Saphira’s Interview with Kiyomi

Kiyomi was born and grew up on the Japanese island of Okinawa.  Shortly after graduating college, she met her husband, an American naval officer stationed in Tokyo.  Speaking no English, she moved to the United States to live with her husband.  Kiyomi has now lived in the United States for almost thirty years.  Although she didn’t give a specific answer on her age, mathematically, she’s in her early fifties, as she explained that before moving to the United States she attended four years of college in Japan after turning 18.  Kiyomi now lives in Seattle, Washington with her husband and daughter.  She works as a travel agent at Expedia.

Audio Clip #1:

Kiyomi explains that while she lived with both of her parents, she grew up spending most of her time with her mother.  Together they would do the grocery shopping and prepare family meals together.  Kiyomi hints at Japan’s strong patriarchy, describing the country as a “men’s world” later in the interview.  This is interesting to me because in a patriarchal society, where women stereotypically play more of the domestic roles, women have a great amount of influence on their children, but that influence is also made through the roles women are placed in.  Their power in being the people to raise the next generation is contradicted by the lack of power their children see them possessing.

Audio Clip #2:

When Kiyomi was in fourth grade, her mother gave her the chore of setting up the kitchen in preparation for dinner every night.  She explains that her mother worked full-time as an accountant at a pre-school and that her father worked in a sugarcane factory.  When her mother came home from work it was expected that, as a woman, she cook dinner for the family.  Kiyomi, as a young woman, was expected to learn this process, so every day after school she would help her mother in the kitchen.

This sexist expectation is not only present in 1960s Japan, but continues to be present today in the United States.  In “Women at Work,” chapter 9 of Bell Hooks’ Feminism is For Everybody, Hooks touches on this norm: “We know that work does not liberate women from male domination,” continuing later in the chapter to say, “Mostly [women] have found that they work long hours at home and long hours at the job” (Hooks, 2000).  Thirty years later and on a completely different continent, Kiyomi is now embodying those same norms in her own household, working a full-time job and then coming home to a second full-time job: caring for her husband and daughter.

Though it is easy to think that as Americans, we are at the forefront of feminist movement and change, this parallel to 1950s and 1960s patriarchal Japan really sets things in perspective.  We are no better than the old, sexist norms we claim to be different from.

Audio Clip #3:

Before moving to the United States, Kiyomi attended four years of college in Tokyo, studying home economics.  She explains how big of a deal it was for her to leave home and move, alone, to such a big city, comparing her move to someone in the United States moving from “the middle of nowhere” to California.

Audio Clip #4:

With money being tight in her family, Kiyomi describes how difficult it was on her family to pay for her college tuition.  Education was clearly very important to her parents.  Today, many privileged students attend college to “find themselves,” and it is more expected that people attend college.

As far as I know, when Kiyomi attended school, a college education was more about getting a job.  As a woman living through that time in the 20th century, it is both impressive and surprising that she was able to go to school, and also to major in home economics.  When college tuition put so much stress on Kiyomi’s parents, I think it shows how important future generations are to Japanese culture.

Audio Clip #5:

When looking for someone to interview for this project, a family member suggested Kiyomi, describing her immigration to America as a romantic story.  This family member summarized the story as follows:

Soon after graduating college, Kiyomi and a friend were walking through Tokyo when it began to pour rain.  They quickly made their way into a small cafe where they sat down at a table.  A few minutes later, two United States naval officers walked in, and with all of the other seats full, asked if they could sit with Kiyomi and her friend.  The American men didn’t speak Japanese, and neither Kiyomi nor her friend spoke English, so they sat there together and giggled flirtatiously.

A few weeks later, Kiyomi was out with the same friend when again, it began to rain, and they made their way inside of a restaurant where the same two men were sitting at a table, out of the rain.  They sat down with the two men and, despite the language barrier, a few months later, Kiyomi made her way to America with her new husband, a United States naval officer who had been stationed in Tokyo.

When preparing for the interview, I naturally assumed her story would revolve around this romance, but when asked about how she met her husband, Kiyomi deflected, saying she didn’t remember.

