TIME Japan

Hostage Crisis Deepens Debate Over How to Defend Japan

Kimimasa Mayama—AFP/Getty Images Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe talks during a ministerial meeting on an online video purportedly showing a Japanese hostage being killed by the Islamic State at the prime minister's official residence in Tokyo on Feb. 1, 2015.

The deaths of two Japanese men at the hands of ISIS could be trouble for Prime Minister Shinzo Abe

The presumed deaths in Syria of a gentle children’s advocate and a troubled adventurer bring to a close a crisis that riveted Japan and brought much of the Japanese government to a standstill for more than a week.

But the fallout from the crisis could be far-reaching.

Japan already was facing a polarizing national debate over Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s ambitious security agenda. And the hostage crisis — which ended Saturday with video of an execution at the hands of the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS) — seems likely to weaken support among the public, while hardening attitudes among government leaders.

“Initially, there will be a boost for Abe as people rally around the flag. But down the road, he faces tougher questions,” says Jeff Kingston, director of Asian Studies at Temple University’s Tokyo campus. “The public is still digesting the horrific events, but certainly there are doubts that Abe’s security agenda is making Japan safer.”

Since taking office for a second time 25 months ago, Abe has worked to boost defense spending, ease restraints on Japan’s military and develop a more assertive foreign policy. At least some of that agenda is in response to China’s rapidly growing military and aggressive territorial claims.

But Abe’s program of “proactive contributions to peace” failed badly during his six-day visit to the Middle East last month. Islamist extremists accused Abe of taking sides in the grisly conflict in Syria and Iraq by pledging $200 million in aid to countries opposing ISIS.

ISIS threatened to kill two Japanese men taken hostage earlier unless Abe met their demands, which initially called for a ransom equal to the aid package that Abe announced in a high-profile speech in Cairo.

The killers apparently followed through on those threats, releasing videos that purportedly show the murders of Haruna Yukawa, 42, a failed businessman and would-be private military contractor, and Kenji Goto, 47, a respected freelance journalist who chronicled the suffering of children in war zones around the world.

Goto was kidnapped after entering Syria in October in a failed attempt to aid Yukawa, whom he described as a friend. Yukawa had been taken hostage while traveling with a Syrian rebel group in August.

Abe has argued that Japan, as a democratic nation and a major economic power, has a “responsibility” to play a more active role in world affairs. But the hostage crisis is likely to weaken public support for that view, says Brad Glosserman, executive director of the Pacific Forum CSIS in Honolulu.

“There has always been a powerful ‘disengagement mentality’ in postwar Japanese thinking, and I worry that [the hostage crisis] will reinforce that,” Glosserman says. “It will feed the popular inclination to stay out of entangling affairs.”

Even before the hostage crisis, Japan was being forced to do some hard thinking about its place in the world. This year marks the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II. Abe, who has strong nationalist leanings, already had begun the contentious process of writing an official commemoration statement that critics worry will backtrack on previous apologies.

In a meeting with international reporters in Tokyo on Friday, the U.S. State Department’s fourth-highest-ranking official, Under Secretary for Political Affairs Wendy Sherman, pointedly said that the U.S. expects Abe’s statement to “promote reconciliation.”

Abe is expected to submit legislation to Japan’s parliament this spring that would allow the country’s military to fight alongside the U.S. and other friendly forces under circumstances currently forbidden by Japan’s pacifist, postwar constitution.

The hostage crisis revealed that even if Japanese law had permitted it, Japan’s military lacked the hardware, training or organization to attempt a rescue halfway around the world (though in truth, few countries have such capabilities). The lonely deaths of Yukawa and Goto might change that, says Grant Newsham, senior research fellow at the Tokyo-based Japan Forum for Strategic Studies.

“They could make some practical improvements in capabilities, but most importantly they could become psychologically willing to operate overseas and with a range of partners and allies,” says Newsham, a former Marine Corps liaison with the Japan Ground Self Defense Force. “The psychological aspect is key. Overcome that hurdle and Japan starts to look and act like a regular country.”

