Ambassadors

Ambassadors

Mirai no Mori welcomes ambassadors who believe in our mission and are passionate about sharing their own experiences and messages with youths. It is our sincere wish that the seeds of hope sown and spread by each ambassador will come into full bloom in the future, and we will work to make this happen.

Jun Sengoku

I’d rather try and fail at something I’m passionate about than not try at all. Just get out into nature, move, and have fun. It will certainly open up your horizons.

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 seemed worse. Jun’s life was suddenly disrupted, and the disruption continued. Soon after his mother left, his father also walked out.

Jun now had to take care of his brother at the tender age of ten. He cooked, cleaned, and ran errands, and still managed to go to school. At the age of 12, Jun was in junior high school. Under a great deal of strain and with no one to tell him differently, he got involved with a crowd that stayed out late, loitered in the streets, and even stole motorbikes and cars.

When he was 13, Jun’s wayward lifestyle caught the attention of the authorities; and after a juvenile consultation, he ended up in a “juvenile self-reliance support facility,” a kind of juvenile detention center where he was made to live a regimented lifestyle.

He hated the team sports and group activities at the facility, 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, just one of many solo achievements. Attracted to the idea of adventure and danger, 14-year-old Jun set his sights on becoming a mountain climber.

Life at the facility continued, and Jun applied to an automotive technical school. He passed the entrance exam, but because of his background was denied entrance. Angry and defeated, he took up smoking and drinking, and was the cause of a fire at his home. He had nowhere to go.

At the age of 15, he rented an apartment with his girlfriend, whom he married when he turned 18. The relationship soon ended in divorce.

Jun moved in with his maternal grandmother and his brother. While he was there, 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 of going to Chamonix, France, the locale of Mont Blanc and a place where Naomi Uemura spent time as a young climber.

At the age of 24 Jun made his first trip to France, where he got a job in the tourism industry and a place to live with the help of a contact who was a mountain climbing guide. However, on his return to Japan the following year he learned that his brother had 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 Alpine climbs with many hair-raising close calls. Lacking a proper work visa, he supported himself by participating in clinical trials. He attempted to conquer his sadness and solitude by doing treacherous climbs, fearless, to the point of being reckless.

During one climb up the Grandes Jorasses, he fell and was on the brink of death. As it was the off-season, there were no other people on the mountain. Eventually, he got to his cell phone and called for rescue.

The incident acted as a wake-up call. Jun had been behaving 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 care and concern, and he came to realize that he wasn’t quite as alone as he had thought.

Jun continues to work as a mountain climber and has made many connections in the climbing community, gaining sponsors as well as friends. Thanks to climbing and community, his world 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 Japan’s peaks. Though they crossed paths on multiple occasions, 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.

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 also wanted to help kids with disabilities or troubles. He thought, though, that his chance to do so would come farther in the future. But meeting Jeff was like fate. The time had come.

Saying, “石の上にも三年, 継続は力なり,” a proverb meaning “Even after three years on the rocks, persevere,” Jun added that, “I was scrawny, had no money, had no language, and just liked mountains.”

His road has been long and tough, but he has come out the other side of that dark tunnel and is realizing his dreams. He believes children who are in tough situations now can do it, too, and hopes they will keep trying, going after their own “mountains.”

He says that 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.

Hiroyuki Sakamoto

Trying your hardest all the time can be overwhelming. All you have to do is try your hardest in the moment.

“Think of a happy time, a sad time, and an angry time, and put it in the punch,” says Hiroyuki Sakamoto to a small child wearing boxing gloves. The child thinks a moment, and then drives a fist into the pad that Sakamo-chan, as the kids call him, is holding up.

Sakamoto knows a little something about channeling his emotions into boxing. A former professional boxer, he was the Japan Lightweight Champion as well as the Eastern Pacific Lightweight Champion, and he came from the same origins as those he is now putting through their paces: institutional care facilities, also known as orphanages.

Born in Fukuoka in 1970, Sakamoto was separated from his parents at a young age when they got divorced. He and his brother went to live with relatives, and sometimes lived with their working mother. Money was tight and food scarce, and the siblings often went to the river to catch crayfish to have something to eat.

Sakamoto started school, and depended 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. He lacked access to a formal gym or boxing equipment, so he trained instead 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 activities with care facilities from the age of 20. He would bring the kids snacks or take them to concerts or family restaurants. Seeing the happiness that these simple activities and acts of mentorship bring the children had a strong effect on him.

“We adults have to do our best for these kids,” he said.

Sakamoto now 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 teenage girl from a Kagoshima care facility who was staying with Sakamoto and his family 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, where he gave pep talks to kids and told them about his background. He also led 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 in 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 someone is an 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. He says it doesn’t matter 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 believes you can glean hints from anywhere, if you pay attention. “Ganbatte 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.”

