I am incredibly fortunate to be joined on the podcast by my friend Honoka – also known as @sneakysmol on Instagram.
Honoka was born and raised in Japan, but everyone assumes she is American due to her accent and native English level. We talked about how she was raised bilingual despite never living overseas, and Honoka gave some really useful advice on how to help children learn English naturally!
Honoka also runs a popular and bilingual Instagram page focused on Japanese feminism, so we also discussed Japan’s recent performance in the gender inequality rankings and tried to explain why Japan is so unequal.
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Bilingual (adj) – written, created, or sone using two languages
Her Instagram posts are bilingual
(it’s a) small world (idiom) – used to show surprise that people or events in different places are connected
You know my old teacher! Wow, it’s a small world
To immerse (v) – to become completely involved in something
I spent the weekend immersed in books
Lingo (n) – a type of language that contains a lot of unusual or technical expressions
I’m not used to the lingo used on the internet these days
Vernacular (n) – the form of a language that a particular group of speakers use naturally, especially in informal situations
The English you learned at school is very different from the local vernacular of some British towns
Feminist (adj) – relating to feminism or the idea of achieving change that helps women get equal opportunities and treatment
She has become interested in feminist issues
To incorporate (v) – to include something as part of something larger
The film incorporates elements of fantasy and science fiction
Bangs (n) – an area of hair hanging over the forehead (known as “fringe” in the UK)
It is very common for Japanese girls to have bangs
Informative (adj) – providing a lot of useful information
This is an interesting and highly informative book
DM (n/v) – abbreviation for direct message – private message sent on social media
If you have any questions, please DM me on Instagram
Safe space (n) – a place or situation in which you are protected from harm or danger
Counselling should be a safe space to reflect on what is happening in your life
To convey (v) – to express a thought, feeling, or idea so that it is understood by other people
I tried to convey in a my speech how grateful I am for all your help
Time-consuming (adj) – a time-consuming task takes a lot of time to do
Producing a dictionary is a very time-consuming job
Gender equality (n) – the act of treating women and men equally
Even rich countries sometimes struggle with gender equality
Parity (n) – equality, especially of pay or position
Firefighters deserve pay parity with police
STEM (n) – Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics
We want to see more women studying STEM subjects
Patriarchy (n) – a society controlled by men
The patriarchy has not disappeared – but it has changed form
Cisgender (n) – used to describe someone who feels that they are the same gender as the physical body they were born with
Cisgender is the opposite of transgender
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A Conversation with Honoka! (Podcast Transcript)
Hi Honoka, how are you?
I’m very good, thank you!
Can you introduce yourself to my audience?
Hi everyone! My name is Honoka. I am from Yokohama, Japan – born and raised.
I really loved my city. I’ve never really left my city. I’m a grad student in Tokyo and I work part time for a few jobs, and I have a feminist blog on Instagram where I post about feminist issues, especially in Japan.
I found you through your blog, but I actually know you in real life!
Yeah, such a coincidence.
One of the previous guests on this podcast, Marie from the Feminist Majo blog, shared something that you had posted! I thought, “wow, this person has written bilingually in Japanese and English, and the English is really good so maybe I can interview her on my podcast.”
And then I found out it was someone I’ve had lots of classes with at Graduate School.
Yeah, absolutely. I was very surprised when I got your e-mail. I was like what a small world.
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Is Honoka American?
You said you’re from Japan, but my listeners are probably wondering, are you not American? Because I thought you were American!
Well, I get that a lot. Actually, this month I met like 20 people and all of them came up to me and asked where I’m from in the states.
I am not American. I was born and raised in Yokohama, Japan, but I get mistaken for one a lot.
Are you a native English speaker?
No, my mother tongue is Japanese. I grew up in Japan, so I speak mostly Japanese outside of school.
How long have you been studying English then? Because the reason people think you’re American, I believe, is that your accent is very American. But also, you use English very naturally. So how long have you been studying or learning?
Well, as long as I can remember, my mom really wanted me to be bilingual. Which I’m very thankful for, but since I was born, she basically made me sit in front of a TV watching American shows.
What shows? Do you remember any?
