One family’s dedication to public service—at home, and abroad.
The Otomo family is very remarkable. And the mother, Junko, is extraordinary. I first heard of them from a very admiring Canadian friend. This is what she wrote about them:
“I met Junko before I left for Japan. She was a mature student at Douglas College in New Westminster upgrading her English skills in the hopes of transferring to a four-year university.” That was about twenty-years ago.
The letter continues:
“Junko was in Vancouver with her mother-in-law and two daughters—Aki (three) and Mari (six). Her husband, Nobuyuki, was still in Rifu holding down the fort! Junko did manage to enter university, and completed an undergraduate degree in Latin American Studies, then went on to get a Masters Degree in Economic Geography, all the while supporting her children through part-time work. Nobu immigrated to Canada in 1995 and got a job, and some years later she sponsored her mother, Toyoko, who lived in Yamagata. She had planned to get a PhD, but life had a way of getting in the way.
“Junko is one of the hardest working people you could ever meet, hands down. A few years ago she bought a failing sushi restaurant near Whistler, which is now a thriving business. She has bought and sold houses, put her daughters through university (but they have earned scholarships and grants as well) and provided jobs for others in her business. When the sushi restaurant looked like it was going to be a great success, her husband quit his job and came to help her.
“Junko really is an amazing woman, and she accomplished so much even before she and her family immigrated to Canada. She worked in the Cuban Embassy in Tokyo for six years, taking several trips to that country in her capacity as a translator from Japanese to Spanish and vice versa. She studied Spanish literature and language in Spain for four years, living with a Spanish family. There she learned how to make all the regional dishes. As an aside, whenever there was a dinner at her home here, we always told her she should open a restaurant, but not necessarily a sushi place, as she could cook French as well as Spanish and Italian food. Whatever she does, she does with perfection.”
“After marrying Nobuyuki, she lived with him and his mother in Rifu, quit her job with the embassy and began working as a free-lance interpreter in Sendai working for companies, and the Miyagi government.”
The two Otomo girls are also very accomplished young women. Mari, who is now 28, graduated from university with a degree in political science. She has developed a grounded social conscience, which led her to go to Ghana for four months to volunteer with Engineers without Borders. When she returned to Vancouver she became the leader of a large youth volunteer organization which does work in the community. She is currently managing a large, well-trained and knowledgeable volunteer group at the Vancouver Aquarium, which is a world-class aquarium. She wants to dedicate her life to public service, as she believes it gives people an opportunity to use their talents to be a positive force in local, national and even global issues.
Aki, who is 25, just graduated from university with a double major in English and Biological Sciences. She has recently had two peer-reviewed papers published in the Journal of Reproductive Biology and Endocrinology, and another in IBIS, International Avian Science. She is currently applying to veterinarian schools in North America, Australia, New Zealand, Scotland and Ireland.
Recently Junko and her family took a week to come to Japan and volunteer in Ishinomaki. They were not sure what sort of work they would be asked to do, but they ended up working in an animal shelter.
Here is what Aki wrote about their experiences there:
“Most of these photos are at the Ishinomaki Animal Rescue Center (IARC). IARC was located inland and north of the areas that were devastated by the tsunami. The buildings, which are portable, are used to house the animals. There were three buildings. One each for cats, small dogs and large dogs. In addition white trailers were used to store food and litter and pet supplies. Another white trailer was used as a Veterinarian’s office where there was an exam table and medical supplies and equipment. The cat building has individual kennels as well as an enclosed area where the cats can play and use the scratching posts etc. All the dogs at the center have owners. The owners are either in evacuation centers or temporary housing that doesn’t allow pets. IARC is taking care of their dogs until they find a suitable housing situation. IARC offers free spaying and neutering on all the animals, however a lot the Japanese owners refused for ethical and ideological reasons, which was very strange and disconcerting from a North American perspective, where spaying and neutering is the expectation.
“All the dogs were dog aggressive towards other dogs and compared to North American dogs were very undisciplined. Once again a strange concept to have to cope with. Most of the cats had owners, however, there were six strays that IARC found and rescued.
“Of the 21 cats, seven of them had FIV (feline immunodificiency virus) which was really scary considering it is a very rare disease in Canada. Some of the owners decided they didn’t want their cat back so there were four cats that had owners, but were abandoned so they are looking for homes for those cats as well.
“The volunteers mostly took part in walking the dogs, and cleaning and taking care of the animals. I had a chance to spend more time with the veterinary aspect of IARC, where I was involved in daily rounds of sick patients, discussing medications for treatment and treating and examining dogs with skin conditions, ear infections etc.
“It was a unique experience and I got to experience first hand the role that culture plays in the perspective of owning and caring for pets. It was very different from the North American perspective and I was quite shocked considering that Japan is fairly affluent and many pet owners spend lots of money on their dogs for accessories such as clothing items and purses to carry them in, but won’t spend money on veterinary care, despite the fact that veterinary medicine is very cheap in Japan with an average Veterinary Consultation and Exam Fee priced at about $10 CAD. In Canada average exam fees cost about $50 and a Specialist consultation fee at our hospital costs $250!”
If you are interested in helping animals without owners since the earthquake and tsunami, please go to hachiko-coalition.org for more information and for places to send donations.
By Anne Thomas
Anne Thomas is a regular contributer to Ode. She lives in Sendai, Japan, where she teaches English and embraces the beauty of ordinary life.