“Serendipity” is the word Yumiko Oho uses more than once to explain events in her life as she breezily chats from her adopted home of Tuscany. But, given the way the 41-year-old entrepreneur went against the grain in her native Japan and seized opportunities in Italy, it doesn’t do justice to her story.
From her student days, when she traveled extensively in Europe using money earned through part-time jobs, to her trail-blazing career in banking, to her current role as the creator and manager of two successful websites, Oho has pushed herself beyond what Japanese society expected of her.
Since her teens in the late 1990s, Oho was aware that Japan didn’t offer the same employment opportunities for women as it did men. She loved mathematics and dreamed of becoming a doctor, but she also knew that it would be hard to work as one as “people thought that only men could be doctors.”
After graduating from Chikushi Jogakuen University in literature, she sat employment tests for the English-language school Nova, and what is now Nishi-Nippon City Bank, passing both but opting for a position at the latter.
“It was very tough to find employment and graduates couldn’t choose the job they wanted,” she says, pointing out that the options were even more restricted for women.
Most parents used any connections they had to secure work for their daughters; it was easier to ask for introductions because women were expected to work only until they got married, which was normally by age 25.
In the male-dominated world of banking, women were almost always tellers or office workers for the duration of their short employment. Oho, however, says she “didn’t have the desire to work only until marriage.” She wanted first to secure a role through her own merit and then develop a career.
After passing the required exams to become a sōgōshoku (regular worker with promotion prospects), she became the first female regular worker at her bank’s branch in Fukuoka. She was later joined by other women, swelling the number to 12 female regular staff, who worked alongside some 2,000 male counterparts.
“I liked the work and I worked desperately hard so as not to lose out to the men,” Oho says. But the grueling schedule and lack of work-life balance took its toll. “All the male regular workers and I worked from 7:30 a.m. to after midnight on weekdays and even worked on weekends and holidays. I thought, half joking and half seriously, that if I continued on that path, I might die.”
Even on nights when the staff would finish work early, at about 9 p.m., Oho was dismayed that they chose to spend time together, perhaps at a batting cage or bar.
“I looked at my seniors and realized that, because they were always working, they had no hobbies or friends,” she says. “I knew that if I continued in the job, my life would also become solely about work, so I decided to leave before my responsibilities became too heavy to allow me to do so.”
After 18 months in the role and accumulating disposable income — due to not having the time to spend her salary — Oho packed her bags for Italy to enjoy a “carefree year” of studying Italian and traveling.
It was a country she enjoyed visiting as a student when she was hungry to experience places “really different from Japan” and “where Japanese people didn’t really go.” While she couldn’t speak Italian at that time, she fondly recalls being helped by about 20 local people in a remote part of the country after the late arrival of her plane resulted in her missing all possible transport links.
She planned to return to Japan after a year to pursue another career path, but decided that she was enjoying Italy too much to leave. Then realizing she “couldn’t be a student forever,” she took a job with the ceramic manufacturing brand Richard Ginori.
It was the process of transitioning from student to worker — dealing with visas, employment, housing and general life in an unfamiliar culture — that sparked the idea for her first business. Oho saw that, while she could find out all the information she needed in Italian, there were other Japanese students who didn’t have the same language skills.
In 2002, she set up Abbicci, or “ABC,” (italia-ryugaku.com), a Japanese-language website providing information about living in Italy for students from Japan. She posted articles and responded to questions from readers in her spare time, but within two years, she was receiving so many enquiries that she barely had time to respond. It became an opportunity to find advertisers to make the site profitable and turn it into her full-time job.
Now the site covers everything from study courses, homestay options and funding to employment and pensions — even marriage and childbirth.
Ten years after her first venture, a friend commented that there was no online information in Italian about traveling in Japan. Seeing another gap in the market, Oho set up viaggiappone.com (from the Italian “viaggiare,” “to travel,” and Giappone, meaning Japan) with her Italian husband, Danilo.
Together the two aim to provide ideas on travel itineraries and information on topics such as Japanese history and temples while promoting cultural understanding to help Italians avoid faux pas, such as blowing your nose in public.
“It’s hard to explain your own culture to others, so I am often looking things up and learning about or remembering Japanese customs,” Oho says. “Danilo and I also often think about things together, to look at things from both countries’ perspectives.”
Fundamental to the website, explains Oho, is getting across to viewers that what’s natural or commonplace in Italy may not be so in Japan, and vice versa.
“In Japan, trains are on time and the service is comfortable, but there are so many rules that cannot be bent,” she says as an example. “But in Italy trains are late, offices may not be open when they should be and things take a lot of time.”
While she sees the good and bad in each country, ultimately it is the freedom she enjoys in Italy that made her decide to make it her home.
“In Japan, people comment on your way of life. For example: Why you didn’t marry or why you didn’t have children?,” she says. “In Italy, as long as you don’t upset anyone, you can go your own path and people don’t ask about your life. Everyone is free and I like that.”
As Oho now travels to Japan on a regular basis to research content for her website and take Italians to tourist destinations, however, she says she has learned to enjoy the best of what both countries have to offer.
Name: Yumiko Oho
名: 大穂 由美子
Profession: Website entrepreneur
Key moments in career:
1999 — Chikushi Jogakuen University Department of Literature graduation
2000 — Studied in Italy
2001 — Began working in Italy
2002 — Established Abbicci, a student website in Japanese
2012 — Established Viaggiappone, a travel website in Italian
2002年 日本語で 日本人学生用ウェブ サイト「Abbicci」（アビッチ）を開設
2012年 イタリア語で日本旅行ウェブサイト「Viaggiappone」（ヴィジアッポネ） を開設
Life philosophy: “The future is unpredictable.”
Things I miss about Japan: “Japanese food”
IN FIVE EASY PIECES WITH TAKE 5