I watched a lot of Disney when I was a kid, so my mom really wanted to immerse me in like English as a as a baby and when I was a toddler. So, I did that, so I never really like fully studied it in the conventional sense, but I learned it through watching TV, just listening to things.
Is your mother a fluent English speaker?
She speaks it on a business level. She can work in English, so she has a lot of business meetings and whatnot in English, but she’s a very like “I learned it in Japan”, kind of English speaker, so she often asks me for help for things and she doesn’t really understand like memes and my Instagram posts
You are now studying in English mainly, right? Your Graduate School is mainly in English? Is it difficult for you to study in English or did you do your undergraduate in English as well?
Yes, I did my undergrad in English too. It was a Japanese school, but I did it English, so I’ve never fully had a college level education in Japanese. I actually had a class this last semester that I had to write in Japanese and I didn’t know how to format it.
That was that was going to be my next question. Are you better at writing in English or in Japanese?
Definitely in English. Yes, I can write in Japanese. In a lot of the things I study, there’s just not enough lingo and vernacular that I can use in Japanese that apply, so it’s easier to just write in English and then think about in Japanese.
Do you think in English or dream in English? Or do you think in Japanese and dream in Japanese?
I do both. It depends on the situation. Like I said, when I’m thinking about feminist issues there’s just not enough Japanese words to describe the things that I’m thinking because the concept itself doesn’t exist sometimes.
It’s easier to think about things in English, but for concepts that only exist in Japanese, obviously that’s much easier to think in Japanese. Or when I’m talking to my mom, it’s much easier to think in Japanese
I’d assume with feminism, Japanese probably borrows a lot of words from English anyway, so when Japanese feminists speak in Japanese, they’re probably using a lot of English origin words, right?
Yeah, absolutely. It’s a lot of loan words, so I have to say English words in a Japanese way and hope that people understand. If not, I’ll try to explain – but yeah, it’s kind of hard to just think in Japanese itself for things like that.
Do you still study English now or is it not something you think about?
I don’t really study English, but whenever I watch the news or I read something and I don’t know a word, I try to look it up and try to incorporate it into my vocabulary list, but I don’t actively study English anymore.
How many people would you say mistake you for American a year?
A year? I don’t know? Every time I meet someone new who’s an English speaker and I approached them in English – they ask me, “oh, which part of the US are you from?”
Have you been to the USA?
Yes, I go to the US quite often because my partner lives in the US. But I’ve never studied in the US. The longest time I’ve stayed in the USA is probably 2 1/2 weeks.
How does it make you feel when someone assumes you’re American?
I try to take it as a compliment to my English and my pronunciation. But sometimes I can tell that it’s not really a compliment when it’s certain people, but I always try to say, “oh thank you.”
It’s not just due to language when people assume you’re American. I think culturally you use a lot of slang that would be common in America and, would it be fair to say, the way you dress and the way you act is not completely Japanese, right?
Absolutely, actually this happened about two weeks ago. A boy who I’d never met came up to me and asked me from which part of the US I was from. I said, “I’m from here” and he said, “oh, I assumed you were from the US because of the way you look.”
I get that a lot because I don’t wear the conventional Japanese make up and I don’t have bangs which are very common in Japanese girls. I’m not trying to look particularly non-Japanese, it’s just the way I like.
I’m definitely influenced by a lot of like American looks and aesthetics because of the way I grew up just watching a lot of the TV shows.
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What is SneakySmol?
I found you through your blog on Instagram. You make informative and interesting bilingual posts about feminism and especially feminism in Japan. Can you tell us a little bit about your blog?
Well, it’s an Instagram blog where I mostly discuss Japanese feminist issues, but also certain global topics that are trending that week. Some topics are things that really don’t seem like a huge deal, for example what kind of drinks you order and choose at a bar, but those kinds of things also have a lot to do with some stereotypes and cultural background.
As well, I also look at big topics – like this month, we had the US abortion laws. So, I talked a little bit about that. I just talk about overall issues surrounding feminism that I can find.
I don’t think we’ve mentioned the name of your blog. What’s the name?
You’ve been running the blog for about 2 years. I guess most people who started something in the pandemic 2 years ago have quit by now. So why did you continue? Why are you still doing it now?
