An Interview with Hiromi Okuyama
by David Fujino
Hiromi was born and raised in Toronto, Canada. Her father is martial arts master Kancho Takemasa Okuyama, who is originally from Hachijo-jima, an island near Toyko, Japan. Her mother is Siu-Ping (Belle) Mok from Hong Kong.
Hiromi began acting as a child. She attended York University and graduated with a B.A. in Sociology, making it onto the Dean’s list for Academic Achievement two years in a row. While at York, Hiromi took Elective courses in Acting Fundamentals and Theatre Production (Vanier College) for one year. In 2001, Hiromi auditioned and won a scholarship to the Second City Training Centre in their Diversity Program. Her love of performing carried her into co-leading two comedy/improve troupes, The Laughing Sesame, and Jasprov. In 2002, she was the female lead in David Henry Hwang’s play, F.O.B., which was performed at Buddies in Bad Times Theatre in Toronto. She is also one of the founding members of the notable fu-GEN Asian Canadian Theatre Company.
Plays and websites: Bubble Tea Bitches was her first play; her second was Hitotsu, both written during her time with fu-GEN. She also writes for Tips from the Disney Diva, an unofficial website.
Film: Hiromi was the lead in the short film, The Contest, written and directed by Naoko Kumagai.
Voiceover: She voiced Farmer Yumi in the first season of Nickelodeon’s animated children’s show, Paw Patrol.
TV: Hiromi played the Japanese Teacher in CTV’s recent sitcom, Satisfaction.
TV commercials: MacDonald’s, Pizza Hut, Canadian Tire, Walmart, Foodland Ontario (with her daughter), and most recently, a Scotiabank TV commercial in 2014.
Hiromi obtained her 3rd degree Black Belt from her father, and she teaches karate to children at his dojo in Toronto. She has also studied tai chi and Chinese sword under her maternal grandfather, Shou-Lim Mok. When he passed at the age of 97, she was honoured to be his last student.
Hiromi currently lives outside of Toronto with her husband and daughter, who is an actress and trained dancer.
In the short film, The Contest, Hiromi played a young Japanese wife in the 1970’s in Montreal, trapped in a stale marriage. She escapes by becoming an obsessed hockey fan and enters a contest to meet the Montreal Canadiens’ hockey great, Guy Lafleur.
What spoke to you most about acting the role of the wife? … What’s the film’s message? Yuko (the wife) really spoke to me because my mother was a new immigrant, but for Yuko to immerse herself in hockey and develop a crush on Guy Lafleur, one of the greatest Canadian hockey players of all time, was a truly brilliant touch from writer/director Naoko Kumagai. The film’s message is that you can overcome adversity and make the most of the situation you’re in. I feel Yuko is victorious in the end, which I won’t give away, because you just have to see the film.
When you were a kid, what were family dinners like? When I was very young, my parents separated. My sister (Shiho) and I lived with my mother, and my father payed support. Mother worked hard so there was really no time for ‘family dinners’ during the week. It was leftovers or prepared meals. On weekends she would take us to the many Chinese restaurants in Toronto, and to our favourite, dim sum! Sometimes she would take us to Western style restaurants. My sister and I also enjoyed eating with my father at our ultimate favourite place, the famous Japanese restaurant, Hiro Sushi. Master Chef, Hiro Yoshida, and my father went to Takushoku University in Tokyo, Japan. Hiro-san would often smile and tell my sister and I that we must listen to our father because our father is his university senior. Good times!
Here’s a two-part question: Is culture important to you? … and … How important to you is ancestral language retention? Culture is for my offspring, but I want to learn about my cultural heritage, which includes Japanese, Chinese, and Canadian. My parents immigrated to Canada, but it’s important to learn about the Japanese Canadian and Chinese Canadian pioneers who struggled and suffered so I can have a better life. Because of them, I am here. I want to learn more about the Filipino culture, too, because my husband was born in the Philippines. I don’t know my ancestral languages well, and I’m sad about it. My sister and I did go to Japanese school, but because my parents separated, we couldn’t practise Japanese at home. My mom’s dialect is Cantonese, but she had to speak English to survive in the workforce. If given the phonetics, I can speak Japanese for roles, like in the film, The Contest, but I wish I was fluent. I envy people who can speak many languages.
Beyond genetics, what has your daughter inherited from you and your husband? I’d like to say she got her martial arts skills from me, but my father would be the first to tell you she’s a much stronger and better karate-ka than I ever was at her age! She is amazing. She also loves to read, a passion she definitely got from me. I admire the diverse range of books she reads by authors like J.R.R. Tolkien to L.M. Montgomery to Rick Riordan, as well as the Sailor Moon Series by Naoko Takeuchi. From my husband, she inherited a strategic brain. My husband is very intelligent in math and was in the math and chess club as a child. He also trained in the Canadian military for one year after high school (and is using his strategic strengths in other areas of his life now). My daughter got those qualities from him. She enjoys solving math problems in her spare time and they really have fun playing video games together. Her quirky sense of humour comes from both of us.
