Ever since Chihiro Okawa could remember, they were obsessed with the stars — astronomy, the planets, space, the frontier. Okawa was always curious about the unknown, exploring topics and uncovering questions beyond our everyday world. As the curious toddler grew into a curious teenager, their quest for discovery expanded exponentially.
“I started to question gender identity,” said the 18-year-old college freshman and astrophysics major, who began reexamining societal gender norms with the lens of a scientist. “With science, we always need to be questioning and building on top research.”
In their youth Okawa learned about LGBTQIA+ protests in the ‘70s, ‘80s and ‘90s where people of all different backgrounds fought for civil rights. “I had all these resources. I saw these people who valiantly fought for their rights,” Okawa said. “And I believe I was shifting between the gender spectrum. It started as a question of ‘am I male or female?’ ‘Do things always need to be necessarily identified or associated with masculinity or femininity?’ I always felt like from the get-go that I wasn’t necessarily one or other other — I appear to be in the middle.”
Okawa’s family is Buddhist, and Okawa learned of the term “non-binary” as they became more involved with Jödo Shinshü Buddhism. Okawa, who graduated from Pacific Buddhist Academy, recalls a human sexuality class, where the teacher brought in a panel to share their experiences, including those who identified as transgender and non-binary.
“That was the ‘aha’ moment,” said Okawa. “That’s the word I was looking for — ‘non-binary.’”
“The Hongwanji is very accepting of all different people and communities, accepting of races, sexuality, creed,” Okawa said, describing how Buddhism has a sense of the non-self, where to reach enlightenment you must first detach yourself from society and look within to discover you are, who you want to be.
“That’s how I initially went down the road of discovery of being non-binary,” explained Okawa. “At the moment it’s impermanence. Maybe a few years I’ll find a different way to identify myself, but this how it’s going right now. My legal name is Chad, but I like to go by Chihiro. My pronouns are they/them, and I’m non-binary.”
A Studio Ghibli fan, Okawa was inspired to call themself “Chihiro” from the movie “Spirited Away,” a childhood favorite, and also discovered that one way to write Chihiro in Japanese is defined as “a thousand fathoms” or “a thousand discoveries,” or “a thousand questions.” The name speaks true to Okawa’s innate scientific nature and personal philosophy of continuously asking questions and searching for answers, whether it be in academics or simply going through life.
Okawa, who was adopted by their grandparents and calls them Mom and Dad, said they would be remiss if they did not mention how their parents helped instill experimentation, the philosophy of discovery, and of accepting people as they are. “Everyone has a different story,” said Okawa. “They have a different background and we must embrace it because we are all human.”
As a Gosei/Rokusei with Sansei and Yonsei parents (biological grandparents), Okawa said there was possibly a generational gap, where their parents understood the acronyms for LGBT but may not have been familiar with the term non-binary or what the current terms are.
“Coming from a relatively conservative Japanese household, it was a bit of an adjustment, but I think it’s a journey,” Okawa said. “They just want to make sure I’m safe. They support me, and I’m always answering questions.”
Okawa said that attending a relatively small high school, teachers were able to get to know the students well, and they had known most of their classmates since 4th or 5th grade, so everyone was really close. Their friends and teachers were accepting of Okawa’s new name and pronouns and really wanted to make sure Okawa was comfortable around them. “They were safe,” said Okawa.
In reflection, Okawa said they’re most proud of how the congregation of Buddhism continued to be resilient through societal norms. “The Hongwanji has always supported LGBTQ+ individuals,” said Okawa, “but especially in the past few years, the congregation has found a more urgent need to support everyone, and recent workshops and programs to help members learn about this community are important.”
In May, Okawa sat on a panel for an LGBTQIA+ 101 workshop for the Honpa Hongwanji Mission of Hawai‘i organized by the Commission on Buddhist Education and Committee on Social Concerns, and said, “my proudest moment was participating in [the] panel with other members of our organization who identified or had family members associated with LGBTQ+. This seminar was important because it gave us all an opportunity to answer questions and get rid of any stigmas older temple members had about our community.”
