The Broaderview: Kyoto, Japan
The Broaderview is a monthly series by broad Laura Turner, a Denver local traveling the world with Remote Year. Every month, Laura moves to a new country with approximately 60 other digital nomads. The Broaderview is a glimpse into the life of a local woman in each country, getting a sense of what it means to be a broad beyond the Mile High City. This month, Laura interviewed Aki Kato from Kyoto, Japan.
By Laura Turner | Global Content Contributor
If you’ve been tuning into my other articles thus far, you’ll know I was in Europe for three months (Croatia, Czech Republic, and Portugal). This November I moved to Kyoto, Japan, and its also my very first time in Asia. I’m enamored with all the ways Japan is different from any other place I’ve ever visited. Kyoto, once the historic capital of Japan, is a gorgeous destination with Shinto and Buddhist shrines famous among Japanese tourists and foreign visitors alike. Japan is immaculate: volunteers routinely pick up trash, crews jet spray clean sidewalks nightly, and yes, I’ve even seen an employee vacuuming the concrete in front of his storefront. The collective well-being of every citizen is a strong component throughout Japanese society. Cash or card payment at convenience stores is delicately and reverently handled by employees with such grace it makes American transactions seem sloppy. People bow respectfully to strangers and somehow avoid jostling even in some of the busiest subways platforms in the world.
There is a concept in Japanese called “omotenashi” and described by the local Remote Year city team as “being so complex that it can never be perfectly translated. From slippers pointed towards the door, your taxi door swinging open before you even touch it, to your cup being filled before you even ask, Japanese people put care into the details that go unnoticed to most. To call it hospitality isn’t enough; rather, it is a sincere desire to anticipate your every need before you even know to ask, to do it without an expectation of reward, and to make you feel a sense of home regardless of where you are.”
I met Aki Kato during a sunset picnic revolving around a dinner she prepared for a Remote Year group of hikers. The food was delicious and her presentation of the picnic on a gorgeous red fabric table runner and napkins tied with string and fall leaves was an example of omotenashi in action. After briefly chatting with Aki at the picnic, we set up a time for me to interview her in her home. I wanted to see Aki’s house because this is where her cooking classes take place as part of the business she created called Miituk.
Aki had many careers before becoming an entrepreneur. As a youth, Aki oscillated from wanting to study fashion design in France (inspired by her grandmother who was a designer) to becoming a photographer. Aki’s adventurous spirit and desire to grow and in response to change makes her an outlier compared to traditional Japanese norms which value the comforts of consistency. For a while Aki learned how to weave in Okinawa, which is famous for its textile styles. Yonaguni island, one of the most eastern islands in Okinawa, nearly all the way to Taiwan, has a strong indigenous culture; Aki learned their unique textile patterns. There, Aki also started working in a sugarcane field. This was highly unusual, “most women go to the factory, but in the field I wanted to work.”
Aki liked the hard physical labor and being outside reminded her of her childhood running through rice paddy fields in Shiga, a town outside of Kyoto near the biggest lake in Japan, Lake Biwa. While working in the sugarcane fields, Aki met her husband at the age of 23. They traveled to Laos and Aki learned more weaving techniques from an elder there. Soon Aki was pregnant and had her daughter when she was 24 years old. Aki’s husband had difficulty staying put because he continued to prioritize travel over raising their daughter, so the two divorced.
Now as a single mother, Aki has launched her own business based on home cooking experiences. Aki decided she wanted to share traditional Japanese meals with foreigners. Aki told me Miituk means “the fruit of this particular kind of tree. It’s a yellow flower with a bell shape.” Her daughter came up with the name one morning while looking at the tree in their backyard. The name “Miituk” is also a bit of slang/play on words. Besides meaning the actual tree’s flower it is also “like the seed of spreading good intentions. I give to you fruits of food and culture, and mutual understanding.”
At first Aki’s parents, whom she describes as very “normal Japanese” weren’t very optimistic about Aki’s career choice. Her parents were very poor so they wanted their children to be successful. Like most parents, they worried about their daughter and they didn’t know if Aki’s business would work. They even thought “I went crazy or something. Normal Japanese go to university, work, marry but I wasn’t that person, ” Aki says. Now that Miituk is doing well, her parents are more on board with Aki’s choice. Aki had no knowledge before about being a small business owner. Her gumption and perseverance shows from the way she taught herself how to make a website to designing and printing off brochures. Aki manages both a Facebook and Instagram page for Miituk as well.
Aki’s role as a single mother and a small business owner is not only unique, it stands in stark contrast to statistics about Japanese women in the workforce. According to The Economist, “Female participation in the labour force [in Japan] is 63%, far lower than in other rich countries. When women have their first child, 70% of them stop working for a decade or more, compared with just 30% in America.”
While the overall number of women entrepreneurs in Japan is still low, there is a “slow but steady increase in [Japanese] female-led entrepreneurial startups since 1991, from 12.4% to 17% of the annual total,”according to an article on GeekTime titled “The Surprising Truth I Found Out About Women Entrepreneurs in Japan.”
I asked Aki about contemporary Japanese culture. The Atlantic recently speculated part of Japan’s low birth rate could be due to men having a hard time finding steady, well-paid jobs. In Aki’s opinion, it’s more of a subtle social shift. Aki ventures a guess that “many young [Japanese] people do think ‘I want to marry’ but they just think about it, they don’t act on it. They [this generation] are used to following clear cut rules, they generally aren’t very curious. They think they want to marry and have a baby but they don’t act on it. Many of the young people like to stay comfortable, they want only one career, they don’t want to travel to other countries, they want to stay with what’s familiar in Japan.”