Figuring out one’s life path isn’t so easy for everyone. Such was the case for international student Kantaro Suzuki, Wittenberg class of 2008. But, now in his 30s, Suzuki has found enjoyment through a unique career path in Japanese journalism, which was fostered during his time at Wittenberg.
Now a freelance reporter based in Tokyo, Suzuki was a former news assistant at The New York Times, has worked as a reporter for Buzzfeed Japan and was on the police beat for a newspaper in Manila. And while journalism has always been a passion, it wasn’t always on his radar.
“I was born in Tokyo in 1981, but I didn’t come here until age 23,” said Suzuki, who recently visited Wittenberg to present an East Asian Studies and International Studies Colloquium to students about his experiences. “I was an electrician working for an electric company – the Tokyo Electric Power Company. I didn’t go to high school in Japan. I went to vocational school to learn the trade. I was too busy to enter college in Tokyo. And at the time, I was a bit frustrated by the Japanese government and education in Japan. I was studying English on my own when I met David Hughes, who worked at Wittenberg at one time, but was a business consultant working in Tokyo. I became friends with him, and he mentioned that Wittenberg was a great place to study.”
Knowing little English and few people in the United States, Suzuki found going to college a bit challenging. He spent many hours going through class materials in Thomas Library, staying every day until the building closed. As it turned out, Wittenberg was the right choice for him, and he says it “opened a lot of doors” for him.
“It was really hard for me at first, and I struggled to find a way to survive; it was hard to understand what was going on in class,” he said. “I didn’t know a lot of English; my English was horrible. I had to take English. I think I got a D, maybe a C? I finally asked for help with my classes.
“I liked Wittenberg because academically, it was very easy to talk to professors,” he added. “Dr. (Paul) Nelson (religion professor) really helped me. He told me I could call him anytime, and I even called him late at home a few times. I would visit his office, and he would help me with the major points and how to understand the material. I survived here because I knew his door was always open. I would always come to his office hours. I also met with Dr. Yu (Bin) and Dr. (Shelley) Chan - my Chinese professors - and they led me to a degree in East Asian history (studies); they also helped me survive along with Dr. (James) Huffman, who was always helpful. I hung around with international students at first, but my life changed after I met my brothers in Delta Sigma Phi. They were great friends and made a big impact on me.”
Suzuki also discovered how much he liked history during his time at Wittenberg and learned more than what he bargained for through class, museum visits, and friends.
“I visited the Air Force Museum, and heard and read about all the stories about the atomic bomb and the history of Hiroshima from a different prospective,” he said. “My grandfather was a suicide attacker, and I had always heard things from the Japanese point of view. I started to talk to American students about how they felt about it. I learned about controversy and discovered history in a different way. I still like history. If I wouldn’t have come to Wittenberg, I would have never looked back and never have known both sides of the story.”
His liberal arts education at Wittenberg gave him a different perspective and opened his eyes to the fact that every story has two sides - a key part of journalism. After graduating from Wittenberg, he didn’t have a job so he returned to Japan and enrolled in the journalism program at Waseda University, but had difficulty adjusting to life back in Japan.
“I wanted to take a break and take a breath, but I didn’t have a clear idea of what I wanted to do. I realized that I had to do something; I wanted to do something good,” he said. “I had three options – I could go into politics, or I could work for an NGO (non-governmental organization) international group, Save the Children, or the United Nations, or choose something where I could go everywhere – and for me that was journalism. I decided to go to J-school (journalism school) and ended up becoming a student again with big dreams, but with no money or job.”
An unfortunate event occurred in March of 2011, a tsunami hit the northern part of Japan causing core meltdowns and a hydrogen explosion at the Fukushima Nuclear Power Plant. Suzuki was soon getting calls.
“I was getting phone calls from reporters because I could speak English, and The New York Times asked me to become an assistant and so this was a break for me, and I went back to the journalism world. I was lucky,” he said. “I began freelancing and contributing to The NY Times and other places and was also a stringer/writer for a Japanese magazine. I like the feature stories, some straight news, but I cover features more.”
Suzuki does approximately four video streams and two-to-three large stories along with other assignments on a monthly basis. In addition to Buzzfeed and The New York Times, he has worked for Seikatsu Magazine, for ProPublica (like American NPR), and for Manila Shimbun, where he met his wife, Jessa Dino.
“I’m happy with what I’m doing now,” he said. “It was my dream to work for The New York Times. I was part of a team. But then I realized that there was a different path, which I hadn’t imagined, and that was as a freelancer. I enjoy the work. I have been successful because I’m honest and build trust. People reach out to me about assignments.”
Suzuki happened to be in Ohio recently for a story he was working on in Wilmington, so he reached out to his Wittenberg professors about offering the colloquium.
“I love Ohio, but some people think it’s a helpless state in the Rust Belt,” he said. “I don’t like hearing people having that attitude toward Ohio, so I’ve always wanted to come here to do a story that would change people’s minds about Ohio. I wanted to show something different; something good, and I recently pitched a story to my editors, and they liked it, which is why I happened to be in Ohio. Since I was only going to be about an hour away in Wilmington, I wanted to stop at Wittenberg and speak to a class to share the great experiences I had to study a different language and tell how it opened a lot of doors for me. I loved Ohio and was really inspired by Ohio and the people.”