NAGANO, Japan -- A word in Japanese, Kyoko?
"I'd rather say it in English," the U.S. pairs figure skater told the Japanese TV reporter, smiling.
Kyoko Ina knows Japanese; speaks it fluently, in fact. But she considers herself an American, even though she was born in Tokyo and competed for Japan until she was 16.
"I've lived in the New York City area for 25 years," Ina said. "To come home and compete in Japan, my birth country, is great. I can represent the country I call my home, in the country where I was born. It's the best of both worlds."
Those two worlds come together today, when Ina and Jason Dungjen skate their short program at the White Ring arena. Ina's parents will be in attendance, along with six of her Tokyo relatives.
Ina, 25, and Dungjen, 30, are perhaps the best American hope for a pairs medal -- they've won back-to-back national titles and finished fourth at the 1997 world championships.
How perfect it would be if their major breakthrough came in the place where Ina spent the first six months of her life, before her father's import-export company transferred him to the United States.
The Japanese don't feel betrayed by Ina; on the contrary, they root for her. In fact, Ina said their support is so fervent and so genuine, "it's like having two countries behind you."
No one could blame her for deciding to skate for the United States, not when she was a teen-ager making three round trips to Japan each year for national competitions.
"My friends were all training in the U.S.," Ina said. "They would go to Connecticut to train. I had to get on a plane for 14 hours to compete in Japan. It was tough because I had no p English-speaking friends."
Why did Ina bother competing for Japan in the first place?
It was a family tradition.
Her mother won an Asian Games swimming title, and would have competed in the 1948 Olympics if Japan had not been banned from the first post-World War II Games.
And then there were her maternal grandparents.
Ina's grandmother was a tennis star who played at Wimbledon; her grandfather, the first Japanese track and field athlete to make an Olympic final, finished 12th in the 5,000 meters at the 1924 Games.
"Twelfth, that's not bad," Ina said after a Japanese reporter informed her of the result, smiling as always.
She is engaging and candid, a fresh-faced woman unafraid to speak her mind. Ina grew up American. She talks like an American. "I am an American," she says.
By 1988, her family's special place in Japanese sports history had evolved into a burden. Ina's parents recognized the toll of the constant travel on their teen-age daughter, and supported her decision to skate for the United States.
"They're 100 percent behind me, no matter what I do," Ina said. "If I decided to compete for Russia or Antarctica, it makes no difference. I skate because I love to skate, not because someone tells me to skate."
That spirited, independent streak not only defines Ina, but also reflects the culture in which she was raised -- the free and open U.S. society, as opposed to the more rigid Japanese one .
The difference, Kyoko?
"Oh, wow, it's hard for me to say," she said. "I never grew up here. I never paid attention to the culture in Japan. I'm a lot more free with my expression. I dress the way I want to. I'm an independent person."
Even now, the Japanese ways often are lost on Ina. Indeed, it baffled her when Midori Ito, the 1994 silver medalist in women's figure skating, apologized to the country for not winning the gold.
"I didn't understand it," Ina said. "I felt bad for Midori for apologizing. She did an excellent job. It was a little confusing to me to see why she had to do it."
Ito was one of Ina's idols. Kristi Yamaguchi, the '94 gold medalist, was another. Both come from different backgrounds from Ina -- Ito has spent her entire life in Japan, Yamaguchi her entire life in America.
But really, what are we talking about here?
As Ina said at the U.S. Figure Skating Championships, "I don't think there are any real true Americans. Everyone in America comes from someplace else. I consider myself a New Yorker."
Technically, she's not even that peculiar brand of foreigner anymore -- her family moved to New Jersey in 1980 after John Lennon was murdered outside the apartment building next door.
But enough talk of the past.
Kyoko Ina is perfectly comfortable with her identity. She isn't checking her birth certificate or tracing her family tree. Like any .. good figure skater, she knows where she took off, and knows where she landed.
BTC Pub Date: 2/08/98