(A biography of Michelle Mina written by Zac Oshima)
To many young high schooler teens college is somewhat daunting yet exciting thing to look forward to. For Michelle Mina this was nothing different. She entered her first year of college at Lewis & Clark, Portland Oregon in 2012. A small sized college with a total student enrolment of just under two thousand students. Whilst her and her peer freshmen sat through orientation, eyes sparked with excitement and fear about what the next four years will bring in this new college, new state, new city, Michelle was also thinking about what it meant to be back in the United States. It had been more than eight years since the last time she lived in the U.S. and she was anxious about this big change. Previously she had spent both middle school and high school attending an international school in Tokyo, Japan. Since Lewis & Clark was such a small school there was a literal handful, about 6 students, who came straight from Japan and entered the college.
Back in Japan Michelle attended the American School in Japan. An international school based in west side of Tokyo. Michelle is a dual citizen and “Ha-Fu” meaning she has parents from two different countries, U.S. and Japan. She has spent most of her life residing in Japan. It has been one year since she moved back to Japan after transferring from her college in the U.S. to the International Christian University (ICU) in 2014. While growing up in Japan and attending an American school provided a certain diversity she realized once she moved back to the US that even that diversity was skewed. International schools consist of a lot of high economic class families, business expats and so on. She quickly noticed the lack of minority voice she had been exposed to through out her teen years.
During her first year in college she had made many friends that were LGBT. One friend in particular had come to her to talk about relationship advice. Michelle was in a long distance relationship and so was her friend K. K had a partner that was not from the United States, but they were very serious and wanted to be able to live together. K knew that a marriage can warrant residence for a foreigner in the United States, so he told Michelle his plan to get married to his partner. Michelle had to break it to K that the state of Oregon and many States at the time would not recognise his marriage to another man, meaning his partner would not get permission to stay in the United States.
This was a terribly uncomfortable moment for Michelle. She knew that K loved his partner just as much as she loved her’s, and she wouldn’t have a problem marrying her partner while K couldn’t.While she always learnt about equal rights this was the first hand exposure to some real inequality. She then became more focused on social injustices not only for LGBT, but for Women, and other people suffering from a lack of responsible governments.
However, after about 3 years in the US Michelle became more and more depressed. The prolonged long distance relationship, along with a not so successful adjustment to life in the US lead her down to developing an eating disorder. Something that continued for more than half of her time in the US. One night when her depression got particularly bad she had called her parents crying. Her parents reacted, and got her a ticket home. That was December 2013. She hadn’t decided what to do about college or how long she was going to be in Japan. All she needed to focus on was getting better. Through her partner she started going to the gym. At first it was hard. Japanese women were much thinner than women in the United States. Not to mention all the mirrors in the gym. They are not an easy place to be for someone with a negative body image. She also transferred to ICU after a few months of being back in Japan, setting up for the next 3 years in Tokyo. Over time she was able to mend her own body image and instead became obsessed with training. She now trains almost everyday while tracking her nutrition intake. Now with a healthy mind and settled down life in Tokyo she started to look more critically towards the Japanese society in terms of equality and injustices.
Today Michelle focuses a lot of her energy towards promoting gender equality from the grass roots. While policy reform and economic inclusions are both good initiatives they are not long term fixes towards gender inequality. Michelle shuddered at the “Women Only” zone with in her own gym. Similarily, “Women Only” carriages on the subway shocked her. Both of these would simply be impossible to facilitate in the United States. They reminded of her of the “Whites only” fountains or “Blacks only” bus seats from the 1950s.
She noticed when she attended a reunion to the Japanese elementary school she went to that the gender inequality problem in Japan is pretty deeply embedded in culture. When talking about what she was studying in college to another friends mother, she received the comment, “Its great that you’re in a long term relationship so you don’t have to worry too much about you study in university.” At the time this was utterly shocking to her. The comment implied that since she had a partner, she would get married and not work. Not only did the comment itself surprise her but it also struck her that this comment came from a fellow woman. This is when she decided to be more proactive on empowering women through social reform. Michelle now uses her social media outlets as tools to promote female empowerment. To stop the dictation of society over women’s bodies. She uses her mind and attitude towards gym training as a way to communicate this basic essence. If women can take more control of their physical body she believes the positive aspects will spill into other parts of people’s lives.
She also spends a lot of time through out the year volunteering. Ever since the Sendai earthquake in 2011 Michelle has consistently volunteered in the northern regions for rebuilding. When she returned to Japan in 2013 she changed from doing rebuilding projects to more recreation projects for children. With Friends of the Earth she hosts an outdoor camp in Minamiboso Chiba. “I really think it should be the governments job to fund and host these camps but the reality is that they don’t.” The volunteers pick up the children, a group of twenty or more, and take them to Minamiboso, where they play in the sand dunes, go to the beach, visit the aquarium and so on. Some of the kids from the camp have even grown up and joined on as volunteers.
“Talking to one of the high schoolers I learnt that the children don’t understand the gravity of the nuclear disaster.”
The governments lack of interest in the children, and a society distraught by disaster have left the children in a protected bubble.
“they need a voice. But they don’t know anything about what is going on.” She continues.
When asked if she feels included in the Japanese culture and society or feels like a foreigner Michelle answered:
“At the moment, more of a foreigner. I’m still going through a secondary culture shock since living in the States and coming back to Japan. A lot of it is different from what I remember, but in reality it’s the same. A new angle”
Although there are gender inequality problems in Japan she does ultimately feel safer and more comfortable living here. To Michelle, a key attribute for Japanese culture is “politeness”. However, she notes that in most of the cases that she deals with this sense of “politeness” and not speaking up is seriously holding people back. “Japan is a country that favours peace”
While this is something that a lot of other cultures should look up to, right now Japan needs more leaders that will speak up for individual freedom and justice. Michelle will continue her degree while keeping up fitness and volunteer work. She wants to be able to help people from social injustice by looking at Japan from a feminist’s perspective. She is not sure where she wants to live in the future but is hopeful of having a family in Japan one day. But if she does leave, hopefully she can move on from Japan once it is a better place.