Japanese Student Sophie Iwakiri’s transformation in Katikati

"“The teachers are so great here, they build relationships with you, they motivate you. I had never heard someone say to me: ‘I believe in you’ before.""

Japanese Student Sophie Iwakiri’s transformation in Katikati

There is no uncertainty in Sophie Iwakiri’s voice when she declares that she will change the education system in Japan. The eighteen-year-old exudes confidence; she is bubbly, happy and self-assured. The world is hers and she can’t wait to make her mark.

Back in her hometown of Miyazaki, Japan, this wasn’t the case. Written off by her teachers as a poor student and a trouble maker, Sophie felt frustrated, worthless and alone.

At her wits’ end, Sophie’s mum made the brave decision to send her to Katikati, New Zealand. Over five years immersed in small town Kiwi life, Sophie has flourished into a high-achieving young woman and a leader in the community.

Here’s Sophie remarkable story of personal growth and transformation in Katikati.


Sophie slipped through the cracks of the Japanese education system.

“I was a trouble maker; I broke windows! In Japan, I always felt like I was different and learnt differently to other students.”

Lacking in self-confidence, Sophie felt she had no future. She was barely scraping by in school and her behaviour was out of control.

Sophie’s mum was hurt to see her daughter struggling, so she sent her only child a world away, hoping that studying and living in a new environment would force Sophie to dig deep and find the strength within herself that teachers in Japan couldn’t see. Aware that she would see her daughter only a handful of times during the entirety of her teenage years, Sophie’s mum sent her to New Zealand.


A believer in tough love, Sophie’s mum spoke to Sophie only three times that first year. She had thrown Sophie into the deep end: it was up to her daughter to sink or swim.

Sophie knew nothing about New Zealand before she arrived. She had limited English skills and worried that life here would be just as bad as in Japan, but with the added challenge of learning a new language.

“The first hurdle wasn’t learning the language: it was finding myself. I had to figure out who I was. I was always smiling on the outside, but deep down I was unhappy and I had to figure out why.”


It was a long, slow journey and her attitudes and behaviour didn’t change overnight. But with the support and encouragement of her host family and her teachers at Katikati College combined with her own perseverance, Sophie transformed.

One day, Sophie looked back and realised that somewhere in those trying early days in New Zealand, she had changed. Back in Japan, she hated everything: her mum, herself, her school, her teachers. Now she loved her mum, appreciated her teachers and saw value and potential in her life.


“The teachers are so great here, they build relationships with you, they motivate you. I had never heard someone say to me: ‘I believe in you’ before.

I felt like I had to live up to this. Even more I felt like I could live up to this.”

Sophie’s teachers pushed her; they expected more out of her and made it clear that they believed she was capable. Over her five years in Katikati she soared, graduating in the top five percent of her class.


Sophie didn’t only exceed in academics. She surprised her coaches and herself to discover she was a natural at field hockey goal keeping. She came in fifth in cross country. Her host family gifted her a tennis racket after she showed promise on the courts.

Sophie, who chose her English name after a character in Mama Mia, is a lover of film. Movies were a huge help when it came to developing her English skills. She loves musicals and acting, enjoys singing in the shower and took drama in school. She is a gifted pianist – a talent she developed but disliked back home in Japan.


“My mum is so thankful to Debbie and Ross. If it weren’t for them, I wouldn’t be who I am today.”

Sophie’s host family has had a profound influence on her. In her four years living with Debbie and Ross Christian, Sophie has been taken in as one of their own.

The couple believed in Sophie, but they didn’t stop short at disciplining her. She has responsibilities like any other Kiwi kid: she loves cooking steak for the family and can muster up a mean bacon and egg pie.

“Whenever I do something wrong, they always growl me. They say ‘no’. They do this because they care. We trust each other, and we can also argue like a real family!”

They took Sophie on a helicopter ride over Fox glacier and travelled to Australia with her. Closer to home, they went on trips to Taupo, Rotorua and Coromandel. They even visited Sophie in Japan during a summer holiday.

Talking about life in Katikati, Sophie becomes understandably emotional.

“I feel like I have everything I need here. My host Mum is my best friend and my host Dad knows everything about me. They support me completely: I can just feel it.”


Having spent her formative years in New Zealand, it’s a fair question to ask whether Sophie considers herself more Japanese or Kiwi.

“I’d say I’m 88 percent Kiwi. Twelve percent Japanese!

There are some Japanese things that make no sense to me anymore. Like biscuits. Have you had a Japanese biscuit? Kiwi biscuits are much sweeter.”
Despite a rocky start in her home country, Sophie loves Japan. Though she has her sights on bigger cities, she considers her southern coastal hometown the best place in the world. She misses mangos from Miyazaki and the brilliant cherry blossoms that bloom across the country by the millions in April. She misses her grandma’s eggrolls dearly.


Sophie considers herself a bridge to the world – an intersection between cultures and countries. In her later years at Katikati College, she became the school’s International Student Leader, positioning herself as a support person and a voice for other international students. Her empathy for homesick kids and students struggling with language and cultural barriers has allowed her to create – and lead – a community within Katikati.

When asked about advice for other international students, Sophie, very Kiwi-like, says: “She’ll be right, mate!”


A lot has changed as Sophie found her passions, her strengths and her self-confidence and there have been some milestone moments along the way.

“I remember the first time I walked on the grass barefoot – like a real Kiwi! Coming from Japan, this was so unusual, but my host family told me to just go for it. I tippy toed across the grass and loved it. Now I’ll even go to the supermarket without shoes on.”

Sophie also fondly remembers her first slumber party.

“I had about eight girlfriends over to my house and we slept in a tent under the stars in the backyard. We had a bonfire and toasted marshmallows. It was just like the movies.”


Having graduated, it’s time for some tough decisions about Sophie’s future. Sophie is split: she got into the University of Auckland and the prospect of studying political science and business in the Big Smoke is appealing.

The other option is to return to Japan; she is waiting to hear if she has gotten into Tokyo’s prestigious Keio University. It’s a win-win situation, but a difficult choice nonetheless. Does she stay in the country that helped her bloom, or does she return home a changed woman?

Coming from shaky foundations, Sophie’s dream is to help other struggling children in Japan by changing the education system and bringing down the country’s high suicide rate. These are high ambitions, but when you meet this young woman, she’ll leave you with no doubt that she’s capable of the task.