The hostage crisis is certain to deepen the debate over what kind of country Japan wants to be, says Nancy Snow, a visiting research professor and specialist in international affairs at Keio University in Tokyo.

“This is not a passing event,” says Snow. “The lesson for Japan is that no one is immune anywhere from the troubles of the world.”

TIME China

Is China’s Official News Agency Following a Japanese Porn Feed on Twitter?

If so, perhaps the notoriously frosty ties between the old East Asia rivals are warming at last

The official news outlet for China’s Communist Party appears to be a follower of Japanese pornography.

On Friday morning local time — when the adjacent screen shot was taken — the China Xinhua News listed Absolute JP Porn as one of the 3,301 Twitter users it was following.

There is no indication whether this is a prank by a third party or if Xinhua’s verified account is following, for news and research purposes, a feed that claims to link to pornographic images of Japanese women on a daily basis.

Several other suspect accounts, featuring profile photos of attractive women, appear among the list of Twitter users followed by Xinhua.

Relations between China and Japan have been mired with bitterness for decades in the wake of the atrocities committed by the Japanese military on Chinese soil during World War II. But perhaps a thaw is finally taking place across the East China Sea.


Why Japan Lacks Sympathy for the Hostages Held by ISIS

People in Tokyo watch news on the Japanese ISIS hostages, Jan. 23, 2015.
Nicolas Datiche—Sipa People in Tokyo watch news on the Japanese ISIS hostages, Jan. 23, 2015.

While the clock ticks down for two Japanese hostages held by ISIS, their countrymen think they've brought the problem on themselves

Japanese government officials continued to press for the release of two Japanese citizens being held by Islamist militants in Syria late Friday, even as a presumed deadline for paying the $200 million ransom expired.

The hostage drama has dominated the news cycle since ISIS released a video showing two Japanese men being threatened by a masked militant with a knife. But in very Japanese fashion, much of the anger has focused on the hostages themselves, who are seen by many as having acted recklessly. “The public thinks these guys put themselves in harm’s way, and that it is their problem — not the government’s or the taxpayers problem,” says Jeff Kingston, director of Asian Studies at Temple University’s Tokyo campus.

Haruna Yukawa, 42, a failed businessman who hoped to re-invent himself as a private military contractor, was kidnapped in August after entering ISIS-controlled territory. Kenji Goto, 47, an experienced freelance journalist, was captured in October after entering Syria in what he told friends was a quest to free Yukawa, whom he had met there earlier.

MORE Mother of Japanese Journalist Held Captive by ISIS Pleads for His Release

In the video released Tuesday, the militant accuses Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe of taking sides in the Mideast conflict by pledging $200 million in aid to countries fighting against ISIS, which controls vast territory in both Syria and Iraq. The militant said the hostages would be killed if an equal amount was not paid within 72 hours – a deadline that Japanese officials presume expired Friday afternoon.

Abe has stressed that the aid money—which he pledged during a six-day trip to the Middle East that was interrupted by the hostage crisis—is for humanitarian purposes only and said his government is doing all that it can to secure the hostage’s release. But he has vowed not to “give in” to terrorists, and most analysts believe he will not authorize payment of the ransom—either openly or otherwise.

Comments on Japanese-language social media have been largely unsympathetic toward the two hostages—particularly Yukawa, who told associates that he once tried to commit suicide by cutting off his genitals and later changed his given name to Haruna, typically used for women. Goto is given credit for at least attempting to help someone in need.

MORE Japanese War Reporter Was Abducted by ISIS After Trying to Save His Friend

“They needed to know the possible results before going to that region, especially now. They’re responsible,” said a Twitter post that was re-tweeted more than 1,000 times.

“Neither Mr. Goto nor Mr. Yukawa went to Syria upon request from the Japanese government,” says another. “Maybe I’m heartless, but we cannot give in to the Islamic State group’s terrorist acts.

