Jo Ebisujima describes herself as “a hybrid of MacGyver and Martha Stewart.”
In the popular American TV show “MacGyver,” which aired from 1985 to 1992, the hero gets himself out of sticky situations by constructing ingenious devices with everyday materials. Stewart, on the other hand, has built a worldwide reputation as the doyenne of household management.
“I like things that are pretty and organized, but I’m not into achieving impossible perfection. I have a practical side, too,” Ebisujima says. “And I’m definitely good at thinking outside the box.”
Drawing on her own experience and talents and taking advantage of the growing popularity of the Internet and social media, she has created a unique niche business. She helps clients throughout Japan and around the world to spruce up their houses, organize their schedules and make more room for family fun — and all without leaving her home in Saitama Prefecture.
Ebisujima admits she is not a naturally tidy person by any means. Growing up near Stoke-on-Trent in the English Midlands, the only things she ever organized were her books. “That was probably because my mother was once a librarian. The rest of my bedroom was always a tip!” she says with a rueful laugh. As a youngster, she was more interested in horses than in the domestic arts, winning the national British junior championship in Western riding three years in a row in her early teens.
Horses had taken a backseat to education by the time she went off to technical college at the age of 17 in 1988, picking up a government scholarship for women in the engineering field along the way.
After a year abroad as a private English tutor in Italy, she began a new course in electronic imaging and media communications at Bradford University. “I loved both the creative side of art and the technical side of engineering, so it was the perfect mix for me.”
Her time at Bradford turned out to be a turning point in more ways than one, providing opportunities to tap into talents she never realized she possessed.
As a favor for a friend, she made “a pink, fake fur dress” for a campus disco, which led to a part-time job designing costumes for all the dancers on the university’s entertainment committee at monthly events. “They offered to pay me in vodka, so of course, I said ‘Yes!’ I didn’t have any tangible design or sewing skills — I just winged it. I’d go to the local Indian market for fabrics and rustle up the outfits.”
Although she had set her sights on a career in children’s television after graduation, openings were scarce and the British economy was in a slump. Having already been bitten by the travel bug once, she set off again to teach English in Israel before ending up in Japan — in Kitakami, Iwate Prefecture — in 1998.
“My husband-to-be was one of the students in my last class on Saturday evening, and we’d often go out and socialize afterward. After meeting me, he was shocked to find ‘a girl who liked punk music,’ ” she grins. She persuaded him to quit his highly stressful job in the engineering field and the pair traveled all over South America, teaching English along the way to support themselves.
“I thought that traveling together would either make or break the relationship,” she says candidly. Fortunately, it proved to be the former and the couple were married in Cambodia in 2003 before settling down in Saitama.
Turning to what she knew, Ebisujima resumed English teaching and wrote and self-published a guide for foreigners coming to work in Japan. The subsequent birth of her son was the catalyst for a move in a totally new direction.
“Now that I had a child of my own, I became interested in the Montessori method of teaching and took a certification course so I could implement the ideas with my son.” Developed by Italian educator Maria Montessori early last century and now practiced around the world, the Montessori method encourages a child’s natural sense of creativity and curiosity.
“I started a blog, originally just as a way to keep in touch with family and friends, and I shared the Montessori-inspired crafts and activities I was doing with my son at home. But to my surprise, it started attracting people from all over the world. I was getting hundreds of hits a month.”
During this period, she was also developing an online business selling Japanese fabrics and her own original sewing and craft patterns. “There’s been a renaissance in sewing and crafting over the last few years, fueled by the Internet, since people can easily connect and share ideas.”
Although content with the life she had carved out, the March 2011 catastrophe was a wake-up call. “It brought home to me how vulnerable we all are. What if my husband ever lost his job and we had to move? I was only making pocket money from my online shop and I didn’t wish to go back to teaching. It got me thinking that I wanted to develop a business that was portable — something I could take anywhere.”
