On May 27 Admiral Harry B. Harris Jr. becomes the U.S. Navy’s highest-ranking Asian American ever when he assumes leadership of the U.S. Pacific Command at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii. Harris will be responsible for all military operations in a region stretching from California to the Indian Ocean, and from the Arctic Sea to Antarctica. He takes over at a critical time, as the U.S. “rebalances” to Asia and confronts an erratic and nuclear-armed North Korea and an increasingly powerful and assertive China.
It’s a job that takes Harris, 59, full circle. He was born in Japan to a Navy-enlisted man and Japanese mother, and raised on a subsistence farm in Tennessee. A graduate of the U.S. Naval Academy, Harris did postgraduate studies at Harvard, Georgetown and Oxford and spent much of his career as a naval flight officer aboard P-3 patrol planes, including three tours in Japan. Affable, direct and with a confessed weakness for “both kinds of music — country and western,” Harris talks to TIME contributor Kirk Spitzer about taking on one of the most challenging jobs in the U.S. military.