tomoka aono
riarumi had a wonderful time meeting Tomoka Aono, a JICA volunteer in charge of Marketing and PR for tourism in the Philippines. Among other things, Tomoka shares with us her story of how she ended up with her dream job in a beautiful country, how her international experiences have shaped her, and her philosophies towards anticipating the future.

Who is the riarumi?

My name is Tomoka Aono and I’m from Odawara city in Kanagawa prefecture, Japan. My hobbies are adventure activities. On land, underwater, in the sky…and in my whole life in general! I like a challenge! I enjoy surfing and scuba diving, which I also do in fear because I don’t know how to swim! (laughs)

So, brave too! You previously worked in Media Planning and Business Development. How did you get into these roles?

As someone who did an advertising major at college, I always wanted to work in the advertising industry. At that time, however, I had a difficult time getting a job because this was right after the Lehman Brothers bankruptcy. Some companies were shrinking their recruitment efforts or even cancelling the recruitment of new employees. A new graduate with an advertising degree like me was rare in Japan, because there were – and still are – limited numbers of colleges offering advertising courses. Also, I was able to speak English better than other new graduates because I studied English so hard in the States. But I still couldn’t get a single job offer. I lost my confidence.

Then, finally, I made it to the final interview stage at one of the most famous ad agencies in Japan. I ironed my suit the night before the interview, but then accidentally burnt it in the shape of an iron, having heated it too much! I had to wear the burn-stained suit for the interview because I had no alternative. And, of course, I failed. To this day, I’m not sure if it was because of my burned suit or not… I was so depressed with myself that I went to a beach and cried, while listening to Dreams Come True (a Japanese pop band).

But I didn’t give up. I attended a careers fair for bilingual students. I remembered my professor used to say that the “Internet is the future”, so I decided to knock on the door of a digital ad company. And I finally got a job offer right before I went back to the States to finish my final semester. I started my career as a Media Planner in the sales department. After six months, a big chance, which I never expected, came up.  My company and Apple, Inc. announced that they would work together to launch an advertising service for the iPhone. I was able to join this project because I could speak English, even though I was only a new graduate without much knowledge or experience. From that time, I worked with Apple for two and half years. As there are differences between business customs and market trends in the US and Japan, it was challenging to explain the situation so that both sides (our clients and Apple) could understand each other and build a good relationship. However, it was a rewarding experience for me. I got a lot of experience, especially in cooperating with people of different cultures.

You are now a JICA volunteer in charge of Marketing and PR of tourism in the Philippines. Tell us about your work there at JICA and what prompted you to take this path, after your previous positions?

Although life in Tokyo had its difficult moments, I was happy with what I did and who I worked with. I’d been too busy to think about what I wanted to achieve in my life, but after I achieved one of my dreams, which was to take my parents – who had never been abroad – on an overseas trip, I started to think about my next goal in my life. I wanted to work abroad, rather than stay in Tokyo. And my goal from back in college came back to my mind – to help people using the power of marketing and advertising. I was thinking about that when a JICA advertisement caught my eye while I was on the train during rush-hour. (It turned out to be a life-changing moment! How powerful advertising can be, don’t you think?)

When I got home, I Googled being a JICA volunteer. There it was, my dream job! The job description was exactly what I wanted! To work to create new job opportunities for poor people, by promoting tourism of a small town in the Philippines. I applied for the position without any hesitation.

Now I’m in that small town in the Philippines. I’m a volunteer member of staff at the tourism office of Mercedes, which is located in the southeast of Luzon Island, Philippines. The town is not yet known as a tourist destination, even though they have beautiful islands, waterfalls and other attractions. I’m working with local staff by taking advantage of everything I have – the education I received in college and the experience I got in Tokyo. At the same time, I work on different projects such as developing souvenirs, keeping the beach clean, and basically anything that helps people in Mercedes.

tomoka aono beach
By leaving a stable job at a well-known company and moving to the Philippines to work with JICA, was there any feeling that you might be gambling away or sacrificing part of the life you had now, or part of your future?

I’m a risk-taker, so I didn’t feel scared about my decision to leave my company and move to the Philippines. Some people complimented me by saying, “you’re a great person because you’re sacrificing your stable life and social status to work for poor people in the Philippines!” But I myself have never felt that way. I never felt I was sacrificing myself for someone else, because money and social status are not the only indicators of happiness or satisfaction.

I chose this route because I believe what I do here makes me as happy as I can be, even if I have no money or status. So, I thank my parents and my boss at my previous job who understood and supported my decision. Perhaps right now I’m sounding like some scholar or someone who achieved something great, but I’m not and I haven’t. I’m just doing what I love to do!

What’s it like as a young Japanese woman living and working in the Philippines?