Buddhism’s impact has spilled into many facets in Okawa’s life. When Okawa was seven, they first saw taiko played at a bon dance, a Japanese Buddhist festival. People in yukata and kimono danced to recorded music around the yagura, but then a live performance of “Fukushima Ondo” caught Okawa’s attention. The resonation of the drum and shrill sound of the flute memorized Okawa and said it was as if the sound was calling them to join in and dance. It was the first time Okawa remembered seeing the lively side of Japanese culture.
“When I thought of Japan when I was younger, I thought of things that are more eloquent, more poised, like minyō or like tea ceremony. Seeing taiko, I thought ‘ooh, that’s exciting.’”
Okawa, an avid taiko drummer, performs in the Kumi Daiko style (taiko ensemble), where drummers play in different patterns and rhythms, and considers taiko to be a very gender-neutral art form. “Even though traditionally taiko was played by men and it was used during wars or to scare off enemies, it was used for agrarian purposes, religious purposes or also during festivals. I think that as taiko moved to the United States it’s become very equal, as both men and women adopt that taiko.”
While attending Pacific Buddhist Academy, Okawa was a member of the Hyaku Sen Ki Kai Taiko club as well as a member of the Taiko Center of the Pacific Youth Group, which Okawa said helped them explore their identity in an artistic way, as taiko explores different aspects of dynamics and poise by playing with improvisation and creativity.
Okawa explained that with taiko, you see people hitting big drums and making a big sound, which takes up a lot of muscle and energy, but through its movements, there’s also poise and grace and an art form. “In addition, from the musicality, apart from the music, it’s a way for a composer to tell a story, to evoke feelings to the audience,” said Okawa, who also composes their own music.
One of Okawa’s taiko pieces is called “Namazu No Jishin,” or Catfish Earthquake, based on the ancient yōkai tale of how the ancient Japanese believed a giant catfish the size of the Japanese islands would thrash around because of earthquakes. Okawa’s piece was based on the folk tale but was also a tribute to the victims of the 2011 Tohoku earthquake, which was a natural phenomenon that caused a lot of fear, anger, sadness and death. The challenge was to show that while taiko is a lively art form, which can evoke excitement or fear, but at the same time also balance the musical piece with melancholy.
At PBA, Okawa was also a member of the Buddhist Club, which combined the philosophical and spiritual part of Buddhism with the community. Since the school was built from the funding of many different temples (in addition to funding from its mother temple in Japan), the club would go off island to thank the temples and communities for its support throughout the year. In January, during Okawa’s senior year, the club went to the Big Island and visited temples in Puna, Kamuela and Hilo.
Okawa is also involved with the Junior Young Buddhist Association, which is affiliated solely with the Hongwanji communities and encourages youth to be active within the community. Okawa credits their time spent in clubs for pushing them to come out of their shell. “I was definitely not an extrovert when I was younger,” said Okawa. “I was more of a quiet, reserved person.”
But after being part of a community with so many different activities or events, meetings, Okawa grew close to this group of friends. “In that club I really felt that philosophy where everyone was very welcoming. You have all these people from different schools, different backgrounds, who come together in order to learn the teachings or the Dharma and work together in communities and partake in social events.”
Okawa continues to serve in the statewide organization of the Junior YBA called the Hawaii Federation of the Junior YBA, where they’re serving their second term as president. Okawa said that especially since the COVID-19 pandemic, the club lost valuable time, but after years of online Zoom meetings, the club is moving to in-person meetings. Okawa said it’s rewarding to be part of the organization and learn about different temples across the islands, with units on O‘ahu, Maui, Kaua‘i and the Big Island.
“It’s nice to know how we have these people coming together, helping their communities and hopefully help the Hongwanji committee to continue to be successful and thrive and have good membership in the next generations. Because I know we have a decline in membership,” said Okawa, acknowledging that people have been looking beyond religion for answers and that societal pressures to go to church every week has waned over time. “We have to ask ourselves as a youth organization, what can we do to increase membership?”