Ebisujima turned to her blog for clues for her next step. “More and more, I was fielding enquiries from people that went beyond how to do an activity or craft with their kids. They were asking for tips about organizing their homes or managing their time.”
“My Organized Chaos,” her e-course for parents of preschool and elementary school children, was launched in 2012 after a pilot program with a group of guinea pigs.
“I took my interest in teaching, crafts, design and organization and threw it all into the mix, and it blossomed. It’s Montessori-inspired but has the Jo Ebisujima stamp on it,” she says.
Participants sign up for the eight-week course, which runs twice a year. Ebisujima shows them how to set up their schedules and homes to make the environment more child-friendly, fostering the child’s independence and freeing up time for family leisure. An associated Facebook group allows participants to share and interact in real time during the course.
Overseas, some people turn to private organizing experts to help them manage their lives. However, these services are not readily available in Japan and simply are not an option for most families. “For most people, being organized doesn’t come naturally — it is a learned skill but not one that is taught at school. You need to bite the bullet and just do the work, and by keeping on top of it, it becomes manageable. I’ll be your cheerleader to help you keep on track.”
As for anyone who dismisses this as just something “for moms,” Ebisujima says: “That is certainly not the case. When the home is more organized and routines are smoother, and mom is more relaxed, then everyone is happier. There’s a knock-on effect.”
It can be frustrating for foreign women in Japan to deal with the reality of role division within a relationship. With men working longer hours than is usually the case in the West, household management is generally still seen as a woman’s role here. Children, too, are often home late from after-school activities or are kept busy with homework and are exempted from helping around the house, letting their mothers take care of their needs.
For women raised in countries where it is the norm for the whole family to pitch in, this can lead to disillusionment and resentment. In such a situation, Ebisujima believes it is particularly important for the whole family to realize that caring for the home should involve everyone. “The family should be a team, and when the team cooperates, life is pleasanter for all of you.” Her e-course includes tips and practical approaches for family discussions to get everyone on board, and let even the smallest of children have a voice in family decisions.
A new course, “Clear the Clutter,” was launched in April. “It came about by accident, really,” Ebisujima laughs. “Earlier in the year, I ran a free, intensive one-week program called “The Kitchen Boot Camp” to help people clean and organize their kitchens. It was originally intended as a way for people to see how I worked, as a lead-in to the next ‘My Organized Chaos’ e-course.” However, the course proved to be more popular than she could have imagined.
“I had people enthusing about how much they had enjoyed it, and asking if I could set up something similar for the whole house! It took some time to work out how to implement it, but the thing that people commented on most was the community aspect — sharing and supporting, so I built the course around that.”
Focusing on one room in the house each month, participants receive “missions” every two days from Ebisujima. A Facebook group serves to connect the participants, who post their before-and-after pictures, ask for advice with their problem areas, and share their successes. “We’re all busy and things pile up. A messy home can be a major source of guilt, sapping time and energy. But if you make a small effort on a regular basis, it can have an incredible effect on how you feel about your home — and yourself.”
“Participants can join any time and jump in where they are. I can sympathize and relate to my clients because I hate cleaning just as much as the next person. Whether you’re a stay-at-home mom or have a job outside the house, whether you have toddlers or teenagers, this course will work.”
Ebisujima is currently developing a new mentoring program aimed at parents whose children are growing older and who are looking for new direction in their lives. “Perhaps the youngest child has started school, or has gone off to junior high. It’s a time of transition for many women. Maybe they realize that the high-flying career they envisioned before having their family has gone by the board, and they think, ‘What’s next?’ “
Eventually she hopes to offer her services to the wider community. “Many foreigners in Japan turn to English teaching and think that’s all there is. It can be great and I had fun with it, but it wasn’t what I wanted to do long-term. There’s a whole world of options out there!” While thinking outside the box and taking that next step may be a little daunting, Ebisujima is proof that the rewards can be tremendous.