On the world gender equality index, the Philippines ranks number one in Asia, and 5th in the world. Do you know where Japan ranks? 105th in the world. (sighs) Living in the Philippines, I actually see how powerful Filipino women are. I saw a lot of female managers, and actually my host mother here is working as a manager for the local government and feeding her family. In Japan, when a wife feeds and provides for her husband, it’s considered a bit strange, but here in the Philippines, there’s no problem. I sometimes see young men cleaning rooms and serving coffee to their female managers. In addition to the gender equality here, the respect for elder people also contributes to this.

Moreover, the perception of marriage is also different. While in Japan some people say single women over 30 years old are “expired”, in the Philippines it’s OK for a woman to be single throughout her life. … Hmmm, should I move to the Philippines if I’m still single when I turn 30? (laughs) A woman is treated equally to a man in Filipino society. But most importantly, what I learned from Filipino society is that women need to take the same responsibility as men to achieve gender equality.

What are your personal goals and dreams for the future? How and when did you first realise these goals and dreams and what are you doing to achieve them?

“To help people with the power of marketing and advertising” was the objective that I had when I was in college and it’s now being fulfilled by working as a volunteer here in the Philippines. So now I’m looking for my next goal. What I have in mind is to be a social entrepreneur and engage in fair-trade business. Since I was young, I’ve loved looking for – or even hand-crafting – little things like accessories. I want to collect things like that from all over the world and start a fair-trade business. One of my current projects in the Philippines is to develop a new souvenir to help the livelihoods of the people, so I’m hoping this experience will be useful in my future. Having said that, I’m a person who decides which way to go based on my feelings and instinct, rather than a long-term plan. So even I’m not sure what I will be thinking after two years of assignment as a volunteer! (laughs)

You also studied your Bachelor of Journalism, with minors in Advertising, Graphic Design, Spanish and Politics in Nebraska, United States. Could you tell us a bit about that? Did you face any difficulties as a Japanese person studying in the US?

After I graduated from high school in Japan, I decided to study in the US. I made a big decision without even realizing it was a big decision! I wanted to study in the US purely because I wanted to be able to speak English fluently. So I flew to Nebraska. Then, suddenly, I was facing many more difficulties than I’d anticipated. Firstly, I couldn’t understand or speak English. Of course, all the lectures are in English, and I had no idea what the lectures were about and what I needed to do for homework. Sometimes I would spend all night trying to write a three-page essay. In addition, the culture and values of Americans are very different from ours, so it was hard for me to build a relationship with them at first.  However, I never ever regret my decision to study in the States. It was my decision to do that and my parents understood and respected my will. Even though there were so many difficulties with life in the States, I knew how lucky I was to have parents who give me the freedom to make my own choices.

How has living and studying abroad, both in the US and Philippines, shaped you and your outlooks on work and life?

While I lived in US, I learned that there are people with different cultures and values, and you need to understand and respect their values when you deal with them. In my opinion, for example, the definition of “freedom” in the US is a bit different from the one in Japan. We Japanese are taught that “freedom” and “selfishness” are two different things as we grow up. However, from the perspective of a young Japanese person, I felt that American definition of “freedom” sometimes includes what I would define as “selfishness”. What I am saying here is, of course, not that Japanese are more educated than Americans or that the American definition of freedom is better or worse than the Japanese one. What I want to say is that you should not accuse someone of something, just because they don’t fit with your own values. Instead, you should learn their values, see them from another perspective and respect them in their own right. In the US, I had a chance to make friends not only with American but also with international students from all over the world. This experience trained me to understand different values.

In the Philippines, I once again encountered a different culture and values. I also realized how narrow my perspective was, because I had previously felt like I had seen the whole world, even though what I actually saw was only America. Here in the Philippines, there are so many different cultures and values, which I couldn’t find in the US or Japan. How interesting our world is, isn’t it?

Such experiences in the US and the Philippines made me realise that I like interacting with people of different cultures. Also I became able to digest different values and deal with more issues without stress. (Of course, not everything though…) That led me to where I am now.

Have there been any especially difficult moments in your life when you’ve been working to fulfill your ambitions? What do you do to cope when it happens?

Rather than having difficulties with fulfilling my ambitions, I experienced a time when I lost my ambition. A little while after I started working in Tokyo, I wasn’t sure if I liked what I was doing or where I was headed. I didn’t know what to do, but I did my best anyway with what I could do and what I needed to do. Then, it so happened that a big chance came my way and I regained my ambition. If I had not done my best during those difficult times, I would have not got that chance. When I look back, I realise that every little thing in the past has contributed something to the person I am now, and past experiences sometimes become useful in the future in unexpected ways. I totally agree with the Steve Jobs’ “connecting the dots” anecdote, part of a famous speech he did at Stanford University.

