Rika Wakasugi Riarumi
riarumi had a great time meeting Rika Wakasugi, a Project Leader for one of Japan’s leading home furnishing retailers. Rika talks to us about her passion for theatre, the excitement surrounding her student days, her experiences on how working in a Japanese office has compared so far to working in a British one, her ongoing ambitions for the future and, of course, her thoughts on gender equality and the status of men and women in Japan.

Who is the riarumi?

I try to be open-minded and I like people. I like meeting different people to get different ideas and so networking is a very important part of my life. And meeting people from other countries is also very important to me. I like presentations, I like theatre, musicals and I love kabuki now! (laughs)

I think I can be the real me in TIP (Tokyo International Players), because I can express what I want to, as freely as I want to, without feeling the constraints of the expectations of Japanese society or of ‘cultural norms’.

Could you tell us a little bit about being a project leader at a Japanese chemical and pharmaceutical company? What is it that you do?

I’m Project Leader for a home furnishing retailer team, and we produce interior products, such as table covers, futons, and curtains, which have advanced features, because we produce high functional fibres. For example, we produce a futon which produces less dust, because a lot of people have allergies – one in four people have a dust allergy of some sort – so we want to produce those kinds of special products at a good price. Normally these kinds of more specialised products are available at a department store at a higher price but we want to provide a more accessible alternative. Normally, raw material chemical companies do not do business directly with retailers, but because we have our own direct channels. So, we invent the fibre, make it into a useful, specialised product and then sell it through to stores.

You studied a Bachelor of Arts in Theatre, Film and Television at The University of Bristol? How was your university experience, particularly as a Japanese student studying in the UK. What were the difficulties? And the positives? And how did you find that course?

At first, I went to Manchester University first and it was their first time having a Japanese student at the drama department at their university, so they didn’t quite know how to deal with me. And I didn’t really know what to do either. Sometimes, the professor would say to me, as a kindness, “don’t worry, you don’t need a line. I can give you a non-speaking role.” But I remember thinking, “I actually want to have a speaking role!” So, I felt a bit invisible and everything was so difficult, but I also met lots of kind, friendly students, so that was really fun. One of my friends said “Bristol is really great, I wish I could go to Britsol!” I felt like hearing this was fate, as I’d previously also had an offer from Bristol. I thought, “why don’t I go there instead?” The other thing was, Manchester University was focussing on American theatre and I didn’t know that before going there, because there was no internet at the time. And in Bristol, they were focussing on Shakespeare. And so I thought, why am I in England learning about American theatre? I knew I had to change something. I had this feeling that I just wanted to start again from scratch.

I decided I want to reapply to Bristol again and start from the beginning. So I took a coach at 3am from Manchester and got off at Bristol at 9am. I then went to Bristol University, told them I had an offer from there and asked for an interview. Kindly, the secretary of the department showed me to the professor who was about to leave for the day, and for the rest of the Christmas holiday! She kindly said “within 2 hours or so, I’ll do the interview” and I was so grateful. In order to help make it happen, the professor at the Manchester University also supported me by saying “Rika’s done this and that and all she needs is your support”, so I was really lucky. The next day, I received an offer from then and I restarted my studies there.

I was really lucky I could start over again. And because I had one experience at Manchester already, it was easier this time – even though it was still hard – because this was the second time. I also had a German tutor who was very interested in Japanese theatre, so I had a chance to speak up and the attention they gave me made me feel encouraged for the first time. And gradually, I got more courage to express myself and share my views and that was an amazing sense of achievement.

I don’t blame the people in Manchester, of course, because I couldn’t express myself. I couldn’t get involved with discussions and I felt so intimidated because I couldn’t do anything. Then I tried to study hard, but you can’t get English skills in a day, so I just felt like, “oh no, what shall I do?” Maybe I don’t have the sense of humour, perhaps that’s why I’m struggling to become part of this. So, OK, let’s watch Monty Python!” Then I tried to watch Monty Python (laughs) and it didn’t work.

My most positive time was my final year, because people have more friends and get more experiences by then. We had a tutor who would say, “OK, what do you want to do next?” and I said “why don’t we do surreal theatre?” And I had a chance to write about surreal theatre, comparing Japanese and Western theatre, so I could incorporate the Japanese point of view. So again, that was something really unexpected and I thank the tutors and my friends for igniting my interest in my Japanese culture and helping me discover the beauty in it. That really was an absolutely amazing experience, which cannot be replaced by anything else: that time in England was the most valuable time of my life so far.

