This story originally ran in our 2015 Graduation Issue. To purchase a copy of the issue, which includes a list of this year’s Nikkei high school and college graduates, please stop by our office or call us at 213-629-2231.

Rafu Shimpo Intern, 2014

The other day I was cleaning out my closet, as a way to make myself feel like I was being useful and productive as a new high school graduate. As I was sorting through old jeans and outgrown clothes, it occurred to me that I had over three bins of T-shirts. Now, I have six bins total. Almost half my wardrobe consisted of T-shirts from the Japanese American basketball community — tournaments from the past several years, Yonsei Basketball fundraisers, co-ed teams, and the JAO league (Many “Asian ballers” will completely understand this). This was absolutely ridiculous.

But as I began to throw shirts into my “giveaway” pile, I found myself more and more reluctant to part with them. Yes, many of them were too small or had holes ripped through or had a faded logo, but they were all memories.

There was a black championship T-shirt from a Pasadena Bruins co-ed tournament, not because we won and were good at basketball, but because we won the T-shirt making contest. That particular co-ed team was beyond awkward, but it was an experience that my friends and I laugh about today. There was an extremely faded cut-off shirt, one that my Yonsei team had attempted to tie-dye blue and red, but had clearly failed.

My Yonsei team has never won a tournament, but the people I met through the experience are absolutely incredible. And there was an old blue shirt that Cory Gaines, who used to coach the Phoenix Mercury, had signed at a basketball summer camp. That summer camp gave me a reason to stay motivated in basketball, and Cory Gaines found ways to allow us to both have fun and improve. I hadn’t worn these shirts in months, maybe years, but I couldn’t just throw them away.

Takahama basketball
At 4-foot-11, Takahama stood tall as one of the most potent scorers in the Rio Hondo League. Above she drives for two of her career-high 26 points against 6’6” Burbank center Anastasia Tsybaeva, during last November’s San Gabriel Valley Winter Classic tournament. South Pasadena won the championship and Takahama was named the tournament’s Most Valuable Player. (Photo by Perry Li)

Maybe I’m being overly sentimental, but standing over all those shirts made me realize the enormous impact the JA community has had on my life. In the midst of AP classes, SAT studying, high school basketball, ASB, yearbook, and peer tutoring, I’ve always found a way to return to the JA community. It’s been far too important to leave behind. JAO, both the club and its basketball league, has exposed me to a family I’ve had the honor of being a part of ever since I became a Pasadena Bruin as a kindergartener.

I’ve had the chance to help out in the service portion of JAO, at holiday parties for underserved elementary school kids, Keiro Senior Healthcare facilities, and events in the JA community. Camp Musubi, the first leadership program in Little Tokyo I participated in, introduced me to an overwhelming pride in my Japanese heritage as a seventh grader.

Playing on the Yonsei 18 basketball team and doing a homestay in Japan led me to step outside my comfort zone and look past certain obstacles, like different languages, when creating friendships. Kizuna’s Youth CAN, a program with the intent of empowering future generations, taught me essential leadership qualities and the importance of continuing to keep the JA community alive.

And, of course, The Rafu Shimpo — the nation’s oldest bilingual Japanese American newspaper — has inspired me to continue supporting our iconic community organizations. Interning there has given me a chance to pursue my love of writing and reporting, explore the people in the community and give our underappreciated leaders some recognition.

It’s been an insanely hectic high school experience, but staying connected helped me create a stronger version of myself, a better idea of my identity. It’s given me memories, lessons, and experiences that I’ll never forget.

Many high school students feel pressured to be very overextended, participating in as many activities as possible in order to build a strong college resume. They stress out because over the summer, they have to focus on summer school, but also finding community service opportunities. They have to study hard for SATs, but they also have to be involved in school clubs. They play high school sports, but also participate in club sports in order to be the best.

This system sometimes works and can build very successful people. But many times, it forces students to become a college application, rather than a caring, interesting person. It’s easy to forget to do things because you care about the cause. It’s easy to forget how to be genuinely empathetic. It’s easy to volunteer because you “need” to or help someone out because it’ll make you look better. I know it’s easy because I’ve been there too.

But somewhere along the way, it dawned on me that this was happening to so many students, and I refused to be reduced to just another college app. Instead, I figured out what I wanted to do, who I wanted to be.

Elise Takahama in cap and gown for the South Pasadena High School commencement on June 11. She is heading to Boston University in the fall. (MIKEY HIRANO CULROSS/Rafu Shimpo)
Elise Takahama in cap and gown for the South Pasadena High School commencement on June 11. She is heading to Boston University in the fall. (MIKEY HIRANO CULROSS/Rafu Shimpo)

So here’s who I am. I’m a Japanese American student athlete, like so many others. I’m 4’11¾ ”. I’m a vegetarian. I’m an only child, but I have six pets. I’m very clumsy (something that has taken me awhile to come to terms with) and I’ve been told I have a “distinctive” laugh. Whatever that means. I love to read and write. I volunteer as much as I can, not because I need to, but because the community I was raised in taught me the importance of giving back. Gaining global perspective through service in foreign countries means a lot to me.

And in the fall, I’m going to be a communications/journalism major at Boston University, because while this community has given me a cherished childhood, I want to be able to discover new experiences in a place where I can learn to be completely independent.

But yes, the high school experience can be overwhelmingly competitive. It can pressure students into doing things they might not really care about, things that just look good on a resume. It can completely stress students out.

So to all of those who are still going through that high school experience, I just want to give you some advice. Of course, you don’t have to take this advice, considering the fact that I would rather throw out quality Elite socks than a spray-painted co-ed T-shirt. I understand if you think my judgment is questionable.

But for those of you who might benefit from the ideas of a clumsy, almost legal midget, remember this: Don’t just be defined by what you do. Don’t let SAT scores or AP results decide your self-worth (But still do your best and work hard! No worries, parents). Take a moment and decide what you believe in, what you enjoy, what you want to be. Actually, take a lot of moments.

This won’t happen overnight. But once you figure it out, high school will seem less like you’re just going through the motions. The things you do will have a greater purpose and this alone will allow you to find your own voice. You’ll just care about your activities more, which will make juggling academics, athletics, and extracurricular activities a bit easier.

The JA community played a huge role in helping me figure myself out. Summer Obons, Camp Musubi, Youth CAN, Yonsei, JAO, and The Rafu have helped me realize some of my most important values — family, community, strong self-identity, and giving back. So for that, thank you so much.

Thank you for One-Plus-One and Sakura-ondo, the basketball dances, all the shaved ice and dango, the leaders you’ve created, the role models I look up to, the lifelong friendships, the endless love and support, and, of course, the T-shirts.

Boston is 3,000 miles away, but I’m not really going anywhere.

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