Harrison takes path less travelled for Pasifika students
At 26 years old and with a seriously good job, Harrison Gibb-Faumuina reckons he’s living his best life in Tokyo.
Image above: Harrison connects with Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern at the New Zealand Embassy in Tokyo in April 2022.
As a fluent Japanese speaker and former Asian Studies scholar, he knows his life has taken a path quite different from most of his Pasifika peers, and he is grateful for the opportunities he has had along the way.
Harrison, who has a Samoan father and Pākehā mother, is the oldest of five children. The family moved between Porirua, Christchurch, and Palmerston North while he was growing up. So how has he ended up living like a local in Japan?
Harrison decided in Year 9 that it would be “fun” to study Japanese. More than just fun, it turns out he was quite good at it. In Year 13, he took up a six-month language immersion scholarship to Japan and returned to New Zealand inspired to enrol in Japanese and Asian Studies at Victoria University.
“It was very unusual for a young Pasifika lad to take Japanese and Asian Studies,” he says. “Mum and Dad were confused by the decision but were supportive. They knew that if I set my mind to something they could not stop me.”
Language skills and work experience
His biggest opportunity came with the offer of a Prime Minister’s Scholarship for Asia back in 2014 when he was in the second year of his Bachelor of Arts. It allowed him to study Japanese, Chinese, and Linguistics for a year at Tokyo University of Foreign Studies.
“My parents were intrigued as to why I wanted to do it. For me, I wanted to do something big with the skills I had,” he says. “Not many people from Porirua get to study at Uni, and certainly not to study overseas.”
It was a pivotal moment in his life. “Without the Prime Minister’s Scholarship, I know I would not have been able to come here. I was working part-time and saving up, but Tokyo is a very expensive place.”
His classes involved full language immersion and his fluency in Japanese improved quickly. He was also able to take specialised courses not available in New Zealand such as Japanese Culture, Japanese for Business, and preparation for passing the Japanese Language Proficiency Test (JLPT). To secure a job in Japan, foreigners need to achieve top grades in this test.
“The PMSA allowed me to improve my language skills to the point where I could work in Japan. I also managed to undertake two internships while I was in Tokyo which gave me valuable work experience here.”
Harrison says he also made great friends, not only with Japanese students but also other international students and has remained in close touch with them. “Studying in Tokyo was one of the best experiences of my life.”
While there were challenges with living so far from home, he says the students offered great support for each other. His main worry was what he would do when the scholarship was over. “I had been given this opportunity to come and study in Japan and was worried about how to make best use of it in the future.”
Scholarship opened doors to job opportunities
As it turned out, he needn’t have worried. Soon after graduating he received a job offer from Tonkachi, one of the design agencies he had interned for. “It was too good an offer to turn down, so I returned to Tokyo and ended up staying with them for five years.”
He worked as a project manager on domestic and foreign brands including apparel, homewares, and ceramics. In his latest role, he manages a team of 12 Japanese staff as E-Commerce and Digital Manager in Japan for a well-known international luxury goods label.
Harrison is very comfortable living and working in Japan and plans to be there for the foreseeable future. He knows that the Prime Minister’s Scholarship has played a key part in his success.
“The scholarship took me on a path that I always wanted to go on but didn’t have the resources for,” he says. “My world view expanded by coming here and I made international connections that would never have been possible if I had stayed in New Zealand.
“When I look back on how I got to where I am, it’s because I came to Tokyo on the scholarship. It’s played a huge part in my life.”
He says his success is a source of pride for his family and he urges other Pasifika and Māori students to consider applying. “It’s not a time to feel scared or guilty about going. Be bold, be proud, and take the opportunity.”