Interview with Joy M. Sakurai, Deputy Chief of Mission at the U.S. Embassy in Seoul
June 27, 2023 — Korea welcomed Joy M. Sakurai as the Deputy Chief of Mission at the U.S. Embassy in Seoul in January 2023. While having worked closely with the U.S. Embassy throughout the year, this is the first time Asia Society Korea got to hear Joy Sakurai’s personal thoughts on drawing out the highlights of Seoul's diplomatic scene, adjusting to life in the city with her family of four, and opening doors to communicate through language.
To kick off the interview, we touched base on Ms. Sakurai’s extensive career covering stations all across the globe; Vientiane, Laos; Fukuoka and Tokyo, Japan; Jakarta, Indonesia; Islamabad, Pakistan; and Washington, DC, USA. Working abroad often goes hand in hand with global development, and we were curious how her experience practicing diplomacy in diverse environments has played into her overarching narrative as a diplomat.
Joy M. Sakurai: One of the things I like best about living and working overseas is getting to know people all over the world, in their own languages and in their own context, and working together on shared challenges and opportunities. Working in person with foreign governments is critical to advancing policy goals, building positive relationships, and strengthening our ability to impact positive change together as nations. By immersing yourself in the languages, the culture, and the history of each post you discover new ways of looking at issues you may not have considered before. Working with our locally employed staff, who are the engine and often the subject matter experts in our overseas Missions, is especially rewarding.
The Deputy Chief of Mission is charged with overseeing many of the internal processes and interpersonal communication inside the Embassy. I love supporting all of the Embassy teams here as we advance the U.S.-Korea bilateral relationship. Here at Mission Korea, I am inspired by the talented, dedicated staff who are using their creative energy to further a dynamic partnership with a very close ally. As a team, each day we’re making a difference, and for me, that is always exciting.
Korea has established itself as a key player in cultivating partnerships through cultural diplomacy. At the same time, a substantial number of young Americans are interested in studying, working, and building a family in Korea. We asked Ms. Sakurai for her thoughts on this observation and the expanding population of expats, especially American expats, in Korea.
Joy M. Sakurai: It’s amazing how much of Korean culture, whether it be food, music, beauty products, or movies and TV has become so widely known in the United States. We’ve seen it through the boom in Korean content Americans enjoy. K-pop mega group Blackpink headlined one of our biggest music festivals recently, Korean YouTubers have millions of U.S. subscribers. Shows like The Glory or Physical 100 dominate Netflix’s most watched list. It’s one of the reasons why Netflix’s CEO made sure he met President Yoon first thing in Washington to announce Netflix’s plan to invest an additional $2.5 billion to create new Korean shows and movies over the next four years. In addition, Samsung phones, Hyundai cars, and LG appliances are just a few examples of the Korean products in the United States, and these and more are brand names that Americans trust as high-quality and good value.
As to why Korean culture is so popular, it was clear for the whole world to see during the most recent summit - Koreans and Americans have so much in common. We share the same values, enjoy each another’s company, and want to continue creating the bonds that allow us to gain a deeper appreciation for one another. Our Alliance is not just about work relationships between our senior leaders. Countless acts of friendship between everyday Americans and South Koreans have built and sustained deep bonds between our two countries. Korean-Americans have made significant contributions to enriching American society, whether as leaders at the national level, in business, in sports, the arts, and so much more.
For many young Americans making their way to Korea for the first time, I’m sure this will lead them to discover a new language, culture, and way of viewing the world that they might not have considered before. After difficult years of pandemic restrictions, Koreans are once again the 3rd largest group of international students attending American universities, and South Korea has also become the 5th most popular study abroad destination for U.S. students. The experiences that young Americans and Koreans will have in one another’s countries will stay with them for the rest of their lives.
Cuisine plays a vital role in opening doors to explore new cultures. As a Japanese American born and raised in Hawaii, Ms. Sakurai recounts coming across familiar foods in Korea and shares her appreciation for how food ties people together.
Joy M. Sakurai: There is some truly amazing food in Korea, and I’ve been enjoying getting to know Korean food more thoroughly now that I’m living here. I am very fortunate that Hawaii has a large Korean-American population, so I grew up enjoying mandu, galbi, and many other Korean foods at local restaurants. Immigrants from Japan, China, Korea, the Philippines, and many other countries in the region have had a strong influence on local cuisine in Hawaii, sometimes with a fusion twist. Spam musubi is a perfect example of fusion of the Japanese rice ball with nori (gim) with Spam from America that became so popular on the islands during and after World War II. Spam seems to have made its mark in Korea too—I’ve seen it in kimchi fried rice and convenience store rice balls as well!
