Travis Gramkowski’s flight path took him to Japan

Sawa, Nina and Travis (Gramkowski) Senzaki at home in Japan. — Photo courtesy of Travis Senzaki

On Their Way is an occasional series in which The Times introduces people who grew up on Martha’s Vineyard and have moved on to establish themselves in careers on or off Island. We are looking for young people who have distinguished themselves by their accomplishments in the arts, business, in social services, in the military, in academics, in fact in any meaningful way. We welcome your suggestions.

Edgartown native and Air Force veteran Travis Anthony Gramkowski, Martha’s Vineyard Regional High School (MVRHS) class of 2001, teaches at a Japanese university in the old imperial capital of Kyoto where he lives with his Japanese-born wife, Sawa, and their one-year-old daughter, Nina.

He and his wife have also started an Internet-based translation business. His immersion into a new country and culture was accompanied by a name change. Rather than Gramkowski he now uses Senzaki, his wife’s family name, and he is more often known as Tony.

Travis worked at Entertainment Cinemas in Edgartown through his high school years. His parents Terry and Tony Gramkowski live in Edgartown where Tony has an excavation business. His brother Ben lives in West Tisbury.

Travis developed an affection for Japan and its people while a junior in high school when he attended a Japanese high school in Shiga as a Rotary Youth Exchange Student. Now, 12 years later, he lives about an hour from Shiga and remains in touch with his former host families.

An early interest in aviation and a desire to see more of the world after his stay in Japan led him to the Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs, Col., where he majored in history and foreign area studies and was a member of the drum and bugle corps. He graduated in 2005 with a commission in the Air Force.

He was sent to graduate school at the University of Hawaii, Manoa, where he majored in East Asian studies (Japan). He earned a fellowship from the East-West Center, met his future wife through a mutual friend at his thesis defense party, and surfed almost daily. He received his masters in 2007.

His Air Force assignments took him to Hawaii, Texas, Japan, and his final assignment, nine months in Afghanistan. He served as an intelligence officer on a provincial reconstruction team, attempting to build infrastructure and the capacity of local government.

“But the mission was hopeless,” he said without elaborating during a phone call from Japan. Ultimately, he decided to leave the Air Force after he returned from Afghanistan.

“I joined the Air Force and then decided I didn’t want to become a pilot because most of the pilots were not fun people to hang out with,” he said. “I made a different career choice.”

His fiancée was working at a school in Thailand when he left the Air Force, so he joined her and got a job as an English teacher in a Thai high school where he taught English as a second language to Thai high school juniors. “I had about 50 students per 50-minute class and saw each class once per week, so it was a significant challenge to make progress,” he said. “I got used to eating really spicy food in the hopes that chili oil would kill the bacteria from the frighteningly unhygienic conditions of local food stands.”

Travis and Sawa married in Thailand but put off the ceremony for one year so they could hold it when more of their family could attend.

When their teaching contracts ended and they were set to return to Japan they cancelled plans to relocate to his wife’s hometown in Fukushima in 2011 following the Great Tohoku earthquake and tsunami. Although her family was unhurt, there was concern about radiation from the damaged nuclear reactor.

The couple settled in the city of Kyoto because of Travis’s relationship with the area and contacts in Shiga. They decided to hold their wedding ceremony on the one-year anniversary of their marriage, in Hawaii, so more of their family members could attend. Three of his Japanese host families attended the ceremony. “That meant a lot to me,” he said.

Travis is on the staff of Ritsumeikan University International Center. His job includes admissions, scholarships, and lifestyle support for international students, as well as translation and interpretation.

“I feel like I’ve come full circle since my first trip to Japan. I now live about an hour away from the town where I stayed as an exchange student.

“I like rural Japan. I am not a big fan of the cities. That goes for America as well as Japan. We live a fairly rural area. Growing up on the Vineyard, I’m not used to that many people.”

Travis and Sawa started a web-based translation business called TranSenz at the beginning of 2012. “It is picking up steam,” he said.

He does the English to Japanese translations. She does the Japanese to English. They proof each other’s work.

Asked about taking his wife’s surname, he said, “I’m turning Japanese.” He explained that wives usually take their husbands’ names in Japan as in the West, but “Gramkowski” isn’t nearly as easy to pronounce in Japanese as it is in English. Plus, it’s 10 characters long in the Japanese alphabet, whereas Senzaki is only two. “As long as living in Japan is our plan, it makes more sense to use a Japanese name,” he said.

It didn’t end up helping him too much, though. “Japanese law does not recognize middle names, so they become part of your first name. Even with the now two-character last name, I still can’t fit my full name in most official forms,” he explained.

And Tony? “When I got my job they said they couldn’t fit Travis Senzaki on the business cards. Tony fit and it’s a lot easier to pronounce for the Japanese than Travis,” he said.