Today, riarumi is proud to meet Ayako Mie, an accomplished reporter currently working with The Japan Times. Ayako shares with us her journey so far in journalism, how her experiences living and studying in the USA have affected her, her difficulties and highlights in life, advice on finding your niche and goal-setting and her thoughts on gender equality in Japan.
Who is the riarumi?
Currently, I’m a reporter who is trying to bridge Japan with the global community, but in the future, who knows? I don’t know what I’m going to be doing in 5 or 10 years because life is full of possibility. I’d like to stay true to my heart. I’m very curious, I’m open to more possibilities and options, I’m not really averse to risks and I like to take challenges. So that’s me.
Why did you become a journalist?
By luck! (laughs) Or by chance. I was not really intending to become a journalist, but I was offered a position as a reporter at the Tokyo Broadcasting System (TBS), so I just grabbed it. That was 2001. And my first big assignment was covering 9/11. I went to New York with all the bereaved families on the first plane that flew after Kennedy Airport reopened. I saw the smoke billowing from the World Trade Center from the airplane and I was one of the first reporters from Japan who actually stood on Ground Zero. And saying this of course with the greatest of respect and sympathy to the people who lost their lives and the families who lost their loved ones, I thought, “this is interesting. I’m witnessing history and translating it to the Japanese people.” And it was an eye-opener. Every day, I was learning something different, and getting to know so many interesting people whom I would have never known if I wasn’t a journalist, so I realized this is a very exciting job.
But after working for a Japanese broadcaster for six years during which time I served as a Washington D.C. correspondent, I realized that there is little coverage on Japan. Even when there was, it was very skewed — very easy to understand issues such as Japan’s ‘otaku’ (geek) culture in Akihabara and so on — and those stories sounded as if they were the full representation of Japan. I started to feel I wanted to become the one to tell the story and speak to a global audience. So that’s why I went to journalism school in California, to reeducate myself as an English-language reporter. I went to high school in L.A. and had no problems conducting interviews in English and having debates with native speakers, but I had never been paid to write in English. Going back to school was an inevitable step for my career.
Can you tell us more about your work at the Japan Times?
I cover politics and Japanese policy. When the Diet is in session, I go to the Diet building every day to monitor what’s going on, such as the negotiations or political wrangling between the ruling camp and the opposition camp. I cover what’s important for the audience and what’s the highlight of the week or the highlight of a particular event, so I have to have a broad understanding of what the implications are and what’s going to happen next.
What are some of the main lessons and experiences that you’ve taken from your past jobs?
My journalistic roots started with the TBS. I was working with a very prominent journalist named Tetsuya Chikushi. He was the Japanese equivalent of Walter Cronkite. A wonderful, very insightful journalist with multiple talents and knowledge in broad matters from politics, society to classic music and even pop culture.
So I learned a lot from his points of view, especially that a journalist should have an interest in many things and without casually dismissing them as being insignificant. Many things might have important implications but you will never know if you underestimate them without actually experiencing them. You have to have broad interests and you have to distill all information in an unbiased way and present some new perspectives. You have to find a story.
At the Washington Post, I think it was really interesting to see how the US media wanted to portray Japan and what I thought was interesting was not necessarily so for the editors, so I faced some difficulties there. My primary audience was an English-speaking American audience, so it’s like “how do I have to tell them stories?” I’m still in the process of learning how to tell a story to a global audience so that people will take it as serious issue.
Could you tell me more about your teaching work at Tsuda College?
I’m going to be teaching Media Studies from this year, but I’m trying not to make it a typical Media Studies course. I’d like young kids to get more politically involved. I want my students to take initiative on their own and think about how what’s going in the political realm is really impacting their lives. I am also not going to give them the answers. I want them to think independently, because that’s exactly what’s missing from the Japanese educational system.
You’ve interviewed a lot of high-profile names, for example, I noticed recently you interviewed Akie Abe, the Prime Minister’s wife. Who’s been the most memorable person you’ve interviewed?
That’s very hard! I mean, Akie Abe was definitely a very interesting person to interview. I would say there are several people, for example, Anis Uzzaman, a Silicon Valley-based venture capitalist, who extensively invested in Japanese start-ups. I was really impressed by his desire to give back to the Japanese community, since he came here under the MEXT or Monbusho Scholarship and he went to Tokodai (Tokyo Institute of Technology). He’s fluent in Japanese and recently published a book in Japanese called Start-Up Bible. He’s trying to bring Japanese start-ups to Silicon Valley so that they can actually compete in the global market, and I think that’s very interesting.
