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Tomoki Matsuno is a fixture in the Knovva Academy academic family: one of the Model G20 attendants at the 2019 MG20 Beijing Summit, the first delegate to represent Japan in the Y20 Tokyo Task Force, and the founder and current president of Japan’s first Knovva Student Club. I picked his brain on everything from his favorite cuisine (Japanese; you can’t beat a big plate of sushi) to his thoughts on the political climate in Japan and why policymaking is difficult in a trying-to-progress culture where elders are still so disproportionately revered.

by Justine Hudock
Student Community Engagement, Knovva Academy

“I’ve changed my mind on Greta Thunberg,” Tomoki told me, over a Zoom call across the thirteen-hour time difference between my section of northeast US and Tomoki’s neck of Japan. I look like I could use a good run around the block, the 8:30 am not-quite-sunrise-but-nonetheless-super-special kind of sunshine peeking into my room. Tomoki is dressed to kill (*a comfy couch), clearly winding down at 9:30 pm from a full day finished, as I can see, and feel appropriately badly about, by the darkness outside his own window. I am acutely aware that I’m the sole reason he’s not in the kind of fun, parodic onesie we’re all ripe to sneak into at that hour. 

“We protested school reopening during the pandemic. There was big media coverage. But the idea to strike came from Greta.” He falters, and thinks for a moment. “Doing something outside the box is very uncommon, in terms of social expectations, in Japan. But I remembered what Greta had done, and even though I had never seen a Japanese student initiating a strike, it happened. 

“She was a pioneer in student activism; youth activism. She showed a clear way to how students can make an impact.” 

This is one of the questions I deemed “not fun” when bracing Tomoki for the query grenades I would launch, among other “not fun” questions like the effusively promotional: “You have attended one Model G20 Summit, and have represented Japan in the Y20 Tokyo Task Force. What is your favorite memory, from either your first summit or anticipating your second?” (“There are a lot of moments. I remember around ten or eleven one night, ordering bubble tea with the other countries’ delegates, working on writing our posted political recommendations. The contrast between the professional duties and the casual connection with my colleagues was awesome. Academic, real, but with bubble tea.”) 

And yet, like our Greta question, it has become fun in the honest, distinctly smart way a curious high school kid like Tomoki tends to do unto the un-fun.

“I want to know how other people live their lives,” he comments, perhaps partially reflecting on the differences between the protests he participated in with his young Japanese community, and how Thunberg did with her own teenaged community in the vastly different political sphere of Sweden. “Post-college, I’m interested in pursuing policymaking in general; to really understand how people live their lives for an actionable reason.” 

He tilts his head slightly, resignedly: “In Japan, there’s a big assumption that younger people have to follow what our elders say — even in government. 

“By working outside the government, I can fully focus on scientific facts and evidence without worrying about following the herd. Make policies that incorporate real situations. 

“Before that, I think travelling around the world would be amazing; to know what people in other parts of the world think about.”

Not an uncommon dream for a person his age. But what about the looming potential downsides? Travelling is a two-edged sword: On one end, it has the enormous potential to broaden the mind; on the other, the grandness of the political situation we’re all faced with in a global society, up close and ugly in its HD-ness, might prove overwhelming. Maybe even permanently demoralizing.

Ahem. If you’re not Tomoki Matsuno. He giggles curtly to himself at the thought: “People expect too much! People are too afraid to try because they ‘might fail.’ I think that students, just because we are young, should try their hand at different things. There must be takeaways even if we fail.” 

“Just,” he summarizes, “do what your heart takes you to.”

He’s got the experience to back up the advice. Tomoki’s heart has taken him many places: literally, to Beijing as a delegate for the 2019 MG20 Summit, and, on his own time, to airports for the impetuous heck of it (“I love commercial airplanes and photography. I used to go to the airport just to take photos of airplanes. Sometimes in my free time, I open YouTube just to watch airplane landings and launches.”).

Aas our own does on occasion, though, Tomoki’s heart takes him on a path of worry, too. “I’m on summer vacation right now, and have exams in two weeks, and I know I have to study. But in fact, sometimes I get lazy, and check my phone, or something, and then I try to analyze: Why did I do that? Why couldn’t I do what was important?” He shrugs slightly, maybe shaking off the lasting legacy of those feelings. “I try to keep in mind ‘not to think that much’ — thinking ‘I have to study’ constantly, for instance. I think that depressed me. I like to focus on what’s in front of me, like, the plate of sushi in front of me if I’m at dinner. In the same way, I like to focus on just the tasks before me.

“At the end of the day, I want to make the same opportunities for everyone in my community. Make chances for other people, other people my age, in my school.

I’ve made presentations about what I’ve learned in MG20. How to socially innovate, how to create an environment where people can always speak their political minds. Voting rates in my generation are low. I want to help create a political environment in Japan where people can be aware of issues and act on their awareness.”

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