Riarumi had a chat with Misato Oi, 2014 Japanese Delegate for the G(irls)20 Summit and student at Kyoto University. Misato talked to us about her involvement with G(irls)20, some lessons learned from traveling around the world, the value she derives from meeting new people, and her hopes for hers and Japan’s future.
Who is the riarumi?
My name is Misato Oi, I’m 20 years old and I’m an undergraduate student at Kyoto University. Since January 2015 and until May 2015, I will be taking part in an Internship and in Academic Seminars in Washington DC. I enjoy traveling, meeting new people, experiencing different cultures, and also writing.
Right now, I feel like I’m a person who is trying to discover myself, and be more confident with who I am, including my weaknesses. But in the future, I would like to be a person who can make a difference to people.
Could you give us an overview of your life story?
I think my life adventure began when I was inspired by a judoka who won the Olympic medal at the Sydney Olympics and since then, I really wanted to be a professional judoka. Basically, I was watching the Olympics on TV, and I watched Tani Ryoko (Japanese judoka) win the Gold medal. Somehow it really inspired me; in fact, I would say it was the biggest inspiration I’d ever had in my life. I started judo when I was five and, since then, without really knowing it, I had been fighting against the gender stereotype that “judo is a sport for men”. But anyway, I kept doing it for more than ten years and it brought me to many places, in terms of both my personal and professional lives.
You are the 2014 Japanese Delegate for the G(irls)20 Summit. Could you tell us about that?
G(irls)20 is a global platform that aims to economically empower girls and women by giving them the skills needed to make an impact in their communities and countries. Each year, they host a Summit bringing a young female from G20 countries, plus a representative from the European & African Unions, Afghanistan, Pakistan and the MENA region to discuss, debate and suggest solutions, which will economically empower girls and women around the world.
Last year the Summit was held in Sydney, Australia, and I was given the honour of representing Japan in the same place where my dream originally began (Australia). Together we attended workshops on, for example, leadership, effective communication, and advocacy. And at the two day-long summit, we listened to speakers and discussed G20 issues. On the final day, we developed the communiqué to G20, in which we presented actionable ideas on how to economically advance the situation of women globally.
What were your thoughts on the G(irls)20 Summit?
Before attending the Summit, I was kind of overwhelmed by the delegates’ biographies, and thought that we were going to talk about our current projects or whatever but in reality, we talked a lot about our personal stories, including difficulties, and shared stories that made me realize that our feelings are so mutual. It helped me to accept myself the way I am.
That’s why I believe that all of us sharing these stories is a valuable thing. I think the real, “messy” stories of people – as opposed to the “polished” ones – are very powerful. I read your Huffington Post article and really loved the part at the end where you talked about honesty and humanity; I think honesty is the key to building relationships and trust with others. And it’s how we can bring people on our journey to make a big difference together.
What is the TOMODACHI Metlife Women’s Leadership Program?
It’s a 10-month leadership program that pairs young university students with professionals in different fields, in the roles of mentees and mentors. Together we attended various workshops on self-discovery, financial literacy and leadership. In March 2014, we were then given the opportunity to travel to Washington DC and New York for nine days. During our visit to the US we were able to meet many professional women in different sectors to learn about their life stories. People I met through the program not only showed me how to lead — my own life and lead others — but also helped me to step out of my comfort zone.
Both the G(irls)20 Summit and the TOMODACHI MetLife Women’s Leadership Program provided me with supporting network of like-minded people, which made me confident enough to then get involved in my community and share the lessons I learned. For example, I had an opportunity to collaborate with a local gender equality center, which I couldn’t have imagined would happen when I first got involved with these programs.
What are your personal goals and dreams for the future?
To be who I am. I have found that when people are proud of who they are, they can be not only productive and much happier, but also more able to make others happy.
In my freshman year, I travelled to Indonesia, Taiwan, and Belgium, asking people “what makes you happy?” I received various answers, but overall I found that people are happiest when they are doing what they love. So right now, I’m trying to find and understand my passion and then find ways to build a career around that passion.
What was interesting about those travels actually is that it seemed generally people are the happiest when they are with their families or friends. But in Taiwan, generally speaking, people’s happiness was also really strongly related to their academic performance and careers. In Belgium, their happiness was related to hobbies. But in Indonesia, people there were generally very happy just the way they are. For example, “I’m happy when I’m working”, “I’m happy when I see my parents smile” … so that really made me smile.