Bristol University
Tell us about Tokyo International Players.

I had nothing to do with theatre for a long time after graduation and then, about six years ago, I visited the landlady in Bristol who was there during my final year. She said to me “so, have you been performing?” and I said “no” and she said “why not? You love theatre!” I thought, that’s true. So, after coming back to Japan, I thought “I must perform, I must perform! But where?” And I really wanted to perform in English, so I started getting in touch with American clubs and foreign organisations and they told me about TIP.

I was just looking for English-speaking theatre, because I wanted to do it and that’s what I’d studied at university.

What advice do you have for any readers who are thinking they might like to be involved in the arts, for example acting, but it would be too difficult or unlikely for them?

If you have a passion for it, it’s the right time to do it, so why not? You should try it. When I was auditioning for TIP, I was pathetic! I had to sing a song which I didn’t know and everyone else knew it and so I just attempted it in a pathetic way. So I was given a non-speaking role.

After that, I had another unspoken role in A Mid-Summer’s Night Dream. I was a mushroom throughout the play! And as you know, a mushroom doesn’t appear in any of Shakespeare’s plays. The director just happened to love mushrooms. But I thought, for me, it’s important, because I had a role! So I actually bought a mushroom, and tried to grow it in the kitchen and watered it and observed it every day and tried to share the feeling of this mushroom. And I got the part! And then luckily, even more opportunities came. And now I have more human roles. (laughs) Before I was being given bad – borderline ridiculous – roles, but now, I’m given leading roles, so if you feel you have a passion for something, you should just get your foot in the door and do your best with it. You never know what will then result from it.

I love that you were given the role of a mushroom and you really tried to get into it. You actually grew one and watched it grow and tried to feel what it was like from the mushroom’s perspective. It’s quite admirable that you poured yourself into it like that.

I think if you can’t do something in the beginning, there is a meaning in that: it should prompt you to think that you should try more. And then you learn and develop your skills. If you want to do something, but you feel you’re not sure or not ready yet, just do it.

You’re bilingual in Japanese and English. How does being bilingual serve you personally in your career, and how important is speaking English?

It’s very important to express myself. Although there are vocabulary constraints in English – I can only select from the words I know – I actually feel much more free when I communicate in English. I’m not sure why that is. In Japanese, I feel lots of constraints. I think English is a much more expressive language, particularly with expressing specific nuances of feelings.

In Japanese companies, I feel there are lots of cultural constraints and unspoken rules, and you have to behave in a certain way, have a certain posture, try not to overwhelm people who are senior. Lots of thought processes are going on and when I’m speaking Japanese, I feel that.

If people feel like they don’t want to speak English, that’s totally OK of course. It’s a personal choice. But what I would say is “see the world”. It’s totally different. And the more you see, the more you appreciate it. For example, with me, I didn’t like many aspects of Japanese culture, like Japanese theatre. I didn’t derive any confidence from Japanese culture. But now I love it. I love Japanese traditions. And it’s because I went to the UK. There was lots of discovery and self-discovery and I found out what a traditional person I am by going to the UK. Ironically, I found the beauty of Japan by going outside. And the more you see through different world perspectives, the more beauty you see in the world.

It’s not only about your own culture, or your own country. Because you speak in English, you can learn about other countries’ way of thinking, way of behaving, different ways of seeing things. You miss these things so much, if you seclude yourself from them. I really thank my parents for giving me that opportunity to study abroad.

nightingale from Once Upon a Mattress
What are some of the main difficulties and obstacles have faced so far in your life?

The first difficulty was going to the UK alone. Totally different environment. I knew no one in Manchester, so suddenly I was alone. I was protected by my parents in Japan, but now I felt so lonely, so that was my first hardship. The second hardship was definitely working at a Japanese company. If I didn’t learn in the UK how the world is or when I worked at the British Council in Iidabashi, I would have felt that was natural. But having come to a Japanese company from a British working environment, I still feel a sense of a hardship, even as a native Japanese person myself. I didn’t know how to say things anymore, people didn’t understand the way I explained things and the way I behaved was considered unacceptable. So my first boss at the chemical and pharmaceutical company spent a long time telling me off! For two and a half hours, I was in a conference room being told, “you shouldn’t do this, you shouldn’t do that” and so on, because the way I was somehow seemed unacceptable within that company’s culture.