Can you briefly compare and contrast the martial arts styles you’re trained in? My father has been teaching karate in Canada for over 40 years, so my training is strongly Shotokan Karate based. Many martial arts practitioners (of other styles) have said Shotokan Karate has a solid foundation, and by learning Shotokan Karate you can do well in other styles and forms. I have also been exposed to and tried many different styles — which I really enjoyed. My father actually started training first in judo as a child in Japan and he incorporates judo training as well as other martial arts techniques in his dojo. My Chinese grandfather taught me tai chi. He received a letter from the Prime Minister for his volunteer teaching of tai chi. He also taught me Chinese sword. Chinese martial arts are fluid in a different way from karate, but there are many similarities. I am truly fortunate to have such great martial arts influences in my life.
Looking back, as a founding member of fu-GEN Theatre (“future generation”) — an Asian Canadian theatre group based in Toronto — what thoughts and hopes did you have at the time? How do you look at fu-GEN, now? fu-GEN was an incredible group of actors and artists who sought the same goals. It was an exciting time. In the initial stages (no pun intended) of fu-GEN, when it was under the Artistic Director, Nina Lee Aquino, and envisioned by Leon Aureus, I loved the workshops and play readings. It was wonderful to get together every week and re-create other North American Asian playwrights’ works — which inspired us to create our own work. Because of family obligations, I haven’t been involved with fu-GEN for the past couple of years, but I hope to be involved in some way in the future. I still keep in touch with many of the founding members, although we don’t hang out like we used to, but hey, that’s why there’s social media like Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram; they’re amazing tools for staying connected. fu-GEN wanted a better future for Asian Canadian performers — and they’ve achieved a lot — but there’s still much more to do.
Your name, Hiromi Okuyama, tends to strictly define you. How do you define yourself? A name definitely defines a person. Many people have known me for years and never realized I’m half Chinese. When they hear my name, people make assumptions and assume I speak Japanese fluently and can make sushi (I wish I could do both). But things are changing in Canada. So many younger people have such diverse names from all kinds of backgrounds and friends who are not Japanese are giving their children Japanese names, which I think is so cool. My own daughter has a very Italian or Spanish name. But I’m a Canadian, and if anyone wants to tell me I’m not ´fully’ Canadian, I’ll tell them where to go.
What do you most like and dislike about yourself? I like that I am friendly and have empathy for others, and that I’ve become a confident person. I dislike that I worry a lot, but I’ve been learning to overcome this and to just trust in God.
What cultural traits have you inherited from your mother and father? Most of my relatives on my mother’s side live in Canada, so I grew up celebrating the various Chinese holidays and socializing with my Chinese relatives. I also went to a Cantonese church. There is a lot of Hong Kong culture in me because of the environment my mother raised me in. From my father, I mostly learned from his karate teachings — the way of karate and the Japanese culture — like bowing out of respect to our seniors and mentors. My father is a modern day samurai, in the sense that, in the olden days, samurai not only practiced martial arts, they also practiced the fine arts that are steeped in Japanese culture, like flower arrangement, calligraphy, and the tea ceremony. I learned from my father that there is both softness and hardness in beauty and strength. I was able to observe this balance of beauty when I traveled to Japan and visited my relatives there.
Are your parents happy with your career choices? My father is happy with whatever choices my sister and I make, as long as we persevere with integrity. My mother, on the other hand, is a very typical Chinese mom and warned me about all sorts of problems I would encounter if I became an actress. I know it’s because she loves me and only wants the best for me. She is very proud of me whenever she sees me on stage or watches me on television.
How old was your daughter when she decided to dance and act? My daughter started training in ballet at three years old and when she was seven she was accepted into a special ballet program at a dance academy in Toronto. Since we’ve moved outside of Toronto, she’s continued her ballet training and has expanded into other genres of dance. In acting, she first auditioned with me because they wanted a ‘real’ mother and daughter team. So far, her coolest audition was for Guillermo del Toro’s blockbuster film, Pacific Rim, but she didn’t get the part. The most famous child actor in Japan got it. And recently she was in the fall campaign for the Foodland Ontario TV commercials. (David Fujino — every time I think about Foodland Ontario, I always have your image in my head because I remember you appearing in a previous year’s commercial!) Although she enjoys seeing herself on TV, her career aspiration right now is to be a teacher. Whatever career path she chooses, I hope her training in dance, acting, and karate, will help her in all areas of her life.
What’s the function in society for a performing artist — I mean actors singers, musicians, dancers? I think we were put on this earth to encourage people to feel emotionally, with whatever story we are telling, whether it’s with our voices, our body movements, or our words.
What are you up to these days? I am currently 18 weeks pregnant and still auditioning, which is awesome. I am also teaching karate while pregnant, as I did in my first pregnancy up until I practically gave birth. We will see where my life journey will take me. I am also a proud writer for an unofficial Disney Travel website called, Tips from the Disney Diva. I am ‘Canadian Diva’, and I like this name very much indeed!
Links about Hiromi Okuyama
The Contest: vimeo.com/10531951
fu-GEN Asian Canadian Theatre Company: fu-gen.org
Follow Hiromi Okuyama on Twitter and Instagram: @HiromiActs
Hiromi writes as “Canadian Diva” for www.tipsfromthedisneydiva.com