During my high school days, I was quite focused on studying, and I hate to say it, but I did not prioritize my personal life or personal happiness, or even barely give much thought to them. I used to think that going to a good university and finding a good job will make me feel successful. So, getting that perspective on life and happiness, particularly in Indonesia, was a really defining moment in my life. And right now, I’m trying to find and understand my passions and then find ways to build a career around them.
How did you get the opportunity to do all this traveling to ask these questions?
Mostly I’m traveling for a conference or something, so I have a set agenda to follow. But at the same time, my curiosity always drives me to reach out to people while I’m there and ask them questions. So it’s not like I traveled with an intention to ask these questions, but rather I took the opportunities when they were there. The kinds of people I was talking with ranged from people just standing on roadside to people who turned out to be government officials.
I really applaud your confidence and tenacity! I can’t imagine many people would have that same confidence to strike up conversations with so many strangers!
Thank you. But being a foreigner really allowed me to do that. If I have to be honest, I couldn’t do that in Japan! I would feel uneasy.
Are there any future goals you currently feel uncertain of, or that seem ‘cloudy’ in your mind?
To be very honest, I used to be really afraid of that uncertainty. I tried to do lots of things but not necessarily because I … well, I was partly driven by the fear that I don’t yet know what I’d like to do. And I didn’t have the courage to settle into something. I learnt first-hand that doing things without really knowing why you’re doing them will never allow you to feel a sense of accomplishment. And I suppose it’s not unusual for people to fall into doing something, purely because of a fear of not doing anything.
But now I’m trying to have courage to see and learn from the world around me. I’ve started defining life values for myself and it has been an interesting process. Kind of like learning how to drive a car, rather than being a passenger in it.
You’re currently studying Economics at Kyoto University. How is the university experience for you? What made you choose that course?
When I was in high school, my friend and I took part in a business competition and went to Thailand, where we represented Japan. I was able to meet lots of highly motivated students and seeing their business plans really inspired me. I felt that I want to focus on that path to know more about business and how society works, so that’s how I came to choose Economics.
I enjoyed meeting people at university and I have lots of great professors. But I found I didn’t feel it was interesting doing what I had to do, because I didn’t see how I could use my knowledge and apply what I was learning to society. The interesting thing for me has always been how I could use my knowledge and apply what I learn to society. Travelling around though, asking people questions and also focusing on gender issues, really made me passionate about the idea of addressing social problems.
During the G(irls) 20 summit, we made recommendations to the G20, and in that process, I learned to cater my language to my audience, so using language that appeals to political leaders. In other words, we had to make gender inequality an issue relevant to economics, and explain how fixing gender inequality will benefit the economy. So that really re-stimulated my interest in economics and now I’m really excited to go back to university!
How would you say you and your outlooks on work and life have been shaped?
I think it was shaped by the people around me. In judo, for example, I had a rival – I say “rival”, though I couldn’t beat her most of the time – and she really motivated me to continue with my judo and work hard. So far, I’ve been fortunate enough to have people in my life who I can trust and who I can share with the joy of achieving something.
Have there been any especially difficult moments in your life when you’ve been working to fulfill your ambitions?
Ironically, it would be a moment when everything seemed to be going well. There was a time when I felt so ambitious, trying to say yes to almost every opportunity that came my way – I didn’t know how to say no – and as a result, I really had a lot on my plate. I wasn’t getting enough sleep and I felt tired all the time but I didn’t know what was wrong. Or even that there was something wrong! Then, on a very hot summer’s day one day, I received a message from my friend saying, “be aware of karoshi!” (Japanese term for death caused by overwork or job-related exhaustion). She was really concerned about me, and it really shocked and scared me, as that was the moment when I realized something was wrong. What was wrong with me was that I was secretly afraid to share my honest feelings, as I mistakenly believed that it would make me weaker if I did.
Looking back, that experience has taught me to take care of myself; be a bit more honest with myself, give myself some time to just be still and reflect on my thoughts.
Last autumn, I received a scholarship to spend a semester in DC, which was a joyful moment. That was when I could feel that my life has started moving in the right direction again.