And also, there was a doctor whose name is Kenyu Ito. He’s not well-known, but he genuinely wants to change Japan. Several political parties wanted to make him their candidate, but he was smart enough not to become a politician, because it is often takes years for a lawmaker to bring about changes, during which time one could become trapped in the maze of the Japanese political world. He thought he could change Japan in a different way than becoming a politician would allow. It’s not the well-known or high-profile people that I’m very impressed by but the not-so-well-known people who are trying to *change* Japan and give a different perspective to Japanese people. People who are trying to think outside the box and trying to lead Japan. Those are the people who I get really impressed by. I feel very encouraged by them.
You studied your MA in Journalism at The University of California, Berkeley. As a B.A. Law graduate from a Japanese university, how was your experience as a Japanese graduate studying at a foreign university?
I went to high school in L.A., so I didn’t have any difficulties. I knew how the graduate system worked and I was pretty used to the US educational system. Basically unless you speak out and voice your opinion, you’re invisible. I think a lot of Japanese students have a difficult time doing that. I didn’t have any problems, in terms of sitting in class and discussing things with my fellow students, even though I had never lived overseas before high school. My biggest difficulty was when I went to journalism school. Journalism school is where they train you to write, and my American classmates had been speaking and writing in English since they were born.
Also, they’d already worked at newspaper companies in the US, whereas I’d never had experience writing professionally in English before I went to UC Berkeley, so that was difficult – competing against Americans at writing in English. If, for example, I had studied International Studies, I would perhaps have had a much easier time because being Japanese and having that perspective could be an advantage. But being a Japanese graduate at journalism school, I didn’t feel I had any of the advantages at all because sadly few journalists or my classmates were interested in Japan.
I imagine having been through those difficulties has strengthened you as a journalist. And probably as an individual.
I don’t know, but I’ve learned that it’s important to learn what your niche is. To be honest, I really did not like living in Japan and always wished I could live and work in the U.S. But I couldn’t after graduation because I had a Fulbright scholarship; I had to come back to Japan for two years as it was part of the requirement to get the scholarship, the stipends and all the other perks of being a Fulbrighter. But at the same time, I’m not sure if I could have worked in the U.S. as an English language reporter anyway, because I would have had to compete against them in an industry where it’s already very competitive among native speakers. So, what’s my niche? Knowing about the Japanese system, and Japanese culture and correctly translating that. My two difficult years in the United States actually made me realise that I should make the most of my being Japanese. Know when to use your ‘Japanese-ness’, and when to use your ‘global-ness’.
Who is your role model?
I had a mentor, whose name is Shigenori Kanehira. He’s a top executive of TBS and is one of the few Japanese reporters who can think outside the box. So I’ve been trying to emulate him. He isn’t afraid to speak out against the status quo and he’s not afraid of pissing off older bureaucrats or authority. He does what he thinks is good and right. He voices concerns over things he thinks need improvement, and I think that’s an admirable trait as a journalist.
Also, my grandmother. She passed away several years ago, but she was such a survivor. My grandfather was drafted in the war and sent to Siberia as a POW after Japan’s surrender, during which time my family owned a food company business. So my grandmother was left raising three kids and taking care of that business. And she was such a courageous survivor who made the right decisions for her and her family. So I guess I like strong women role models who don’t really complain and who can do whatever is important.
Let me add, complaining and voicing opinions is different from just complaining. I personally have never been discriminated against because of my gender, and partly because I don’t make excuses about being a woman when it comes to something I cannot do. I’m a working professional. And there isn’t anything that I, being a woman, can’t do. And so I don’t need to make excuses. You have to prove yourself. If you’re a very smart and talented person, you’ll do it. I understand there are office politics and there may be a boss who’s underestimating or undervaluing your ability, but I believe there are ways to overcome that. The only thing that matters is how much you want something.
When we talk about how Japan has few women in management positions, we tend to forget that going up the corporate or industry ladder is hard for both men and women. And if one really wants to have a management or an executive position, one probably has to sacrifice or compromise something regardless of your sex, although some might not see it as a compromise or sacrifice.
