General

Reflections on a most unexpected career abroad

by Angela Jeffs

So often you hear of people who come to Japan for a few months and wake one day to find that many years have flown by. How comforting then to find that it also works in reverse.

Midori Matsui was in her mid-30s when she decided to visit the U.K. Twenty-nine years later she’s still there, but only just. Having officially retired last year, she’s wondering what to do: stay where she is known and respected, or return to a country so changed she fears it may be hard to readjust.

“Taking a rest from teaching English at junior-high, I was thinking to move on from England to America when my best friend rang,” Midori explains on a recent visit back to Japan to look around and try to decide what to do. “A university lecturer married to a man from Shell who’d been transferred to Ellesmere Port, near Liverpool, she pleaded with me: ‘Come and stay. We’ll feed you, look after you. . . .’ “

That supposedly short visit turned into a year. Staying in Northwich (“a lovely, lovely town”), she fell in love with the people of Cheshire. Also her friend had a baby and needed support and help. “I must have been the oldest au pair in history!”

Midori was on the verge of leaving when she got a call out of the blue from someone she used to know, also raised in Kamakura, and working for a company manufacturing plastics. “Takiron was the first Japanese company to move into Wales and open a factory. There are some 60 such ventures now, but in 1971 it was a pioneering move.”

In those days only a few top executives spoke English. Knowing Midori’s background, the company was keen that she teach the relocatees and help them set up in business. “My friend there said, ‘If you can file and type and have common-sense, you have a job.’ ” So off she went to South Wales — Bedwas, near Caerphilly, to be exact — and got to work.

It was her grandmother who had advised her to learn English. “She used to say to me, ‘Of course learn all that bridal stuff — cooking, sewing and flower arranging — but if you learn English you can be independent.’ She was an eye-opening lady in many respects.”

After six months, Midori was ready to move on, but Takiron was keen she stay another year. OK, 12 months, she agreed, but that was it. But it was hard to leave. “So many people came to rely on me — workers, engineers and their families. Supposedly a secretary, I was more like a social worker — taking people to the doctor, helping with shopping, getting children into school.”

The yearend arrived, and passed. After her third year, the company’s managing director gave her a pep talk. “He said, if I left at that point I would have achieved only so much. ‘Stay and see your work bear fruit,’ he advised.” After five years, she thought she really had to do something else. Which is when Takiron (very cleverly) gave her a position of more responsibility, and a pay rise with all the fringe benefits. “By the end of the 1970s I was not only 100 percent involved but really enjoying working for the company.”

In 1980 she bought herself a house. “I rang up this estate agent I knew and asked him to find me something suitable. ‘Good God,’ he said, ‘are you getting married?’ He found me a nice three-bedroom semidetached in Cardiff.”

People often assumed she must have been very brave to live abroad so long. But the simple truth is, she saw a chance and took it. “I think I must have been born independent, but I never realized it until recently. Now I can look back and see my progress quite clearly, but at the time I was just following my nose, living day by day.”

If she had to sum up British people at large — and like many Japanese she had no idea when she went to the U.K. that it was home to four quite different countries, cultures and even languages — she would describe them as “forgiving,” by which she means forgiving of differences and mistakes. “Japanese don’t have this. Yes, they are kind, but such kindness is rooted in politeness.”

What she initially found hard in Britain was the lack of commitment to work and the company. “Delivery times? A joke. And people would tell you a check was in the post when clearly it wasn’t. It’s different now, of course. But Japan’s always put business first; people would rather commit suicide than lose face.”

No sooner had she retired on December 31, 2000, than she was plunged into preparations for Japan 2001, a year of cultural exchange planned to run throughout the U.K. until spring 2002. Midori is a committee member, helping bridge the gap between Japan and Wales.

There was a cultural fest in 1991, but this time the emphasis is much more on education. “One of our activities is a grassroots project which involves visiting schools and introducing children and teachers to Japanese culture so that they will better understand Japan and Japanese people in the future.”

She was instrumental in organizing a “matsuri” in Cardiff in mid-June, featuring a kimono show staged with help from businessmen’s wives and other introductions to Japanese culture, such as haiku, calligraphy, tea ceremony, ikebana, crafts, food and drink. “The Japanese Saturday school has an orchestra, so they gave a concert.”

Her retirement was a bit of a shock, coinciding as it did with Takiron — a company she loves and is eternally grateful to for providing such a unique opportunity — pulling out of Wales. “The company still has some buyers for its PVC flat and corrugated sheeting, but needs to diversify. I’m hoping local people can keep their jobs, because basically everyone has been so very faithful. But right now I’m not optimistic.”

Though the beginning of the year was difficult, she has mentally moved on; the past is the past. Yet she looks to the future with an enthusiasm already tinged with nostalgia. “Even if I come back to settle, I’ll still return to Wales as often as possible to keep in touch. I’d miss the scenery, the green, the animals in the fields, the clear open skies — no wires! And the warmth of Welsh people.”

During that first year in Cheshire, she traveled a lot for pleasure on the Continent. But between 1973 and 2000 (business trips aside) she was only ever in the U.K. and Japan. Just before her retirement, her devotion to both was recognized with major awards. In September last year she was awarded the Japanese Foreign Minister’s commendation; the following November, an MBE by her Majesty, Queen Elizabeth II.

“It was quite a year, rounding off things very nicely,” she says. “You could say the award ceremonies completed my career — offering concrete proof I hadn’t wasted my time.”

And once Japan 2001 is finished, what then?

“I’m open to offers.”