Karen Lee Tawarayama was born in Bucks County, Pennsylvania (U.S.A.) with a natural passion for connecting with others. While she was an only child, she made strong friendships throughout the neighborhood, such as Tom the local bank administrator, the friendly lady at the drive-in Fotomat booth, and Sophie the cashier at the family restaurant her family frequented, among others. Her fascination with people from other cultures, in particular, first blossomed upon receiving the book “Children of Many Lands” from her mother, which she revisited time after time to reconnect with her new “friends” from The Netherlands, Mexico, Thailand, Norway, China, Spain, Hawaii, and Japan.
Karen began acting in regional musical theater from the age of six, first appearing as a gingerbread child in a production of Hansel and Gretel by the Bux-Mont Opera Company. She went on to perform with the Bucks County Reperatory Theater, as a regular with The Make Believe Players, and as the character “Molly” in two seasons of “Annie” at the Huntington Valley Dinner Theater, in addition to also appearing in productions at Villanova University and Tomy’s 56th Street Theater in New York City. In addition to appearing on stage, Karen recorded voiceovers and radio commercials, and also appeared in film (A Literary Picture, 1983 and Street of Dreams, 1984) However, it was acting on stage in particular that prompted even further her love of “getting into character” and observing the human experience from different perspectives and developing in her young mind the notion that all the world, indeed, is a stage, which she continues to feel helped her to step outside her comfort zone and develop a certain empathy necessary to live abroad.
Karen first set foot overseas at age thirteen, with her mother, on a trip to France, Italy, and Switzerland. Through the Friends World Program of Long Island University (currently LIU Global), she apprenticed with a Pennsylvania-based puppet troupe The Brownstone Puppet Theatre in the second semester of her freshman year, and then pursued three years of area studies and self-designed research projects in South Asia, East Africa, and the Middle East. Considering herself as a cultural anthropologist, her concentration throughout the program was in Religion, Art, and Spirituality. Her most memorable experiences were volunteering with the Missionaries of Charity at Mother Teresa’s Home for the Sick and Dying Destitutes (Nirmal Hriday) and the Home for Children (Shishu Bhawan) (Kolkata, India), participating in a month-long Yoga Instructor’s Course of the Vivekananda Yoga Anusandhana Samsthana (Bengaluru, India), experiencing a rural home stay with a Kamba family on the Katheka Kai Coffee Cooperative (Machakos, Kenya), and participating in multiple Peace through Art projects in East Jerusalem and the West Bank (Israel/Palestine), which combined the talents and dedication of hopeful Israeli Jewish and Arab, as well as Palestinian, children, one project of which was organized through the global youth network Seeds of Peace. Finally, she returned to South India in 1998 and, under the guidance of Dr. Ambika Kameshwar, wrote her undergraduate senior thesis on spiritual foundations of the classic Indian dance form Bharatanatyam while volunteering at RASA (Ramana Sunritya Aalaya Trust), a school which provides movement therapy for children with special needs.
While Karen had a strong desire to carry out studies at the program’s East Asian Center (Kyoto, Japan), financial restrictions prevented her from setting foot on Japanese soil until 1999 when, in a toss up between joining the Peace Corps or taking up ESL teaching abroad, she applied for and was accepted into the Japanese Ministry of Education’s Japan Exchange and Teaching (JET) Program. She was assigned to a junior high school through the Omi-Imazu Board of Education in Shiga Prefecture (located next to Kyoto) and after one year assumed an unrelated ESL-teaching position in the city of Yokohama for the following three years. Having developed a passion for teaching and eager to bring the joy of intercultural understanding to others, she returned to the United States to carry out her first nine months of graduate studies in International Education Advising at the School for International Training, renamed as the SIT Graduate Institute (Brattleboro, VT). Her graduate practicum as Student Services Coordinator at the Japan Center for Michigan Universities (Hikone, Shiga Prefecture) brought her back to Japan in 2003, where she has stayed ever since. in 2006, she received her Masters degree after having completed her thesis titled “NOT Lost in Translation: A Comparative Study of Student Services at Three Programs in Japan”.
Since 2003, Karen has served as a mentor for international students, a freelance international education consultant for Japanese universities and Japan-based programs, and as an on-site short-term program designer for universities in the United States. In addition, she has taught ESL for students at all levels, ranging in age from two to eighty. She has also been able to return to the voice acting that she loves, making freelance recordings for Panasonic, Japan Railways, Kintetsu Bus, ECC, Ninaji Temple, the Japan Postal Service, and the Osaka Castle Museum, among other clients. In addition to pursuing the Kyoto Faces project as a hobby in her spare time, she currently works full-time at the Center for the Promotion of Global Education Office at Ryukoku University. She is also a member of a locally based literary group, Writers in Kyoto, and is the Organizer for their annual Kyoto Writing Competition. With regards to her own writing, she is currently composing a memoir of the path that led her to her “permanent neighborhood” of Kyoto, and her essay “On Childraising in Japan: Expanding into Interdependence (Two Snapshots in Time)” appears in Echoes, the 2017 Writers in Kyoto Anthology, with several other essays by the group’s members and competition winners. Get your copy here: