People | WHY DID YOU LEAVE JAPAN?

From ‘big in Japan’ to far better in America

by Kaori Shoji

Contributing Writer

Megumi Ijiri Haskin describes herself as a “powerhouse.” Indeed, indefatigable energy has defined every facet of her adventurous life journey. From her childhood in Yokohama onward, Ijiri Haskin longed to leave Japan to travel and live abroad.

“I used to tell myself that I didn’t really belong there and that my true parents lived somewhere abroad,” she says during an interview at the offices of GoGetterz, her Tokyo-based startup, an e-learning site.

Ijiri Haskin has a frenetic schedule: Every month she works in Tokyo for about two weeks, but the rest of the time she works from her home in Medina in Washington, near Seattle.

“I wasn’t like anyone in my family. I stuck out among my friends. I was just … different,” she says. Ijiri Haskin had a reason for imagining her biological parents were from somewhere else. At 6 years old, she towered over her classmates at 130 centimeters tall and 30 kilograms. Even the adults around her kept commenting, “Ōkiine!” (“You’re big!”).”

At junior high school age, she walked into a public restroom and sent the place into a flurry of mild panic — with her short hair and tall frame, the women mistook her for a boy.

“I was always the one sticking out from the crowd,” she says. “And when a kid sticks out in Japan, it can feel pretty awful.”

Now, tall girls in Japan are admired and lauded as “kokusaijin” (global or international person). But back in the 1970s, when Ijiri Haskin was growing up, she says, “the standards of beauty were different.”

Not only that, she continues, “There was little regard for personal dignity or privacy for children.” In elementary school, girls and boys were subject to physical examinations that entailed getting your height and weight read out to everyone else, or listed on notices posted on school corridor walls.

“I can’t say I liked the Japanese school system,” she says. “Times have changed, and they aren’t allowed to publicize personal information anymore, so that’s good. But it’s kind of late in the day for me.”

Ijiri Haskin’s life changed in junior high, when she was advised by her mother to attend Furendo Gakuen (Friends School). Friends is famous for being founded by Quakers, and Ijiri Haskin says its liberal education and emphasis on equality “was a totally different environment from a regular Japanese school.”

Friends is also a girls-only school, which she found comforting because the Japanese boys she had met found tall girls like herself intimidating, and a sense of their own inferiority often made them mean.

“At Friends, my life consisted of basketball and English. I was tall (like a Westerner), so both these things made sense to me,” she says. “When I wasn’t running around on the basketball court, I was pushing myself to learn as many English words as possible, to prepare for a life outside Japan.”

Even though Friends banned working while at school, once in high school, Ijiri Haskin found part-time work at a local bakery and starting saving money. To her family’s surprise, she racked up ¥300,000 in her bank account and announced her plan to go to the U.S. as an exchange student.

Her mother, convinced that her daughter was serious, decided to find the rest of the necessary funds, even though at the time the exchange rate was around ¥280 to the dollar.

“Back then, I had a very specific vision of what the U.S. would be like,” says Ijiri Haskin. “I even practiced being hugged, because in Japan no one did that. I had this idea that the U.S. would be full of warm, loving people.”

In 1983, when she was 17 years old, she arrived in New Hampshire as part of an exchange program. Her host family, however, did not hug her.

“They briefly shook my hand, and that was it,” she recalls. “That was my first encounter with the U.S. and what I saw was a different picture from the one I had in my mind.” Nevertheless, she wasn’t deterred, and when she realized that she wasn’t getting along with her host family, she requested a change.

“I felt more American than the Americans around me and I was never afraid to speak my mind,” she says. “I was always looking for ways to improve my life, and I was willing to work hard, in order to make things work out for me. I found out this mind-set is invaluable when living in America.”

After New Hampshire, Ijiri Haskin enrolled in Earlham College in Indiana and then returned to Japan to complete her BA at Sophia University. This was 1989, when Japan was riding the crest of the bubble economy, and with her background, she had no trouble securing a job at Hakuhodo Inc., Japan’s advertising giant, which had a revenue second only to Dentsu Inc.

Though she was working at a “frenzied pace,” she loved pouring her energy into ad projects and working with other creative people on TV commercials. In the meantime, she married her college classmate, John Haskin, and for a while they were what was fashionably known in those days as a DINKS (Dual Income, No Kids) couple.

The turning point came in 1996, when Ijiri Haskin left Japan for Washington. Her husband had been transferred there a year earlier and she was expecting a baby, so she decided to try living in the U.S. again.

“I took a yearlong maternity leave from Hakuhodo. I didn’t have the courage to quit outright, because I was terrified of being unemployed,” she says. “I had worked all my adult life, and I wasn’t ready to be a housewife just yet.”

In Japan 22 years ago, the odds were stacked against working mothers. Ijiri Haskin weighed the pros and cons of returning to Japan after her year’s leave, then took the leap and left Hakuhodo to go solo. Her first freelance project was a lifestyle column she wrote for the local free paper in Seattle. It paid exactly $30 per article.

“I wasn’t making much money, but the job opened all kinds of doors for me,” she remembers. “In Japan, everyone I met talked about my size, but in Seattle, people told me how funny and interesting I was. They seemed especially taken with the life I had led.”

Often asked, “Are you really Japanese?,” she understood that she didn’t “fit the bill of a Japanese woman.” And she noticed that every time she returned to Japan, her U.S. address gave her a certain cache. People were regarding her with respect if not outright admiration. Realizing that she had an audience, in 2003, she wrote the book “Hekojapa.” Short for “hekomanu Japanese” (a Japanese who just refuses to go down), she coined the title phrase herself.

Freelancing, says Ijiri Haskin, has taught her to “appreciate everything” and to never say no to a project. “I’ve gotten so used to working hard to get where I want to be,” she sums up. “I don’t think I can be any other way.”


Profile

Name: Megumi Ijiri Haskin

Profession: Entrepreneur and founder of the GoGetterz e-learning site.

Hometown: Yokohama

Age: 52

Key moments in life:

1983 — Goes to New Hampshire as part of an exchange program.

1989 — Returns to Japan to complete her BA and later work for Hakuhodo Inc.

1996 — Heads for Washington and stays for the long term.

2003 — Publishes “Hekojapa”

2016 — Establishes GoGetterz

Misses about Japan: “Commuting on public transport and hitting bars after work. We drive cars everywhere in the U.S.”

Likes about the U.S.: “The ‘give-back-to-the-community’ mentality, generosity and philanthropic mind-set.”

Words to live by: “S—- happens.”