***日本語は下をご覧ください*** “When I told people I wanted to open a deaf café, the initial response I got was, ‘You wanna make what café? Deaf café? What is that?’ I told them it’s a café where all the waiters and waitresses, plus the baristas, are deaf. Someone asked, ‘How are we supposed to order then?’ I said, ‘You’d have to use sign language. But don’t worry, there’s a cheat sheet on the table.’ I guess I wanted to give people with disabilities, especially deaf people in Indonesia, an opportunity to work, since they still face some discrimination. Many of us think they don’t have the skills to do anything, let alone work. I got inspired by a similar concept in Nicaragua while I was doing volunteer work there in 2013. But I didn’t have the resources to launch my own café, so first, I found a job in Singapore (through my sempai in the Japanese university I was attending at the time) and then got in touch with the deaf community in Indonesia while saving up capital and learning sign language. Through some twist of fate, I met one of the leaders of the deaf community, who kindly offered to let me use her house for the café. That’s how I opened Fingertalk in 2015. We named it Fingertalk because deaf people communicate using their fingers.”
“I was born with a disability called inherited clubfoot. It’s a chromosomal abnormality in which a person’s feet are bent from birth. Imagine your feet pointing towards each other, rather than facing front. But I have never let it become a hindrance in my life. Growing up, kids used to make fun of me, I couldn’t participate in sports, and now when I look back at things, I can think that I have really fought throughout my life.
Early on in life, I decided to make the best of what I have. Instead of playing sports, I went to the gym to keep myself fit. I was able to get into the best engineering college in my country because of the special quota they had for people like me. Believe me, I am living a very comfortable life now.
“I never thought I’d be fortunate enough to end up in Japan after graduation, especially since this place is one of the best places to accommodate people with special needs. Every station has an elevator, if not, an escalator. Roads are well maintained, places are clean as many a times I have to walk barefoot. I could finally go scuba diving this year. My friend, if life gives you lemons, don’t think about it. Just make some lemonade.”
Being pregnant three times in Japan, I felt a lot of societal pressure. It’s not unusual to have to quit your job and take time to prepare to become a mother, so that your central focus can be your child. In New Zealand, where I’m from, you can be pregnant, give birth, have your work, your life, and also become a mother. If you want to return to work after birth people won’t say, ‘poor kid’ about putting your child into childcare. Over here it’s a little harder emotionally too, during pregnancy. Fellow women gave me advice, such as,
You should be wearing flat shoes, or baggier clothes, or working less, or exercising less.” I felt a bit restricted at times during pregnancy. When I choose not to follow the advice I get, “Oh well, she’s a foreigner, she’s got her own way of doing things.”
I have experienced pregnancy and childbirth 3 times in Japan. With the first child, I tried to do everything the doctors and my extended family suggested and it ended up being really stressful. So for the second and third children, I did what I thought would be good for me and the baby. I ate what I wanted to (within reason) because I pregnancy should be enjoyed and celebrated, not treated as some kind of illness or that women need to be restricted. Here, you are told to wear a belly band (haramaki) to keep your baby warm (even in the middle of summer), flat shoes only, you shouldn’t dye your hair, you shouldn’t get gel nails. There are so many personal restrictions, I felt like I was wrapped in cotton wool.
When New Zealand’s Prime Minister, Jacinda Ardern started her term, then announced her pregnancy, I thought it was amazing. To be working or even leading the country while you’re pregnant I think is just great. The message I took from her was that women can do anything. Her actions showed the world that New Zealand as a people will support you to the point where you’ll still be able to be pregnant and lead the country. I really felt like she must have good emotional, physical, medical, and business related support from her partner, the members of her party, and New Zealand Parliament. Perhaps PM Ardern has babysitters, a nanny, au pair, helpers? I’m not sure but I know that that sort of help is available in New Zealand for mothers with children. In my case babysitters are very expensive and nannies or au pairs are really only limited to those who can afford them or have the power to sponsor visas.
After Prime Minister Ardern announced she was giving birth, I saw Japanese comments on Twitter, saying she was musekinin 無責任 (irresponsible) for getting pregnant in office. Other people said you can’t compare Japan and New Zealand because the population and economy are different. Others discussed differences in Japanese and New Zealand culture. This idea of having a woman leading the country for a start, and then who was pregnant in office, then giving birth and having 6 weeks of leave, is something to give them a little bit of pause for thought. It’s just nice to give people something to think about. The fact that they’re writing on twitter, and talking about it on TV, is good. Even negative discussion is better than nothing, because it’s bringing their thoughts and opinions out, which is good. It gives Japan and its people another way of looking at pregnancy and childbirth.
