The soft sound of bodies moving in thick cotton fabric and naked feet stroking the dojo floor is interrupted by loud shouts, causing a man passing by on his bike to turn his head. Through the large windows, he watches the children and adults as they punch phantom antagonists before of them.
A woman with a blonde ponytail and a black belt walks around the room helping the karate students perfect their movements. She is Ulrika Yui, born in Sweden 50 years ago. Yui is with her youngest daughter, who is wearing a yellow belt and has just practised a round of powerful strikes on her father, the group’s teacher.
Yui and her husband, Satoshi, have run the dojo in Tokyo for 18 years. They met in 1989, when she came to the city to practice Kyokushin Karate under its founder, Mas Oyama, in whose dojo Satoshi was a teacher. Her plan was to stay a few months and then continue traveling to India and Nepal, but she wound up never leaving Japan.
“When I came here I felt that I finally had come home,” she says.
Yui started working as a secretary at the International Karate Organization in Tokyo and practised karate several times a day. When she and Satoshi married a couple of years later, it was partly so that she could get a visa. Now they have three daughters, aged 19, 16 and 10.
Until a few years ago Yui taught karate every day, but she then decided to take a step out of the dojo.
“My husband leads the dojo, and although he welcomes my input and my instruction is different to his, I have had to accommodate to his ways. Now I want to work differently with people’s self-development,” Yui says. “Earlier I would have said that karate isn’t something I do, it’s a way of life. But now my focus has shifted and I use the resources I have from karate in other arenas.”
Yui grew up in a town close to the mountains in Sweden. Her mother was a member of parliament and her father owned a sawmill. At home she learned to voice her opinion, but her positive mind-set seems innate. It comes out as laughter, as a generous amount of exclamation marks in her e-mails, and as an inspiring attitude of looking ahead and not letting anything — or anyone — put her down.
This strength is what she wants to make more use of now.
In all her hard-working adult life, she has also done things beyond the dojo. She takes on translation assignments, her last work being a video of a heart transplant needing Japanese subtitles. She has also acted as a consultant to help bridge Japanese and Swedish interests.
In 2014, she published a book in Japanese on parenthood and child-rearing, drawing from her experience of martial arts, Japan and Sweden.
“I try to take the pressure off Japanese mothers to be perfect. I am not a perfect parent. I have my good days and my bad days, and my kids aren’t perfect, ” Yui says. “Or, rather, I believe that all people are perfect because we are unique living beings.”
For several years, Yui has been contracted to lead workshops for companies on organizational and leadership development, and now she has extended this into her own business, doing things in her own way. She has also broadened her attention to individual self-development and working with athletic teams.
“I want to reach out to people who want change but believe that they are stuck in a certain place and can’t affect their own lives,” says Yui, whose fundamental view of the self is the exact opposite. “I am 100 percent responsible for my own life. Nobody else can create it for me. I can’t change anybody else, but I can change myself and that will lead to a change in my surroundings.”
She has given herself the professional title of “life creator” and calls her seminars “life creation workshops.” One of the tools she uses in her work with people is a personality test. There are many different kinds on the market, but this particular one uses colors for the four main character types it outlines.
Yui shows her own test results, summed up in what looks like a splash of yellow, green, red and blue paint, the colors flowing out onto the paper in relation to how much of each color she has.
Yui, is very yellow, the inspirational archetype. The red is also a dominant trait of hers, the commanding archetype. She has a little bit of green, the empowering archetype, but hardly any blue, the conscientious archetype.
So, according to this theory, on a good day Yui has a lot of ideas, while at the same time being result-focused and creating a good atmosphere in a team. When stressed, though, her leadership can become too controlling; she can be disorganized and her ideas don’t move from words to action.
The thinking behind these kind of tests is that a better understanding of yourself, as well as of the people in your family or at work, can help you strengthen your weaknesses, accept peoples’ differences, communicate so the recipient understands your true message and take advantage of the diversity within a group.
Yui takes this practice a step further with the ideas and tools she has developed herself, coaching people to take charge of their own life and happiness.
“There is a big need for this, especially among Japanese women,” she says. “Many of them believe that they have to conform. They feel inhibited or don’t believe in themselves.”
Seeking a solution
As a foreign-born person in Japan, Yui is often asked what difficulties she has faced. She refuses to enter that problem-seeking frame of mind.
“I have probably gone through things that other people would see as difficulties, but I don’t experience them as such. I always have the choice to decide what happens in my life and in the end all experiences are good for my self-development,” she says. “If you see yourself as different, others will treat you as different. If you see yourself as a victim, you will become a victim.”
When her eldest daughter started school she came home upset that another child had called her a foreigner.
“So? Is there anything wrong with being foreign?” her mother replied. “You don’t know what the other child wanted to say with that, and it doesn’t matter. What matters is how you feel about it, and that is your own responsibility. Answer proudly: Yes, I am both Japanese and Swedish.”
The issue never arose again.
Years later, Yui’s youngest daughter came home from school filled with excitement, asking if she was hāfu (meaning “half-Japanese”). Yui discussed her Swedish heritage with her daughter, after which her daughter exclaimed, “Yatta!” — “Awesome!”
Another common question Yui declines to get into a discussion on concerns the difficulties of being in an international marriage.
“You can have a person form Okinawa and one from Tokyo, or one that grew up rich and the other one as a poor farmer, and you will also find cultural differences within the marriage,” she says.
Having started her adult professional life in a new country has affected its course, and Yui naturally looks to the positive sides of it. One is that she, as a non-Japanese, is invited to participate in discussions on TV shows to share her perspectives on different issues, an opportunity she doesn’t think she would have had in Sweden.
She enjoys working in television and wants to start her own show. It would focus on positive news and include personal advice on life matters.
What would be the name of her show?
“Something that includes the word ‘happy,'” she says. “That said, I usually use the Japanese word — shiawase.”