David Cobb posing in a garden in Japan.
David Cobb on his travels in Japan.

Like many Japan enthusiasts, my journey to understand Japan started with my major exposure to the culture through an assortment of media – My father’s military stories, News, Discovery Channel documentaries, random exchanges between Steve Urkel and his Japanese speaking principal on Family Matters – you name it, if it mentioned Japan, I was there. The second biggest culprit – and this is not a surprise – was anime. Speed Racer, Pokémon, Rurouni Kenshin, Inuyasha and its timeless end credits jams, and Dragonball Z and the weeks’ worth of stress that came with following the winding story. The list is endless. It not only shaped my love and interest for the culture, but it set in motion events that would shape my world forever. By high school, I began teaching myself Japanese via online phrase lists, vocabulary dictionaries, and copying the speaking styles from my favorite anime heroes in their native audio. Between this and my love for Asian martial arts, many of my peers, in a city where the Japanese population was near non-existent, saw it as merely an obsession or ‘trying to be them’ but I knew that this would be the foundation to a journey to see Japan.

By the time I graduated from University of Buffalo, or SUNY Buffalo, in 2013, I had completed four levels of Japanese language and culture courses, and was fully prepared to make the biggest step yet — apply to the Japan Exchange and Teaching Programme (JET Program). It was in the JET Program that I learned the truest, most impactful lesson that would shape my career – representation matters. I saw firsthand the importance of imagery on the world scale and how it can have drastic effects on the small scale. In many cases, I was the first Black person that many of my Japanese peers and students saw, and the fact that I spoke Japanese made me even more of a popular face in the small countryside of Miki City, Japan. I often volunteered to lead conversation classes at the Miki International Center and participated in community events that allowed me to get to know the people and the culture of Miki, from the beautiful shrines and their reputation for high quality carpentry tools and pottery to their rich history with Miki Castle and their legendary hero, Bessho Nagaharu. By the time I left, I had many of the local residents  approaching me and thanking me for teaching them so much about America and the truths of Black culture in America.

Hearing things like, “Because of you, I will see Black people much differently” and “I can’t wait to study abroad so that I can learn more about Black culture and Buffalo, NY (my hometown)”, I realized that if I could push more young Black men and women to follow their dreams as I had and dive into this international pool, be it Japan or other countries, then there would be more instances like these and much less of those that perpetuate the stereotypes that they and we were taught at home.

Upon my return close to 2016, I set foot on American soil with one goal: to inspire Black students to follow their international dreams and rewrite our cultural narrative. My experience inspired me to get further into education as a substitute teacher and community organizer in the Buffalo Public School’s Community Schools Initiative. In this new position, I honed my program coordination skills by building relationships with families, understanding the community’s needs, and introducing impactful, needs-based opportunities that would effectively turn the school into its own community center. This foray into learning the ropes of program coordination created great fulfillment from watching the students grow and thrive with my programming. However, for me, the international education aspect was still missing. This realization (and my impending wedding) drove my inspiration to look for work where I would be able to introduce students to more Japanese cultural programming.

I would later move to the Washington DC metropolitan area in 2018 where I was recruited to manage Japan centered programming and communications through the Japan-America Society of Washington DC (JASWDC). With JASWDC, I was able to work with programs like the Sakura Matsuri Street Festival, Japan In A Suitcase, Japan Bowl 2018, and the Kakehashi trip to Japan where I was even able to meet Her Imperial Highness Princess Takamado. Working with such a dedicated and dynamic group of people was a very fulfilling and life-changing experience which helped me to learn the DC Japanese community and put me in the position to take on one of my most recent roles as a JET Program Coordinator with the Embassy of Japan during the start of the 2020 COVID-19 Pandemic.

My involvement with NABEA, for me, is another step in my growth as a Black, international education proponent. Having learned about NABEA during my time with JASWDC, I have followed the organization’s work in the Asia centric community and have been inspired by their mission to connect Black Asia specialists in both the public and private sectors to increase the representation of Black Americans engaging with Asia. I believe that NABEA is the type of organization that I not only dreamed about being a part of in my youth, but they provide exceptional opportunities for Black Asia enthusiasts to connect with one another via comprehensive seminars, mentorship programming, and their Japanese Language Happy Hours which I am an avid participant in. I look forward to seeing what this organization will continue to offer its members.


If you identify as Black American or African-American, join our Slack community to connect with other Black Asia experts by filling out our Slack sign-up form! Also, fill out the Database sign-up form to be added to NABEA’s Database, a publicly accessible resource for institutions to find Black Americans across academia, government, and private sector industries who specialize in the Indo-Pacific.

If you do not identify as Black American, sign up for the listserv to receive newsletters and stay up-to-date on NABEA’s activities and programming. Also, please spread awareness by sending this information to any Black American, Asia specialists in your network.

Why I Joined NABEA – David Cobb
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