Julie Fukuda, 75, is a giver — not financially, but physically — who has tirelessly volunteered for various organizations in her community for nearly 50 years in Japan.
She also shares her talents. Although she also holds a teacher’s certification in ikebana, Fukuda now devotes her creativity to quilting, traveling around Japan to give lectures and advice to the many quilter’s clubs throughout the country.
Fukuda can pinpoint where this life of service began — over 60 years ago as she was walking home from her last meeting as a 14-year-old Girl Scout.
“It was along a winding hill lined with elms, making a golden arch like a cathedral of branches above. Farmland and nature stretched out since I lived near Euclid Creek Park in Ohio. But at that time, I noticed nothing — I was just too angry,” she said.
Scouts are organized outdoor adventure programs intended to build character and community for children and young adults. It depends, to a large degree, on adult volunteers. After weeks of searching for a new leader — begging teachers, neighbors and the local community — her Girl Scout troop was forced to disband.
“I was so disgusted,” she recalls, “so angry that no one would step forward. I kept saying to myself, ‘I will never say no to a kid who wants scouting.’ “
Fukuda never has, to Scouts or children of all ages and interests. Her move to Japan, however, had nothing to do with community service and everything to do with one individual.
In her early 20s, Fukuda, who also is a trained librarian and art teacher, fell in love with her twin brother’s best friend, Ryusuke Paul Fukuda, a Japanese national on leave from Hitachi to study at Ohio Wesleyan University. The two met and instantly felt a connection. After writing back and forth for three years, they decided to get married, and “save the postage,” she recalls.
“I traveled to Japan in 1962 to meet his parents. When I visited, I was determined that if they did not like me, that would be the end. Luckily, I got the world’s greatest mother out of the deal.”
A year later, Fukuda quit her teaching job in Cleveland and drove across the country with her new husband, camping along the way. They boarded a freighter in Long Beach, California, bound for Yokohama.
The young couple struggled financially but Fukuda dismisses the hardship: “I grew up during the war, and if you wanted something, you didn’t go out and buy it, you made it. I had been sewing for my dolls since I was 4 years old, and when I first came to Japan we lived in a two-story walk-up, a tiny apartment with no insulation. So I asked for some scrap fabric from an alterations shop downstairs, just bits of fabric, and I sewed them together for a warm futon for our bed. I did not think of that as quilting, but just as something we had to have to keep warm.”
Although handy with a needle from an early age, Fukuda did not make her first “real” quilt until 1988. As Fukuda explains, “My great-grandmother made beautiful quilts, my grandmother had a quilt on every bed, and my mother made quilts. When my grandmother’s house was broken up after she passed away, I was in Japan. All my brothers and sisters received one of the great-grandmother’s quilts, but I could not make the trip, so I thought, if I want a quilt, I guess I will have to make my own.”
Her first attempt was a cathedral window quilt, sewn together from her children’s old clothes and other bits of fabric. She’s been quilting ever since and keeps a blog detailing her work, “My Quilt Diary.” A member of Tokyo International Quilters, she frequently lectures on quilting or volunteers to help groups interested in learning the craft.
Back to the late 1960s and the freezing Tokyo apartment: Fukuda frequently taught English to make ends meet.
“I still teach English sometimes, but I never really looked at myself as an English teacher,” she says. “The hardest thing for me was giving grades, as an art teacher or an English teacher. I just don’t agree with it. Sometimes the kids who tried the hardest deserved better grades than the ones with natural ability. Overcoming your shyness, speaking in front of people even if you make a mistake, to me, I value that quite highly.”
Despite their dire financial straits, the Fukudas decided to start a family early in their marriage. “We figured if we waited until we had money, we would be too old to have kids.”
By 1968, they had welcomed their third daughter, and Fukuda’s husband won a scholarship and grant to study investment banking at Columbia University in New York City. The original plan had Fukuda staying with the girls in Japan, but when her husband received a job offer from Banker’s Trust a year later, the entire family joined him in the U.S. for his training program.
Another daughter was born in New Jersey, and the growing family returned to Japan. Two sons followed in the early 1970s, but “the life we returned to was far from what we had left,” Fukuda remembers. “In that short time, foreigners in Japan had become less an exhibit ‘A’ to be pointed at, and there was a good-sized foreign community in Mejiro, where we resettled. Financially, we were no longer living hand to mouth, and since my husband now worked for a large American company, suddenly some doors that had always been shut swung open.”
It was a good contrast to the doors slammed shut back in the U.S. Living in rural New Jersey was “in some regards” more of a culture shock than living in Japan. “I had always thought the East Coast of America would be more advanced than Ohio, where I grew up. So it was a shock to me to find people were prejudiced to mixed marriages and mixed kids. I was not prepared to have people judging me or judging my family,” she recalls.
Fukuda laughs now, but perhaps in skirting the outside and then the inside of various communities, she became more determined to help children in need. Fukuda had already started volunteer work with the Scouts in high school and college, but back in Japan, she embraced needy children in more desperate situations.
The couple opened their home to foster children through International Social Services, keeping a series of four different infants for several months each until they were placed with adoptive parents.
“People would say, ‘How can you do this, you have six kids of your own, just take care of your own kids,’ but I would answer, ‘I am doing this for my own kids.’ The best thing you can give a child is just yourself. My kids loved those babies. Their siblings were ‘mom’s babies’ but the foster children were their babies. They insisted we take them everywhere, they fed them with a bottle. They loved those kids. I think that love must have helped those babies, too.”
Fukuda also became active in her new neighborhood, reading English books at local schools, volunteering in the library, repairing damaged books or “shoring up new ones so they would last more than two checkouts.” And when her own daughters started Brownies, the Girl Scout entry-level program for those in early elementary school, Fukuda of course raised her hand to be a leader.
Although her own children have long grown out of their Scouting uniforms, Fukuda continues to act as a leader. Every Friday, she gives her energy and time to boisterous boys in her local Scout group in Tokyo. Recently, to celebrate Scouts Week, she led a group of more than 60 Scouts, their siblings and their parents through a bird watching expedition in Ueno Park.
Although Scout groups associated with the American military in Japan receive support, local groups like Fukuda’s must plan and organize all events independently. But despite the hard work, Fukuda has no plans to retire.
“I love Scouting,” she says, “because what you promise is to do your best. You don’t promise to be the best, you promise to give it your best shot.”
Another way Fukuda gives her best is through the Tokyo Union Church and the Franciscan Chapel Center. Fukuda is part of a group that delivers rice balls to the homeless in Shibuya.
“My youngest daughter was volunteering at the Chapel Center in 1994, and she signed up to help with their new program. As often happens in our family, a one-person volunteer project sucks in the whole family, and suddenly I was going out in the early mornings.” For over 17 years, Fukuda rises once a week at 3:30 a.m. to begin the delivery service. Tokyo Union Church also hosts a dinner once a month on Saturday for the homeless, and Fukuda joins her husband, who is in charge of the mission, in volunteering her time.
Keeping the many threads of Fukuda’s volunteer work untangled is a challenge, but the Tokyo American Club recognized her contributions with its Distinguished Achievement Award in 2010, hosting a special dinner in her honor.
For Fukuda, who also substitutes in the early learning center at the American School in Japan, her children’s alma mater, life is the young generation. As she explains, “Children are our future. What are we here for? If you don’t make a difference while you are here, it’s not gonna happen any time.”
For more information on Julie Fukuda’s quilts, see myquiltdiary.blogspot.com