and will go after their own “mountains.” He says if you want it, if you have the desire, you can do it. Keep on persevering, and someone will notice, someone will extend their hand to you like they did to him.
Mirai no Mori is proud to have Jun Sengoku as our Mirai no Mori Ambassador.
“Think of a happy time, a sad time, and an angry time, and put it in the punch”…more
Comes out swinging
“Think of a happy time, a sad time, and an angry time, and put it in the punch,” says Hiroyuki Sakamoto to the small boxing-begloved child before him. The child thinks a moment, and then drives a pillowy fist into the pad that Sakamo-chan, as the kids call him, is holding up.
Sakamoto knows a little something about channelling his emotions into boxing. A former pro boxer, he was the Japan Lightweight Champion as well as the Eastern Pacific Lightweight champ, but he came from the same origins as the charges he is now putting through the paces: institutional care facilities, aka orphanages.
Born in 1970 in Fukuoka, Sakamoto’s parents got divorced at a young age. He and his brother were moved to live with relatives, sometimes living with his working mother. Money was tight and food scarce, and the siblings often went to the river to catch crayfish in order to have something to eat. Sakamoto started school, and subsisted on the school lunch for his only daily sustenance. One day, his brother collapsed on the way to school, and he himself became anorexic. Officials noticed his lack of clothing, school supplies, and sickness from hunger and neglect, and he was placed in a care facility.
In the facility, with access to three square meals a day, Sakamoto began to feel some security. It was there, he says, that he learned to laugh and smile, and it was there that he first saw something on TV that piqued his interest and set the stage for the rest of his life: a boxing match.
He started training to be a boxer in elementary school, though he lacked access to a formal gym or boxing equipment. Instead, he trained with rocks and jugs of water as weights. He started to box in earnest at the age of 16, and went on to fight on regional, national, and even international stages throughout the 1990s. At the height of his boxing career, he was a household name in Japan.
Despite his fame, Sakamoto never forgot his roots, dedicating matches to the children in his old facility and doing volunteer activity with care facilities from the age of 20. He would bring snacks to share with the kids, or take them to concerts or family restaurants. Seeing the happiness that these simple activities and acts of mentorship could bring the children made a big impression on him. “We adults have to do our best for these kids,” he says.
Now, Sakamoto runs his own place, SRS Boxing Gym in the Nishi-Nippori area of Tokyo, where he still strives to use the hard work and discipline of boxing to help his clients realize their dreams. When we visited, we met a teenaged girl from a Kagoshima care facility who was staying with Sakamoto and his wife and daughter for a week while training in the gym. We also met an ex-yakuza member with the telltale full-back tattoos who had spent his teens selling drugs and packing a pistol, before finding his salvation in boxing.
Working with Mirai no Mori
This year, Sakamoto visited two Mirai no Mori summer camps, giving the kids a pep talk and an overview of his background, and then leading them in a boxing demonstration and mini-lessons for anyone who wanted to try on the gloves. Most of the kids were keen to give it a go.
Working with the kids this way allows him to make an emotional connection that doesn’t necessarily need words. “It’s heart to heart. It doesn’t matter if it’s adult or child, it’s heart to heart and human to human. I really felt that when I was there the other day.”
Sakamoto wants to encourage kids to follow their dreams. It doesn’t matter, he says, that you may not have the money or the equipment to pursue your dream. “It just matters that you have the will to face your dream. Don’t look for others to do it for you, but work on it yourself. One step, half a step, even just a tiny bit closer, follow that dream with a fever.”
For those who haven’t found their dream yet, he says to keep looking. “Do what you do every day, follow your routine. Look for hints in your life and the people you meet.” Sakamoto thinks that you glean hints everywhere, if you pay attention. “Gambatte kudasai. You can learn from everyone around you.”
And if you follow your passion and try your hardest, he says, people will support you. The thing is to get started. “Not tomorrow, or next week, but now.”
Mirai no Mori is proud to have Hiroyuki Sakamoto as our Mirai no Mori Ambassador.
I want to help the kids work through their pain, find their paths, and work toward and achieve their dreams.…more
A heavy legacy
It began two generations ago in Sasebo, Japan, when a young Japanese woman got involved with an American soldier. The soldier left the country, and the young woman stayed in Sasebo, and Baby Jim was born in 1947.
