From teddy bear to superhero: Inside Yuta Kikuchi’s global transformation

Josh Kahen/Staff

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We often take communication for granted. In many of our daily lives as UC Berkeley students, we often assume that although campus is home to students of many different backgrounds, we can all speak to each other. Even off campus and in the world at large, we often find ourselves making the assumption that everyone can speak English naturally and fluently. But for some students, and for Yuta Kikuchi in particular, this is not always true. For Kikuchi, communication is not taken for granted.

There was a barrier for Kikuchi, a language barrier — so much so that before setting foot on campus, before even considering UC Berkeley, he questioned whether he could make the journey from Yahaba, Japan.

At the US Open Junior Championships in New York City, Yuta met with Cal director of men’s tennis Peter Wright. Wright began planting the seeds for Kikuchi’s life-changing decision, but noticed he spoke broken English.

According to Wright, if Yuta was going to come to Cal, he would have to significantly improve his English abilities. While other schools were not as selective and were already offering Kikuchi scholarships, Kikuchi, who is majoring in political economics and has business dreams after tennis, sought the academic rigor of UC Berkeley and turned to out of the box methods to get there.

“He embarked on a journey of improving his English, and one of the ways he did that was instead of watching TV, or as some people do in watching cartoons, he started watching TED Talks in English. I thought this was incredibly bright for him to do,” Wright said.

Kikuchi already showed the resourcefulness of a Cal student, but the language barrier seemed to hold him back, despite his hope to be a Cal student. While his grades were high in every regard, Kikuchi’s Test of English as a Foreign Language, or TOEFL, score wasn’t up to par with the standards set by the admissions board. Wright made a case for his future standout, however.

“My case really was that Yuta’s intelligence is a permanent condition. His lack of English is a temporary condition,” Wright said.

Despite the strong words, the admissions office determined that Kikuchi would have to attend summer school the summer before his first semester at Cal in order to strengthen his grasp of English. This meant that Kikuchi wouldn’t be able to play alongside his teammates for the duration of the summer. While he could have again turned to other powerhouse schools that were offering him a roster spot without the requirement of summer school, Kikuchi was undeterred and responded to the challenge with enthusiasm and ingenuity.

It was at this moment that Wright’s faith in Kikuchi was reaffirmed. Yuta’s determination brought something else to the table, something that exceeded even his prodigious skills on the tennis court.

“Other students might not have been as good a fit as he is. He wanted the challenge. He relished the challenge. He studies so hard, he works so hard, and not every young person is that way. Some are looking for the shortcut, some are looking for the easy path,” Wright said. “He was looking for the path that was going to have the greatest benefit for him in terms of having a successful tennis career and in terms of having a successful career in business after he’s done playing tennis.”

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When he first arrived in Berkeley, Kikuchi struggled with his inability to communicate with those around him. His anxiety about standing out appeared in places we might take for granted, such as the classroom.

“I couldn’t say ‘How are you?’ to my classmates because I was afraid to say that and of my pronunciation. I didn’t have any confidence in my pronunciation,” Kikuchi said. “I don’t think they cared too much because I am Japanese, but I was caring about it too much. I was afraid.”

Learning a new language is a sensitive process. The fear of being different is not foreign to any college student. A community is important in easing this pressure and for Kikuchi, that community came in the form of his teammates.

“My teammates were important for me to break through. They talked to me every time and even if I couldn’t understand, they looked at me and thought that I couldn’t understand, so they would speak again or use easier words for me,” Kikuchi said.

Kikuchi may have a biological older brother in Japan, but he found many more brothers in his teammates. Perhaps none were closer to Kikuchi than his doubles partner, junior Jacob Brumm. At first, the duo had to find ways to deal with the lack of communication on the tennis court. Despite not even being able to fully know where the other was serving due to the language barrier, the tandem of Kikuchi and Brumm bonded on road trips and found plenty of success, being ranked as high as No. 8 nationally during the 2019 season.

Brumm and the rest of the team embraced going out of their way to help Kikuchi, attending classes with him, acting as translators in conversations and with essays. In the process, they themselves learned more about Kikuchi and his Japanese culture.

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The efforts of his teammates had a profound impact on how Kikuchi perceived not only the people of Berkeley but also how he perceived himself and how he fit into the fabric of the city. With the help of his teammates, Kikuchi grew. He was no longer afraid.

“I realized that last year, I’m not trying to escape from the fear,” Kikuchi said. “I should talk with more people and get through it to adjust to the culture and the differences.”

As his English improved, Kikuchi’s teammates got to see a different side of him. They saw his sense of humor and what was important to him and connected with him on a deeper level. With his confidence growing off the court, Kikuchi took his on-court play to another level, winning Pac-12 Freshman of the Year and inspiring his teammates. But tennis accolades were far from his most pressing concern.

His increasingly close relationship with his teammates and his newfound understanding of the English language have exposed Kikuchi to many things that he would not have otherwise seen in Yahaba. Nearly everything has been different — the larger buildings, a plethora of different languages and skin tones and, of course, the diversity of cuisines.

Kikuchi’s willingness to be open to new experiences has changed him. The difference in his demeanor and confidence is night and day, and his teammates have picked up on it.

“When he first arrived, he reminded me of a teddy bear. He was shy but he had that warm, natural, cuddly feeling that if you got close to him, you could feel. But now, he’s a superhero action figure. It’s funny. As a team, we joke about it all the time. Now, he’s hardened and he’s our superhero on the team,” Brumm said.

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Kikuchi isn’t sure where he wants to go after Cal. Perhaps it will be wherever his tennis career takes him. Asked whether he might consider a return to Japan, however, Kikuchi feels he has so much more left to learn outside of his hometown.

“I have learned so many things in the US. Even in these two years, it’s been pretty interesting for me,” Kikuchi said. “I don’t think that I know everything about myself or the world, so I’m pretty interested in working outside Japan.”

Moving from halfway across the world is a journey that many students make, so much so that we have become accustomed to it as the norm. But it is important to remember that there are so many who never make the journey because we fear the unknown and the obstacles that come along with it. But those obstacles can be overcome; Kikuchi encourages everyone to take a leap of faith and make the journey.

“Try something or change something because it is very important for improving yourself. Even if I was struggling or I had difficulties towards everything around me, this was the great challenge for me to improve myself,” Kikuchi said. “I met so many people who were different from Japanese people, identity wise and culture wise. It’s great to have big change sometimes. Go. Just go there and change it.”

Everyone comes to college seeking self-discovery and a chance to transition into the person they want to be for the rest of their lives. Yuta Kikuchi has overcome barriers. He has learned a new language, found a new family and undergone transitions. Not only the global transition of moving from a small town in Japan to a bustling American city like Berkeley, but the transition from alone to welcomed, from shy to confident, and as his teammates say, from teddy bear to superhero.

Kabir Rao covers men’s tennis. Contact him at [email protected].