Alumni Spotlight: Asuka Hirabe Hamakawa (CPIS MA 2011) Recognized by His Holiness the Dalai Lama as an Unsung Hero of Compassion

After graduating from Boston University in 2004, Asuka “Aska” Hirabe Hamakawa was traveling when a series of coincidences brought her to Sāmoa, where she stayed for a few months in the village of Tafitoala. She returned to Sāmoa a year later and was shocked by the immediate and powerful effects of climate change. The experience drove her to change career paths from being a business consultant and, in 2008, she joined the Center for Pacific Islands Studies to pursue graduate research on climate change impacts on Tafitoala.
During her second year at UH Mānoa, the earthquake and tsunami hit Sāmoa. Within a week, Aska raised $16,000 in donations for relief efforts and then flew to Sāmoa to assist with reconstruction of homes and deliver aid. Aska returned to UH Mānoa and completed her thesis in 2011. “Rising Waves of Change: Sociocultural Impacts of Climate Change in the Village of Tafitoala, Sāmoa, in the Face of Globalization” draws examples from Tafitoala to illuminate the invisible, intangible, and immeasurable effects of climate change. Aska presented the “human” side of climate change and described the ways that local perspectives have too often been cast aside for numbers and scientific analysis. The final chapter of her thesis, “Looking into the Past for the Future” proposed ways to incorporate traditional knowledge and methodologies to deal with environmental degradation and adapt to climate changes in Sāmoa.

Shortly before completing her MA, an earthquake and tsunami struck her home country of Japan. Aska felt that she could not take a job that had been offered to her in Sāmoa and instead worked with the PeaceBoat organization to help with the tsunami relief in Northern Japan. She was based in the most severely affected city, Ishinomaki, serving at the front lines of the disaster relief work by heading the fishery support division and managing volunteers for seven months.
Soon after leaving Northern Japan, Aska became involved with a small project in Guam; she then headed to Tuvalu to work with Tuvalu Overview, a Japan/Tuvalu-based climate change–related nongovernmental organization, for an ethnographic research project on one of the remote outer islands. After the three-month project, she was appointed vice president of Tuvalu Overview and served for two years.
Days after returning to Japan from Tuvalu, Aska reunited with a good friend and fellow East-West Center alum Tomohiro Hamakawa and within a few months they were married.
In February 2014, Aska and Tomo were recognized as two of fifty-one Unsung Heroes of Compassion by His Holiness the Dalai Lama (newunsungheroes.org). The award celebrates the extraordinary effort of individuals from around the globe who work to alleviate the suffering of others without expectation of reward. Aska described her and Tomo’s surprise:
“When we heard about our nomination, we thought of humbly rejecting it since we felt that we were undeserving of the award. But the selection committee not only recognized our past and current work but was convinced that we will continue contributing to help those in need around the world throughout our lives and saw potential in us that they still offered us the award. The experience itself was magical and it’s still hard to believe. We are extremely humbled by this and it makes us all the more committed and motivated to do more.”
His Holiness the Dalai Lama and Aska Hirabe Hamakawa at the 2014 Unsung Heroes event.

His Holiness the Dalai Lama and Aska Hirabe Hamakawa at the 2014 Unsung Heroes event.

Since leaving Tuvalu Overview in March 2014, Aska has been engaged in her newest venture, Earth Company (www.earthcompany.jp), an organization to incubate and nurture innovative social ideas that help create a better world, co-founded with her husband Tomo. She is also an independent consultant; works with Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Climate CoLab (a crowd-sourcing initiative to help solve climate change); and is enrolled in the certificate program in Marketing Strategy at Cornell University while studying for certification exam to become a certified fundraiser in Japan. Aska explained why she is undertaking all of these projects while also raising a young child: “The reason why I study marketing and fundraising is because I see the lack of marketing as a fundamental cause of why NGOs are always short of money, which is a common issue among most NGOs throughout the world and always results in hindering such valuable work that nonprofits do.”
At the moment, Aska and Tomo live in Tokyo with their one-year-old daughter Yula, but they are moving to Bali, Indonesia, later this year to continue work there. The center extends its warmest congratulations to Aska and Tomo, very deserving recipients of the Unsung Heroes of Compassion award.