Teaching visitors traditional ways

The staff of WAK Japan provides hands-on cultural experiences to foreign tourists in Kyoto

by Jane Singer

Upon meeting Michi Ogawa, who is deftly aligning the collar of a kimono that she has tucked around her guest, a few adjectives might come to mind, like “graceful” and “soft-spoken,” but “feminist” or “outspoken” probably wouldn’t be among them. But speak with her about her concerns and some of your preconceptions about “typical” middle-aged Japanese women may be shaken.

Ogawa, 60, is executive director of WAK Japan, a company with a mostly all-female staff offering hands-on cultural experiences to foreign visitors to Kyoto. WAK, which originally stood for Women’s Association of Kyoto, was started by a group of female Japanese-language instructors to create jobs for local Japanese women.

WAK’s customers choose from a menu of traditional arts and culture lessons, ranging from tea practice and ikebana to cooking and martial arts. They can either opt for a visit to a teacher’s home, accompanied by a bilingual attendant, or choose a lower-priced lesson at WAK’s center in downtown Kyoto. WAK also caters to special requests, such as a visit to ordinarily off-limits temple grounds or a lesson on social graces from a Gion geisha.

Ogawa never planned on a business career. She had a highly conventional upbringing as the pampered only daughter of a successful restaurateur in Ehime Prefecture. Educated at a local mission girls’ school, she attended a Christian women’s college in Kyoto. “I actually was more interested in social sciences, but at the time most girls majored in English literature, so that’s what I studied at university.”

She met a Japanese graduate student at a French seminar and they decided to wed (“In those days you attended university and looked for someone to marry.”)

The day after they married in 1972, her husband, a scholar, left for Paris for a research visit. Ogawa joined him in March 1973, remaining in France for two years. With poor French skills and a straitened budget, Ogawa had a lonely stay, alleviated only by the kindness shown by her landlady, who shared her secrets for baking pastries.

Ogawa remembered visiting England at one point and looking out from her hotel veranda at the private homes below, where locals were enjoying afternoon tea on their terraces. “I thought, ‘How I wish I could enter their lives, if only for a few hours,’ ” she said.

After her return to Japan, Ogawa lived in Kyoto as a housewife and mother, raising two sons and two daughters (both daughters are physicians, perhaps inspired by their mother’s example). In 1989, when her youngest child entered school, Ogawa decided to go to work, after promising her husband that she’d have all the meals ready on time.

“I had long wanted to work, but people told me that I was too old or had no skills,” she said. After getting a license to teach Japanese, she began working two days a week at a Japanese-language school in Osaka. “After doing all the housework, I ended up having to grab taxis in order to make it to work on time, but I found that working was great fun. For the first time my efforts were being recognized monetarily.”

But one thing bothered her. “I had always thought that teaching Japanese was a highly professional job. But I was shocked when I saw other Japanese teachers who were trying to live on their pitiful wages.”

One day another teacher at her school fell while climbing the school’s steep steps. “She was rushed to a hospital by taxi and received treatment, then sent home. However, lacking even the most basic health care insurance coverage from her employer, she was not only forced to pay for medical expenses out of pocket, the school even charged her for taxi fare!”

Ogawa spoke out against this treatment. The following spring she was the only teacher whose contract was not renewed by the school.

In the mid-1990s, an influx of Chinese and other Asian students spurred a proliferation of Japanese-language schools. Ogawa and several other teachers began sponsoring regular teacher training sessions to help improve the overall level of instruction. “That’s when I started to realize that my real skills lay in organizing and networking,” she said.

“Some of us Japanese teachers decided to start a company to introduce Japanese culture, and although I had no business experience I agreed to be its head. I read several books and put up ¥3 million for initial capital when we began as a limited company in May 1997.

“The first week we waited for customers to show up. None did. Then we realized we’d better advertise, so we made up a flier and visited some travel agencies. We finally got a customer for a tea lesson, but she couldn’t find the teacher’s home by herself and the teacher couldn’t explain directions in English, so they never did get together.”

Ogawa realized that WAK needed staff who could accompany clients to their teachers’ homes and interpret for them. She recruited bilingual Japanese housewives, more than half of whom have lived overseas, to serve as attendants, and today the company lists more than 50 registered attendants, among them English, French and Spanish speakers.

The company now averages 100 to 200 customers a month during peak periods in the fall and spring. No request is unilaterally refused, Ogawa said, although some prove problematic, such as the famous U.S. film actor who appeared hung over and 90 minutes late for his judo lesson, necessitating deep bows of apology from Ogawa before his esteemed judo master.

WAK trains their attendants thoroughly in Japanese culture and traditions. The day of the writer’s visit, lectures were being held at the “machiya” wooden house in downtown Kyoto that WAK began occupying in December 2009.

As 12 middle-aged women took careful notes, a licensed guide explained about machiya construction and design features, noting that traditionally no nails were used for the beams to allow for more oscillation in case of earthquakes and to make it easier to reuse construction materials in other buildings.

“WAK attendants are trained well: Customers not only don kimono, they learn about kimono,” said Ogawa. “I think that if customers have to pay a decent price for their experiences but they receive good service and information, they’ll value their experience more.”

Ogawa returned to detailing the poor pay and conditions and lack of job security plaguing the Japanese teaching and translation sectors. One problem, she said, is the surfeit of volunteer teachers and translators.

“A local community center charges foreign residents only ¥50 a lesson for Japanese language classes. That’s ridiculous! This happens because Japanese are willing to volunteer their skills and civil servants are rewarded for hiring them and thus saving taxpayers’ money instead of creating jobs for residents.”

“Foreign travel agencies can now hire volunteer guides as interpreters, so properly trained, licensed guides can’t get work. We need to recognize that people, especially young people, need well-paying jobs. Japanese talk about international communication and volunteering, but Japan’s future also lies in fostering true professionals who can explain about the culture and the language to the world.”