As a woman, I had no opportunities in Japan. My world opened up when I got to Canada.

“I never once felt celebrated as a woman in Japan”
Yuka Yamada

When I was a kid in Japan in the early ’90s, my kindergarten teacher asked my class what we wanted to be when we grew up. I told her I wanted to be a bride. I don’t remember what the other girls said, but I can guarantee that none of the five-year-old boys pronounced their dreams of becoming a groom.

I grew up with my parents and two brothers in a suburb about an hour outside of Tokyo. My mom was warm and loving and worked part-time jobs while we were young so she could take care of us. My father, an engineer, was strict with us and rarely home: he left for work around 6 a.m. and came home after 10 p.m. My mom would often ask me to help her with the cooking and cleaning, but my brothers weren’t expected to lift a finger. They did chores when I asked them to, but I never understood why I had to ask in the first place.

When I was in Grade 4, my parents wanted to enrol my older brother in a prestigious private school, which offered a better education than the public schools we attended. My brother didn’t want to switch schools, so I volunteered instead, which surprised my parents. I now wonder if they ever would’ve offered me the same opportunity if I didn’t ask for it. Private school gave me new opportunities: at 15, I stayed with a host family in Canada for two weeks, immersing myself in a new language and culture. I discovered a society where it was acceptable to be yourself and voice your opinions, and I became obsessed with learning English so I could return.

In Japan, there’s a strong emphasis on maintaining “social harmony”: you’re expected to be agreeable and never express a differing opinion. Women and girls especially are expected to be quiet and submissive. I never fit that mould. In school, I was a “class leader”—it was my job to enforce the rules if a teacher had to step out. I stood out and spoke up, which made me a target for bullies. I wondered if things would’ve been different if I was a boy. Another time, in Grade 5, I called out my teacher in front of the whole class for handing out scissors blade-first. I didn’t understand that as a Japanese girl, I was supposed to keep my mouth shut. I’ll always remember the shocked, horrified look on his face when I corrected him.

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By my early 20s, I was eager to see what opportunities a new country could offer. In 2008, I was studying English communications at a Japanese university when I decided to participate in an eight-month exchange program in Canada. I had wanted to return since high school, and this was the perfect opportunity.

Back in Japan, classroom discussions were rare, even in university-level courses. Teachers lectured theories and facts at us that we were told to memorize, not discuss or question. We could either be right or wrong—there was no in between. In my classes here, I was shocked to learn that professors encouraged discussion and debate, even among female students. My opinions were valued and people treated me as an equal. In my business strategy class, I wrote a report on a magazine marketing technique popular in Japan but uncommon in Canada. My professor was impressed by the idea and encouraged the Canadian students to learn from international students in class.

I rarely saw strong-willed women like myself with thriving careers in Japan, where women occupy less than 15 per cent of senior management roles; our current government only has two female ministers. Living here, I saw female politicians and women in management positions wherever I turned. I saw working moms and older women with thriving careers. Women were free to voice their opinions in university classes and their ideas were heard and valued.

In 2009, I returned to Japan for a year to finish my final semester of university. I was on the train one day when I saw a man groping a woman’s breasts while she was asleep. This often happens on crowded trains, but women don’t speak up out of fear and the pressure to stay silent. I wanted to say something but couldn’t find the words in Japanese. Instead, I took a picture on my phone, leaving the shutter on loud so the man would know he was being watched. When the woman woke up, I showed the photos to her and told her what had happened. She was upset, but decided not to press charges. I realized then how hard it was to speak up for yourself as a woman in Japanese society. If I stayed, I knew I would be forever confined to these gender norms.

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After I graduated, I wanted to build a career and a family, and I felt I couldn’t have both in Japan. People work until 10 or 11 p.m.—an impossible schedule for working mothers. My father regularly worked these demanding hours, and little has changed since his day. Many of my female childhood friends stopped working as soon as they had children. They didn’t have a choice: if you take sick days or leave work early to pick up your child, you’re passed up for promotions and considered unambitious. Childcare and household responsibilities are still seen as women’s tasks, so mothers can’t work jobs that require long hours—basically any full-time permanent job—and instead opt for part-time or contract work.

In 2010, I returned to Canada to complete a second bachelor’s degree in business administration at Algoma University in Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario. An international student adviser helped me find my footing: I’d ask for help when I didn’t understand what courses I needed to take or when I needed help finding a doctor. He helped me connect with other international students and I quickly found a community of friends. I decided to become an international student adviser myself so I could help other students in the same way he helped me. I received a postgraduate work permit in 2013, and officially became a Canadian permanent resident in 2016. I now manage a team of student advisers at Algoma University’s Brampton campus.

Yuka with her husband and two kids

In 2018, I married Vinay, an international student from India who I met in university. We had our daughter in 2019 and our son in 2021. Being a working mom is hard, but I have much more flexibility than I would have had in Japan. I often finish work at 4:30 p.m., and can always leave earlier or come in later if my kids are sick or I need to pick them up from daycare. My husband and I are home for dinner and to put the kids to bed. I can be a mother while still enjoying a meaningful career that I’m proud of.

In March, I was a panellist for an International Women’s Day event at work when an audience member asked how our cultures celebrated women. I didn’t have an answer. Japan is progressive in so many ways, but we’re behind when it comes to gender equality, diversity and embracing who you truly are. I take pride in my culture and heritage, but I never once felt celebrated as a  woman in Japan.

I hope that as my daughter becomes a woman, she feels empowered and celebrated. I’m raising her to know she can be whatever she sets her mind to—a beautiful bride, if that’s what she chooses, and so much more.

—As told to Mira Miller