At that time, I was 34 years old. Almost every document was in English at the British Council but now suddenly everything was in Japanese and I had to create documents in Japanese. Although that’s my native language, the expectations were so different. I’m a native Japanese speaker but I hadn’t worked in a proper Japanese company. One day, a new colleague said to me, “you know no one in this big company, you have no networks, you can’t create documents in your own language and you’re not that young. So, what are you?” And that was so humiliating. I felt so bad.

But over the following ten years, I tried to redefine and readjust my people skills for Japan, and things became much easier. It’s hard, but if you put the time in and learn things, it’s worth it.

When things become really easy, I think that’s the time to move on. Having difficulties develops you and helps you learn and improve. So, throughout my life – and perhaps this is a sad aspect of my personality – I’m looking for hardship. Because when things feel too comfortable, you’re not moving forward. I think that when you look back at the end of your life, it’s more fulfilling if you can appreciate all the achievements you made, rather than going through life feeling “I don’t want to do this, but I’ll do it anyway”. Your life is limited and time is so valuable, so you shouldn’t waste it.

What have been some of the highlights so far for you?

My time at The University of Bristol was definitely my highlight. It was amazing. It was like a culture shock to me. You can express different opinions and contribute different ideas and in the end, you either share ideas or confront ideas, but you’re still friends. It was like a totally new life to me. At the beginning, everyone didn’t understand what I was saying or my ideas, but I started sharing ideas regardless, and felt an amazing and increasing sense of achievement.

Bristol University rika riarumi
When you talk about looking for a new challenge, is there any part of you that thinks about going back to England, because you seem very passionate about it still? Or is that a closed chapter of your life, and now you want a new challenge?

I love to learn, and in my work, I would love to be a bridge between the UK and Japan or other countries and Japan. Because I’ve experienced the Japanese way of business and the British way of business at the British Council, I really want to combine both of those experiences. If my current experience is not enough, I’d love to study again in the UK, or work for an international company.

I don’t know why people have to impose certain stereotypes on other people. I don’t know if they do the same to men, but for women in Japanese companies, they impose their expectations based on age and career and what you do. For example, if you need admin work doing, like creating documents or assisting with setting up meetings or whatever, you can’t ask a man, but it’s a very easy to ask a woman. And even young women harbour their own stereotypes. Like at my company, very few of our many engineers are female and there are just two of us in our company meetings, and the other ten are all guys. And for example, we might say “no” to an idea, because we are selling products for housewives and female customers through a major home furnishing retailer. We are two examples of our target market, so our voices should be valued. But the others might try to disregard our opinion, and say something like, “no, it’s because housewives are lazy”, while we protest, “no, no, they’re busy!” I’m so amazed that even young Japanese men have those kinds of fixed stereotypes. It’s very hard to overcome.

It’s something that’s taught from childhood. These men were taught as little boys that this is the way it should be, and now it’s become engrained in them. And that needs to be undone. But I think things are moving forwards gradually. Like now, I see more men bringing their children to kindergarten in the morning and I’m pleased to see it. I didn’t used to see it at all 20 years ago. So, I think gradually the mindset is changing.

How is home life? What do you do to relax?

Playing with my cats and sometimes arguing with my husband. (laughs) But he’s a very understanding person. I feel very sorry for him because I ask him to listen to how I’ve been feeling and because we work for the same company, he sees the people who I’m talking about, so I feel very sorry for him.

I also go to TIP, or get involved with other production activities and my husband and I go to wine-tasting classes. From next week, we’re going to start a tsuzumi class too. We like art, so we go to museums. I do theatre work, and he goes to museums alone quite a lot. We go to jazz nights together.

Once Upon a Mattress rika wakasugi
Do you feel there is a gender equality imbalance in Japan?

I don’t think it’s equal. Based on the law, it’s equal. But there’s an unspoken expectation of you, as a woman, to behave in a subservient way, especially in Japanese companies. So I don’t feel that’s equal. If you’re a man, you might find different opportunities or go through harsh situations, but you generally get treated really well. Whereas, it’s OK to assign a subservient role to a woman who is older or more senior than you, and I don’t think that’s right.

