Born in Japan and the daughter of diplomats, Risa Yamamoto spent much of her life growing up in foreign countries. She spent her teenage years in the Middle East where she witnessed firsthand the impacts of poverty, inequality and government corruption. When it was time to pick a college, Yamamoto looked for a school to help her navigate those harsh realities and where she could embrace her Japanese culture. She chose the College of Social Sciences at UH Mānoa.
“Growing up I often tried to hide my culture and wanted to blend in,” said Yamamoto, who graduated from UH Mānoa in December 2021 with a bachelor’s degree in political science. “For college, away from my family and friends, it was important for me to be able to feel comfortable in my own skin.”
Through the study of political science at CSS, she found her passion. Yamamoto now works for the Japanese Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Tokyo. She serves in the International Peace and Security Cooperation Division, where she manages a training program for Japanese people with the goal of ultimately preparing them to work in international organizations. She also conducts research for the United Nations (UN) Peace Missions, and is a part of the process for drafting and revising Japan’s statements in the UN Security Council for those missions.
“People I encounter at my job come from different backgrounds and fields, but they all work toward the same goal,” said Yamamoto. “It is interesting and inspiring to see people apply their expertise to the cause.”
Yamamoto says an Indigenous politics course at UH Mānoa ultimately inspired her successful career path.
“Being in Hawaiʻi, learning – as well as unlearning – about native communities, and seeing their struggles and effects of settler colonialism firsthand, impacted my motivation to learn,” said Yamamoto. “It helped me make the connection between Indigenous politics and international relations such as Palestine and Hawaiʻi, or Okinawa and Hawaiʻi. This is such a unique learning opportunity because I would never have made the connections between these different places.”
Reflecting back on her college days, Yamamoto values her internship with American Civil Liberties Union of Hawaiʻi. She organized events and advocated for Native Hawaiian communities, and participated in movements such as Students and Faculty for Justice in Palestine, Black Lives Matter and Stop Asian Hate.
“I really enjoyed being with others that shared the same spirit, the same desire to fight for what was right and what we believe in,” said Yamamoto, who added this advice for current UH Mānoa students: “If you know what you want to do, and if you know what you’re passionate about, keep on pursuing it.”