But life is hard for single mothers and the stigma against mixed race children, especially just after the war, was intense. The woman got married, but the new husband was violent and resentful of young Jim. Beleaguered by shame, fear, and despair, the woman took Jim to an orphanage in Sasebo. He lived there from 1953 to 1957, when he was adopted by a couple from the USA. and moved to Scappoose, Oregon. He never went back to Japan.
Jim Miller grew up, got married, and raised a family. It wasn’t until his son, Matt, was 17 years old and in high school that something happened to bring up the past: they had a visit from Eiko Mitsutomi, the woman who had taken care of young Jim at the orphanage all those years ago. Eiko and Jim had kept in touch; in fact, she had visited once before, when Matt was only three months old, but Matt was too young to remember.
Mitsutomi’s visit brought up a lot of questions for Matt. Why didn’t they talk about the past? Why didn’t they know anything about Japan, a part of their heritage? But for Jim, the thought of Japan brought up memories of rejection, abuse, and abandonment.
Matt sat on his questions for a few years, but in 2005 he decided to do something. “I started thinking about my Japanese roots more, thinking about how my father’s past has so greatly influenced my family’s present.” He decided to write to Mitsutomi, and asked if he could visit. She responded that he should, and that very summer, Matt made his first trip to Sasebo, Nagasaki, Japan. Matt stayed with Mitsutomi for two weeks, and she showed him the site where the orphanage had been and introduced him to people in town who had known his father.
“My heart, when I left Japan, my heart was still in Japan. I fell in love with Japan, the natural beauty of it. I fell in love with the people I met. These random strangers on the train. I fell in love with the men and women who knew my father, who said, oh, you’re Jim’s son! I felt like I had a family in Japan all of a sudden,” says Matt.
One year later, Matt came back to Japan via the JET Programme, and became an assistant English language teacher in Gunma Prefecture. After a couple of years, he decided to work on a project about his father, and possibly look for his biological grandmother. He moved to Sasebo to live with Mitsutomi, who he had begun to think of as family, and help her sort through old photos and files and put together a book about her work over 50 years at the orphanage. He was wrapping up the project in the summer of 2010 and planning to move to Tokyo when he decided to call in a favor and ask an acquaintance for help looking up his dad’s mother.
Within two days, he received a call back, and a contact took him to city hall with his father’s paperwork to make inquiries about his biological grandmother. Less than an hour later, they had an answer: she was alive and living 25 minutes away. They placed a call; she picked up the phone, but, thinking it was a scam, hung up on them.
But ten minutes later, she called back, and realized that it was no prank: her grandson, Jim’s son, was in town and trying to find her.
On Sunday of the same week, Matt went to visit her at her house and heard her side of the story. She had been, she said, trying to allow Jim to survive, to give him a better chance at life. Even so, she had been carrying pain over giving him up through her whole life. Meeting Matt, though, let her know that Jim had had a life, one that she could see the evidence of before her eyes. “Through me, the burden had finally been lifted,” remembers Matt.
Jim Miller was not happy to hear what his son had done. He had buried his past, and didn’t want to bring it back. A few weeks later, though, he wrote a letter saying that he was glad to have had the life he did.
Everything cannot be healed, but some things can be
Matt began working in earnest with NPOs that focused on orphans in August of the same year. He had already visited orphanages as a private volunteer in Japan and other countries, but he decided to work more seriously with organizations. He first found the non-profit Living Dreams, and soon after the nascent organization Mirai no Mori, which was working with Living Dreams to provide outdoor experiences for kids living in institutional care. Matt attended Mirai no Mori’s first winter camp in late 2011/early 2012.
There, he quickly saw how the outdoors had a profound impact on the children in a short period of time. After two days, boundaries evaporated and bonds were created between campers and with the staff. “I found an organization that I wanted to be a part of long term. I guess I saw my father in these children. I saw his pain and their pain. I saw his loneliness and their loneliness. And even though I knew I couldn’t heal my father’s heart, my father’s own pain, I could be someone in these children’s lives who could be a positive role model for them.”
Matt brings an incredible energy to the camps, a boisterous sense of play, and a great deal of love that’s obvious to all the children and to the staff as well. He wants to help the kids work through their pain, find their paths, and work toward and achieve their dreams.
“I wish my father had an organization like Mirai no Mori that helped him challenge and process his pain. And being a part of Mirai no Mori, I’m watching these children challenge themselves and be able to talk about their inner struggles and work through their inner struggles. And I think that’s vital for every single one of these children in order for them to move on and live a wholehearted life.”
Mirai no Mori is proud to have Matt Miller as our Mirai no Mori Ambassador.