natsuko mitsuhashi
riaruimi had a wonderful time meeting Natsuko Mitsuhashi, a UK-trained freelance interpreter currently living in Tokyo. Natsuko shares with us the story of her determined journey to become an interpreter, some of the challenges she’s faced and highlights she’s enjoyed so far, her opinions on the pressures young women her age face in Japan, and her thoughts on her future.

Who is the riarumi?

My name is Natsuko Mitsuhashi. I’m 26 years old and I’m an interpreter living in Tokyo. I love going to museums, watching movies, reading books and spending time with my friends. I especially love stories that are based on true events, so I also love documentaries in that sense.

I don’t think I’m really much of an extrovert. In fact, I’m pretty introverted. I’m not really into social events or parties, but I do love talking to people one-on-one or in a small group. So, I do love interacting with people, but just not in a huge group. I think I’m a diligent person. I work pretty hard, including at my job, because preparation is really important as an interpreter. I think sometimes I worry too much about … everything (laughs) but I’m also generally quite a positive person.

You currently work as a freelance interpreter. Could you tell us a little about that?

I don’t really have a typical day, and that’s what I really love about being a freelance interpreter. I often go to different companies and interpret at their meetings or sometimes I interpret at seminars or large company events. Right now, I’m working mainly with just one agency and I get my work through them.

What are your personal goals and dreams for the future?

Well, in six years, the Tokyo Olympics are coming up, so hopefully I’ll be able to do some interpreting for something related to the Olympics. That’s one of my goals. In the even longer term, I’d like to be able to interpret at international events and conferences. That’s my ultimate career goal.

Another one of my dreams is to interpret at the UN or at the World Economic Forum, so I guess to work in Europe or New York would also be great.

How and when did you first realise these goals and what are you doing to achieve them?

Well, I’m not planning on quitting until I do achieve my goals, so I guess that’s how I’m going to achieve them! (laughs) I think I realised my goals when I was in university and I had to decide if I wanted to work for a company, or if I wanted to do something else. And I’d never really been interested in working in a corporate environment. So that’s one thing. Another thing is that I’ve never really felt comfortable with my language skills, either my Japanese or my English. I’ve always felt like I couldn’t understand Japanese as well as a born-and-bred native Japanese person, or understand English as well as a native English-speaker. But as an interpreter, I get to actually make the best of that. So that’s also one of the reasons why I decided to become an interpreter.

Are there any future goals you currently feel uncertain of, or that seem ‘cloudy’ in your mind?

Well, it’s not really a goal, but I’m not sure where I want to permanently live in the future, or even whether I do want to live permanently in one location. I like Tokyo, but I don’t think I would want to live in Tokyo for the rest of my life. In terms of my job, it’s probably a good idea to stay in Tokyo for a while and then maybe figure out where I want to go next, but I guess that part of my life is uncertain.

I do worry about getting tied down to one place. But that’s the only worry I have. I think, to a greater extent, I’m more excited about – and looking forward to figuring out – where I want to live.

You studied your Bachelors degree in Policy Management (Majored in International Security) at Keio University. How was the university experience for you?

It was great, I loved it! The faculty I was in, Policy Management, was a little bit unconventional. There weren’t a lot of mandatory courses, so I was really free to take any course I like – anything. I majored in International Security but, to be more accurate, we really don’t have a major. It was more like a research group. We just refer to it as a major because that’s what everyone else says. But anyway, my main focus was on international security and I did my research on terrorism and Al Qaeda. Aside from that, I also took courses in other subjects, such as basic Russian, basic Malaysian, basic neuroscience and Islam. So it was great. I loved it, because I also love learning new things and having the freedom to learn a variety of different things.

You also studied a Masters degree in Interpreting and Translation at The University of Bath in England. What was that like?

It was great! Of course, Bath is a beautiful city and I loved just being there. Also, all my course mates were really passionate about interpreting and translation and about what they were trying to study, so it was good to be surrounded by all these passionate people.

I think I spent a lot of time studying and practising interpreting, but university was still really fun. I went to a lot of different pubs with my friends and we also got to travel to Spain a couple of times, and also to some other parts of England, so that was really fun!

Bath, England

Has living and studying abroad shaped you and your outlooks on work and life?

I’m sure it has, because I lived in the US for 11 years, from the age of seven until I was 18. I’m sure I wouldn’t be an interpreter now, if I hadn’t lived in the US for so long. It’s such a big part of who I am, I can’t explain how it’s affected me.