What did you do to cope during this challenging period of your life?
Well, I think I had people who cared for me and knowing that there are people who care for me really helped – it meant a lot. But I really had a deep fear to admit that I was facing some difficulties. So I think I could have dealt with the situation better, if I had been more open about the problem and reached out for help sooner. But I am really grateful for the support I got, which taught me I should never be alone with my feelings.
What has been your proudest or most encouraging moment so far in life?
I had once abandoned my dream. When I was in junior high school, I “realized” that I’m not strong enough to be a professional judoka. But I kept at it and, as fate had it, my interest in writing haiku had reunited me with my passion for judo!
I had applied for a haiku competition between Japan and the European Union and I was awarded a trip to Brussels because I had won the Grand Prize. Originally, I was to visit Belgium to meet officials in the European Commission. But the people at the European House in Japan asked me what else I would like to do during my time in Belgium and I said I would like to visit a judo school. And there happened to be a competition going on in Lommel, a small town in Belgium, so they contacted their judo federation and they kindly welcomed me. And, amazingly, the person I met at the competition was the same person who fought against my role model, Tani Ryoko, back in the Sydney Olympics! So it kind of felt like everything had come full circle.
It rekindled memories of the feeling of passion I felt towards judo as a little girl. Even as a five year-old girl, because I was doing judo, I sometimes found myself in situations where I was the only girl in the room. And I could remember countless mornings when I hated going to practice, but still I kept doing it. So when I went to Belgium, and visited that competition, it rekindled those feelings of being passionate about something.
It was a moment when I felt that everything I have done has been worth doing; a moment when I felt that the dots are getting connected. I would say it was a miraculous moment, because that trip really joined my past and my future together all at once.
Do you feel any difficulties in your day-to-day life?
It can be difficult to be myself and also accept myself as who I am. Sometimes, I find it difficult to balance my competitiveness and introversion. I am rather introverted and I used to have a negative image of being introverted. But meeting people with different leadership styles made me realize that there are things in life that aren’t suited to me, and I‘m accepting that fact and instead trying to find things that I can be good at. So I would say that one of the most difficult but also most interesting things for me is to find my own style – my own way of doing things that’s applicable to me. Writing poetry, for example, is something that helps me to feel more calm and express myself.
What inspires or motivates you to keep going?
My biggest role model, Tani Ryoko, is actually now a politician and also involved in female empowerment. She’s working at the Tokyo Assembly. She is definitely someone who motivates me.
Also, people generally; people who I have met and people I’m yet to meet. In Kyoto and in DC, I had quite a few heartwarming reunions from my previous trips and it’s been a really encouraging experience to see how paths can cross again, sometimes in unexpected ways. I feel that the further you go, the smaller the world becomes, and the more likely you are to come across your old friends and old passions. There are lots of people who I would like to meet again, and that thought is something that motivates me.
How’s home life? What do you do to relax?
I enjoy writing poetry and letters, as they allow me to communicate with others and better understand myself too. For example, one of my fellow G(irls)20 Summit delegates is a poet and we exchange our poetry time to time. As I’m currently living away from home, I also explore the city with new and old friends.
How do you ideally imagine yourself and your life to be in, say, 5 or 10 years?
If set my goal for 2020, I would like to do something related to the Tokyo Olympics. More specifically, I would like to contribute to Japan’s cultural and economical shifts that will need to come with that. Realizing gender equality is a part of these shifts, and therefore, I feel fortunate if I can get involved in activities related to my passion.
Ideally, I hope to become a person who could potentially inspire the next generation, just as I’ve been continually inspired by many people. In other words, I’d like to be a person who can make a difference to other people, not with power but with positive influence.
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?
Well, this is how I used to think. And talking with my friends and seniors going through shukatsu (job-hunting), I do feel that we young Japanese tend to have a fear that our future is limited and we have to choose between a career and a personal life.
Speaking personally, my mother works part-time, and it seems hard for Japanese females to go back to the workplace – especially to the same place – after having children. Talking with other girls around the globe had, at the time, shown me that women can live more happily, if they’re more economically independent. For example, in Finland women can go back to school and receive support from the government, even if they are single mothers. They’re given a chance to restart their lives. But in Japan, it seems very difficult. Another issue is the wage gap between men and women, which I feel is making women weaker when it comes to making decisions.