Well, when I originally started like I didn’t really intend like for it to be such a big deal. I mean, it’s not a big deal, but for me it has significance.
And while I was posting things, a lot of people would DM me or comment saying they were looking for a place like this where they can discuss and also let out their frustrations. I realized, “oh there are other people like me who are looking for a place and who need the safe space to discuss things?”
I just really wanted to give people a chance to be able to have that safe space and with the pandemic it became even more difficult to find a place because we can’t go out and the only place that we could all get together was online.
I figured I should just continue this so that people have a place to get together and let out whatever it is that they’re holding inside.
Is it a challenge to make bilingual posts?
Absolutely, it’s really hard to convey what I want to say in Japanese because the concept itself sometimes just does not exist. I usually have to think about them in English and then convert it into Japanese.
I sometimes do the opposite because a lot of the issues that I talk about are Japanese. This means a lot of feminist lingo just doesn’t exist, so I try to think of the harder academic words in English, and then translate that into Japanese and see if they actually make sense.
Sometimes that’s just really difficult and time consuming, but I really want people who aren’t English speakers, who can’t understand English, or who are learning English to be able to also have that space to understand and learn.
I try to make it bilingual as much as I can and make it very similar.
There will be quite a few people listening to this podcast now, so if you’re interested in feminism, please go over to @sneakysmol because it’s a great place to practice English as well as learn something important.
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Gender Inequality in Japan
One of your recent posts which I found really interesting was about the gender gap in Japan. Some of my listeners might be surprised to hear how Japan performed in the “global gender gap” or “global gender equality rankings.” How did Japan do?
Japan was sadly 116th out of 146 countries this year. There are usually more countries ranked but in comparison there’s not in a lot of countries that were reported this year, but we performed quite poorly.
A lot of people outside of the country have told me that the that’s really shocking to them, because when you hear about Japan, you think “oh, it’s such an advanced country. You have a lot of technology. You have so many different pop cultures and different cultures.”
They’re very shocked to hear that Japan is 116th out of 146. That seems really low, but the lived reality of people who don’t identify as male in this country is not exactly equal, and I feel that all the time. Which is why I post about it!
All across the world there are problems with gender equality, of course. But people often put Japan in with Western Europe or North America or Australia and New Zealand. In reality, Asian countries including Japan and Korea are two of the worst performing countries in the entire world for gender equality.
When we say gender equality, what are the different categories of equality?
The rankings rank gender equality in four aspects. One is education, the second one is politics, third is economics and the last one is health.
Japan performs quite well when it comes to education because we have achieved gender parity.
Japan is number one in the world, right? Which makes the low score so surprising, because how can you be 1st in a quarter of the rankings, but 116th overall?
Yes, exactly. It’s great that we achieve gender parity, but even within education there’s still a lot of inequality with the kind of things that we can study. Girls are still not encouraged to go into STEM, which is a huge problem and sometimes schools even discourage it, so they don’t allow girls to enter certain universities even though they performed better than boys.
I guess the problems in Japanese education are not Japan specific, right? The whole world faces these problems, but it’s in the other categories where Japan performs poorly. For example, health.
The Japanese health care system is pretty good. So why is there health inequality in Japan and how did they perform in the ranking?
In the rankings they didn’t perform as poorly as the politics and economics aspect of it, but it still wasn’t number one like education.
One of the big issues when it comes to health is that we don’t really support women when it comes to reproductive health. Japan has a very low birth rate and politicians are always encouraging women to have more babies, but we don’t have enough support for that.
Whenever women feel sick, we are told to “get over it.” If we’re having problems because we’re on our period, it doesn’t matter – “Go to work.” We’re never fully supported in those areas, and we’re also never believed when we say we’re sick. People just brush it off and say, “it’s OK, you’re tough enough.”
It’s really important for health sectors to realize that women also have bodies that have medical needs and to believe us and to cater to us not just have medicine be for everyone
Japan was about 60th in the world, right? But the next two categories get significantly lower rankings – in politics and economics. Let’s start with economics – what is the problem of economic equality in Japan?
