When I was in Medellin, my friend there told me about an inspirational guy named Yokoi Kenji. He spoke to her team at BanColombia and she loved the speech. He recently received an award from the Colombian Parliament for the work he is doing and I told her I would try to get in touch with him. I contacted him and after some scheduling issues were resolved we agreed on a time to meet. And what a great experience I was in for!
Kenji is half-Japanese (dad) and half-Colombian (mom). He grew up partly in Colombia, dividing time between his parents’ house in the wealthier area of Bogota and his grandparents’ house in the slums of Bogota known as Ciudad Bolivar. He also spent part of his adolescence and adulthood in Japan.
He told me he always knew he’d grow up and be a leader of some kind, though he didn’t know whether it would be in a gang, the mafia, the government, or a company. There was something about growing up different that embedded the seeds of leadership within him. In the end, it would be a non-profit organization.
Given that his cultural roots come from two different sides of the planet and are essentially opposites, he couldn’t help but notice differences as he grew up. The Japanese are full of discipline and respect, but the Colombians are not. The Colombians are full of spirit and flexibility, but the Japanese are not.
The biggest thing he realized, however, was that the “poor” people in Ciudad Bolivar weren’t as poor as it appeared, and it was actually the Japanese who were suffering from poverty.
Well, in Ciudad Bolivar everyone had abundant food, water, electricity, happiness etc. There was no sense of scarcity when it came to the important things in life. Yet in Japan, everything was approached with scarcity. Conservation of water, electricity, food, and time were a must. Despite earning so much more, the Japanese approached life as if they were completely poor.
Thus, Kenji saw the role one’s attitude plays in determining happiness and success in life.
Sadly, on both sides of the Pacific Kenji was losing friends. In Colombia he lost friends due to gang violence and delinquency. While we were in the Ciudad Bolivar market he showed me where he used to come every day after school to read the newspaper to see if anyone he knew was killed the day before. In Japan it wasn’t violence or drugs that was claiming his friends’ lives. It was suicide.
This raised more questions. How could a people seemingly full of everything they need in life be so dissatisfied with life that they’d commit suicide? And how could the people in Ciudad Bolivar, who had nothing by comparison, be so happy?
It’s a difficult thing to reconcile. After studying theology in Japan and working in the favelas (slums) in Brazil, he returned to Ciudad Bolivar in Bogota ready to make a change on both sides of the ocean.
For five years he did what he could to get by, taking care of his wife and two kids however he could. He had a lot to offer as a speaker, inspiring Colombians by reinforcing all the positives embedded within their society and Ciudad Bolivar’s society despite what they might think and despite the stereotypes they have about Japan. He started by giving the speeches in schools. To get by, he’d charge 1000 Colombian Pesos/$0.55 to write people’s names in Japanese.
Kenji, together with a friend from Brazil, started an organization called Turismo con Propositio (Tourism With Purpose). Through this organization he sought to link the two cultures in his heart.
The organization started out by bringing Japanese youth who have attempted suicide to Ciudad Bolivar to reinvigorate them and help them strengthen their purpose pillar.
Despite the language barrier, the love and appreciation can be felt on both sides. The Japanese often have skills they can apply in the community. While I was there, for example, there was a chiropractor. He can’t communicate with his patients by mouth, but he communicates with them through his hands.
It’s not just Japanese youth who can participate, but they made up the entirety of the first batch. Now people from all over the world participate. They distribute aid, put on programs for the kids and adults, and offer free hugs and smiles.
In interviewing Kenji, we walked for two hours throughout Ciudad Bolivar. He still lives there, has his office there, and rents a building with a huge hall for speeches and expositions. He showed me his grandparents’ house where he spent a lot of his childhood. He explained how his community has changed in many ways, but, sadly, hasn’t changed much in other ways.
As we walked the streets, people would yell out Kenji’s name and wave and smile. He’s become a bit of a celebrity there and throughout Colombia. There’s an endearing element to a local boy going out and achieving success and pouring that success back into the local community. I could see in the faces of the people in Ciudad Bolivar how proud they are of Kenji. He makes a living giving speeches throughout Latin America and pours some of this income into his Ciudad Bolivar rejuvenation efforts.
As we walked through the central market, after an hour of intense discussion, we came upon some kids playing on the floor. They were basically blocking the path through an artery in the market, but it reinforced so many of the points Kenji had been making and that I have seen in my travels. Kids are happy. And we got to see that in action.
The last half hour we talked more about me and I asked him a lot of questions and sought his advice. He was happy to oblige. I’d describe him as having the demeanor of a Japanese with the heart of a Colombian. His advice was direct and to the point, but was colorful and full of spirit.
Though he is only 32, Kenji is making a very positive difference in his community. I have said it before and I’ll say it again – if you want to change the world, change your local community. He is doing exactly that and meeting Kenji was an important stop on The Happy Nomad Tour.
I asked Kenji what his goal is for the future. He said he wants to be sitting in his living room 40 years from now with his wife and open a book only to discover that it was written by one of the kids he worked with in Ciudad Bolivar.
A big thank you to Kenji for giving me two hours of his valuable time, and thanks to Diana for keeping things organized despite all the scheduling issues.
Below are some videos of Kenji in action. If you speak Spanish I’d definitely recommend taking a look.