Okawa said the organization has implemented several changes such as increasing membership age from 6th grade to college, allowing for a wider age range of exposure and a greater opportunity for students to make their mark in life, if they would like.
“One big resolution was to change our forms and our policies to make them more gender neutral, because that was a topic that I noticed that as our membership grew — we had more people who didn’t identify with the binary standard,” said Okawa explaining how the organization eliminated the male or female gender check boxes on its registration forms and allows members a fill-in-the-blank options instead. “We made a resolution, and it was passed at the state level. That was [a] good step in the right direction.”
Okawa enjoys volunteering and helping in the community, and over the past two years has been helping with Aiea Hongwanji’s different programs. Last year, Okawa helped with the preschoolers, and this year served as an aide with the adult day care program.
“I was lucky enough to work with the elderly, and I think working from both spectrums, there’s obviously different perspectives and different ways of thinking. I personally prefer working with the elderly because they kind of fit more on my energy level,” said Okawa with a laugh. “As much as I have fun running around with the kids, chasing after them, I enjoy listening to the stories of elderly learning from their experiences. I really appreciate their knowledge and their ability to share.”
Throughout their involvement with organizations, Okawa said there was always a sense of community and belonging. “There were many times I wanted to quit because the work was overwhelming, but my advisors and peers always encouraged me to persevere. Time and time again, my limits were surpassed thanks to the mutual support of these communities. My identity and leadership skills would not be where they are without them.”
In their free time, Okawa enjoys reading research papers and novels. One of their favorite books is Dr. Brené Brown’s “Daring Greatly.”
Okawa’s favorite phrase from Brown’s book is “to be bold, to experiment new things, to question everything, but also when you do things to persevere and be resilient, to not really throw in the towel and give up, but always put in a valiant effort,” which inspired them to be vulnerable and open.
Okawa said the main thing for others who may be questioning their gender identity is to have confidence in themselves, to look within themselves, to love themselves. “If you can’t appreciate yourself or who you are, it may be a little bit complex.” Okawa said that as younger people go through different phases and transitions in life, they may find that their personal philosophy clashes with societal norms or with what they’ve grown up believing.
“So maybe they have an inner conflict. The first thing is to take time to find your identity, and to look inward and find out who you want to be. What do you want? Not necessarily what other people want you to be.” Okawa said, adding that looking inward is an important skill in general, to not rush things and really take the time to understand what it is that you want.
“In our society, we kind of focus solely on what other people think of us, and it can make us feel shame because we want to live up to society, we don’t want to disappoint people,” said Okawa. “But I think if you’re open, people will want to help you. Now, with the internet, you’re never really alone. It’s always good to find someone who supports you, who may give you advice. Maybe they may have a similar story.”
For parents, caregivers or teachers who have a child exploring gender identity, Okawa said the most important thing is to be supportive, to help them along the way. “They’re going through a change in their reality of how they’re finding themselves,” explained Okawa. “They’re trying to find an identity for themselves, in their bodies and their intrinsic self. Another big thing is to be open to change, to embrace change, and if you’re a parent, to love your child unconditionally.”
Okawa said one of the worst things to say to someone exploring gender identity is to say things like, “be a man,” because it forces cultural norms on the child and ends up creating more conflict. Instead, Okawa encouraged the phrasing “be human,” because being human is imperfect.
“I think we should be encouraging people, the next generation, that it’s okay to make mistakes. It’s okay to be different. It’s okay to ask for help,” said Okawa. “I think that’s what we as a society should strive to do — to create people who are willing to make mistakes, to dare greatly to be vulnerable, who are able to be kind and gentle to every living thing, and to be have the freedom to explore themselves.”
Okawa, who as a future astrophysicist will continue to seek to understand our universe and our place in it, said playing taiko helped them to ponder our world and connect the dots of how society and Buddhism work together.
“In a micro way,” said Okawa, “taiko is how we should strive to be as a society — to work together with different backgrounds, relying on one another to live, to co-exist.
Like Kumi Daiko, we are all connected, we all drum to our own rhythm but if we work together, we can create a beautiful, cohesive sound.