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In Remembrance of the Tohoku Earthquake & Tsunami: An Interview with The Hidden Japan’s Derek Yamashita—Part 2


Tourism Development

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Your work at The Hidden Japan has expanded to include creating events in Japan and America that celebrate our cultures and help provide cross-cultural understanding. What drove you to that mission for your business?

As a Japanese American growing up in the Japanese American (JA) community, I have been able to see that the Japanese culture we are able to see in LA is only a small window into Japan. Even after living here in Japan for 6 years, I am still constantly amazed by the things I see and experience here through the tourism industry and want to showcase this in America. This includes inspiring people to develop an interest in the regions of Japan, like Yamagata or Niigata, that we feature in our events and ultimately to encourage travelers to make a visit to these regions when they visit Japan in the future.

As a Japanese American I am very happy that I can bring together the two worlds of my life, my upbringing in America and my life in Japan. It’s an especially fun part of my job as it was so wonderful to see everyone so happy at these events, both the Japanese chefs from Japan and all the participants who came out at our events in 2019 with the JACCC. 

While you do try to bridge the cultural gaps between the U.S. and Japan, why is some of this focus on the Los Angeles area and Southern California region?

For two main reasons.

  1. Because I grew up in LA and know the JA community here, an essential support network we need to pull off such elaborate events. 
  2. Because Southern California has a large population and affinity for Asian and Japanese culture thanks in large part to Little Tokyo and the strong JA community here. I believe this makes it easier to gather people for events and for us to do deeper cultural events as many people here already have a basic understanding of Japanese culture and food.

What has been the most interesting or special part of working on your business The Hidden Japan?

I think the most special part of running this business is seeing us grow over the years and finally after one final trial with the Pandemic, we are now seeing explosive growth and international recognition. When I started this company, it felt like stepping off a cliff into freefall with so much uncertainty and so many obstacles.

In our first year I almost got my visa renewal rejected for example, as the immigration officials doubted that my business venture could be viable. Even the local people, as supportive as they were, questioned whether travelers would actually want to come to Yamagata when there are such wonderful places like Kyoto, Tokyo, or Osaka in Japan. Even as we finally built solid ground for our business and began to grow, the Pandemic hit and I was devastated that 3 years of sacrificing everything for this job would all evaporate into thin air.

There have been many milestones since then, but in 2022 we were chosen as the Japan partner for Lonely Planet’s new travel planning service as well as securing many other key partnerships with travel agencies abroad that have allowed us to rapidly expand our team and even open up a second office to further grow our business. The concept we thought of 5 years ago from that small blog, that travelers would want to see the rural sides of Japan and experience things like a local would, has proven successful. And we are able to provide jobs and impactful economic support to the region I have fallen in love with and now call home. 

What was it like to work with the Tokyo Olympic Committee to help promote tourism?

This was a milestone for our company as well. It was an honor to be chosen to capture and represent regions across Japan to present to the world. We were chosen for our experience in promotional work in the past and I am also a commercial photographer and videographer for the travel industry which also was one of the main factors for this. This work allowed me to travel all around Japan which served to give me new ideas for tourism content I could create in my area as well as thinking of new routes around Japan for our overseas tour partners.

Would you like to expand on your work with other various organizations and how the work has helped you develop personally, as a business owner, and in your drive to bridge cultural gaps between Japan and America? 

Hmm…this would be a lot to cover but I’ll give a summary here. The City of Huntington Beach Sister City Program was my first real experience with Japan that sparked a passion in me for Japan. JASSC gave me vital work experience with Japanese affairs and the chance to direct my fundraiser to something meaningful.

The Terasaki Program gave me a deep look into the spirit of the Japanese people seeing them in such dire conditions and confirming my passion and love for Japan. The work with the Terasaki Program inspired me to pursue a degree in Global Studies and to study abroad in college. The Bridging Scholarship helped give me the financial freedom during my study abroad to travel around Japan and volunteer in Tokyo almost on a bimonthly basis. 

I believe in strengthening my relations with the JA community and groups like the JACCC and Japanese American National Museum (JANM) if possible. Our company has the ability to bring over truly wonderful artisans and cultural exhibitions to America through our connection with the government and travel industry. However, we cannot accomplish anything without having strong partners in America to make these undertakings possible.