But the efforts that men and women have to make may be slightly different because of a system or culture where it is ingrained in them to think that women have to take care of the family while working hard and women might not be suitable for leading a team. I might not be in the best position to speak for them as I am just a rank and file employee and have no experience in managing people. I am also single with no husband or children. But I had this female executive confide in me that there does exist a glass ceiling being a female, even though it is very subtle. She also added that you have to strive to get there if you really want it but it is also your decision to drop out of the race.
How is home life? Do you enjoy it?
I do. My work has never impacted my personal life at all other than the fact that I’m a little bit of a workaholic! I often feel anxious when I am not working even on the weekend. My greatest way to vent my stress is salsa dancing. So I go out salsa dancing, I like jogging, and I like working out. I love good food and meeting friends, so I think I do have a balanced life.
So you don’t feel journalism influences your life in any negative sense?
Not at all, but at the same time, it’s about perspective. If you love the job, it almost becomes like a hobby — you do it because you love it. It all depends on; how much do you like what you’re doing?
What are some of the main difficulties or obstacles you’ve faced in your life and how have you overcome them?
Growing up, from kindergarten to high school, I went to an all-girls school, where their chief mission was to raise housewives. (laughs) But I think I developed my personality early on, even before I went to the U.S., so I was often chastised by my teachers for speaking out. But I accepted it as my personality.
At the time, I had a lot of conflict in class with my friends because of my strong personality, so that was difficult for me. I’ve been a perfectionist since I was really young and I used to try to apply my standards to others. But there are people who are not like me. So I had to learn – and it took me some time to learn – that I have to accept other people. That was one of my difficulties.
Because I’m a perfectionist, I always feel pressured that I want to be the best of all, even though nobody told me to feel that way. But at the same time, that attitude is suffocating me. I always question how far I have to go, how strongly I have to push towards my ultimate goal. Because once you’ve cleared one goal, you set another goal. It’s repetition, and it could even become a vicious cycle. And that repetition can really tire you out.
So, as a perfectionist, is there a feeling that you’re not really ever completely satisfied with your work?
Not at all. I’m not satisfied with my work. I should do better. I’m always a hostage to this feeling that I’m not good enough. I’ve been feeling like that for many, many years and I used to be really held back by those emotions. If things didn’t work out, I used to blame myself for not being good enough. But recently, I came to learn that I cannot go on like that. So I’m trying to remember that and I’m trying to be nicer to myself. My ongoing challenge is how I’m going to become the best possible friend to myself.
At the same time I have to know what makes me happy. A lot of us gauge our lives by the standards set by others, but does it really make me feel happy? Rather than living up to a standard which I feel is being imposed on me, I would like to find my happiness, something which I am yet to be convinced I have. As they say, life is an endless journey.
I have also learned to say “it was not meant to be” when I fail to achieve some goals, rather than blaming myself for being incompetent. Of course it is important that you do your best but there are things that a person cannot really control. Blaming yourself for something you have no control over only harms your self-confidence, which is not good. I also believe that we are getting led in a direction, even if we fail at some specific things along the way. The important thing is to give our best efforts. Or at least my life has been like that.
You mentioned being a better friend to yourself. Any insights how you can do that?
I recently realised that my performance will be the same, whether I’m hard on myself or whether I say “it’ll be OK”. I used to corner myself and say “I have to do this” and “unless I do this, I’m a failure” but I stopped saying that. Now I say, “It’s OK, I’ll get it done, don’t worry about it.” And the outcome is the same.
What’ve been the highlights of life so far?
Of course, I was really super glad that I got the Fulbright scholarship. That was probably the first time in my thirty years of life that I really felt my performance was acknowledged by somebody. That was the first time that I said to myself “oh my gosh, you did great!” It felt great! And going to UC Berkeley was also an eye-opening experience, interacting with all these reporters who could bring in other perspectives. And having this job with The Japan Times. It took me 12 years since graduating from college to get what I wanted – to have a byline in an English-language newspaper. So it was great, it was a sensational feeling.
But I intend to create more “I did it!” moments before I hit 40. I don’t know if they will be related to journalism or not, but will probably involve moving out of Japan again — hopefully to New York, which has been my dream city ever since I first visited there when I was 16. And I want to continue to feel a sense of achievement, even in my 50s, 60s, 70s, 80s and beyond.
What are your thoughts on gender equality in Japan?
