Japan connections run deep for Leadership Network member

When a delegation of indigenous Ainu people from Japan visited New Zealand last year, Leadership Network member Ben Matthews (Ngāpuhi, Tauranga Moana, Ngāti Porou) was excited at the opportunity to use his direct Japanese to Māori translation skills to help bridge the cultural and language gap between the delegation and tangata whenua.
Ben with a delegation of a dozen Ainu wearing traditional dress

Ben (second from the left) was able to translate from Japanese to te reo Māori when a delegation of Ainu met with tangata whenua in Wellington last year

At a pōwhiri in Wellington to welcome the guests, when the delegation lead spoke in Japanese, Ben simultaneously translated into te reo Māori for the tangata whenua and vice versa for the delegation when tangata whenua spoke.

“The tangata whenua were absolutely buzzing, and it was cool that we didn’t have to use English as a medium. It was definitely an experience I will never forget.”

The youngest of eight, Ben was raised in a uniquely Māori environment, where te reo Māori was his first spoken language and tikanga Māori was a way of life.

Ben credits his mother for his te reo Māori abilities – she spared no pains in raising her children in te reo Māori, he says.

He grew up speaking Māori to his mother and English to his father.

It was this strong sense of cultural identity from a young age, coupled with an upbringing in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, that was a defining feature in his overall personal development and provided him with the foundation he needed to be confident and successful in life, he says.

“It has provided a reference point that I have been able to draw on time and time again throughout my life, and I am so grateful for that.”

At age 13, his father recommended that he take up Japanese language at high school, saying that doing so would help him to get a good job in the future. That decision to study Japanese was a pivotal and defining moment for Ben.

His love for Japan only grew when he participated in a school exchange trip to Japan at age 15, where he stayed with a local family.

He has kept in contact with his Japanese family ever since, and considers them his own whānau, to the extent that his eldest son, four-year-old Te Rongopai-Hiroyuki, is named after his Japanese brother, Hiroyuki.

Ben is now working as a policy analyst at Te Puni Kōkiri, the Ministry of Māori Development, focused on international indigenous connections and Māori trade interests.

With fourteen years of combined work and study experience in Māori development and international-related kaupapa, Ben has seen on countless occasions how the Māori culture has the ability to soften hearts and open doors for Māori and ultimately New Zealand.

“Having te reo Māori and tikanga Māori ingrained within me helps me to better relate to other cultures. So, when I go to Japan, I totally understand taking my shoes off, I understand respect for the elderly, I understand sleeping on the floor, I understand social harmony and collectivism and treating business cards with respect – because that’s my culture too.”

Ben felt such a strong connection to his Japanese host family that when he had a son (in carrier) he gave him the name Hiroyuki after his exchange family's son (far right with his own children)

As a member of the Foundation’s Leadership Network, Ben contributes to Te Kāhui Māori (the Network’s Māori advisory group) and took a leadership role at last year’s Te Ao Māori Hui in Waitangi.

He is also now a Bishop in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in Wainuiomata, with leadership responsibility for a congregation of approximately 100 people.

Ben has found the Leadership Network’s Track Two dialogue sessions as well as the networking events particularly useful in building his wider confidence and knowledge-base in engaging with Asia.

Through these events, he has been able to meet sector and industry leaders, senior government officials, entrepreneurs and influential leaders from across New Zealand and Asia.

He is also one of the newest members of the Network’s Advisory Board and brings with him a passion to see the Network succeed, embrace diversity in all its shapes and forms and help members get the most out of their Network experience.