In an interview with Surfing Magazine in 2015 when he was on the brink of qualification, Kanoa Igarashi, when asked whether he'd represent Japan or America on the world stage, said: "I represent both already, so either way, one country is going to be bummed. I would be the first Japanese person to make the tour, so that alone sets me apart. I have dual citizenship with America and Japan but I think I’m going to be representing the USA."
Igarashi made good on his word, representing the stars and stripes in his 2016 profile in Surfing, and surfing for America on the Championship Tour the last two years. But Igarashi has since changed his mind. From today forward, he'll officially represent Japan, making him the first surfer from Asia on the ‘CT. So we gave him a ring to find out more about his decision.
When you first qualified, you were on the fence about which country you would represent on tour, but you went with the USA. What changed?
This was the hardest decision of my life — I don't think people realize how tough this was. But it's something I've been thinking about for the past six years. For a combination of reasons: I have so many friends and supporters here in California, and I'm really proud to be an American; but on the other side there's my culture and my family — my aunts, uncles, cousins, grandparents…they support me so much, and they've always wanted me to compete for Japan, ever since I started surfing.
I'm 100 percent Japanese, so it's always been around. I've tried to kind of avoid it [an official decision] because at the end of the day I just want to surf. But it came to a point where I had to make a call. My grandparents are getting older, this will be one of the last Olympics they'll see, they’re in Japan, and I get chicken skin just thinking about all of that. It's such a crazy time for surfing and it just feels like the right time to make the call. Surfing in Asia needs someone to help define it, and I know it's cool for them to have someone to look up to on tour.
Had you stayed with the USA on tour, would it have even been possible to surf for Japan in the Olympics?
I think I had to make the switch, though I'm not officially sure about that. But at the end of the day it just made more sense. Obviously the Olympics were a big part of my decision, but to be able to represent Japan, and to be able to help motivate Asian surfers, and spread surfing over there, was just as important to me.
In Japan, I'm sure this news is being met with a lot of excitement. Do you expect any pushback from anyone in the States?
It's a bummer to see negative stuff. It's not like I'm leaving America. I'm American. I was born here. But the Olympics is about more than that. They started to bring countries together through sport. It was decided that, rather than bomb each other, they'd battle in the swimming pool, or on the track, as a way to put sports in front of war. That's how I look at it. This will be the first time surfing is in the Olympics, which is a huge deal for us, and we're going as a group of surfers trying to show the world how great our sport is. Yeah, we're gonna battle for a gold medal, and I'll be doing that for Japan now, but the people who really know me understand my decision.
At the end of the day, nothing really changes except the flag next to your name, and the country you compete for in 2020.
For sure. I'm still gonna live in Huntington Beach. This is where I grew up and this is where I learned to surf. I'm not going anywhere.
But with this, I'm the first Asian surfer on tour. For me, that's a pretty big deal. It's not just about Japan. It’s about China, Korea, Taiwan…there's so many young, aspiring pro surfers over there, and now they have someone to support and relate too. I'm gonna be visiting those countries more often now, and spreading our sport. That's how I look at it. Surfing has done so much for me and this is the best way for me to give back and spread the love.