When you look at the numbers, yes, there is definitely inequality in the number of female lawmakers, or senior executives in Japanese corporations. Then again, I believe that if a person really wants something, they’ll find every way to achieve it. At the same time, society has to become a little bit more lenient towards diverse ways of working. Perhaps there should be more support for working mothers who have to juggle their jobs, and more flexibility given to people who want to have more of a work-life balance and who don’t want to work like crazy, because everybody is different. I think society has to create an environment where anybody can keep their work under a variety of circumstances, assuming they want to work.
The system is not functioning, if it doesn’t allow women to go up the ladder unless they work excessively hard. I know a lot of men who are considered capable of going up the ladder, just because they’re men, or just because the system tells them so. So why don’t we fully extend that system to women too? So, society needs to change in that respect.
How can that happen?
On an educational level is important, of course. We really have to teach our children from early on that men have to share chores and that it’s an outdated, negative stereotype that a female has to stay home and raise the kids. I think we should teach the diversity of the various life choices that actually are possible. This society has to be more lenient to diversity, including race, age, marital status and sexual orientation. I really do not like the way the government is telling women they should marry, have children, and keep working. As a single, working professional, I know sometimes it can be difficult to meet a life partner to have a family with, even if I wanted to. I have several friends like that, but we are still contributing to Japan financially and serving as role models to our younger peers.
Marriage and having children should be left to one’s choice. I’m sure men are also discriminated against in some ways. I’m sure there are men who want to have an easier job and an easier life, without being pressured to go up the ladder. So it’s not an issue of women or men alone. We have to be neutral, or perhaps we should not focus so much on gender differences, when we talk about this issue. In the eyes of the law, I’m a female. But before female, I’m an individual. And society really has to come up with an understanding and acceptance that everyone is an individual, rather than labeling somebody based on their sex.
I also think young people need to speak out, for example, by voting. The voter turn-out among the younger generation is really, really low and what’s represented in the voting system are the people over 50. So that’s why the LDP don’t really come up with any policies that gear towards the younger generation. And so younger people have to make themselves heard. It’s not about complaining, it’s about taking action. There are many, many ways to take action. You can tweet things, you can sign a petition, or you can call the lawmakers and voice your concerns. That’s exactly what’s missing from this country.
I’m not a feminist, so I don’t want to say maybe females should form a group to take actions. In fact, I think such a group should include men too, because you need to have different points of view, otherwise it’s going to be really dogmatic. If the younger generation want their voice to be heard and really want to establish a truly gender-equal society, they should form a lobbying group. Lobbying against lawmakers, saying “we want this, we want this, why don’t you do this, because we are the generation who are leading Japan towards the future”. That kind of idea is missing from the Japanese population because society doesn’t teach it. We have a right to speak. I don’t think Japanese people feel they have a right to make demands of the government. I think we are pretty much passive, waiting for the government to do something for us. But that kind of era ended a long, long time ago. Now it’s time to take action.
What advice would you have for any readers who may be thinking about a career in journalism?
I think it’s really difficult to set “I want to be a journalist” as your goal. I think it’s more natural to set a goal of “what I want to achieve” and journalism may be one of the ways to achieve that goal. Or maybe instead you could become a UN staffer, or maybe it’s better to enter the government so that you can implement policies. If you decide, “I want to be a journalist”, it would be really disappointing if you could not be a journalist for whatever reason. So I would say, think about what you want to *achieve* by becoming a journalist. And then, if you have things that you want to achieve, read widely and talk to many people so you can consider for yourself what’s important and what needs to be rectified. That way, you can explore more options, because your job is not a goal, but merely a tool to achieve something you want and to make you happy.
Are there any inspiring quotes or philosophies on life that really speak to you?
“No risk, no return.” Because you can achieve anything if you want to, and without taking risks, you’ll never get any chances. And there’s no failure. Failure can even lead to success. So don’t be afraid to fail, because failure is actually the greatest teacher.
This is exactly the reason why some Japanese companies are not going to Silicon Valley. In Silicon Valley, you kind of have to fail three or four times before you’re acknowledged as a viable start-up, because through that trial-and-error process, your company will become much stronger. But in Japan, one failure and you’re out. So a lot of companies are afraid of making mistakes or being a failure. But that’s not the right attitude, because you actually learn from mistakes. And it’s actually very dangerous if you don’t have any failures in your life, and then suddenly in your forties or fifties, you’re faced with challenges or failures. You won’t have learned how to cope. So, take the positives from every failure and move onwards and upwards from it.