Was it tough as a seven year-old Japanese girl adjusting to American life?

To be honest, I don’t really remember much anymore, but I’m sure it was. I do remember I had to change schools once, because I couldn’t really fit into the first school my parents sent me to. So then I had to change to a public school and that was fine. I think it was really tough on my mum though, because I’m sure she was really worried about me, but everything turned out OK!

I have a sister who’s four years older than me, so I think she had a more difficult time than I did.

Have there been any especially difficult moments in your life when you’ve been working to fulfill your ambitions?

When I was in my junior year in university, I had to start the shukatsu (job-hunting) process, like everyone else does in Japan, all at the same time. Shukatsu was really tough for me, because I don’t like being involved in the same activity as everyone else and I really don’t like competing. It was also especially tough because I knew I didn’t want to work in the corporate world. But my father wanted me to work. He wanted me to work in a big company and to start working right away, as soon as I graduated from university. But while I was doing the shukatsu, I had applied for my Masters course at the same time. So my mind and heart was really set on the Masters course, but then I also had to pretend like I was actually trying to find a job here, and had to go to the interviews and seminars and wear the same suit that everyone else wears. (laughs)

Did you feel pressure from your dad, or just generally from society?

Both. The thing is, I thought my dad would be really happy if I told him that I wanted to go to grad school, because I thought he was the kind of person who would really want me to pursue my education. But when I told him that I was thinking about going to grad school overseas, he actually got really angry at me. And that was pretty shocking. I realised that he was expecting me to start working right away at a company, but that really wasn’t how I envisioned my future.

Did your dad ever make peace with the fact that you were going to do your Masters degree?

Not really. (laughs) But I went anyway, and I finished my Masters degree with really good grades, so he was pretty happy about that. I think he’s OK about it now.

What did you do to cope during this challenging period of your life?

Well, during my shukatsu – those dark ages (laughs) – my mum was pretty supportive, so that really helped. And I’m pretty stubborn, so I knew that even if I were able to get a job at a company through shukatsu, I wouldn’t be happy and I would probably quit in a few years. So I tried to remind myself of that: the only way I’m going to be happy is if I get a Masters degree and become an interpreter. I kept on telling myself that.

What has been your proudest or most encouraging moment so far in life?

Finishing my Masters degree with a Distinction felt great because I felt like I’d proved my dad wrong and did pretty well!

What have been your most difficult or disheartening moments so far, and how did you deal with them?

I worked for two companies before becoming an interpreter because it was difficult to start immediately as a full time interpreter without any actual work experience. The first company was a small start-up and there were only five people working there, including myself. It was really fun and it was a great company. Then I changed jobs and started working at a company which was a more of a traditional Japanese company compared to the first one I worked for. I couldn’t really fit in too well, so that was really tough. For example, I would go to work and I would be there from 9am to 6pm, but they wouldn’t give me anything to do. And I don’t mind finding things to do on my own, but they didn’t even let me do that. So I felt like I was just sitting there and not really doing anything of worth. The office was really quiet too, so there would be days when the only thing I would say was “good morning” or “otsukaresamadesu” (loosely translated as “thank you for your hard work today”). That was a really tough time. So I only worked there for six months and then I quit.

I don’t like giving up without trying to change the situation, so I did firstly talk to the manager and everyone else who might have been able to change the situation, but I would explain how I feel, that I was willing to work hard and that I was basically bored all the time and they would listen and say “OK”, but nothing really changed. So that’s when I decided to quit, because I realised I was just wasting my time.

You did well to cope with that for six months!

My parents weren’t too happy though! (laughs) After that, I then started a six-month contract position at GAP as an interpreter. I loved it, it was really great.

What inspires or motivates you to keep going?

When I do a really good job at interpreting something, and the people who I interpreted for thank me and say nice things like, “thank you, that was really easy to understand!” I guess I really love that feeling of appreciation and it makes me feel like the reason I’m able to help is because I am who I am.

How’s life outside of work (home life)? What do you do to relax?

It sounds really sad but I don’t really have much of a home life! (laughs) I just go home and prepare for whatever job is coming up. I’m usually studying at home or out eating dinner or lunch with my friends, so I guess my life outside of work is not very exciting! (laughs)

I do love going to museums though, particularly art museums, so I try to go as much as I can! I also love animals! I don’t have a pet, but at my parents’ house, we have a dog and a cat and I’ve always had some kind of pet in the house, growing up. So I try to go back home to my parents’ house as much as I can.