In my experience, there are a lot of expectations placed on mothers in Japan. Before my children started school I really got a strong feeling from those around me that I ‘should’ be at home, as a stay at home mother, like that was they way they do it and I should do that too. For people that are stay at home mothers now, I think if you like it and it works for you then that is great. I just didn’t appreciate the pressure to become or do something that I realised later was not really suited to me.
The first year after my daughter was born. I stayed at home on childcare leave and became a stay at home mum after working full-time. But for me it felt stressful and like my world had closed in a bit. Other mums would go out for lunch together and bring their babies, have hobbies, go shopping at the mall. It seemed from where I stood that child raising became central focus of their life. I tried my best to be a stay at home mum, but it didn’t really work for me. I realised I needed my own time and space to have my own world however small. My Kiwi mother has been a kindergarten teacher as far back as I can remember, so this idea of raising a child whilst working is something I’ve always thought was just normal. When I announced to my group of Japanese mother friends that I was trying to return to work and was looking for a space in the local childcare for my daughter, the other mums were sort of taken aback. They said “oh you’re going back to work? Why, you don’t like this life?”
During the time when I was a stay at home mum, personally I found that my world started to get really closed in. I felt like there was a lot of competition between mums with kids of the same age. Sometime quite small things like ‘your baby can do this and my baby can do that.’ I think unless you have outside hobbies or something happening outside of the home, people tend to focus on what’s inside the home and what’s closest to them, and comparisons are made. Even things such as where you live, which area of Tokyo, how far away from the station you live, if your house is rented or owned, what car you drive, what your husband does, what clothes you wear. It was a lot of comparing that I just wasn’t used to.
When my daughter turned one, and my childcare leave finished, I decided I would try to return to work. I applied but the childcare – hoikuen, but it was full. This was 9 years ago but in 2018 even with the birthrate being lower we hear of this issue daily.
Over the last year on twitter one particularly angered mother tweeted that she couldn’t return to work as her child hadn’t been given a place at childcare. She tweeted “保育園落ちた。死ね！”, which roughly translates to, “got rejected on childcare applications, go to hell!”
It became a social movement and gained enough momentum that hundreds of people protested outside the government buildings with plackarts baring the tweet that she wrote. After the government pledge to help more women re-enter the workforce and contribute to the economy and aging population, these mothers were very angry at the reality of the situation. I think there is still a bit lack of social infrastructure and actual infrastructure – i.e. child care centres and it will take years to catch up to the pledges that the government makes.
Even though childcare centres are being built, depending on the city and region, there are still children on waiting lists to enter. I’ve had friends who have moved to a different part of Tokyo or out of Tokyo in order to secure a play at childcare.
“My daughter has a physical and intellectual disability. She looked fine when I gave birth to her, but her development was really delayed. The doctors said her head’s really small, but we couldn’t really tell during the first 10 months so we had to wait. Later on we found out she had microcephaly, which is when the head and brain doesn’t grow properly (her head circumference is two standard deviations below normal) and this affects brain development. She has issues with her body, too. At first, I didn’t know what to do to support her. Thankfully, the local government was supportive and gave guidance. We have access to services like a rehabilitation center that has a kindergarten attached to it, and specialists see her regularly. We also get financial assistance. So they look after you really well. To be honest, I was surprised with the amount of support, both monetary and physical.
Staying positive despite challenges
“I think the way disability in Japan is looked at, and the support available for people with disabilities, has made great strides in the last 10 years. Developmental disability like ADHD and autism were never really talked about before, and it was hard to get a diagnosis here. You just had a kid at school who’s hyperactive and the teachers couldn’t figure out what was wrong with him. Now we even have some Japanese TV personalities coming forward to say they have ADHD or they’re in the autism spectrum. They’re helping to make disability more normalised which I think is really good.
In saying this though, some mindsets still need to change. Someone I knew said to me, ‘What did you do to cause her to be like this?’ Or, ‘It’s because you were working while pregnant with her.’ They think you must be bad, or have done something if your child is born with disability. In my daughter’s case it’s genetic. There’s always going to be people with opinions so you just have to be positive. On top of that, my child is half-Japanese, so that has its own set of hardships. Being mixed nationality with disability is kind of unique so I’d love to talk about it if anyone’s interested to hear.”