Tomio Okamura - between two cultures

Tomio Okamura, photo:

In today's One on One Jan's guest is successful Czech-Japanese businessman Tomio Okamura. Today in his mid-thirties, Tomio moved to Prague from Tokyo in 1994 and within a number of years found his passion in the travel industry. Gradually, he has become a household name here in the tourism business, bringing thousands of Japanese visitors to the Czech Republic each year. But, Tomio makes clear success didn't come easily.

In the interview, he discusses how early in life he was made repeatedly to feel he didn't belong either in his homeland Japan or then-Czechoslovakia, feelings he has overcome, in part, through his business but also charity work. When Tomio and I met recently at his downtown Prague office, the first thing I asked him about were his Czech roots.

"The main connection is my mother, who comes from Moravia. It was a very interesting story how my mother, Helena, met my father, Matsuo. As you know in Socialist Czechoslovakia it was not possible to travel, so instead my grandfather, who knew many languages, had many pen friends. One time he received an address from a Japanese man and he asked his daughter - my mum - whether she wanted to write to him. She was still in high school at the time and learning English. They exchanged letters for many, many years and the first chance they had to meet each other was when my father went to complete his university studies in then-West Germany at the University of Heidelberg. He was maybe 24 or 25, and my mum 26 or 27.

"My father visited my mother repeatedly on short stays in Czechoslovakia but then came and spent one year here. He bought a typical Czech motorbike, a Jawa, and he and my mum travelled all around the country together. Eventually they decided to get married."

Were they married here or in Japan?

"Here in Prague. Ion the autumn of 1966 my older brother was born and they moved to Japan. I was born in Tokyo six years later, as was my younger brother."

What was your childhood like growing up there?

"Maybe one of my most important memories was when I was about four years old. I went to the supermarket for the first time and a woman behind the counter there asked 'Why do you speak Japanese like a Japanese person when you aren't Japanese?! At that moment I understood for the first time and definitely that I am a 'foreigner' everywhere. At that time I thought about how it would have been better to have been 100 percent Japanese or 100 percent Czech. And I still was not able to find my position and my place in society.

"I had a lot of bad experiences: in Japan in school at lunchtime my classmates did not want to sit next to me. When we went to walk outside they wouldn't walk next to me because I was different. So, it was very hard and I wasn't accepted, I wasn't the same as them. It was also the same in then-Czechoslovakia. When people in the Czech Republic ask me where I am at home, I say I am 'Japanese' (but anyway I like the Czech Republic and it is my home) and when Japanese people ask me - because they can see that my face is not typically Japanese, I say that I am 'Czech'. So, everywhere I am a foreigner."

How did your mother find living in Japan?

"I think it was very difficult for her, basically for two reasons: one Japan at that time wasn't that rich a country and so it was difficult for my father to buy plane tickets for her and us children to travel to Czechoslovakia, so it wasn't really possible. Another reason was that my father was a typical Japanese man: that meant he preferred to be at work and after work it was understood you had to spend some time after work with your colleagues. So my mother was alone and very sad. At that time there weren't many foreigners in Japan and with white skin and blonde hair: she shined. Gradually, they had psychological problems and it became so bad that my mum was forced to move back to Czechoslovakia with her three children, and she was hospitalised. It was an unusual first 'visit'. My grandmother took care of my oldest brother but me and my younger brother were sent to a children's home."

Was there anything from this period when you were in Czechoslovakia that was positive? When your mother recovered...

"When I was a child I can honestly say that I preferred Japan. There were a lot of lights, it was very colourful. When you came to Czechoslovakia everything was dark and grey..."

We're talking still about the period under communism...

"Yes. And, there was not anything really fun for me. My biggest wish was actually for me to spend all my life in Japan: not here!"

How did you view the fall of communism in Czechoslovakia when you were, what, about 17?

"We were always a very anti-communist family! But, you know, this experience whcih I had had until then was very important for me for one reason: I wanted to show the Czechs and the Japanese that 'I am not so bad for being half' or perhaps that 'I am even better'!"

Tell me a little about the new presentation that you have organised called "The Samurai" to be performed at the Municipal House.

"In this endeavour I invited 230 Japanese actors to the most prestigious concert hall in the Czech Republic. It takes place this week. I want to show Czech visitors nice moments from Japanese culture. It is 'free of charge' but if people can donate by paying for the ticket (50 crowns - around 2 US dollars). The proceeds will be donated to the children's home where I spent a year when I was seven. It's an opportunity to understand one another without language and to be together."