"I was lucky, in a way," Yuko Nishimura said. "I did most of the things I wanted. I like what I am doing now."
|Yuko Nishimura switched to the London School of Economics when Tokyo University wouldn't let her write her dissertation in English.|
She wasn't always lucky. Her father died when she was a child. Her mother, a dress designer, took her from Tokyo to Akita to live in a large extended family. When Yuko, an only child, was still very young, her mother died. Yuko grew into a definite, achieving person, independent in thought and confident in opinion.
She substituted diligence in school work for phantom luck. "I attended a German Catholic mission school," she said. "When I entered Tokyo University, I wanted to study sociology and comparative social studies. Everything was haphazard then, but I went to India and wanted to do Indian studies. I traveled, and took a deep interest in the country. The second time I went to India, I joined a team of Tokyo University academics in Tamil Nadu. I was a graduate student then in the Department of Religious Studies, and was sent by the Ministry of Education."
Yuko lived in a South Indian village house. "The first thing I had to do was dig a toilet," she said. "I had to scoop water from the well. I observed the ritual calendar, learned about the gods and goddesses and how they are linked, and lived in the agricultural cycle of the year."
Returned to Tokyo, ambitious and with her mind widened by her different experiences, Yuko set about preparing for her Ph.D. at Tokyo University. She ran into difficulties.
"I wanted to write my dissertation in English, but the university would accept it only in Japanese. All my work on it so far was in English. I wanted my dissertation to be available all over the world," she said. She decided to go to London. "I changed to social anthropology, and had to do it from scratch," she said. "I just wanted to do what I could do." She acquired her Ph.D. at the London School of Economics. The Oxford University Press published her book "Gender, Kinship and Womanhood among the Nagarattars in South India." (The Nagarattars are a caste.) Yuko returned to Tokyo with another crowded set of differing experiences to talk about and to use.
Whilst university lecturing here, she received a grant from the Japan Foundation and an American research council to go to Seattle. She was drawn to investigate the work there of nonprofit organizations (NPOs), and was inspired by their professional attitudes, influence and success in community welding. She met her husband, who was coordinating Seattle's large-scale Neighborhood Resource Program, and learned the intricacies of volunteer associations, funding and politics. After two years in Seattle, she realized the direction that her continuing initiatives would take.
Now professor at Komazawa University, Tokyo, Yuko teaches cultural studies, which include the functions of NPOs with local governments. Her Japanese-language book "Grassroots NPOs and Community Building: A Challenge From Seattle" won the Japan NPO Academic Council Award last year. At Komazawa Yuko also teaches English. She said: "I can use my experience in NPOs, and I want to encourage my students to think cross-culturally. This is the happiest time of my life. I never regret anything I have done. My philosophy is to live happily and to do what I like to do."
She finds fulfillment in her ongoing projects. She and her husband take students to Seattle each summer, and introduce them to volunteer work with NPOs there. Beginning this year, Yuko is teaching University of Washington students both in Seattle and in Tokyo. Calling this new program "internship for American students," she says she is arranging for the incoming students to stay in a converted flophouse in one of the poorest neighborhoods in Yokohama, where the homeless, drug addicts and alcoholics congregate. "I am going to teach about Japan from an entirely different angle, not art but the grassroots, and show the roles of NPOs," she said. "Students should learn about society from the bottom. This is the point I want to stress."
Similarly Yuko and her husband are taking students in the winter to learn about village life in India. Collaborating with the Swaminathan Foundation in Tamil Nadu and with the Kerela government, her students have set up an NPO, the Japan Students Fund, to offer small loans to South Indian women of very low income. "With the nonprofits idea, we are hoping to begin a new marketing network for South Indian women's self-help groups," Yuko said.