Artist Kengo Nawashiro in front of the Japanese Diet building (Kokkaigijido) in Tokyo, photo by Judit Kawaguchi

Words to Live by: Artist Kengo Nawashiro

Artist Kengo Nawashiro in front of the Japanese Diet building (Kokkaigijido) in Tokyo, photo by Judit Kawaguchi
Artist Kengo Nawashiro in front of the Japanese Diet building (Kokkaigijido) in Tokyo, photo by Judit Kawaguchi

Artist Kengo Nawashiro, 26, loves drawing buildings and towers. His beautifully colored paintings of the Tokyo Skytree are printed on postcards and sold at art events. Nawashiro credits his success to renowned art educator Chieko Awata, who is a specialist in nurturing the talents of autistic children and adults. Nawashiro was diagnosed with autism at age 4, and his parents immediately began looking for creative outlets for him. He played the piano and tried various sports, but it was drawing that proved to be Kengo’s favorite activity and definite forte.

Being independent feels nice because I’m free, and my parents and teachers are happy too. I was 24 when I moved out from my parents’ house into a group home. There are four other boys there and a care manager, but I don’t see them often as I’m always out and about.

It’s very lucky if one’s workplace is far from one’s house. This way going to work is as fun as being at work. I use many forms of transportation to go to the factory: I walk, take a city bus, then transfer to a train that takes me to another prefecture. Finally I hop on a company bus. After work I take the same route again, backward. All my friends love trains and buses, but not everyone can ride alone.

Getting everything clean is the best job. I really enjoy my work. Since I graduated high school, I have been working full-time in a cafeteria. I love washing the dishes and wiping the tables. I also like lining up the plates. We put food on the table for 1,400 people, so we have a lot to clean and arrange. The most fun is when I tie the garbage bags and take them outside.

I wish workdays were longer. My day goes by so fast that I feel like I’ve just arrived at the factory when I’m supposed to go home. I could work longer, but I’m told that working seven hours is normal for people.

If autistic people look and behave like others, they may be misunderstood. My friend is like other boys but he has autism. Others don’t know that, so they wonder why he can’t manage certain things. My way of speaking is different from most people, so everyone knows I’m different.

Finding and using other people’s talent is the greatest talent. Many of my friends have an imprint of the train lines in their heads. I do also. We can cite every station in Tokyo and many in Japan. We love the trains. Cleaning them would be so much fun! I think more autistic people could work for train companies.

Drawing tall things is the biggest thrill. I often draw the Tokyo Skytree, as I can see it from my window. It’s very tall: 634 meters. I look up to it. Before the Tokyo Skytree was built, I used to draw Mount Fuji. Which is bigger? The one I see closer! The Tokyo Skytree looks much bigger than Mount Fuji.

Always act so your parents, teachers and friends do not worry about you. Every day I send a lot of emails from my mobile phone to my mom, dad, teacher and friends. “Good morning! Now I’m leaving my apartment.” From the train I write: “I’m at so-and-so station. It is 6:54. I passed the station at 6:56,” etc. So everyone knows where I am and what I’m doing. But I never use my phone at work.

Getting a job is hard but keeping it is more difficult, as we need to listen and make constant effort. I enjoy working hard and sticking to a schedule suits me well.

One must prepare for the death of one’s parents. On weekends I’m at my parents’ house, organizing my belongings. I have a lot of stuff and I must make it more compact, because one day my parents will die, which means I will have to move everything to the group home. I only have one room to fit all my things into. I have many photos, which I am digitizing so they take up less space.

It’s important to know when to leave people alone. My mom waits until I can do something. It usually takes a long time, but I once I’ve learned it, I don’t forget it.

Art can give people a chance to think of politics. My art class had a tour of the Japanese Diet building, and we drew the facade. We heard that there were 5 million challenged people in Japan. We’re allowed to vote, but when I’m not sure who to vote for, my mom gives me hints. We look for politicians who care about and pay attention to challenged people.