As for why we perform so badly in the current ranking, the pandemic really made a difference for the workforce in Japan, especially for women. Most women in Japan work as temporary or irregular workers.
They were usually more likely to be working in the service industry, like cashiers or waiters in a restaurant. So, when the pandemic hit, they didn’t have chances to go to work anymore because their work was shut down.
When people were laid off, women were more likely to be told to go home in comparison to men. Their economic participation was really low compared to men. Even if women were able to go to work, they were always encouraged to stay home with their kids because kids weren’t going to school.
Who’s going to stay home with the children and take care of them? Usually, it was the women. Again, their economic participation went down, and overall rankings went down.
You’ve grown up in Japan and I’ve spent quite a lot of time studying Japanese working, but most of my listeners probably don’t know much about the Japanese employment or work system.
Something still present in Japan today is a lifelong employment system. You start work when you’re 21 or 22 and you work for the same company until you retire. But the problem for women is if they leave work to have children and raise their children, they can’t enter this system again.
So, all of the good, well paid, and regular jobs are lost by women, generally by the time they’re 35. They’ve had a child and then they can’t enter the workforce again. They’re reliant on temporary jobs. That was what Honoka was talking about.
Absolutely yeah, because in Japan once you’re 22 you get your job and you’re expected to stay at that job forever. So often employers would ask women, “Are you sure you’re going to be able to stay in this work?” Obviously, they want more workers, but they don’t want workers who just up and quit.
They don’t have a system where women can come back when they want to go back into the work they love and want to do. And then the government still tells us that we need to have more babies!
Why is Japan politically in equal?
In my opinion, this is just my opinion, I think the people in power who are mostly older men don’t want change because they don’t want to change a system that benefits them. Why would they let in people who would create, change and make it harder for them?
Although in the election this month there was a record 35 seats won by women, which is incredible, a great thing, and I’m really glad that they won their seats. But even when female politicians are in government, they’re usually very influenced by the patriarchy
They aren’t really an accurate representation of what female citizens need, and they rarely are able to speak up about the kind of issues that we need them to speak up about. It makes it harder for us to have a voice in the government and politics.
I think it’s quite easy to assume that if a woman is elected to Parliament or to the national diet in Japan or Congress in America, that it is some achievement for feminism. But that’s the wrong way to think about it.
I always give the example of my country, the UK. We’ve had two female leaders, Margaret Thatcher and Theresa May, both kind of anti-feminists, right? They’re conservative politicians. We might have another female leader in September – it’s either going to be Liz Truss or Rishi Sunak. Truss is also a conservative, not a particularly liberal person who is looking to change and make the country more equal and fairer.
Just because women are in Parliament doesn’t mean they’re actually going to be voting as a feminist, voting as a liberal, progressive woman.
Exactly! I am very happy that a lot of seats were won by women – that’s incredible. It’s great because we do need seats. But just because we filled the quota doesn’t mean that we are going to have a voice. And what’s important is for us to be heard, not for us to have just have a seat.
We’ve talked about Japanese gender inequality across these four different categories – health, politics, economics, and education.
Why does Japan have a problem with gender inequality?
Do you think there is a reason overall why Japan is considered quite an unequal country in in this regard? Is there a like an overarching reason?
Well, I think it’s because we’ve settled in what’s comfortable and no one has questioned “why?”. We’re just comfortable in this situation.
I talk to people my age about things that I’m concerned about when it comes to Japanese feminism, and they’re like “why are you concerned about that? Who cares? We’re comfortable. We’re not dying. it’s fine.”
But for me, who wants to have more for women and who wants women to have more opportunities, I feel it’s because people who are not cisgendered heterosexual men haven’t really had an opportunity or were allowed to ask why we’re in this patriarchal society.
The people who are uncomfortable with the situation rarely have a voice or have a chance to question things. The powerful people, who are usually elderly men, would obviously not want to relinquish their power to give us a little bit more.
How do you think the situation can be improved? How do you think Japan can become a more equal country in regard to gender?
I really think that educating young people is really important.
