“That’s my philosophy: the more knowledge you have the more confident you will feel.”— Henry Kaku
Having had the pleasure of getting to know Henry Kaku, it is safe to say that he was born to be a teacher, and not just in the traditional sense. From sharing cultural wealth through the teachings of judo and Origami to being a community leader, organizer, and educator, to teaching in the classical sense in a classroom as a substitute math teacher, Henry has mastered the art of teaching. Henry’s passion is sharing his learned knowledge and lived experience with community members of all ages, all wanting to learn different things for different reasons. However, to become such a masterful teacher one must first endure and learn much themselves. Henry’s journey to becoming the multi-talented community educator he is now is one filled with adaptability, dedication to overcoming obstacles, and a whole lot of love for what he’s teaching and those he’s sharing his knowledge with.
Henry was born in Japan to Keige Kaku and Sumiko Taji in 1948. Henry is the youngest of three children, and the only person in his family to be born in Japan. The rest of his family were American citizens who were forcibly relocated and incarcerated in American internment camps in California during World War II (WWII). In fact, Henry’s parents met, married, and had their first two children while imprisoned. At the end of the War, and after four years of imprisonment, Henry’s family was deported to Japan and their citizenship was revoked.
Being a Japanese American family in Japan post-WWII was a complex identity for Henry and his family to navigate. The Japanese were not welcoming of Americans due to the intense political climate at the time, and with the devastating effects of the War, the Japanese were starving and didn’t need more mouths to feed. These tensions greatly influenced how Henry’s parents raised their family in Japan and concealing their Japanese American identity was a big part of it. For the first eight years of Henry’s life, the Kaku family did not speak a word of English in an effort to be perceived as solely Japanese. This made things difficult for Henry when his family made their way to San Jose, California in 1956, and he did not know a word of English, not even hello.
The language barrier set Henry back two years in school. Although he struggled to learn the language, numbers were still the same, and math came easily to Henry. Japan had also begun teaching more advanced math to younger students, so while all his peers were learning addition and subtraction, Henry was already multiplying and dividing. His teachers thought he was a math genius, so they gave him advanced math homework all throughout elementary and middle school. Since it came to him so easily, Henry thought that was what he was meant to be.
In his senior year of high school, Henry began taking classes at the local junior college. He had really wanted to attend MIT, but due to his large number of college units, they wouldn’t accept him. Henry attended San Jose State University (SJSU) instead, majoring in Math and eventually switching to Psychology during his junior year. After graduating with his Bachelors, Henry went on to pursue a Master's Degree in School Psychology but decided that wasn’t for him and went straight into working full time. His first job out of college was at Sunnyvale High School, where he worked as a school counselor and math teacher.
After teaching and counseling for four years, Henry left teaching to work for the corporate world in human resources. Henry worked as a human resources director in the banking field for nearly 30 years. After leaving his HR job, Henry went back to substitute teaching, which is what he still does today. “I enjoy teaching. It’s something I’ve done in various forms throughout my whole life, ever since I was in college, and after college.”
Aside from teaching in the classroom, Henry has various hobbies he has mastered and shares with the community by teaching classes or hosting events. One of his oldest and dearest hobbies is Judo. Henry has been practicing the Japanese martial art since the age 10, for nearly 65 years. His brother was always someone he looked up to when it came to Judo, being was one of the top masters of the martial art.
Currently, Henry has a Black belt and is the Head Sensei of DeLeon Judo Club, in Petaluma. Early on during the COVID-19 pandemic, Henry watched his community face a growing amount of hate, threats and acts of violence, so he decided to do something about it. Positively influenced by a San Franciscan Kung Fu instructor who was offering free self-defense classes for the Asian community, Henry decided to model that in his own community. Henry now offers free self-defense classes to our community in the hopes of combatting the ignorance and hate towards the Asian community. His goal is to teach people offensive techniques to increase individual confidence and to equip the community with tools to help themselves get out of threatening situations.
In addition to Judo, Henry shares the art of Origami with the community. Henry has been practicing the art form for as long as he can remember, picking it up as a young boy in Japan watching the elders craft the paper art. Now, Henry is an Origami instructor at community events, schools, and cultural festivals. He recently taught people how to fold paper cranes at The Birds Festival in Marin. Henry’s quickest origami fold is the classic crane, which he can fold in a mere 40 seconds!
For Henry, community engagement allows him to fill his cup, while filling the cups of others. “I enjoy working with people and helping people.” Henry has a knack for building community by sharing cultural wealth such as Judo and Origami. For the last 20 years, Henry has spoken at various educational institutions ranging from middle schools to colleges such as Sonoma State University where he shares Japanese American History in the hopes of educating others on the history so that it the atrocities that occurred won’t happen again. He is also currently the Chair of the Oral History Committee of the Sonoma County Japanese American Citizens League Chapter that speaks to the public.
Henry also is actively engaged in other community work, participating on various boards and organizations. “I found it meaningful for me, to give what I can, and my expertise.” The first thing Henry did when he moved to Petaluma in 1985 was go to the Petaluma Educational Foundation and request to be on their Board of Directors; he served on the Board for 20 years. In addition, Henry served on the boards for Petaluma People Service Center, Sonoma County People for Economic Opportunity, and the United Way Loan Executive Committee, all ranging from 10-20 years of service.
All of this experience helped Henry learn how to organize nonprofit organizations. He helped to found various nonprofits at local high schools to help them gain funding for music and cheerleading. In addition, Henry helped in the founding of the Sonoma County Matsuri Festival, which is an educational arts organization, whose work is related to Japanese Culture. Most recently Henry joined forces with other local Asian community leaders, including Grace Cheung-Schulman, to form the Asian American Pacific Islander Coalition of the North Bay (AAPIC). Henry has used his HR skills to help make the Coalition a nonprofit organization.
Henry Kaku has dedicated much of his life to his community, through teaching and sharing cultural wealth, creating spaces for connection, growth, and conversation. Henry’s passion for his community and culture is evident and immense. At the age of 74, Henry continues to be a community educator, instructing at his judo club, teaching the meditative art of Origami any chance he gets, and sharing the history of his people, whether it be out in the community or in a classroom. Henry has made Sonoma County a better place to live by sharing himself and his culture with the greater community. Thank you, Henry!
To learn more about this story and the important work of Henry Kaku visit the links below.
References and Highlights of Henry’s Community work:
Henry Kaku LinkedIn
Petaluma Judo instructor offering free self-defense for Asian business owners
“Infamy's legacy: Tule Lake and repatriation remembered” – NikkeiWest
Our Instructors – DeLeon Judo Club
Asian Hate Crimes - World War 2 experiences to Present Day by Henry Kaku | Rotary Club of Sebastopol
Episode 124: Henry Kaku, Japanese American by Inside Petaluma
Origami: Folding for Peace with Henry Kaku
Henry Kaku was interviewed by Daniel Chaparro, Community Outreach Specialist, and Madelynn Cox, Community Engagement AmeriCorps VISTA.