It is true that we have inequality in our society. But having met people who are pursuing both a career and a family life, I realized that I was limiting myself. None of them claim it is easy, but my opinion now is that it can be possible with understanding and support from family, workplace and the community.
What do you think can or should be done to address this?
I think there is lots to be done, for example, ensuring equal pay becomes the reality. But I would say one of the best ways is to show role models to the younger generation and allow them to see through example that it is possible. And mentoring will be crucial in this process, especially to encourage young females to step out of their comfort zones, challenge ourselves and not use gender stereotypes as an excuse for what we do or don’t do. Mentoring sounds like a very “formal” thing, however it actually can take place anywhere. For example, just by offering what we have, and celebrating our neighbours’ successes together. I think things would move forward if men are supportive of gender equality too and can also be mentors for young females.
Another thing is that we need to change our working culture to a more family-friendly one. I think Japanese workers, especially men, are working hard; too hard and too long. On average, they currently spend less than an hour per day raising children. My idea during the G(irls)20 Summit was to introduce mental health programs in the workplace to change the work culture into a more productive one. Interning in DC now, I think we need more systems that will allow people to accommodate their life schedule more easily, such as flexible working hours, and remote working.
I believe that these cultural shifts will potentially stimulate a change in mindset and will create more options for both men and women to reach their full potential; be more productive and, most importantly, be proud of who they are.
Is there a gender equality imbalance in Japan?
I would certainly say yes and of course, it’s backed up by lots of statistics. For example, Japan has the one of the lowest percentage of females in management positions – only 8%. But I hadn’t realized this imbalance until very recently, partly because I just took it as normal. So really, I feel that the biggest problem we have is people’s mindsets. We have a sense that “Japan is different”. And that kind of attitude is supporting these gender stereotypes, and making it difficult to move things forward. So I feel this is a real problem and it is something that each of us create and that lives in each of us.
Another imbalance I found is that this issue is considered a female issue and when we talk about it, we mainly talk about women. But I would say that gender stereotypes affect everyone – men are really suffering from gender stereotypes too. They feel they have to be more “masculine”. So I think an important way to move things forward is to get more men involved in gender equality.
What can women do to address this inequality?
One thing we all can do is to build support networks, where we can inspire and sometimes challenge each other to aim higher. Not necessarily to do more or get more, but to expand our boundaries. Another thing is to have faith in what we love and what we do. We do not always have to be 100% confident, but we can accept the fear of trying something new.
What can men do?
I can’t claim to understand them completely, but as a girl who had trained with boys, I feel men are also tied to gender stereotypes, especially the one that they have to be stronger. So, realizing gender equality should be aimed at creating a society where everyone can feel safe to express their honest selves.
As a first step, I’d like to hear men’s opinions on our gender stereotypes. Females have already started raising their voices, but we don’t really have many men’s voices and that’s what’s especially needed right now.
What do you think about Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s claims to want to add more women to the workforce in Japan?
We’re one of the unique countries in the world right now that has women’s empowerment as one of our national priorities. So that’s a really great start and I think I – and my generation – can feel proud of that. But I want our government to open their eyes to men as well, because things will never move forward until we’re working together. And this can be done, for example, by all companies – including the less progressive ones – providing paid childcare leave for both genders at a equal rate.
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?
“Do something that keeps your dream alive every day.”
As long as you have passion and keep doing what you do, I think most of the things you want will come to you. I feel this because one of the things I was very good at was finding environments in which I felt I could be honest about my passions. And that really helped me to express myself, travel to many places and reconnect with another childhood passion, judo. Even though I abandoned my dream to be an Olympic judoka, in a way my dream is still alive in my heart and, now that I have another dream for the Tokyo Olympics, I hope that I’m doing something that keeps my dream alive every day.
Do you have any further comments or advice for readers?
I would like to express my excitement for the future, especially for 2020 Tokyo Olympics and, similarly, I would really like to encourage people reading this to imagine themselves over the next five years. Coming of age, I am coming to realize that there is no mapped out future, but it is each of our decisions that creates our futures.
I also would like to share a Haiku in which I expressed that feeling, along with my gratitude for the inspiration and support I received:
Writing my own future
with a piece of courage
you left with me