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Scenes of Heisei: A working woman's roots in Tokyo's diverse Shibuya district

Emi Tsuchiya stands on the Shibuya scramble crossing which she used from when she was a high school student, in Tokyo's Shibuya Ward on Sept. 12, 2018. (Mainichi/Motohiro Negishi)

TOKYO -- In March, a 36-year-old working mother of two toddlers set out from her home in Tokyo's bustling Shibuya Ward. She was taking a break from her work and parenting for a day and a half, for the first time in nine years, to attend a concert of her favorite Japanese pop artist, Namie Amuro.

Emi Tsuchiya had failed to acquire a ticket for a concert that Amuro was holding in Japan, but was able to purchase one for Shenzhen, China, as part of Amuro's final tour in Asia. She could not hold back tears when the 41-year-old Amuro started singing.

The working mother had looked up to Amuro as an "older sister who was always a step ahead," from 25 years ago, not long after the famous artist made her debut as a singer. Tsuchiya admired Amuro not just for her dancing and her fashion, but also for being a remarkable mother, raising her kid and working at the same time.

Tsuchiya works as a secretary at the incorporated non-profit organization "Daikanyama Himawari" based in Tokyo's Shibuya Ward. The NPO focuses on "Locoworking" projects, in which mainly mothers looking after their children form teams and take on jobs contracted by other companies. "Locoworking" is a portmanteau of the Hawaiian word "loco" for local, and the English term "co-working."

This work style is spreading across Japan. The incorporated NPO "Loco-working Kyogikai" based in the suburban Tokyo city of Chofu, which Himawari and other organizations belong to, was established in 2013. The rising popularity of telework or telecommuting -- working outside of the office using information and communications technology (ICT) -- supports such a work style.

Members of Himawari do not have a designated office and can choose to work on various at-home tasks, such as web editing and translation. "I am more satisfied now than I've ever been," says Tsuchiya, who has previously experienced working full-time and freelance and has also done other types of jobs.

Tsuchiya listened to one of Amuro's music CDs for the first time during the upper grades of elementary school, and immediately became a fan. Before entering high school, she saw her favorite singer appear in the annual televised contest between popular singers on New Year's Eve, sponsored by public broadcaster NHK, right before Amuro took maternity leave. The news that Amuro would take leave made her become conscious that women's lives are affected by marriage and childbirth.

In the late 1990s -- high school girls with a style of baggy socks called "loose socks" flooded Shibuya. Amuro fans dubbed "Amrers" dressed themselves up in miniskirts and boots with thick soles. Among them was Tsuchiya, who at the time was attending a high school affiliated with a private women's university.

Tsuchiya's school didn't have a uniform, but she went to school in uniform-like fashion with a pleated skirt, together with a cardigan extending below her hips. The Amuro-loving girl shaved her eyebrows and drew thin brows like those of the pop star. When roaming around Shibuya after school, she and her friends would be shown samples by businesses conducting product development surveys and would be asked, "Which one is cute?"

"High schools girls are the coolest, attracting attention," she felt at the time.

After graduating from a women's university, the "Amrer" fulfilled her lifelong dream of becoming a ground staff member of an airline working at Narita International Airport. Tsuchiya lived in a dormitory near the airport and worked from early morning until midnight at times. In her fourth year on the job, Tsuchiya married her current husband, whom she knew from when she was a student, and decided to change jobs. Though she really wanted to work a bit longer as a ground staff member, she placed priority on living with her husband, who worked in downtown Tokyo.

Tsuchiya gave birth to her first son at 27, while working at a major advertising agency. She had to work on a reduced schedule after returning from a maternity leave. Though her personal life was flourishing, she had mixed feelings. In the public's view at the time, being a woman on the front lines meant being an active woman with a career. But Tsuchiya felt she was edging away from this image.

When Tsuchiya turned 30, the whole family moved to Singapore, due to a change in her husband's job. There was no choice for her but to resign. She found a part-time job at an advertising company in Singapore and also worked freelance, writing articles for a travel guide. Tsuchiya never stopped working, because she wanted to "keep in touch with society through work," even though her income had decreased drastically.

After giving birth to her daughter, Tsuchiya started searching for a new form of work that would enable her to spend as much time as possible with her children. There was a school bus that picked up her son from her home and took him to kindergarten in Singapore, but such a transportation service was unavailable in Japan. Tsuchiya could always ask someone or some business to take her son to school and bring him home, but she wanted to pick up and drop off (the kids) on her own. When she returned to Japan, she had to search for a new work style.

The family arrived back to Japan three years ago and Tsuchiya joined Himawari, which recognized her work as a writer. Around 180 people in their 20s to 50s, including child-rearing mothers, are enrolled in the NPO. They form teams ranging in size from just a few members to about 15, who work together to accomplish a single task. Tsuchiya's job is to coordinate the team and communicate with the clients, but sometime she is involved in the contracted job itself.

There are still challenges. Himawari's activities have yet to gain a firm footing in society. And personally, Tsuchiya sometimes worries that "everything may end up half-finished" if she takes on many tasks, parenting, and household chores all at the same time.

This May, Tsuchiya and her family came across a lively parade on a thoroughfare of Shibuya while shopping. The event was hosted by the incorporated NPO "Tokyo Rainbow Pride," and was calling for gender diversity. The organization's representative co-director, Fumino Sugiyama, 37, had been in the year above Tsuchiya at the high school she attended. Sugiyama published his experience of being diagnosed with gender identity disorder (GID) while in university, and he helped Shibuya become the first local body in Japan to enact an ordinance officially recognizing same-sex partnerships.

"Is it a festival?" Tsuchiya's son asked while excitingly watching the rainbow flags wave in the parade. Tsuchiya was impressed by the ability of this senior person from her alma mater to create new things, and in her mind his activities overlapped with the new style of work she had chosen, which encouraged her.


Tsuchiya walked across Shibuya's famous "scramble crossing" in early September, as the sun was setting. It is impossible to count how many times she has used the crossing throughout her life. The 36-year-old mother had just finished work and was on her way to pick up her daughter from day care facility. She hopes for a society in which her children, when grown into adults, can choose from various styles of work. She prays that the way she works now will become the norm.

Advertisements of Amuro, right before her retirement, were seen everywhere around the crossing. Tsuchiya had watched the Japanese singer achieve success in her carrier while getting married, giving birth, and parenting -- all one step ahead of her. Before Tsuchiya knew it, she found herself identifying with Amuro, who "tries her best to make decisions based on (the circumstances) of that moment, in her own way."

In her heart, Tsuchiya thanked Amuro for everything she had done.

(Japanese original by Sachi Fukushima, City News Department)

This is Part 4 of a 10-part series.

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