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Asami Koike
Portrait of Asami
Photo taken by Abby Shen
Interviewed in March 2023

Asami Koike is a proud Japanese-Australian, who was born in Japan and came to Australia when she was 4 years old. As a registered music therapist with over 17 years experience working in mental health, trauma and wellbeing, Asami noticed that many Asian Australians were falling between the gaps in the Australian mental health system, and not getting the culturally appropriate support that they needed. She started Shapes & Sounds in 2019 to normalise conversations around mental health in the community and also to provide specific resources to assist Asian-Australians seeking culturally sensitive mental health help. 

Shapes & Sounds has three initiatives: firstly the Community, a mental health community for Asian Australians to connect with one another, secondly the Asian Australian mental health practitioner list for those seeking help from a professional who can understand their own cultural background and upbringing, and thirdly the delivery of workplace programs ranging from mental health discussion to cross-cultural communication and team building.

Prior to Shapes and Sounds and working in emergency mental health services for young people, Asami received her certification as a yoga instructor in India at the International Centre for Yoga Education and Research where she spent 6 months living at Ananda Ashram, and has taught classes in Melbourne, Tokyo and India. She is also a dog-parent and training for her first marathon.
Mental health is becoming more prominently discussed and taken seriously in the mainstream, yet it’s still highly stigmatised in Asian communities.

I know this from first hand experience. I don’t think I’ve ever talked about my mental health with my parents. If we do touch on it, they would either dismiss it or not value how important it is.

Shapes and Sounds helps Asian-Australians address the stigma associated with searching for mental health help, and focusses on helping Asian-Australians improve their mental health through relevant and culturally sensitive healthcare professionals. The work that Asami is doing is so so important - when someone is at their most vulnerable and struggling with their mental health, it’s important that they firstly feel comfortable and confident in seeking help, and also get the best help tailored towards them, as much as possible. Especially since our cultural experiences and background shapes our identity and values so much.

I wanted to interview Asami to spotlight her work, and show Asian-Australians who might be struggling with their mental health, that there are resources and communities available out there that they can tap into and help them navigate through their mental health journey.

I hope Asami’s story inspires you as much as it did, me.
Firstly, what is the overall mental healthcare system like in Australia? How does culture play a part in the adequacy of care that individuals may receive?
It’s important to recognise that the Western model of psychology fundamentally underpins mental health services and the system in Australia and across the world, even in Asia. And oftentimes, this Western model, which is very much a Eurocentric practice, is often presented as the truth of how humans function, rather than as one of many models - which in turn affects modern-day mental health services and psychology research. 

So in the trajectory of mental health and psychology practices, the experiences of people who are not white, middle class, cisgendered, able-bodied or heterosexual have traditionally not been included in the conversation or the research at all. It’s only been the last 10-20 years where diverse voices have been included in the research. 

For example, culturally responsive practice (essentially learning how to work with diverse people) is currently only a two hour unit for all mental health professionals. So the Western model of psychology underpins how our mental health services operate, how they function, how they deliver services to the whole community and what they view as success. Yet our whole community isn't Eurocentric. We’re a diverse mix of people, especially in Australia. As a result, the needs of people who don't fit into that Eurocentric mold often get overlooked or dismissed because their experiences don’t exist within the frameworks that Western psychology was founded on, or have made.

What’s been challenging is seeing how new ‘progressive’ principles in mental health such as the examination of systemic trauma, body-based practices, and connection with community and all new topics are treated as groundbreaking ideas in mental health when in reality these principles and wisdom actually originate from our ancestral cultures, like Eastern cultures, African cultures, indigenous cultures. It’s been frustrating at times to see these principles get regurgitated, packaged up and resold back to us through a very white lens. 

In terms of how culture plays a part in the adequacy of care, it’s a complex issue. I don’t want to put the blame on practitioners for not knowing how to practise in a culturally responsive manner. Everyone has their own blindspots, including me. There’s so many things that we as practitioners don’t understand simply because the research has been so narrowly focussed for so long. But now we're in an era where we’re starting to listen to the experiences of all types of people, from people of colour to people of different gender identities. Slowly, are we only starting to learn that people have very different experiences and therefore require very different structures of care.
What was working in the crisis service industry like and how did it personally affect you?
I worked in the crisis service industry for about five years, and I ended those years in a complete state of distress, burnout and diagnosed PTSD. I got shingles three times during my time in the crisis service industry (when the norm is getting it once in your lifetime, usually at a very old age) and it just showed me how my whole nervous system was getting affected too. Even then, I still turned up for work because crises don’t stop. 