JACCC dinner event

One life goal of mine is to use my position in The Hidden Japan and as a Japanese American to be a bridge between the two countries for promotional events like the ones I have done and to help encourage Japanese Americans and others in Southern California to take part in meaningful and sustainable travel experiences when they come to Japan. 

How has your work allowed you to reflect on your experiences growing up in Southern California as a fourth generation Japanese American? How has this influenced your work for The Hidden Japan and the other projects you take on?

To be honest, setting up my life here in Japan has made me feel more American than I did even growing up in America. I now always introduce myself as American and purposely break a cultural norm here by introducing myself with my given name as opposed to my Japanese family name, even in some business settings. I do not want people here in Japan to mistake me as Japanese, even though I can hide the fact I am American in many settings.

Fully immersing myself here to many of the sides of Japan that outsiders do not see, especially through business, has allowed me to understand that I greatly value my upbringing and identity as an American even if it does make life here difficult at times. These values and perspectives I have gained through being raised as a Japanese-American give me the best of both worlds. The familiarity with Japanese culture growing up has given me a strong base to learn and adapt to live in Japan, a monumental difficulty for any international resident.

My upbringing and mindset as an American in turn allows me to see things in a different mindset and approach projects as an American who can see from both the Japanese and American perspective, insight that gives me many opportunities to travel around Japan advising on tourism and creating interesting tour experiences. 

Do you have any other projects you are currently working on and excited to see completed?

Yes, we have over 45 custom tour group bookings for the spring of 2023. This is our biggest number yet and many of these groups are going through Tohoku! This has been a huge challenge for my team to process but it is the materialization of what we have always wanted with The Hidden Japan—to bring tourists to Tohoku and to create jobs here. We are also planning a large collaboration with Niigata Prefecture and the JACCC. I also really do want to do an event with JANM in the future. 

Is there anything else you would like readers to know about your work?

We have a YouTube channel if people want to get a better idea of the experiences and work I do.

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Derek Yamashita is the co-founder and manager of The Hidden Japan, a travel company that helps bring travelers to different areas of the Tohoku Region and works to set up cross-cultural events for Japanese and American citizens. More about The Hidden Japan can be found at Beyond The Hidden Japan, Derek still continues to help those in the Tohoku region.


© 2023 Japanese American National Museum

2011 Tohoku Earthquake & Tsunami, Japan athletics California cultural identity Derek Yamashita generations group identity identity Japan JPquake2011 Olympic Games (1964, Tokyo, Japan) Olympics Southern California sports The Hidden Japan (firm) tourism United States Yonsei
About this series

In Japanese, kizuna means strong emotional bonds.

This series shares stories about Nikkei individual and/or community reaction and perspectives on the Great Tohoku Kanto earthquake on March 11, 2011 and the resulting tsunami and other impacts—either about supporting relief efforts or how what has happened has affected them and their feeling of connection to Japan.

If you would like to share your reactions, please see the “Submit an Article” page for general submission guidelines. We welcome submissions in English, Japanese, Spanish, and/or Portuguese, and are seeking diverse stories from around the world.

We hope that these stories bring some comfort to those affected in Japan and around the world, and that this will become like a time capsule of responses and perspectives from our global Nima-kai community for the future.

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There are many organizations and relief funds established around the world providing support for Japan. Follow us on Twitter @discovernikkei for info on Nikkei relief efforts, or check the Events section. If you’re posting a Japan relief fundraising event, please add the tag “JPquake2011” to make it appear on the list of earthquake relief events.

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About the Author

Established in 1985, Japanese American National Museum (JANM) promotes understanding and appreciation of America’s ethnic and cultural diversity by sharing the Japanese American experience. Located in the historic Little Tokyo district of downtown Los Angeles, JANM provides a voice for Japanese Americans and a forum that enables all people to explore their own heritage and culture. Since opening to the public in 1992, JANM has presented over 70 exhibitions onsite while traveling 17 exhibits to leading cultural museums in the US, Japan, and South America. For more information, visit or follow us on social media @jamuseum.

Updated March 2023

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