Rising Women Interview
Ako-san, Tofu Cart Seller
By changing the environment,
I was able to see my faults as a blessing.
Please introduce yourself.
I was born in the year 1981. I have been pulling a cart and selling tofu since I was 22 years old, so it’ll be my 15th year this year. I was bullied when I was in fifth grade because of my voice and the way I talk. People humiliated me for my looks or belabored me as a goody-goody. Because of that, I started to strongly feel that I did not want to go to school anymore.
I wanted to confide in my parents, but I honestly did not know how to start the conversation, and instead, I said some things that I shouldn’t have to my parents, and I was often not very nice to them.
I think my parents were probably not sure how to help me.
But my parents would force me out of the house and tell me to go to school…
Even though I knew I was going to be bullied again at school and thinking about that made my feelings against school stronger and stronger, I went to school every day because knew I would be scolded if I didn’t. Due to such circumstances, I learned to avoid looking at people in the eyes. Even with such an unhappy childhood, I never gave up hopes of living in happiness, living just like I wanted to. I yearned to do find a job that was perfect for me.
Please tell us what you mainly do now, and how this came to be.
Trying to find a job that would build on my past, there were times when I tried to become a voice actress, and there were other times when I tried to become a clothing designer because I liked clothes. But neither path lasted long. What was a job that had warmth, what was a job that was something that I would do? I would think and dream of things like this, and then realize the gap between it and status quo, and I suffered a lot. I would look at recruitment sites and torment myself, “What in the world is out there that would that would suit me?”
When I was 23, opportunity hit me. I was reading a free paper and saw an advertisement for a job – “Looking for someone that works from the heart, not through skill.” The ad for a tofu-cart seller jumped out at me. When I saw the next lines, “Would you like to pull a cart into town and feel the warmth of the people?” I knew this was the job for me.
When I started working and pulling the cart into town, I was extremely reluctant to call out to people in town. But there were many older grandmas and grandpas that would talk to me because they were reminded of their childhood. They would give me such warm words of support that it gave me strength.
In the beginning, I was only thinking about how to sell more tofu, but soon later, I changed my mindset and started thinking about how I can make customers happier through my sales.
Because I go around the same route on the same day of the week, gradually, there started to be customers who would wait for me to come around. I felt bliss at being able to help other people. I was finally able to accept myself as who I am. I am truly proud of this job that has made me who I am today.
Please tell us what a typical day looks like for you.
Five days a week, Monday, Tuesday, Thursday, Friday, and Saturday, I take my cart and sell tofu within Tokyo. I sell from around noon to about 7 p.m.
Whether it’s sunny or rainy, whatever kind of day it is does not matter. I will go around my usual route to go see the people I have come to love.
Please tell us what you have done in the past that you felt was extremely worthwhile, and other experiences where you felt was difficult.
Having been asked that question, I started to think about why I was able to continue the tofu-cart for 15 years when I was unable to continue anything for long before. I think it is because I was always looking for a place for my heart to be.
In the summertime, grandmas would ask me to eat ice cream with them, and in the winter, grandpas would offer me heat pads to keep me warm on my rounds. I’m not just pulling a tofu cart frantically, I am enjoying the warmth the people that I have come to regard as family give me on the thousands of mini-breaks I have as I make my rounds.
Giving the elderly a place to be too, for me, is something I am looking forward to right now.
At what times do you feel most relaxed, or feel like you are the most alive?
I feel great when I am talking to people, female or male, old or young. Listening to stories of the past, or even just looking at their happy faces relieves and relaxes me.
It seems like nothing, but these experiences are very important for me. “When I was 60, I was happy because I was able to become friends with Ako-san.” “When I am 70, I am going to go bird watching and go on lots of walks.” Hearing people share things with me like this makes me feel warm and makes me want to hear more. It’s times like these that make me feel the most relaxed, and the most happy to be alive.
Do you have a motto, or maybe a policy that you adhere to while you are working?
It is very important for me to keep smiling. To stay positive no matter what happens. Getting to know different people has made me realize how happiness can be a very simple thing. When I was talking to a grandma on the sidewalk before, she would mumble to me, “Isn’t it truly a happy time in age right now? When I was young, I had to hide in the cold and stank of an air-raid shelter, without food, and I had to sleep worrying about a bomb falling on top. I could never really sleep. But now, there is no fear of bombs falling, and all I need is to go home for warm futon. Such happiness is so normal now.” Having little exchanges like these with the people I meet made me look at life and happiness in a completely new light. It made me realize that I am taking for granted what was so difficult to have in times of war. I have come to understand the normal life I have as a happy life.
What do you think Japanese women need to possess to be successful?
I used to regard my voice, my unique way of speech, and the way I do things at my own pace as a fault. But my environment changed, and all of a sudden people were praising my unique voice as cute. My slow daily pace has actually helped me to notice the small changes in the people around me, and my reluctance to talk has helped me learn to love to listen and become a great listener.
I think that is probably the reason why people have started to wait for me to come around in my rounds.
Looking back, I had a very little respect for myself because I had been hurt so much in the past. However, by changing the environment, I was able to see my faults as a blessing. I think it is very possible that people could find solutions for their worries just by changing their environment.
What do you envision yourself to be like in a few years?
Even when I am busy pulling the tofu cart, I would still like to put more effort into the seminars I am holding. I would especially like to put a lot of my effort into doing away with bullying. I never thought I would drag my inferiority complex into adulthood. I had always been trying to avert my eyes away from things I didn’t want to think about and ignore my past. I want to build on my experience and use what I learned to give courage and hope to others in a similar situation.
I want to tell the little ones the important things I learned from the grandpas and grandmas I have met.
Please tell us how you felt when you drank JANAT tea. Please also provide a message for women.
I think the tea has a very relaxing taste and aroma.
It would be nice to drink this tea when I am tired of pulling my tofu cart and need a break. You are great as you are, and there is no need for you to change. You don’t have to try to be someone else. You don’t need to try and overcome your inferiority complex. You are fabulous as you are… this is what I would like everyone to know.