Today, riarumi humbly welcomes Asako Kirie, critically-acclaimed writer of Bara to Bisketto ( 薔薇とビスケット – “roses and biscuits”), as we talk to her about the extraordinary life that she has led, her family life, how the difficulties she has faced in her life have shaped her as a person, and her moving journey towards self-fulfillment and becoming a published author.
Who is the riarumi?
My name is Kirie Asako, I’m 62 and I’m an author. It was always my hobby to read books and write stories but now that that’s become my profession, I’ve also started to enjoy watching movies.
You are perhaps best known as the author of Bara to Bisketto (roses and biscuits). Tell us about your novel and what was your inspiration for writing it?
The main character, Toru Ryuzaki, is a 25 year old caregiver at a nursing home for the elderly. He has no passion for his work and decides that if he wins the lottery, he will quit his job. One day, he is transported back in time to the year 1938, right before the start of WWII, and he meets and falls in love with a beautiful geisha named Sengiku. As he cares for the master of the geisha house, he experiences many encounters and relationships with numerous people that allow him to grow. One day he realizes that, within his circle of acquaintances, there is an elderly person that he once cared for at the nursing home.
The basis for this novel came from hearing the stories that my daughter and her two best friends told me, all of whom are certified caregivers. Also, in this novel, most of the characters are based on real people. What inspired me to write this novel was when I suffered from breast cancer three years ago and the Tohoku earthquake that occurred just after my operation. I was agonized everyday with shock and sadness.
“I want to leave a mark that I lived in this world.”
“Is there anything I can do for the people who have lost their loved ones in the earthquake and for those who suffer from illness?”
I thought really hard. The only thing I can do is to write. To those who lived in my thoughts – the stories about the elderly that my daughter and her best friends shared with me – they allowed me to write this novel.
How does it feel now that your book has been published and received critical acclaim?
I am very happy that my literary work is available to the world. But it’s not just my work; it’s also thanks to my daughter, her best friends, and the elderly who were my characters, that I was able to write this story. When my readers commented, “I felt my own kindness” and “I wanted to quit my profession as a caregiver but this book made me want to continue”, I was extremely happy.
Could you share with us a few words on how your book came to be?
In 2012 I was awarded the 13th Annual Shougakukan Bunko Shousetsusho for literature and my book was published in May 2013.
In recent years, you have fought and beaten cancer, something which must take an unimaginable amount of inner strength. How did this experience affect and shape you, and your outlook on life?
When I was told that I had cancer, my world changed in an instant. I was pulled down and thrown into a grey world of fear and loneliness that took over me. For a while, I felt like I was living a nightmare. So I kept on telling myself, “all suffering has a meaning. I was given this trial for the benefit of my soul”. My fear and loneliness did not disappear completely but little by little, I regained peace. Before the surgery, I believed that “illness is God’s gift”. If I had always believed in my mind that illness is an “unhappy occurrence”, there would have been neither true hope nor the growth of my soul. My illness made my stronger and helped me grow. And I have to thank my illness because it enabled me to become a writer.
What are some of the main difficulties and obstacles you faced in returning to university after so long and then authoring a book? How did you overcome them?
Since I entered University when I was 46, as opposed to during my youthful days, my physical strength and my memory were not what they used to be. But I didn’t consider that an obstacle. “If I only have half the strength and memory of an 18 year old”, I thought to myself, “that just means I need to study twice as much”. The hard work and studying paid off, and I was able to graduate with the top grade out of my year-group.
Same with writing a novel. I may be inferior compared to a young person but I believed that, as far as my age is concerned, I could use it to my advantage when I write.
What have been some of the most impressionable moments so far in your life?
My father’s death, my daughters’ births and meeting Mother Teresa were the most memorable moments. In my life I have encountered two serious illnesses. When I was 24, I was hospitalized for a year with a systemic disease that was diagnosed as “incurable”. When I heard death’s footsteps, I felt hopeless with the thought, “having been born into this world, what did I do?” At that moment, I felt that living a life just for yourself felt empty. And I realised that, by making someone happy, it saves you from an empty life. Then my father passed away, and I recovered completely. It was almost as if he died for me.
When I was pregnant with my eldest daughter, I had the chance to meet and shake hands with Mother Teresa, who was visiting Fukuoka at the time. She had the warmest hands. The strongest influence I have ever felt in my life was becoming a mother. My life changed completely. By raising a child, I believe that mothers too are nourished as human beings.
During your adult life, and particularly when you went to university and later decided to write a novel, was there ever any feeling that you might be taking a risk, or sacrificing part of the life you had now? If so, how did you manage this feeling?
From university admission to writing a novel, it was all a risk. If I had the energy to do those things, I wondered if that meant I should have done more housework instead or something useful like baking cookies, working part time, and so on. But I thought and felt that, “right now, this is what I need to be doing”. So that was my answer.
Often when trying something new, you may initially face a lot of doubt and discouragement from people who don’t share your vision or belief in yourself. Was this the case? How do you maintain your motivation and self-confidence, when times start to feel more negative and the odds feel stacked against you?
I think there were many people who did not feel happy for me, even if they superficially supported me about going to university. Of course, this happens when people start something new or try to do things differently, compared to other people. There may be jealousy or a lack of understanding and I believe it’s a way of consciously repelling yourself from someone who’s a different type of person.
