As a senior Navy official, Roger Natsuhara says part of his role is to support Asian-Americans and Pacific islanders who want to enter senior government service.
President Barack Obama proclaimed May as Asian-American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month. This year’s theme is “Striving for Excellence in Leadership, Diversity and Inclusion.”
Natsuhara — principal deputy assistant secretary of the Navy for energy, installations and environment and deputy assistant secretary of the Navy for installations and facilities – said avoiding inclusion into U.S. culture is a barrier for members of the Asian community.
“Sometimes, we as Asians forget we have to include ourselves on the other side,” he said. “It’s very important to be proud of your heritage, but you also have to include yourself in the culture.”
Natsuhara has known about exclusion since he was a boy. His parents and grandparents were in internment camps for U.S. residents of Japanese descent during World War II. When released, his father took a job with Southern Pacific Railroad and lived with his mother and brother in the only housing available: a railroad boxcar.
His father went on to become one of two Asian railroad executives in the nation. But the internment camps were a taboo subject among Japanese-Americans while he was growing up in Stockton, Calif., Natsuhara said.
“Our parents didn’t want us to speak Japanese just after World War II, because being Japanese was not a cool thing to be,” he said.
Natsuhara served a 25-year career in the Navy, retiring as a captain. His wife is a retired Navy lieutenant commander. Navy culture, he said, was quite different from his Japanese-American heritage.
“I think you have to be able to straddle both [cultures],” he said. “Sometimes it’s too easy to say, ‘I’m not being included, rather than, ‘How do I include myself in that group?’” He said including himself in gatherings of fellow service members helped him feel he was part of the U.S. military community while overseas and away from family and friends.
Natsuhara said he tells other Asian-Americans it’s important to take challenges and professional risks outside their comfort zone.
“Once you reach the professional world in your first job, you can work hard, but still not get that promotion,” he said. “There’s a certain amount of relationship and trust you have to build.”
Natsuhara is no stranger to taking risks and applying for jobs cold, without networks or contacts. He was a career Senior Executive Service employee when he filed a resume for the White House appointment to his current Navy position, he said, and got it without knowing anyone in the administration. The same was true for his previous SES job at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
His appointment with the Navy is both a dream job and a challenge he never expected, Natsuhara said. He recently worked with Defense and State department officials and their Japanese counterparts to develop the new Pacific posture for the Marine Corps.
“It was a very meaningful and big initiative,” he said, adding that the multi-billion dollar program will span many years once it clears Congress. “It was an amazing thing to be a part of. That’s something I could never have imagined when I was growing up.”
Now, he encourages other Asian-Americans to challenge themselves and reach for high-level positions with the government and to never give up.
“If you want to be an SES, you might try 20 to 30 times,” he said he tells them, “but you might get it the 26th time.”
While Asian-Americans might fear some prejudice, Natsuhara said he was never confronted with discrimination during his career, except for a few minor incidents he remembers with a laugh.
While on active duty, he was often mistaken for a Japanese naval officer. And once while shopping in a Navy exchange dressed in civilian clothes, he said, a security guard told him and his wife the exchange was only for “authorized patrons.”
“We said, ‘Yes, we knew that,’ and showed him our IDs,” Natsuhara said. “He thought we were Japanese tourists who were lost.”
Even today, Natsuhara said, he is sometimes assumed to be a staffer when he’s in his own office or seated at the head of his conference table, he said.
“I recognize that I’m fairly unique, and there haven’t been that many Asians in these positions, so a lot of people assume I’m just part of the staff,” he said, recalling several times when visiting officials mistakenly briefed a staff member instead of him.
One was a local elected official who approached Natsuhara’s captain instead. “She began to brief him, and he told her, ‘You really need to brief Mr. Natsuhara, because he’s my boss,’” he said, laughing.
“I tell people it just takes time,” he said. “It’s educating folks and getting people used to others, whether female, black, Hispanic or Asian.”
Natsuhara said he tells junior Asian officers that the military is one of the nation’s fairest organizations. “It’s on merit,” he said. “The system works very well if you work hard and do the right things. The military looks at how you did your job.”
His chain of command always treated him like anyone else, Natsuhara said. “I was fortunate that I always had very fair, open-minded leaders and mentors in the Navy.” Still, he added, being Asian-American has its challenges.
“Asians haven’t gotten to the point where we don’t get a second look,” he said. “It takes time, and I don’t see that as a negative. I do think more Asians need to take advantage of the military, because it’s a great opportunity.”
By Terri Moon Cronk
May 9, 2012