Japan withdrew all its diplomats from Syria in March 2012 as the civil war escalated, and warned all Japanese citizens against traveling there. The lack of an embassy hasn’t helped Tokyo as it tries to sort through the myriad government, rebel and ISIS forces fighting in the region. The advisory was in effect when Yukawa and Goto entered the country last year.

This is not the first time that Japanese hostages in the Middle East have drawn condemnation from their countrymen, rather than sympathy. Three aid workers and peace activists were pilloried in the press and nascent social media after they were kidnapped in Iraq in 2004. The government refused demands that they withdraw Japanese peacekeepers from southern Iraq and the hostages were released unharmed a week later. Nonetheless, the criticism in Japan was so severe that the former hostages were forced to go into voluntary seclusion.

“The public thought that because those citizens were working independently, and making independent comments critical (of the Iraq War), they were disloyal troublemakers putting Japan into world news for all the wrong reasons,” says Marie Thorsten, professor of international politics and media studies at Doshisha University in Kyoto.

The stakes could be high for Abe, who just won a commanding victory in a snap election held in December. A staunch conservative and nationalist, Abe promised to focus on Japan’s flagging economy, but increasingly has pressed for bigger defense spending, the easing of long-standing restraints on Japan’s military and the promotion of a policy of “proactive contributions to peace” overseas.

“This is the first time the public has seen Abe’s “proactive pacifism” at work and this is deeply unsettling,” says Kingston. “Until now, Islamic extremism was something that happened to other countries. People may get cold feet about Japan assuming a higher profile on global stage.”

Read next: ISIS Say Countdown for Japan’s Hostages Has Begun

Listen to the most important stories of the day.

TIME Japan

Mother of Japanese Journalist Held Captive by ISIS Pleads for His Release

Junko Ishido, mother of Kenji Goto, a Japanese journalist being held captive by Islamic State militants speaks during a news conference at the Foreign Correspondents' Club of Japan in Tokyo
Toru Hanai—Reuters Junko Ishido, mother of Kenji Goto, a Japanese journalist being held captive by Islamic State militants along with another Japanese citizen, speaks during a news conference at the Foreign Correspondents' Club of Japan in Tokyo on Jan. 23, 2015

The ransom deadline approaches

The mother a Japanese journalist held captive by Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS) appealed for his release on Friday.

The Islamic militants are threatening to kill Kenji Koto and another Japanese citizen Haruna Yukawa if Tokyo does not pay a ransom of $200 million, Reuters reports.

The Japanese government believes the deadline to be 12:50 a.m. E.T. on Friday.

“My son Kenji is not an enemy of the people of the Islamic faith. I can only pray as a mother for his release,” Junko Ishido told a news conference. “If I could offer my life I would plead that my son be released, it would be a small sacrifice on my part.”

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has pledged to do all he can to secure their safe release, saying that “we are negotiating through all available channels.”

The sum of the ransom is equal to the $200 million Abe has pledged to aid those fighting ISIS.


MONEY Environment

There’s $13 Million In Your Sewer Sludge. Really

Gold ingot floating in dark liquid
Mark Wragg—Getty Images

A study finds a surprisingly large amount of valuable metals in sewage. But don't go prospecting just yet.

Researchers at Arizona State University estimate that in a city of one million people, $13 million dollars worth of metals could be accumulating annually in sludge, the byproduct of treated sewage.

The study, which analyzed sludge from treatment centers in Arizona and samples from across the country stored at the U.S. National Biosolids Repository, focused on 13 minerals with the highest value, including gold, silver, copper, and platinum. If every bit of the metals is retrieved, researchers reported there could be $280 per ton of sludge.

“While we expected that the metals were present at low concentration, the fact that the small amounts represent such a significant economic value was definitely surprising,” says Pierre Herckes, associate professor at ASU and co-author of the study. Of the $13 million, $2.6 million alone comes from gold and silver.

It’s possible that the metals found in sewage — which is basically anything that is flushed down a drain or toilet — is a result of discharge from jewelry and electronics manufacturing plants, mining, electroplating, and similar industries. After sewage is treated, 60% of the remaining sludge is spread across fields, yards, and forests throughout the country as fertilizer, with the rest sent to landfills or incinerated.