In writing this now, I see my own assumptions placed upon me by the society I have grown up in.  In Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s book and TED Talk, We Should All Be Feminists, Adichie poses the question: “Why do we teach girls to aspire to marriage?” (Adichie, 2012).  From Kiyomi’s lack of answer on the question of how she met her husband, and from asking my family member about this lack of answer, I have learned that she is unhappy in her marriage.  I don’t think it’s right to display the details of this unhappiness, but I do think it is important to state that they are all based around the sexist and patriarchal blanket that wraps around the majority of marriages.  Upon meeting her future husband, Kiyomi moved her whole life to another country where she knew not a single soul.  I’ll continue this theme in a later section (Audio Clip #10).

Audio Clip #6:

Similar to when Kiyomi moved to Tokyo, but on a much greater scale, her move to the United States was a big deal.  Her parents, specifically her father, were hesitant to let her leave.  Only when her mother reminded Kiyomi’s father of the opportunity America offered did he consent to her marriage and move across the world.

Because Kiyomi works at a travel agency, she is given special travel packages annually, and uses each and every one of them to visit her family in Japan at least once a year, fulfilling a promise she made to her mother before moving to visit once a year.  Kiyomi proudly states that she has never missed a year, therefore, keeping her promise.

Audio Clip #7:

Not speaking English was not only a communication barrier with her husband, but soon became an even bigger barrier upon her move to the United States.  Kiyomi said, multiple times, that “communication is everything,” and this made her transition to life in Seattle a difficult one.

Kiyomi recounts having to carry a dictionary with her everywhere, pulling it out and pointing to words when she couldn’t think of the right ones, remembering, “it was very embarrassing.”  She stresses how important it is to speak English in America, saying that if you don’t speak the common language then you are left isolated from social situations.  She also explains how crucial speaking English is when it comes to getting a job.

Without formal lessons in English, Kiyomi learned the language by making an effort to ask questions when she was confused.  To me, one of her most powerful quotes from the interview was “I told myself: ‘Hey, Kiyomi, if you ask questions, you probably feel you are going to be stupid, but just for the moment you can be stupid, but not for the rest of your life.'”  Kiyomi exhibited strength and courage in order to learn a completely foreign language because she knew she just had to.  She made it clear that living in the United States without speaking English leaves a person handicapped.

Audio Clip #8:

Despite the United States being made up of immigrants and descendants of immigrants, English is expected of anyone who wants to fully function in American society.  If a person doesn’t speak the language, or doesn’t speak it well enough, they can obviously still live in the country, but they are unable to experience all of the freedoms America so proudly boasts.

In Amy Tan’s article “Mother Tongue,” she describes the isolation her mother experienced as a Chinese immigrant in the United States, speaking what is sometimes called “broken English” (Tan, 1990).  Tan explains how her mother lived in the United States, but without much independence.  She had to have her daughter make phone calls for her, was given little respect from her stockbroker, and wasn’t taken seriously – all due to her “broken English.”

When speaking to Kiyomi over the phone, I understood her easily, missing a word here and there, but only because it was over the phone and sometimes the connection faltered.  To me, if I understood her just as well as I would someone who spoke English as their first language, I assumed English was easy for her.  However, when transcribing my interview with Kiyomi, I saw a whole new side of her English capabilities.  I quickly noticed the numerous pauses and filler terms like “um” and “you know,” that filled the majority of the long audio recording.  As I typed out our dialogue I noticed how easily my words flowed and how stressed and hesitant her sentences were.  Here is a quote from the transcript as an example.

“Um, yeah. I didn’t like that. But the – all – um, but, you have to – you have to, you know, um, learn.”

Audio Clip #9:

Kiyomi described how difficult it was to get a job with her developing English skills and how grateful she was to the first company that hired her, despite her struggling English and lack of experience in the job.  Kiyomi was lucky to be given this chance, and after hearing her story I think this job was a definite turning point for her.  Having a job introduced her to more people, gave her independence, helped her to learn even better English, and gave her job experience that led her into her current position at Expedia.

The sad reality is that most immigrants who come to the land of opportunity are not given opportunities, and with weak English skills, Kiyomi was extremely lucky to have been given this job.  As an entrepreneurship major, this absolutely impacted me.