We all have capabilities, but sometimes we need our parents and teachers to be patient enough with us to bring out our talents. I had to practice the jump rope for two years until I could do a double skip. Once I did it, I realized that if I made an effort I could do anything. I think anybody can achieve what they would like to do, even though it might take years.

Japanese motel chain, Hatagoya's founder and CEO, Makoto Kai @judittokyo.com

Words to Live by: Japanese motel chain, Hatagoya’s founder & CEO, Makoto Kai

Japanese motel chain, Hatagoya's founder and CEO, Makoto Kai @judittokyo.com
Japanese motel chain, Hatagoya's founder and CEO, Makoto Kai @judittokyo.com

Makoto Kai, 62, is the founder and CEO of Hatagoya Co.,which operates Japan’s only motel chain. Kai, an avid biker, started the business in 1994 out of frustration with the lack of comfortable and inexpensive accommodation across the Japanese countryside. After traveling around the United States and staying at motels there, he was sure that many Japanese would appreciate the freedom and service they provide. Time proved him right and today 45 Hatagoya motels offer a good night’s sleep to drivers and their passengers — including furry ones, as a few rooms in each motel are reserved for those traveling with their beloved pets.

At the end of the day, you just can’t listen to others. Better yet, don’t listen to anyone from the start. If you want to begin a business and you share your idea with others, whether they are successful business owners or just friends, Japanese will likely respond with: “Yes, we need such a business in Japan! But if this was really a good idea, someone else would already be doing it.” But in the U.S., the usual comment is: “Great! Do it!” I figured that nobody knows anything when it comes to doing something new. So instead of talking, I began doing.

The biggest issue for a new company is to gain trust. In Japan, this takes years, which is often enough time to lose the business.

I created a motel that didn’t exist in Japan but I wished it did. Luckily, many people have the same taste as me. My needs are simple: park my bike in front of the room, check-in quickly and be left alone in a clean, big room with comfy beds and free high-speed Internet. I need a bathtub and a washlet and I’m happy. All this for ¥10,000 for a family of four and we even serve a complimentary breakfast of warm croissants, orange juice and coffee to make sure people hit the road in good health and spirits.

Japan has no venture capitalists. Some people call themselves venture capitalists, but the farthest they would ever venture would be to invest ¥100 and even on that, they would want ¥200 back. In the U.S., venture capitalists are individuals who take risks. In Japan, the last thing people want is risk. We don’t even have capitalists, so how could we have venture capitalists?

Stay curious at every age. Once we get older this is actually easy as we are returning to our childhood.

Once you name it, you love it more. My two Kawasaki bikes are named Kaoru and Kaeru. We have a history and it would be difficult for me to just replace them with newer machines.

If you are thinking of starting a business, be very honest with yourself. Know what you love and hate because no matter how much you like the idea of a business, the day-to-day operations will surely make you hate it. If you can still continue, the love will return, but the money may never be much. Can you still enjoy the work then?

Losing a pet is devastating. This April, our golden retriever, Maggy, suddenly died at the age of 8. Since then, my wife and I can’t sleep at night and we cry a lot. We miss her so very much.

When a couple works together, they are more likely to succeed. They have one life together and they want to make it. This is why all our motels are managed by couples. It doesn’t matter if they are married or not, but being a couple that gets along well is the job requirement. So far this system has been a huge success.

Before saving the world, save one person. Or two. . . My goal is to give people a chance. Not only a second chance, but often the last chance. Many of our employees had tough lives. Some failed in their own businesses and because of their age, many would not be hired by other companies. I’m happy to hire them because they really need a job, especially one that they can enjoy and be proud of. Ittōshōgū bantōshōkō means if we carry a light, it will brighten the surroundings and show the way to others.

CVs are not important, first impressions are. I hire people based on my feeling about them. We have 45 motels with about 58 couples working in them. The 13 couples are always moving around Japan, each taking care of one of the motels so the local managers can take a vacation. This ensures that everyone gets a break and also gives us a chance to check if the traveling couple does a good job. The ones that pass the test of our local managers will manage our next motel.

