Atsuko: Determining One's Life Path (Shinro)

As noted, after high school atsuko decided to attend a two-year senmongakkō (post-high-school two-year technical school) for day-care center teacher (hoikushi) training. She first thought of it because a friend said that was what she had chosen, but also atsuko's aunt was in the field, and atsuko read over the notebook her mother had kept for her when she was a day-care child. These various factors inspired her to try to become a day-care teacher herself. This was the first time in her life that she actually had to apply herself:

It was a two-year course, extremely severe. The practical training was awfully tiring, and we couldn't take any time off. During high school, without telling my parents, i used to play hooky quite often—right up to where i almost didn't have enough attendance days. . . . I was pretty careful about regulating those, but at the tech school if you were out three days for each course, you couldn't get any credits. I realized i couldn't take time off, so i always went to school. Some of what we studied was interesting, some of it not so. I graduated at age twenty, and then, without getting a proper job i started doing arubaito [parttime work performed by young people who are either still in school or who have not yet secured a regular job] for a moving company.

Atsuko did not immediately look for a job in her field because her best friend from junior high suddenly died, probably a suicide, shortly after their Coming-of-age ceremony (age twenty). When she attended the funeral, atsuko talked with this girl's mother, who told atsuko to do something that she liked to do, something enjoyable. This advice prompted atsuko to take two years off and do as she pleased. She also noted that some of her friends were still attending four-year universities, whereas she had only gotten two years of post-high-school education, so she did not feel obliged to start working hard right away. In a sense, atsuko felt entitled to the “four-year moratorium” that many of her friends were able to enjoy by entering universities rather than technical training schools. Her parents did not object. With the income from her working-class job, she saved her money and then took trips to do environmental volunteer work, or to do part-time work at rural lodges in picturesque spots. Atsuko spoke fondly of the days with the moving company. She was apparently quite good at the job, and by the end of four years, she was a leader, driving trucks and bringing along her own subordinates. She loved the personalities of the other, mostly male, workers, who she said “stank of humanity” (ningenkusai) and who were totally frank (omote mo ura mo nai; no “front stage” or “back stage” to them).22 in fact by the end of her time with the moving company, her hourly wage was over $10 an hour in 2002 (¥1,300 per hour at ¥125 per $1; economic research 2012), a high wage for part-time work.

Then came atsuko's turn to the day-care field. Her father had clipped a newspaper help-wanted ad for a day-care center worker and left it on her desk for her to see: “i thought he must want me to try for it. He had cut it out and put it right on my desk. So i decided to try for it.”23 after a few irregular positions, atsuko landed her current position as an after-school day-care program (gakudō hoiku) teacher and has been there since age twenty-seven.24 it is a regular position with benefits, and in total she can earn about $39,000 a year (¥79 per $1 in 2011; economic research 2012). This job is classified as an “associate public servant,” or junkōmuin. When the city was in charge of day-care programs, the job would have been as a full public servant, and the salary and benefits would have been better and would have increased steadily with years of service. Ever since the bubble economy burst, however, local governments have tried to find ways to cut costs and deregulate public programs such as day care. In this case, the city government still pays the salaries of associate public servants like atsuko, but they are not hired directly by the city any longer; the after-school program is run by a private external body that is not under obligation to provide the excellent labor packages that public servants enjoy. Still, one must be licensed as a day-care teacher to become even an associate public servant in the day-care program. Furthermore, this is a stable position, and She will be able to take child-care leave if she has children. Atsuko has been chosen twice for special half-week training sessions, and she has obtained the certification as a “child welfare personnel.” Her ultimate goal is to work for an orphanage if a position becomes available. She also wishes she could return to school to learn more about child psychology, but she notes it is not likely that she will have the means to do so. Although atsuko's technical education has given her access to a stable position, there are few opportunities to increase her skills and move up. In her spare time, she is a volunteer at a nonprofit organization, working with children on sundays: “i can give back to the children what i've learned up to now. My aim is to give back, whether it's to my own children or the children around me.”

It was clear through our discussion that atsuko, like her mother, is not a sycophant. She is serious about her work, concerned about the welfare of the children in her care, and speaks up if she sees injustice or abuse, even though in her workplaces she has often been the youngest staff member. She does not like the gossip and back-stabbing atmosphere that she sees in her current field, but she loves caring for children, so she puts up with it. She has little tolerance for slackers, and she is always seeking new programs to improve things for the children, but she sees her efforts as an uphill battle in a bureaucratic workplace where most employees are not trying to innovate. In this way, she resembles her mother, a leader who was and is always looking for a way to work smarter. As the eldest child and elder daughter, she is an active agent in her approach to life.25

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