Matt Miller

You have the potential to truly impact this world, to inspire and plant dreams in the hearts of others.

It began two generations ago in Sasebo, Japan, when a young Japanese woman got involved with an American soldier in 1946. The soldier left the country, the young woman stayed in Sasebo, and Baby Jim was born in June 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 United States 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 that brought 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 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,” said 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 helped her sort through old photos and files to put together a book about her 50 years of work 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 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, realizing 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 visited her home and heard her side of the story. She said she had been trying to allow Jim to survive, to give him a better chance at life. Even so, she had been carrying the pain of giving him up 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.

In August of 2010, Matt began working with non-profit organizations (NPOs) that focused on orphans. 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 discovered the NPO Living Dreams, and soon after came to know 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 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 staff. 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.”

Gota Miura

Hidden possibilities, much more than I could ever know, await us in the outdoors. Mirai no Mori represents those possibilities. It represents the future.

The Miura family —with father Yuichiro and son Gota—has its name in the Guinness World Records, has had top appearances  at the Olympic Games, and are well-known hikers and skiers.

Gota is the second-eldest son in the Miura clan. In 1981, at the age of 11, he became the youngest person to climb Africa’s highest mountain, Mount Kilimanjaro. Starting in elementary school, he spent a lot of time abroad and eventually became an Olympic skier. He has summited Mount Everest twice.

Mirai no Mori Vice Chair Jeff Jensen met with Gota Miura in the spring of 2015. Miura understands the power of the outdoors better than anyone, and Jensen hoped to learn a lot from him. However, after Jensen explained the reality of life for many Mirai no Mori children, the issues surrounding foster care in Japan, and the Mirai no Mori mission, Miura decided he wanted to see Mirai no Mori firsthand.

He visited Mirai no Mori’s campsite in Chichibu, Saitama, for a two-day, one-night camp. There he found cheerful, energetic staff who turned daily chores into enjoyable, game-like experiences, and provided a chance to use everyday English in a fun, comfortable way.

The children even gave Miura a friendly nickname: Henna Ojisan, or “strange old man,” after the famous character portrayed by Japanese comedian Ken Shimura. Because of Miura’s friendly nature, he came away from the experience with a great relationship with the children.

While playing a popular camp game called “Meet a Tree,” in which campers must identify individual trees in the forest using only their sense of touch, he was partnered with a high school student who was a Leader-in-Training at camp. Because players are initially blindfolded, they must trust their teammates to lead them from place to place safely. Because of Miura’s friendly character, his teammates led him on a much more difficult path through the forest!

After dinner, Miura had time to talk to the kids about his experience climbing Mount Everest. The children were enthralled by his story, and when he spoke it felt as though Everest was in the children’s reach. After the story, it was time to practice camp songs. Miura made the children laugh when he sang in English and used his new Henna Ojisan character.

The next morning, the children went on a day hike. Miura joined the children in learning English hiking phrases. He enjoyed speaking English with the kids and they were very open with him. During the hike, he sang “Mori no Kumasan,” a popular Japanese children’s song, but he changed the lyrics and made the children and staff laugh. Miura also helped encourage some smaller children who were complaining about their heavy backpacks and tired legs.

Many Mirai no Mori children lack relationships with positive older role models, and Miura was a great influence on these children. Mirai no Mori is assured that his visit turned into a wonderful chance for children to see the importance of committing one’s mind to something and seeing that through to the end.

After visiting a Mirai no Mori camp, Mr. Miura said the following:

“When I arrived at Mirai no Mori camp at the Yagai Center in Saitama, we saw the children throwing balls and Frisbees around. I asked them what they were doing, and they explained that they had put the Dutch ovens on the fire and were waiting for the food to cook.

“After a little while, the call for lunchtime came through. Everything was in English. All the Mirai no Mori leaders speak English fluently, and the way they interacted with the children was so fun and cheerful that I felt like I was on Sesame Street.

“For the children, we were unexpected visitors. Although the Dutch-oven chicken was delicious and the children were enjoying their lunches, it seemed like they didn’t know how to talk to us. At the same time, knowing the background of the children, we had a difficult time bridging the gap from our side.

“After lunch, we were taken to do activities by the camp leaders. In the process of playing forest games and night games, the kids started calling me Henna Ojisan.

“The next day we went on a hike. As we hiked, we sang songs and talked about the mountains, and I felt like I had been part of the group for days and days. When we left, we left grudgingly, full of regret that we couldn’t stay longer.”

Before visiting Mirai no Mori, Miura had no previous experience working with children from children’s welfare institutions in general. But as someone who really understands the power of the outdoors, he said, “If I can help these children create memories and have experience in the outdoors, I would be very happy to work with Mirai no Mori.”