In my own job, I’m project leader for a home furnishings retailer and the CEO kindly appointed me, but my suboridinates have all got a higher position than me officially, so it’s hard to order them – especially Japanese men who are older than me. So in the end, you have to ask in a very passive way, carefully suggest things, and so on. But if you think about it, it’s not really right. I’m the project leader, I’m supposed to be able to handle the budget and direct people. On the surface, it appears like an honour to be a project leader. But in reality, is it really an honour? It’s more like a showcase. I do it, and I appreciate the opportunity I’ve been given, because I can talk to people in the media who I otherwise wouldn’t be able to meet. But inside, I feel a little sad about that.

So I think you just have to keep on proving yourself. Not just through words, but you have to be able to show results through your work, for example, how many sales you achieved and how you did it. You have to be strong and act in an affirmative way. Sometimes you may need tactics, but if you question things and you have good support from other colleagues, things can be changed.

How do you think both women in Japan can address this?

I think it’s important to speak out. Because unless you speak out, people don’t question their actions or behaviour, because that’s just the way it is already. It’s hard to confront sometimes, and the way you confront is also important. You have to confront in a ‘female way’, but you have to speak out. So to do that, you need to gain a good, trusting relationship with the boss or colleagues and sometimes that’s not very easy. But this is how change happens. Unless you say it, they don’t notice. So, speak out, no matter how difficult it may sometimes seem.

And how can men address it?

I think it’s sometimes so unfair to blame men. Because sometimes women are assisting the male way of thinking, by allowing themselves to be put in that position. Or even encouraging it. So that’s why women have to speak out. But if men are open-minded – and I think they’re becoming that way – they should try to cooperate. And sometimes that requires courage and may mean they you need to lose a bit of pride, but they should be open-minded towards what women deserve: equality.

rika wakasugi work
What advice would you like to share with young women who are at the very start of their careers, or are yet to begin?

Of course, if you’ve got certain specifics targets already, you should follow your spirit and go for it. But sometimes you feel like you don’t have specific goals yet, like “I want to be a CEO” or “I want to have this kind of a job” – you just haven’t got the ideas yet. In that case, I don’t think you should be worried. Later, if you want to start something, just do it. There are different stages in life where people can change careers. And I think there is meaning there. And even if your future path goes against your initial idea, there is still meaning in those initial experiences and things that you learnt. Get as much experience out of what you do as possible and it will somehow be useful for your future, in ways you can’t predict.

That’s what I learnt at The British Council. There, I had a lot of opportunities to give presentations to governmental people. Then, in my early days at the chemical company, I was working in HR and having a difficult time. Much later, I was then Director of the showroom, and I had the chance to host lots of VIPs from different countries. And I didn’t feel like I lacked confidence, because I’d done something similar in the past. So you never know what will be useful. Unless you feel like you’re really unhappy and you don’t want to do it, you can make the best out of your current situation. You never know how it will turn out to be useful in your future.

Are there any famous quotes or philosophies on life that you particularly like?

“Something is better than nothing.”

When I want to do something, I tend to think “it needs to be perfect”, so I do lots of preparation. But now, in this life full of time constraints, I can do only ‘this’ or ‘that’. But then I think, well, that’s better than nothing. And then I feel so relaxed. When you want to achieve things and try to be perfect, it puts too much pressure on yourself. So just make the most of everything that comes to you, whatever you can do. And whatever you do is better than nothing. Sometimes, in order to do something, or to be someone, you put too much pressure on yourself and that doesn’t necessarily make a big impact. Accept yourself, and just do the best you can do.

Do you have any other comments or inspiring words you’d like to add?

I think over these years in business when I was younger; I wanted to be good and I wanted to be evaluated highly. It was always “I”. And now, after all these years, I’ve realised that, even though what you can do alone may be an important and may be an achievement, it’s a small achievement in the bigger scheme of things. In the bigger scheme of life. And if you can collaborate with more people, the outcome is something much greater. So I think, don’t try to be perfect by yourself. You are gifted in certain areas, and you will encounter people who are gifted in other areas, and when you collaborate, the result is something much greater. “There’s strength in numbers.” You don’t have to be perfect by yourself.

Once Upon a Mattress rika wakasugi