The concentration of metals in sludge, however, could pose environmental risks, so finding a way to extract them would help mitigate the effects of the gold flush — err, rush.

In 2009, a waste treatment facility in central Japan managed to extract nearly 2 kilograms of gold from the ash of incinerated sludge, which was more than the amount pulled from Japan’s Hishikari Mine, one of the world’s top gold mines.

However, no U.S. plants have started sifting through the goo just yet.

“Technically, it is possible to extract these metals, although it is very challenging,” says Herckes. Currently, there is no technology we are aware of that can do it on a large scale without the use of enormous amounts of energy and harsh chemicals, he adds.

So don’t go digging out your old prospecting pan from the garage just yet. You’d have better luck scouring the streets of Manhattan’s Diamond District, where one urban prospector pulled in almost $1,000 in a week by collecting bits of gold and jewels off the ground.

TIME Japan

Japan Says It Can’t Reach ISIS to Resolve Hostage Standoff

Japanese journalist Kenji Goto delivering a lecture during a symposium in Tokyo on Oct. 27, 2010.
Japan Commitee For The UNICEF/AFP/Getty Images Japanese journalist Kenji Goto delivering a lecture during a symposium in Tokyo on Oct. 27, 2010.

"We are exploring every possibility available to save their lives," a top official says

Japanese officials said Thursday that they have so far failed to make contact with militants from the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS) who have threatened to kill two Japanese hostages.

In a video released Tuesday, a masked ISIS fighter said Kenji Goto and Haruna Yukawa would be killed unless the militant group received $200 million within 72 hours. Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga said Japan has yet to hear directly from the group and hasn’t been able to confirm the safety of the two men, the New York Times reports.

“We are exploring every possibility available to save their lives,” he said.

The ransom demanded by ISIS is the same amount Japan had pledged in non-military aid for countries fighting the group. In the video, the ISIS militant accused Japan of donating the money “to kill our women and children, to destroy the homes of Muslims.”


TIME Japan

Japanese War Reporter Was Abducted by ISIS After Trying to Save His Friend

Before the reporter set off on his rescue mission, he said: "Whatever happens, this is my responsibility"

When an online video surfaced Tuesday showing the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) threatening to kill two Japanese hostages, relatively little was known about the relationship between the two prisoners. But Reuters revealed Wednesday that war correspondent Kenji Goto had in fact returned to Syria in late October to rescue his friend Haruna Yukawa, who was captured by ISIS a few months earlier.

Yukawa reportedly went to Syria as part of an attempt to get his life back on track after dealing with bankruptcy, the loss of his wife to cancer, and an attempted suicide. Goto, 47, a respected Japanese freelance journalist, went to Syria to cover the civil war.

After the pair first met in April, Yukawa asked Goto, who had years of experience of war zones, to take him to Iraq. Yukawa returned to Syria in July, while Goto went back to Japan. But when Yukawa was captured in August outside Aleppo, Goto was troubled by his disappearance and decided to go back in October to try and help.

Friends say Goto traveled from Tokyo to Istanbul and that he sent a message on Oct. 25 to say he had safely crossed the border. In a short clip recorded before he set out for the ISIS-held city of Raqqa, he told the camera: “Whatever happens, this is my responsibility.” That was the last he was heard of until this week’s ISIS video.


TIME Japan

Japan’s Abe Faces Great Risk, Little Reward in ISIS Hostage Crisis

Abbas Momani—AFP/Getty Images Japan's Prime Minister Shinzo Abe looks on during a press conference with Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas on Jan. 20, 2015, in the West Bank city of Ramallah.

Japanese prime minister has few options to act after ISIS holds two citizens to $200 million ransom

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has pledged to do all he can to secure the safe release of two Japanese citizens facing death threats at the hands of Islamist extremists in Syria. But experts say there’s little he can do — and he faces great risks in doing it.