We need to influence young minds into realizing that their limitations aren’t within their gender, because it’s really hard to change the minds of people who are already settled into what they believe in. Making sure that the new generation knows that their limits are whatever they decided is important. I want younger people, whether it’s people in their 20s or younger, to be able to move on from this patriarchal society and understand.
That’s why I want to post things that are more relatable to people who are younger so that they can slowly start to realize new things, new possibilities, and new kinds of ideas
Tips for Learning English
Do you have any tips or advice or recommendations for learning English or learning about feminism for my listeners?
Well, for English, the best way that I learned was basically just watching a lot of TV. I love TV. I know that TV influences a lot of the way I am, I completely adopted my accent from TV.
I didn’t live in the US. I didn’t have any English teachers that taught me specifically American English. It was just TV. If you enjoy something, maybe try watching it in English.
When I was younger, I used to write a lot of short stories. They weren’t for anyone to read, they weren’t very grammatically correct, and the structure was all over the place, but I just really liked writing.
If you have a chance, maybe just drop some ideas down or write a short story or write a diary or something.
Yeah, writing a diary is a good tip, and actually reading is one of the best ways to improve your writing!
I loved reading! My bookshelf was stacked when I was younger. My mom had a lot of trouble finding English books for me, because this was before Amazon. I love reading so that that’s a great tip for English.
As for feminism and learning about that, I would say try to look at things with like a critical eye. I have a lot of trouble watching Japanese TV. I have the perspective of feminism, so I’m very critical about the types of people portrayed on TV or the kind of things they’re saying.
How to Raise a Bilingual Child!
Most of my listeners are between the ages of 28 and 40. I have listeners from all ages, but 28 and 40 is about 50% of my audience and that is kind of the age when people have children. Maybe some of them are making an effort to educate their children in English from an early age.
As a child who was educated in English from a very early on… from when you were born basically, do you have any advice for raising a bilingual child as a bilingual child?
What I think my mom did really well is that I never questioned my environment, which I know is really difficult living in Japan. Like I said in the beginning, I really didn’t know Mickey Mouse spoke Japanese. It was just natural to me.
Whenever I would watch TV, this was back 20 years ago, my mom would ask people who are living in US to send VHS tapes with the commercials and everything to us and we would send them a Japanese one in exchange. I would watch it and there were commercials, American commercials and everything, so it was never weird to me.
I hear a lot of people saying their kids telling them to change the channel, or change the language settings, but I didn’t know that was an option. It’s good to make it as comfortable and as like natural as possible. I know that’s very, very difficult to do, but make sure that your kids are not questioning why they’re using English, it’s just part of their life.
My mom was always judged when I was younger because 20 years ago was not as common as it is now to try and raise their kids bilingual, so people would tell her “Honoka’s Japanese is going to be really bad because you’re doing this.” But my mom told herself that can’t be true as she lives in Japan. She will be fine.
I think you’re a great role model, not just to people learn English because you kind of learned as a native speaker, but also to people wanting to raise a child who is bilingual. Honoka is an example that you can raise a fluent child in two languages.
Do you want to Think in English?
I’m so excited that you found my blog and podcast!! If you don’t want to miss an article or an episode, you can subscribe to my page!
Tell people where they can find you and what kinds of things you’re doing at the moment.
We are a social business that tries to support women who quit their jobs because of childcare or who weren’t able to pursue their careers because of differing reasons. We try to support women by getting them back into the workforce or we have a consulting for different types of companies
But please also follow my actual account where I post about Japanese feminism. If you want to DM, comment, or like that’s incredibly supportive for me and I always read all of them, so please do.
Definitely go and have a look at all of Honoka’s posts – they’re all in English and in Japanese as well. So perfect for everyone listening.
Thank you so much, Honoka.
No, thank you so much.
That was my conversation with Honoka – I hope you all enjoyed listening! We talked about a lot of different things – being raised bilingual, writing a blog on feminism, inequality in Japan, and some tips to help you learn English.
If any of you are interested in raising children to become bilingual English speakers, I think Honoka is a great role model. She is Japanese, educated and lived in Japan her whole life, but speaks English fluently due to immersion as a child.
Is your country equal? Would you try to raise your child bilingual? Do you enjoy writing stories and watching TV in English?
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