I plan to run my own company in the future, and while hiring specific people is important to a business, it’s also important to the culture you live in and future generations.  If you hire a young, female immigrant, if she becomes a mother, then her future children, and their children, and their children’s children are infinitely better off because 1) this woman now has a steady income and job, but 2) I can be sure that she is employed by a company that cares about her as a person and places her in a safe and fair work environment that she likely won’t be able to find elsewhere.

Audio Clip #10:

When I asked Kiyomi if she is a United States citizen, she quickly told me that, “no,” she isn’t.  Kiyomi holds a Green Card because she intends on moving back to Japan when her daughter is fully grown.

This surprised me, as I never would have expected someone to move to the United States and want to leave – but I think that just says something about my own views, not the reality.  Living apart from your family in a marriage you wish to leave, it makes sense that a person would want to move back home.  Kiyomi, though she described herself as “not very smart” and “shy,” has proven that she does what she believes is right for her.  She was the first person in her family to get a four year college, the first person to emigrate from Japan, and she also hopes to be the first person divorced.

With it being so difficult to move to and live in the United States as an immigrant, I don’t why it was so surprising to me that someone would not want to stay, but if a person is not being treated in the right way, then I fully understand why they would want to escape such a situation.

Going back to the section on Audio Clip #5, I and so many other women have been raised to believe that marriage is what we should aspire to and what our lives should revolve around.  This is toxic because if the marriage is an unhealthy one, which is the reality for many marriages, then we force ourselves to justify the wrongs in the marriage, or worse, blame ourselves for being unworthy partners.

Kiyomi, who was raised in a country and household that, similar to the United States, taught women to aspire to marriage, plans to break that mold.  It will be almost a decade before her daughter is fully grown, so her plan to break from her marriage and move home to Japan is not yet set in stone, but her adamance in doing so makes me believe she will fulfill her plan.

Audio Clip #11:

From the same chapter of Feminism is For Everybody mentioned earlier, Hooks states:

“Positively we do know that if a woman has access to economic self-sufficiency she is more likely to leave a relationship where male domination is the norm when she chooses liberation.  She leaves because she can.  Lots of women engage feminist thinking, choose liberation, but are economically tied to patriarchal males in ways that make leaving difficult if now downright impossible” (Hooks, 2000).

This economic tie to patriarchy is very apparent in Kiyomi’s life.  With her husband as the primary breadwinner, she and her daughter are forced to, as she says it, “without any other choice, [sic] live here.”

While Kiyomi didn’t mention the potential custody battles that would ensue even if she did have the economic capability to leave the country with her daughter, it’s still included in the matter.  The daunting cost of custody battles often discourages having them in the first place, and Kiyomi’s immigration status would also likely influence the outcome.  This is much of what ties her to her husband and the United States until, as she has explained, her daughter becomes an adult.

Audio Clip #12:

When explaining the differences between the United States and Japan, and what she likes best about the United States, Kiyomi explained how she is able to be candid about her opinions when in the United States.  She can say “no,” if she wants to, while in Japan, she has to be more polite and guarded.

Unlike other points she made, this one did not surprise me as Americans are often stigmatized as too candid and impolite.

Audio Clip #13:

As the final question in the interview, I asked Kiyomi what the differences are when it comes to equality between women and men in the United States and in Japan.  She answered explaining that Japan is a “men’s world,” describing the oppression women face in jobs when they become pregnant, as women are the ones expected to care for the children, therefore making employers view them as less reliable at work.

Kiyomi speaks of the women’s movement in the United States and how she views things as improving quickly, with more women in leadership positions.

To me, it’s easy to critique the United States when it comes to equality between men and women, but when compared to Kiyomi’s home, I wonder what is more important: moving one country closer and closer to absolute equality or moving more countries closer to certain points in equality.


               Hooks, Bell. “Women at Work.” Feminism is For Everybody. New York: Routledge, 2000. 48-54. Print.

Adichie, Chimamanda Ngozi. We Should All Be Feminists. New York: Anchor , 2012. Print.

Tan, Amy. Mother Tongue. N.p.: The Threepenny Review, 1990. Print.