Abe was winding up a six-day trip to the Middle East when militants from the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS) released a video Tuesday threatening to kill two Japanese men captured last year unless the government pays $200 million in ransom.

Militants said the demands were in retaliation for $200 million in aid that Abe had pledged just days earlier to countries opposing ISIS forces fighting in Syria and Iraq.

Abe likes to present himself as strong on defense, having taken office two years ago promising to boost military spending, ease long-standing restraints on Japan’s military and promote “proactive contributions to peace” overseas. Even before the Syria crisis, his administration was reportedly considering plans to beef up a Japanese anti-piracy base in Djibouti for rescue and other military missions in the Middle East region.

But polls show that Japanese remain deeply divided by Abe’s defense agenda. The hostage drama presents Abe with “a rather tricky balancing act,” says Koichi Nakano, a professor of political science at Sophia University in Tokyo.

“Abe needs to appear to be both tough on terrorist intimidation and deeply concerned about the plight of the hostages,” says Nakano. “If he appears soft and unable to cope with the pressure, he might start losing support. But if he appears uninterested in the lives of the Japanese hostages, he might also fall out of favor.”

Abe emphasized that his government would work to secure the hostages’ safety at a press conference late Tuesday in Jerusalem. “The international community needs to cooperate and take action without yielding to terrorism,” he said.

Even so, the crisis is certain to polarize the Japanese public. Polls show a majority remain deeply committed to Japan’s pacifist Constitution, despite a swing to the right by political leaders. Conservative rhetoric about patriotism is unlikely to sway them, says Nakano. “Their reaction is more likely to be that postwar pacifism provides a better means to protect the Japanese from such threats than Abe’s ‘pro-active’ approach.”

Perhaps ironically, Abe’s move towards a more robust defense agenda was inspired, in part, by a similar hostage crisis in the Middle East in January 2013 when ten Japanese nationals were killed by Islamist militants at a gas complex in Algeria.

In that crisis, Japan was forbidden by law from attempting a rescue operation, or even sending troops to escort survivors or bodies of the deceased out of the country. That rankled Abe – a staunch nationalist who had been in office less than a month — and almost certainly contributed to a more aggressive defense policy than he had signaled during his election campaign.

Since then, Abe has overseen three consecutive increases in annual defense spending – after 10 straight years of decline – and has unilaterally dropped a ban on collective self-defense.

He has also established a new National Security Council, which concentrates decision-making in the Prime Minister’s office, and has authorized Japan’s armed forces to form a new amphibious warfare unit to help defend Japan’s thousands of remote islands.

But for all that, Abe has precisely no military options in Syria, says Grant Newsham, senior research fellow at the Japan Forum for Strategic Studies, in Tokyo.

“Japan lacks the necessary forces for an overseas rescue. They aren’t organized or equipped or trained for such missions, even if they were ordered to undertake them. That requires a lot resources in terms of manpower, equipment, transportation and intelligence resources. It’s not that easy,” says Newsham, a former U.S. Marine Corps liaison to Japan’s Ground Self Defense Force.

Nakano says it is almost certain that Abe will not pay the ransom for the freelance journalist and self-styled mercenary who were captured separately by ISIS last year. With few options remaining and time running out, the odds of the prime minister being able to keep his pledge seem low indeed.

Read next: Japan Cabinet Okays Record Military Budget With Eye on China

Listen to the most important stories of the day.

TIME Japan

Worker Dies at Japan’s Fukushima Nuclear Plant Amid a Rise in Accidents

Japan Nuclear Worker Death
Tokyo Electric Power Co./AP This photo taken Monday, Jan. 19, 2015 and provided by Tokyo Electric Power Co. (TEPCO) shows a water storage tank, center, which a worker fell into, at Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear power plant in Okuma, Fukushima Prefecture, northeastern Japan

The death is the second in under a year at the stricken nuclear power station

A Japanese laborer in his 50s died Tuesday while inspecting a water storage tank at the defunct Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant, the site of a March 2011 nuclear meltdown following a catastrophic tsunami.