Following that, whenever people leave the crisis service industry as a practitioner, there’s this feeling of shame where you don’t feel like you were strong enough to work with trauma, deal with crises or deal with the most raw and pointy parts of mental health care. For me, it also feels like I've personally let myself down because I couldn't support the most marginalised people in our community. 

This really highlights how so much of the burden sits with our frontline workers especially in our health care sector, where people start to leave these industries because they feel like they were completely unsupported by the structures in place. They’re so unsupported to the point that individuals feel like they have to completely deplete themselves to help others. You feel like, if you’re not there, then no one is going to help these people. 

In these conversations, people always say we need to pay professions like nursing more. This is true, but we also need to do more than only providing better financial compensation. We need supportive working hours. We need more people in each team so that individuals have the freedom and the capacity to take time off. We need better, or just adequate supervision and for there to be skilled people that can debrief with practitioners so that practitioners aren’t taking these issues back home too. We need better education that doesn’t glorify this intense work but instead helps the general population understand how hard it is.
Alongside the “Shapes and Sounds Club” for individuals to meet other Asian-Australians going through their own mental health journey, you also have "Connect and Grow", a community dedicated towards mental health practitioners. In your experience as a music therapist, how important is it to find a community of people who understand the depth of impact that the work is having on you as an individual?
The reason why we have “Connect and Grow” is twofold. 

So on one hand, “Connect and Grow” is a space for mental health practitioners to learn and train. We provide learning and evidence-based frameworks around culturally responsive practice and anti-oppressive practice, since these practices aren’t taught enough, or even at all in university. And even if these therapists and mental health practitioners are people of colour, their lived experiences don't necessarily mean that they’re skilled in culturally responsive practice. 

The second aspect of “Connect and Grow” is in building a strong community. There aren't that many Asian mental health practitioners, and I don’t think it’s proportionate to the Asian population in Australia. “Connect and Grow” allows practitioners of colour to come together and actually gain adequate culturally responsive supervision from one another.

For context, mental health professionals require adequate clinical supervision from managers or supervisors to help them process everything that's going on at work - for example to talk through power dynamics with patients, or to ensure that you as the mental health professional are not getting triggered by the person you’re supposed to be supporting etc. When I started out, I was often the only person of colour in a service or an organisation. There’s a few race-related incidents that have happened in therapy sessions, which I wouldn’t ever feel quite safe when discussing afterwards with my supervisor simply because they couldn’t understand or empathise with my perspective. That’s why a community like “Connect and Grow” is so important, so that mental health practitioners can process their experiences and deal with it with other people who would understand.
Australia has a deepening youth mental health crisis, which has only been exacerbated by COVID-19. What key changes do you think need to happen in the overall mental healthcare system to better support both patients and mental health practitioners?
Key changes would involve increasing the capacity of mental health practitioners by firstly making it easier and more attractive for people to become mental health professionals, then creating support structures in place to help professionals. We also need to ensure that the services we provide actually represent the audience that we're trying to reach.

There’s such a huge capacity issue - I know that some universities only train 25 clinical psychologists a year which is barely enough. Even though we’re doing well in encouraging people to go to therapy, we don’t have enough qualified therapists to support this demand. We need to increase the number of mental health professionals by making it much more attractive for people to study these degrees.

The research that we’re producing also doesn’t match the world’s needs and the new generation’s needs. We’re not creating enough relevant evidence-based research to support the younger generation - more needs to be done on gender identity, queerness and culturally responsive practice. I think we’re currently missing the mark, which in turn means people aren’t as likely to seek out traditional mental health services as they stand right now. Young people often end up seeking help in different routes, many often support themselves or self-medicate through things like social media. 

Where do you want to take Shapes and Sounds in the future?
I’m currently exploring how to take Shapes and Sounds down the social enterprise route, such that I can build it into a financially sustainable organisation that can support both my staff, myself and the other people connected to us.