Last month the United States celebrated Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) Heritage Month, and food plays a big role in Asian and Pacific Island cultures. For many it’s how we communicate, how we show love. Over the course of time so many Asian foods have become a part of “American cuisine”. K-food is a great example: kimchi and bulgogi are standard dishes throughout the United States.
Ms. Sakurai is joined by her spouse and two children in a time and place undergoing a societal transition in which women are increasingly serving as major figures in professional domains and gender equality is being openly sought. She takes us through her strategies for juggling career and family obligations in Korea’s evolving workplace landscape.
Joy M. Sakurai: Balancing career and family—whether that looks like partners, parents, children, or pets—is a personal calculation, and the right decision can look different for everyone. For me, I’ve had a supportive partner who has allowed me to pursue some great opportunities in the foreign service, but we’ve still had to make tough decisions and sacrifices along the way. There are still only 24 hours in a day, and there’s no one way to do it right, just the way that works right for you. Some ways that we juggle and balance everything is that between my husband and I, we each pick a few of our individual strengths that we use to support the family. For example, my husband is great at staying organized and planning ahead. I am better at planning social activities and cooking. We find things that all four of us will enjoy and try to prioritize that during our free days together, such as taking a day trip to a place nearby, enjoying a meal at a favorite or new restaurant, or going to the pool together. I also don’t feel guilty about taking a ‘lazy day’ on some weekends, where we stay at home and each of us recharges in our own way. We try to have breakfast and dinner together whenever possible, even if that means my husband and I have to do a little bit of work online later in the evening after dinner.
Korean society is undergoing a transition right now when it comes to gender roles and expectations in society and also, as you note, facing a demographic challenge. As we look to the future, in order to meet our shared goals and tackle shared challenges, we need to draw on the unique talents of people from every facet of our societies – we can’t leave anyone on the sidelines. In the United States, promoting gender equality so that all women have the opportunity to live up to their full potential is a top priority of the Biden administration. The ROK is a global leader and now plays a critical role in fostering emerging democracies, as well as upholding democratic principles around the world. As we strive together to guarantee freedoms for those outside our borders, we must continue to ensure safeguards and uphold democratic principles within them. How to effectively empower women is a conversation we are having at home as Americans, but also abroad with key allies and partners like the Republic of Korea. I look forward to discussing this further and sharing more of my experiences, and the experiences of the United States where it is helpful.
Last but not least, we hear from a true polyglot the value of learning new languages. Especially with foreign language education being one of the most essential types of education in Korea, we wonder how this can lay the foundation for Korea to foster a generation of global-minded individuals.
Joy M. Sakurai: I love learning languages because it opens doors to communication with other societies and people, and also helps me understand the cultural nuances of a place. It also helps to learn about another history, culture, and perspectives when you can absorb it through that society’s native language. Language learning is one of the best ways to actually walk in someone else’s shoes. In the same way, I’ve found the best way to learn and maintain a language is by talking with other native speakers!
It's so interesting that during the pandemic in the United States, we saw a skyrocketing interest in language learning. According to data, in March 2020, the language app Duolingo saw a 300% boost in new users. And just last year in 2021, Korean was the seventh most-studied language in the world on the app, and second in Asian languages in the United States. And it’s not just casual learners stuck at home either, this is a trend—according to the Modern Language Association, U.S. college student enrollment in Korean language classes rose 78% from 2009 to 2016. While a lot of this has to do with the increasing popularity of K-dramas and K-pop, it is also important driver for interest, not just in popular culture, but in politics, business, history, or any number of possible career fields.
Meanwhile here in Korea, Department of State programs the Fulbright U.S. Student Program's English Teaching Assistant Programs place Americans in classrooms across South Korea to teach English, which serves as a doorway for people in the United States and Korea to form meaningful bonds—whether those are through business, education or travel. Because while a foreign language looks good on a resume, it really is the key to opening up the rest of the world.
About Joy M. Sakurai, Deputy Chief of Mission at the U.S. Embassy in Seoul
Joy M. Sakurai began her assignment as the Deputy Chief of Mission at the U.S. Embassy in Seoul, Republic of Korea in January 2023.