The man, an employee of one of Japan’s largest construction firms, Hazama Ando Co., died at a hospital in Tokyo after plunging into the 33 ft.-deep tank. Tokyo Electric Power Co., the plant operator, was already under fire from labor inspectors for a recent uptick in accidents. This is the plant’s second death in under a year, reports Reuters.

“We promise to implement measures to ensure that such tragedy does not occur again,” said plant manager Akira Ono in a statement to the media.

Although Tokyo Electric increased its workforce and initiated a cleanup campaign this year, there were 55 accidents at the Fukushima Daiichi plant during the current fiscal year, almost double last year’s rate. On Tuesday, Tokyo Electric also reported an injured worker at another nuclear plant, Fukushima Daini.

“It’s not just the number of accidents that has been on the rise. It’s the serious cases, including deaths and serious injuries that have risen so we asked Tokyo Electric to improve the situation,” labor inspector Katsuyoshi Ito told Reuters.

Read TIME Magazine’s story on Fukushima: ‘The World’s Most Dangerous Room’


TIME Sports

Somersaulting Into America

Getty Images

Zocalo Public Square is a not-for-profit Ideas Exchange that blends live events and humanities journalism.

As a top Japanese gymnast, my dad’s future was laid out for him. He opted for adventure in the U.S. instead

The letter that would change my father’s life—and eventually lead to his recent induction into the USA Gymnastics Hall of Fame—arrived in 1964, at his high school in Nara, Japan. Addressed to Yoshi Hayasaki, it was from an American.

My father, 17 at the time, could not make out a single sentence typed by Eric Hughes, a professor at the University of Washington in Seattle. He asked a campus English teacher to translate. “It sounds like he is trying to invite you to come to America,” the teacher told my father.

Hughes, as it turned out, had started a men’s gymnastics team at the University of Washington in 1956, a time when the sport in the U.S. lagged behind Japan and the Soviet Union. While on sabbatical in Japan 1964, Hughes scouted for talent. That was when he first spotted my dad, a 5-foot-3 city and regional champion, ranked as one of the top five gymnasts in Japan.

The letter stated that if my dad earned admittance to the University of Washington, he would be guaranteed a scholarship to the school, and could compete on its team.

All my father really knew of America at the time came from watching translated episodes of Rawhide, an American Western TV series. His mother, on the other hand, had memories of U.S. mortars reducing her Osaka home to ashes, and racing to shelters with her oldest child in her arms as enemy bombs fell. But the family spoke little about these war stories.

Coaches and teammates could not understand why my dad would even consider competing in another country—in the U.S. of all places—when Japan was already the gymnastics superpower. Everybody was against the idea, including his father.

Still, the thought of America electrified my dad. He had been offered scholarships to Japanese universities, and saw that many former champions became physical education teachers, while others became foot soldiers for corporations. “I saw my future,” he told me. “It was like a blueprint.”

There is a Japanese proverb: “The nail that sticks out will be hammered down.” It is a saying I’ve thought about throughout my own life, as someone who feels like I’ve at times stuck out, even in America. Here, however, it is possible to find your own way, and embrace the road less taken. Back then, in Japan, my dad could practically see the hammer’s face.

For him, America was uncharted territory that seemed to offer an escape, or at least an adventure. Grudgingly, my grandfather assented, telling Dad: “Do not come back until you have accomplished something.”

Sending him on a plane would cost too much; my grandfather had lost his plastics company in bankruptcy when my father was in sixth grade, and the family of six was forced to move into my great-grandparents’ two-bedroom, one-bathroom house. My grandmother sold hairpins on the street. My grandfather never worked full-time again.

The family hunted around for a cargo ship. On July 30, 1965, shortly after graduating from high school, my father boarded the S.S. Idaho, which was transporting logs from Yokohama to Longview, Washington. The trip cost $300.

My father packed a week’s worth of clothes, jump ropes, a training bar, and one suit—a gift from his father. No one aboard spoke Japanese. When he could no longer see Japan, Dad wrote: “Should I really be doing this? I almost feel like jumping into the water and swimming back to shore.”

