When I spotted her in the Japanese restaurant where she was working, she looked a lot different, dressed traditionally in the long tight skirts that forced her and her colleagues to walk like red, yellow and blue penguins. Now, the next day, just before her next shift, she looks very worldly again in jeans and T-shirt.
She arrived in Austria in 2009. ‘Because of music. I’m a soprano, I was studying classical music in Japan when I was offered a chance to study here,’ she says sitting in a terrace around the corner from the legendary Musik Verein, one of the many concert halls in Vienna: it is the world capital of classical musical and one of the reasons why they welcome foreign talent, make it easy for them to come and work here. ‘It has always been my dream to live abroad, at least once in my life. Music was important, but living abroad more, and music became the means… My parents supported me, my teachers also, so I could come here. My father is a doctor, a very serious man. And he had always taught me the importance of having a clear goal. And the discipline to achieve it.’
We speak in German, even though her English is quite good: she learnt it in high school. ‘In general Japanese are not very good at it,’ she says. And it was in Vienna that she met her husband, who is Vietnamese by birth. ‘He has an Austrian passport now, but he had to ask for a visa often, it was quite a hassle.’ Trotzdem, nevertheless, is the word she uses a lot.
Do you want an Austrian passport as well?
‘No,’ she nods.
‘Because my Japanese passport is very valuable, it allows me to travel everywhere and I have to give up that one if I apply for an Austrian one.’
The Japanese only have friends?
‘Yes,’ she laughs – she does that a lot.
Now you’re not so much into music right?
‘Well, at 30 – I’m 31 now – my approach towards music changed. A change of priorities: now my family is most important. I would like to become a mother. And when I’m a mother I would like to continue working, but the life of a performing artist would be too difficult, with all the travelling, sometimes two months away.’
What does your father think about that?
‘He said that even though it is a pity; sometimes one has to give up his or her dreams. In Japan I was working all the time very hard, habe ich gas gegeben all the time, and now, here in Europe, I am able to relax a bit. Here one can live and breathe. The pace is different there: it is only working, no time to think, to reflect. And why? Here people think about what makes them happy. My friends are happy, and they are checking all the time are we happy. Here life is easier.
Do you feel at home here?
‘No… I grew up in a city, in Kobe, I’m used to not knowing a lot of people. And there are already so many Japanese here. Well, maybe… I have felt a bit uncomfortable here in university, when people from the administration show little patience with, but outside no. You know, I know I’m a stranger, but I don’t think people look at me because of that. Men look at pretty women in the streets. And that’s why they look at me, I hope – that’s how women think.’ She laughs again. ‘My husband feels more of a stranger, even though he was raised here and even speaks with an Austrian accent. The funny thing is that in Japan people think he’s Japanese, because he’s with me, and he told me that it felt great, not to be looked upon as a stranger.’
And your children, if you have them? Will they be accepted, even though they will look foreign?
‘It will be easier, I guess, also because here in Vienna younger generations will be used to seeing people of other colours and background. But nevertheless, if you want a job, you have to better than the local people. Maybe not everywhere, but certainly in places where you are dealing with other people, where language and knowledge of the other person’s cultural background is of importance.’
For four months she now works in the Japanese restaurant. They are all Japanese, right?
‘No, there are also Chinese and Mongolian girls,’ she laughs at my mistake.
You see, for me, a European man, it is quite difficult to tell the difference. Do you have the same problem with us?
‘Yes, sure. Especially since so many people in Europe have a mixed background. I can hear it though. I can hear when somebody speaks French, Spanish or Italian. But not the difference between
Schweitzerdeutsch and German.
What was your image of Europe, before?
‘People are easy going, they enjoy life. They take care of the environment. Not in Paris or Italy, but here fashion was very disappointing… Not very hip. I can’t buy anything here.’
‘No, the quality is not good, and the colours don’t match the colour of my skin.’
She is happy with her job at the restaurant. ‘But I want to be a kindergarten teacher. I love working with children – I’m always interested in knowing what makes children happy, how they are, what makes them self-confident. And the kindergarten also needs music, so I can sing there as well. I have to study again, for three days a week, three years. I would like to become pregnant soon.’ And Austria’s social system would come in handy then: she doesn’t have to work then.’
What things are better in Japan than here?
‘Food! Here all they eat are schnitzels. You can choose from five or six things on menus. In Japan there are constantly new things, new developments.
And there is more respect for elderly people, no matter if you’re a doctor or a cleaning lady. If you work hard, you are respected. But on the other hand, the Japanese society is harsher: you are a winner or a loser and if you have money you are a winner. Here it is different: people don’t think so much in terms of winning or losing, what matters if you’re happy. Money is not that important.’
What do you know about the EU?
‘Not a lot. And I don’t see a lot of difference between the countries, to be honest. When I travel, to Switzerland or to Italy, I don’t notice I’ve crossed a border. In Japan it would be different: it’s an island.’
She has to leave – her shift in the restaurant starts in twenty minutes.