At the end of the day, I don’t want to rely on grants or VC funding. With a social enterprise, I can get much more autonomy and agency to create impact, predominantly through the revenue that the organisation makes. I’m exploring this model more, especially since the business is fundamentally about giving back to the community. 
on culture and identity
What has your relationship with your Asian Australian identity been like, and how has it evolved?
In terms of my identity, I always knew and identified with being Japanese. That being said, in my early years as a child, I really wanted to be white and look less Asian. I also had no Asian friends growing up.

A really pivotal moment for me was when I went back to Japan in my early 20s and I finally thought that I was going to be home, that I would be accepted and finally belong somewhere. Of course when I went back, my expectations weren’t met. I looked and sounded different. I kept on travelling between Japan and Australia, hoping that I would finally belong in one place, only to discover I belonged in neither.

But when I started doing a lot more yoga, and studying the physical practice of it, I learnt that to belong, you need to fundamentally belong to your body and the boundaries of your body.

That was my very long journey of getting more comfortable with myself in my early 20s. This revelation also allowed me to connect with more Asian diaspora people when I came back. From hearing and sharing our experiences I learned to embrace myself and just live in a very unapologetic kind of way. That’s when I started noticing a lot of interesting things. Previously I was subconsciously subservient to the model minority myth, but once I let go of that and became an Asian woman who started saying more confronting and difficult things, I noticed how much people hated and vilified it. Once I broke out of this mold, I started noticing more of these small things that were a huge impetus in helping me see all the structural injustices and structural oppression that people of colour face on a day to day.

This all tied in with the evolution of Shapes and Sounds. With Shapes and Sounds I’ve come to understand the importance of how you don't just belong to yourself, but how you can belong in relationship to other people. This is something I’ve learnt from being a part of the Asian diaspora.
What was it like going back to Tokyo and living there as an adult, especially given Japan’s closed culture to non-Japanese citizens?
As a kid, the idea of always being able to go back to Tokyo was like my lifeline. But, unlike a lot of other Japanese people who grew up overseas, I'm not actually fluent in Japanese. As a child I very stubbornly didn’t want to go to Japanese Saturday school, and remember - I wanted to be white.

When I did go back, I didn’t feel like I belonged in Japan, and it also really opened my eyes to the problems in Japan. It has an incredibly long history of xenophobia, and has always had a closed borders mentality. They have so much fear of the other, the unknown. Even though I’m ethnically Japanese, I've had overt experiences of racism in Japan. Going to Japan really helped me grow up and understand the realities of the world. It also made me so much more appreciative of Melbourne, which at the best of times, is an inclusive and multicultural society.
What is a significant cultural memory of yours?
So my partner is Chinese-Singaporean and my mum is Japanese but grew up overseas so she understands Chinese culture well. One time when we were celebrating Lunar New Year, my mum didn’t give me a red packet. She only gave my partner one. She said that since I wasn’t Chinese, I wouldn’t get one which I thought was very nuanced but also hilarious. The red packet she ended up giving to my partner was a pink Hello Kitty one from Japan.

I think this really reflects our weird mix of cultures, which I appreciate a lot. For our centerpiece, we have oranges and a red packet with my partner’s family name branded on it, as well as this beautiful Japanese vase with a huge eucalyptus in it. There’s so much happening in the centerpiece, but it brings all of our identities together and it works really well.
What is your favourite food from your culture?
That's easy. My favourite Japanese food is nattō 納豆 and it’s just my favourite food in general. It’s fermented whole soybeans, and it is so stinky but I don't care because it’s delicious. It's also so healthy, it’s great for your gut and I think it’s the best food in the world - no one can disagree with me!
Who is an Asian Australian that inspires you, and why?
There’s this book called “Be Not Afraid of Love” which is a beautiful book written by an artist and writer called Mimi Zhu. They’re queer, non binary and they're a Chinese, Singaporean and Australian artist living in the United States right now. The book is a beautiful description of mental health, healing and well-being but from a very decolonized view, and they talk about their own experience throughout the whole story. Shapes and Sounds is actually listed as a resource at the back of their book! I'm a very big fan of their writing.