How do you ideally imagine yourself and your life to be in, say, 5 years?

I’ll definitely still be interpreting. And it’ll be 2019 by then, so maybe doing something related to the Olympics? After that, I don’t know. I guess I’ll go wherever life takes me.

I do want to get married some day, but I’m not exactly sure how that’s going to fit in with everything else that’s going on and everything else that I want to achieve, like working hard until 2020, so that I can do something involving the Olympics and so on. I don’t know how all of that is going to fit together.

I feel that there’s a societal pressure that girls should get married by a certain age – in Japan it’s 30 – and unfortunately I think there is a general feeling among girls as well that they need to find someone before turning thirty.

Do you feel that young women in Japan are forced to make a choice between personal life/family life and career? What are your opinions on this?

I think the situation is getting better but I do still feel that women have a lot more to juggle in life than men, so that hasn’t changed very much. My friends are pretty independent, and they want to continue working, even after they get married. I think they’re trying to find the right partner so that they will be able to do that. But I think generally, we’re kind of a minority. I think a lot of women don’t have the luxury of being able to choose both.

What do you think can or should be done to address this common perception?

In general, both men and women need to understand that we all have choices and different options. So as part of that, I think men need to acknowledge the fact that women have choices and whatever they choose is OK. If they want to pursue their career, it’s OK. If they want to become a housewife, that’s OK too – that’s a full-time job. In general, everyone needs to acknowledge that we’re free to make our own choices and we have the right to do so.

Is there a gender equality imbalance in Japan?

I think so. I’ve never felt that way personally, in my own situation, but I think that has a lot to do with the fact that I’m an interpreter and not working in an office environment. So, in a way, my position is relatively unique. But as part of my job, I get to go to different companies and interpret the managers’ meetings. And, especially in the traditional Japanese companies, there are usually no women in those meetings. In one meeting that I had to interpret, there was a woman who was a marketing manager and she was giving a presentation. All the other participants were older men in their 50s and 60s. And it’s hard to explain, but the atmosphere was very different. While she was giving the presentation, it was almost hostile. When she finished her presentation, one of the men asked a question and she answered in a polite but somewhat curt way. And then they started joking about her and the way she answered, saying “ohh, scary!” and giggling. It was so childish and I literally felt sick being in that meeting. I’m sure that doesn’t happen daily, but witnessing things like that is frustrating.

What can young women like yourself do to address this inequality?

It goes back to what I said earlier about understanding that we all have different options. I think women need to understand that. They have these options and they can choose whatever works best for them and whatever makes them happy. I think it really comes down to that. I don’t think the gender equality issue is just to do with the workplace. I think it’s really more about focusing on the fact that we all have the right to choose.

What can men do?

Similarly, men should understand that they also have choices too. If they want to quit their job and become a stay-at-home dad and raise kids, that’s OK. So it goes for both sides, understanding that you don’t have to follow the expectations that society sets. But at the same time, it’s important for society to create an environment where people are able to make those different decisions.

At Riarumi, we usually end with an inspiring quote. Are there any quotes or philosophies on life that you particularly like and would like to share with readers?

“There is more to life than increasing its speed.”
– Mahatma Ghandi

I guess because, especially living in Tokyo, I feel like I always have to be busy and I feel like everyone else is competing on how busy they can be. So I like to keep that quote in mind, and tell myself that it’s OK not to be working all the time. It’s OK to try to enjoy the other parts of life.

Do you have any further advice for readers?

Don’t be afraid to do something different. You don’t always have to follow the crowd. You don’t have to do things by a certain age. You don’t have to feel pressure to do whatever everyone else is doing. If you have something that you want to do, try it.

natsuko mitsuhashi graduation bath

  • Shirin H.

    Hi Natsuko!
    I couldn’t help but feel touched by the ideas you shared, the points you raised and your experience of life, as a woman but firstly as a human being. I live in France but relate to a lot of the things you shared. You reflect great wisdom and a certain distance with what people expect you do or think. I can assure you that your philosophy or way of thinking will secure your future and you will succeed everything you’ll undertake. Best of luck, and never give up your dreams, because with your own volition, you will make them become reality. Working at the United Nations is also a dream for me, and two days ago I received an invitation for an internship in my field : a dream come true! Try and I’m sure, success and joy are in store for you!
    Best regards from France