He slept in a cabin in the lowest bowels of the ship, where the rocking was most violent. By day three, the sky turned gray and stormy. Seasick, he vomited liquid for four days, as his body turned nearly skeletal. The pages of his diary went blank.

By the eighth day, he could drink water again. He ate a hotdog. “I’m living again,” he wrote.

Twelve days later, he rushed out to the deck and saw land.

He would attend high school again, this time for a year in Issaquah, Washington, to learn English, before taking the tests to gain acceptance into the university. He was one of three foreign exchange students in an all-white school. It took a while to realize that kids were making fun of him when they called him a “Jap” or a “chink,” but he tried not to care. He had a mission: to make it into college, and become a champion.

Once, while going through the cabinets of his host family’s home, he found an aluminum can, but could not read the label. He opened it, chewing its contents, stomaching the odd taste. He later found out it was dog food.

At night, my father practiced English words in front of a mirror. Still, he failed the admissions test twice. He began to fret, hearing his father’s words: “Don’t come back until...”

On the third try, he passed.

He enrolled at the University of Washington in 1966. His first competition in the national championships took place the following summer. To his devastation, he placed at the bottom.

The next year, “I went nuts training,” he said. He came back to the national championships in 1967 and took first place, becoming the USA Gymnastics all-around champion. He did it again in 1968, winning individual titles on rings, parallel bars, and high bar.

Then, he set another goal: to compete on the U.S. Olympic team.

Dad applied for American citizenship in 1968, knowing this was no small step: A few weeks later, a letter from the U.S. government required his appearance at a physical examination. He was being drafted for the Vietnam War.

Was what happened next luck or misfortune? He will never know. One day, while practicing a back handspring twist, he punched the floor with his legs hard, tearing his right Achilles tendon. He received 24 stitches. He failed the military physical. He also missed his shot at making the 1968 Olympic team.

Two years later, he recovered enough to win back-to-back NCAA all-around titles. But in another stroke of fate, he tore his left Achilles tendon.

He continued to train, but his body was never the same. His Olympic dreams over, he contemplated whether he should return to Japan, become the businessman that others expected of him. His father could be proud now; his son had accomplished something. Beyond athletics, Dad could also speak English. He had a cadre of American friends. He bought a 1957 Volkswagen, and began dating an American woman (who would become my mother). When an offer to become the head coach of the University of Illinois men’s gymnastics team arrived, he did not think twice. It was an opportunity to stay, build a community his way, and raise a multiracial family.

The program had been on a losing streak for a decade, so he reached into lessons from his own journey to turn it around: with the best U.S. athletes already spoken for, he could look abroad to revitalize his Illinois team.

He began traveling to Brazil, Finland, and Portugal to recruit, sharing his own story of making it in the U.S. and convincing athletes from far-off countries to compete for Illinois. Their wins soon attracted more local talent, developing top athletes from within the U.S. In 1980, they won the Big Ten title, and five more after that. He was named Big Ten Coach of the Year four times. In his 33 seasons, he coached 14 individual NCAA champions, 89 All-Americans, and three Olympians.

At 67 years old, my father continues to teach gymnastics at the private gym he started, The Hayasaki Gymnastics Center in Champaign, Illinois. For him, it’s not about working with the “stars.” He has most enjoyed teaching the hundreds of gymnasts who trained because they simply wanted to see where the journey would lead.

The ideals my father developed in America are now embedded within his gymnasts, and also within me: Growth comes from taking risks. Reinventing yourself is sometimes necessary. Fear of failure can be a powerful muscle. And sticking out? It might be the most underestimated strength of all.

Erika Hayasaki is the author of The Death Class: A True Story About Life (Simon and Schuster) and an assistant professor in the literary journalism program at UC Irvine. She wrote this for Zocalo Public Square.

TIME Ideas hosts the world's leading voices, providing commentary and expertise on the most compelling events in news, society, and culture. We welcome outside contributions. To submit a piece, email ideas@time.com.

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