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Ina Finds She Can Go Home Again, to Japan

By Amy Shipley
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, February 8, 1998; Page D1

Kyoko Ina
Kyoko Ina
John McDonnell/
The Post
NAGANO, Feb. 7 — Kyoko Ina sat with her hands resting on her knees in front of a thick cluster of reporters and television cameras. The U.S. pairs figure skater answered questions in soft, tentative Japanese as the journalists leaned close, every one from news outlets in Japan. Asked by an English-speaking observer if she appreciated all the attention in the nation of her birth, she looked up uncomfortably.

"It means I'm doing all right," she said. "But it's very difficult. It's hard for me to conduct interviews in Japanese. It's not my first language."

Ina added: "It's okay. I can't read [the Japanese newspapers] anyway."

Born in Tokyo but raised on the Upper West Side of New York by Japanese parents, Ina has wrestled with the proper expression of her Asian heritage throughout her 25 years. The struggle follows her still, even as she prepares for the Olympic Games competition about 125 miles from her birthplace. Welcomed by camera crews at the Osaka airport, Ina hasn't always felt embraced by Japanese people or at ease in their culture. And although her grandfather represented Japan in the 1924 Summer Olympics, Ina decided in her teenage years that she would skate for the United States, or not at all.

"People don't know whether to call me Japanese or American, but I really am American," she said during an interview before the Nagano Games. "Just because I was born there doesn't mean I am Japanese. I know Japanese, and that's about it."

Having strived to put distance between herself and her connection to Japan, Ina seems to view these Olympics both as an athletic opportunity and a cultural challenge. For the duration of the Games, Ina continually will find herself where she seems least comfortable: in the Japanese spotlight.

"She's American, born in Tokyo but raised here," said her mother, Yoshiko. "She doesn't know so much custom over there."

Yoshiko said apologetically, "That's my fault."

Ina returns to Japan with partner Jason Dungjen. They are two-time U.S. champions and considered contenders for a pairs figure skating medal, which will be awarded after Sunday's short program and Tuesday's long program.

"The Olympic Games is the toughest competition," Dungjen said. "It's just a pressure cooker."

Pressure is nothing new for Ina, who moved with her family to New York when she was six months old. Japanese was the first language she learned, but she quickly became immersed in American culture. Ina fell in love with figure skating, starting at age 4.

"It started at Rockefeller Center when my parents took me to see the Christmas tree," she said. "It was such a fun time."

The fact that she developed exceptional skills was not surprising. Her mother was a national champion swimmer who competed in the Asian Games. Ina's grandfather, Katsuo Okazaki, took part in long-distance track events in the '24 Summer Games. Ina's grandmother, Shimako Maeda, played tennis in the Wimbledon championships around 1940, Yoshiko said.

At 14, Ina's parents decided she should compete for Japan at the junior level in skating. Though she remained in the United States for schooling, Ina flew to Japan frequently for competitions.

Ina had problems both with Japanese customs and other skaters who seemed to perceive her as an outsider. Japanese singles skater Yuka Sato, the 1994 world champion, recalls training with Ina when the two were in their early teens. She said Ina spoke very little Japanese at that time, and neither Sato nor the other skaters knew much English.

"Culturally, things are almost like opposite between the East and West," said Sato, a professional figure skater who has resided the last two years in New York City. "I actually have a difficult time getting used to the culture I grew up with. It's very hard. . . . You just kind of have to force yourself to be nice, to be a certain kind of person here. In Japan, whatever you think, that doesn't mean you say it. . . . I can totally understand if she was uncomfortable."

Even someone like Ina, who grew up outside Japan, would be expected to learn certain customs from her parents. There are many unspoken signs of respect in Japan, such as leaving the seat farthest from the door to the most senior member of a group. And Ina did not know that she should not pick up her chopsticks until the head of the table did.

"That kind of small thing the [Japanese] officials don't like," Yoshiko said, "and she's not comfortable to be there."

Ina said she also felt the other skaters resented her for swooping in as if to usurp their places in the Japanese national program. And, she added, "Because I wasn't Japanese and had never lived there, I had all my [American] friends training with me at the same time, yet they were going to sectionals down the street and I was flying 14 hours away," Ina said. "After doing that for two years, I knew it wasn't for me."

Before the 1988 Japanese national championships, Ina simply refused to leave New York.

"I said, 'I'm not getting on the plane,'" Ina said. "It was either I was going to quit skating or compete for the U.S."

The United States it was. Her parents supported her decision, knowing the difficulties she had experienced overseas as well as feeling the financial drain of the extensive travel.

In the last few years, Ina and Dungjen have emerged in the figure skating world. They placed ninth in the 1994 Olympic Games in Lillehammer, Norway. After three straight years of second-place finishes in the U.S. nationals, Ina and Dungjen broke the streak with a victory in last year's national championships and went on to finish fourth at the 1997 world championships.

Last month, Dungjen and Ina won the U.S. title again, after a season that seemed threatened by various injuries to Dungjen, who is still recovering from a sprained thumb.

"Because of the rough season we had, we almost sort of got lost in the shuffle," Ina said after winning the national championships. "At this performance, the marks we got, it was like a rebirth."

While they strive for their first Olympic medal here, they will be cheered on by some of Ina's family members who are still in Tokyo, as well as many Ina family friends. Sato, who often trains with Ina and Dungjen in New York, said she and Ina usually converse in English rather than Japanese.

Yet, Sato said, Ina's Japanese has improved greatly from her youth.

"That's a really nice thing," Sato said. "She should be proud that she can speak two languages properly."

Even if Ina's Japanese is not perfect and she is not a perfect Japanese, for the first time this week she may feel the pride of her birth nation.

Washington Post researcher Akiko Yamamoto contributed to this report.

© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post

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