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

Back in college, I studied at the College of Journalism and Mass Communications, with an emphasis on Advertising. However, it was really difficult for me to learn advertising with other American students because you ought to know their culture – of course, including language – when you construct an advertising campaign. Since I have a different cultural background, there was no chance for me to do as well as American students. Especially when my professor commented that she didn’t understand my copy in copy-writing class, which I spent a few days without sleep to write. I almost cried in the classroom. So I thought I should focus more on graphics than on copy-writing, so that I can do at least as well as other students. I enjoyed learning the design software and did a Graphic Design minor.

Since I was feeling inferior to other students, my objective at that time was to become able to compete with American students with my design skills. In our last semester before graduation, we had a thesis project. We formed a team with classmates and role-played a copywriter, an art director, and other titles just like an ad agency. We invited a client and developed an advertising campaign for them. The best campaign out of three teams in my class was to be implemented for real. As I was the only student with design software skills, I became an art director. We spent a whole semester developing the campaign and, at the end of the semester, our campaign was chosen to be implemented! I felt my four years of effort had paid off. And more importantly, I was happy that I could contribute to our project as much as my other teammates, using my design skills.

What inspires or motivates you to keep going?

Tough question … maybe in my case, “curiosity.” I tend to move forwards based on my strong curiosity, without thinking much about risks and future scope. I want to know more about this world that I don’t know. I want to speak more languages. I want to communicate with more people. I keep going in order to fulfill these kinds of curiosities.

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

When I was in Japan, I was always online! However, in the Philippines, the Internet connection is not very stable and sometimes we have blackouts, so my weekend activities have changed a lot. I wake up at 5am and join the beach aerobics, play with local kids, and make handmade accessories using shells that I got from the beach. These days, I’m drawing a comic about my life in the Philippines, which you can read on Facebook. As my online time has decreased, my creativity time has increased. In addition, I like surfing and scuba diving too, so the Philippines is like heaven for me!

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

In five years … hmm … to be honest, I can’t imagine. I didn’t expect that I would be working as a volunteer in the Philippines five years ago. I’d rather follow my curiosity than follow future plans. I just think that I might get trapped in my own plans and miss opportunities by being afraid of going off the path. So I usually don’t have future images of my own life. I have been like that my whole life and have no regrets so far, so I want to keep living like that. It’s perhaps a little abstract, but I believe that’s the best way, at least for me anyway. (Although I really respect those who can focus on one goal and make an effort for it, because that’s something I can’t do.)

Do you feel that young women in Japan are forced to make a choice between personal life or family life and a career? And is there a gender equality imbalance in Japan? If so, how can young women like yourself address this inequality?

As I was lucky enough to have good parents, coworkers and bosses throughout my family life and career life, I was never forced to make a choice. However, that may be because I never think about getting married or having a baby. I have some female friends who look for jobs which provide them a better, more stable environment for after they give a birth. So I know that there are limited numbers of companies that offer good working environments for working mothers. Japanese companies, or Japanese society as a whole, have to solve this problem.

However, what I want to say regarding gender equality is not that “men oppress women!” and “women should be treated better!!”, that kind of thing. My concern is that we aim to try to achieve gender equality simply by offering better conditions for women because, historically, women are vulnerable in Japanese society. But that might create the opposite kind of gender gap – women over men. I believe that is the reason why there are some men who complain that women are favoured too much. When a husband earns money while his wife stays home, the wife is called a housewife and there’s no problem. On the other hand, when a wife earns money while her husband stays home, the husband is denigrated and called a “fancy man”. (Even though there is a concept of “house husband” these days.)

In the Philippines, a lot of women work outside to support their family, including their husbands, and there is no problem with that. To achieve gender equality in Japan, the first thing for a woman to do is to prepare herself to have the same responsibilities as a man. If all women have such a mindset, men will respect women and we can achieve gender equality naturally. True gender equality cannot be achieved by just setting rules or laws. They have no meaning unless people’s mindsets change. True gender equality can be achieved only when women take it as a result of their effort.

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? (And if so, why do you like this particular quote / these words?)

“Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things you didn’t do than by the ones you did do. So throw off the bowlines. Sail away from the safe harbor. Catch the trade winds in your sails. Explore. Dream. Discover.”—Mark Twain

I came to know this quote when I joined the “Semester At Sea” program, which was a study abroad program offered for students in the States. I traveled on a ship throughout Asia for about two months; it was my first adventure. And it was the starting point for my adventurous life. I love this quote because this is how I want to live my life. Be brave. No regrets.

Do you have any further advice for other young women like yourself?

It may sound a bit like a contradiction of what I have said so far, but I don’t believe that pursuing a career or self-achievement is necessarily the key to every woman’s happiness. Just as every country has different cultures, every person has different values. There are a lot of women who think that getting married, having a baby, and being a housewife is their ultimate dream. However, if there is something you think you can’t achieve because you are a woman or because you have a baby, you should take action to change the situation. It’s you who can change things, no one else. Your future is in your hands.