When I was granted a scholarship, one Professor plainly said to me, “giving a scholarship to a young student will be a plus to the school but granting one to a middle-aged lady like you is a waste of money.” For an older lady to study at a university, some may think it’s a waste. But you mustn’t be bothered by what other people say about you. It doesn’t matter if they don’t understand you. You have to repeat that to yourself and once you’ve made your decision, you should carry it through.
One thing I told myself was to not let anyone around me suffer or sacrifice themselves for me. Therefore I waited until my youngest daughter entered junior high school, before applying for university admission.
How important would you say self-belief and self-confidence are, as compared to other factors like writing ability and a passion for what you’re doing?
It’s very important to believe in yourself and to have confidence. Although self-belief and self-confidence without having made any effort can be a very dangerous thing. Without courage, strong intentions, and overcoming difficulties, there will be no self-belief and no self-confidence. Without those things, you will become an empty box covered with beautiful wrapping paper. Nothing will come of that. Many times, I lose confidence in myself. I think to myself, “maybe I don’t have the talent” and I get a little depressed. When I have those moments, I say out loud to myself, “it’s okay! I can do it!” and then I pour out as much effort as possible.
You are married with two grown-up daughters. What’s that like? Do you enjoy home life? What advice do you have for readers who think about things like marriage and having children in the future?
To me, my two daughters are springs of creation and the lighthouse that lights up the dark sea. In that sense, I think my family life is truly enriched. However as a wife, I was not happy. My husband is an extremely domineering person and, as a married couple, we were not equal at all. Also, since he is what you might call a free-spirited person, it was normal for him to not come home on a daily basis and he was very uninvolved with taking care of the kids. But I never regret getting married. I’m glad I got married because I was able to meet my two daughters and it made me grow as a person. Although I cannot offer any general advice for those who are thinking of marriage and wanting children, I can tell you this – there is a certain happiness and growth that can be obtained from marriage and childcare.
I always tell my daughter this:
“When you meet the person who you think you will marry, even if that person is not yet your partner, I want you to make sure you can respect and love that person as a friend and human being.”
In the past, you have been able to successfully balance your family life with further university education and later with authoring a book. What advice do you have for young women who feel concerned that they have to choose between a personal/family life and their career?
That’s a very complicated question. Without significant effort, trying to balance work and family life is hopeless. It is very important to help those women who balance work and family life, so they won’t face conflicts and become too exhausted. I have a favour to ask of all males in a relationship: please remember it’s not just females who have to maintain the family life. The biggest complication in balancing work and family life is the children. For working mothers, I think the biggest worry is not being able to spend as much time with their children as they would like. But more than that, I think the quality of the time you spend is more important than the length of time you spend with your kids. Make sure that your children know and feel that, “I am loved by my mother” and that they don’t even have to question it. Even if the time you spend with your children may be short, make sure that you can grow with your child. As long as you do not regret your efforts, it’s okay to take a break from cooking and cleaning the house!
Is there a gender equality imbalance in Japan? What are your opinions on this and how can both women and men in Japan can address this?
I feel that Japan suffers from gender inequality. And it was a lot more unequal when I was younger. Remembering my childhood, my mother certainly discriminated between my little brother and I, growing up. My mother would tell me, “girls don’t need to study. Hurry up and get married!” and she wouldn’t let me go to college. I know it will take a while to fully realise gender equality in our society, but I believe educating at home is the most effective way. I always think: to the women who will be giving birth, please educate your children properly that females and males are equal.
What advice would you like to share with young women who are at the very start of their careers, or are yet to begin?
Even if you’re doing the same type of job as someone else, it could become something totally different, just by the way in which you take control of it. For example, at a restaurant, if the waiter brings your food in with a smile and friendly demeanor, it will taste even more delicious. However, on the other hand, if the waiter gives you a bad attitude, the same food will not taste as good. It is very important how a person undergoes a task. And you will be most unhappy if you’re working against your will.
At Riarumi, we usually end with a quote to consider. “It is never too late to be what you might have been.” What are your thoughts on this?
To be who you want to be, there’s never a late time! I entered university when I was in my 40s, went to graduate school in my 50s, and became an author in my 60s. Currently, I am hoping to go back to university in my 70s and, by my 80s, I will be challenging myself to write a doctorate dissertation. Although it’s impossible for me to run a marathon or to go to the Olympics and take part in the shot put, for a lot of other things, I think that age needn’t and shouldn’t be an obstacle. Indeed, it could be a plus. The biggest obstacle is for you to think, “age is an obstacle”, using your age as an excuse and not making the first step.
Do you have any other comments or inspiring words you’d like to add?
In academic studies, it has been noted that there are three classifications of soldiers who come home from war. Returning in a normal mental state, coming home with PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder) or accomplishing growth after a mental obstacle. Various events that occur in one’s life are neutral; neither happy nor unhappy. But being happy or unhappy depends on how you take on things and how you decide to act on them. Looking back over my 62 years of life, many things have occurred. For instance, I have many unhappy memories, like my fiancé who broke off our engagement because he fell in love with someone else, or the time when I became seriously ill twice. My life was full of failures. Although looking back on my past, I realized that those unfortunate events led to something positive.
In life, there are many tough and sad times that will come falling down on you. And also times when life feels nerve-wracking and too unbearable to live. But pull through! Live!
To those who are reading this site, I wish all the happiness in the world will come your way!