Without my wife, there is no Hatagoya motel and there is no me. She supports the staff and me 100 percent. She’s in the shadows, but she casts a long shadow on all of us.

Our motels exist so people can explore the countryside, do some trekking, hiking and fishing. The idea is not to just drive to a point of interest and return, but to keep going. My dream is that people will be able to bicycle around Japan and stay at our motels throughout their journey.

Tokyo's Anima Animal Hospital's veterinarian Chikao Muratani with two shiba inu puppies.

Words to Live by : Veterinarian Chikao Muratani

Words to Live by is Judit Kawaguchi's series of interviews with inspiring individuals. Her column has been published in the Japan Times newspaper since 2005.
This interview with doctor Chikao Muratani was published in the Japan Times on February 28th, 2014.

Tokyo's Anima Animal Hospital's veterinarian Chikao Muratani with two shiba inu puppies.
Tokyo's Anima Animal Hospital's veterinarian Chikao Muratani with two shiba inu puppies, Marron chan and Purin chan.

As told to Judit Kawaguchi

Doctor Chikao Muratani is a veterinarian and owner of Anima Animal Hospital in Tokyo’s Chuo ward. Having worked in the US for years, Muratani is fully bilingual and his spotless and beautifully designed clinic is known as a neighborhood hangout. People with pets are encouraged to pop by weekly for a chat and to measure their furry companions’ weight in order to keep a constant check on their health. Pets are treated to healthy snacks and a bit of playtime. Muratani adores animals and the feeling is mutual: on the streets around his clinic dogs on their daily walks can be spotted whisking their humans to see their friend, who happens to be their doctor, too.

Animals are always on our side, even if we are in the wrong. Animals are so innocent. They never betray their human companions and even if they are hurt by people, they forgive. They are great teachers. Loving animals makes us people into better human beings as we learn compassion and unconditional, true love.

In Japan, especially in big cities, pets are replacing human babies. Compared to even five years ago, the number of dog carts on the streets increased tremendously. People push their dogs and sometimes cats around town in cute carts, very similar to those used for babies. Pets are family members and for many Japanese, the only child they will ever have so they pamper them as much as possible.

Pain is not managed well in Japan. Japanese people have, or at least supposed to have the samurai spirit so in our culture we are supposed to gaman, meaning “ to endure suffering with patience and dignity”. This philosophy is of course has its beauty but when it comes to physical pain, gaman alone is not enough. When it comes to animals, who are often silent when in pain, we must use even more care to make sure they don’t suffer.

Omotenashi is the essence of Japan but rarely implemented in health care. It’s well-developed in the hotel industry where the staff do their best to anticipate the guests’ wishes. That’s our goal: to provide wonderful service. We should not only cure the itch, so-to speak, but find it, even before our patients feel it.

For me, having my own small clinic is such an achievement and great source of happiness. I worked in a big animal hospital in Japan for eight years. We had forty staff members, including twelve vets. By Japanese standards, this was a huge hospital that had expensive machines such as MRI & CT scanners that most clinics can never afford. I was the second in charge and my life and career was guaranteed. But something was missing: the freedom to do things as I wanted to.

Some diseases may be prevented but timing is everything. We know from many years of data collection that there is a strong correlation between the timing a female is spayed and breast cancer. If a dog is spayed before her first heat, her chance of developing mammary gland cancer is 0.05 %. If the operation is performed after the first and before the second heat, the cancer risk is 8 percent, and after the second heat, the number jumps to 26 percent. Since about 50 percent of mammary gland tumors are malignant, it is very important to spay females early on.

Euthanasia for both people and animals should be a topic of national discussion. In Japan, euthanasia for people is illegal but for animals, if they are in severe pain and have no chance of getting better, it is allowed. However, Japanese people are generally very much against putting their pets to sleep. The topic itself must be avoided at all cost so vets never ask owners if they would like to shorten the suffering of the animal by opting for euthanasia. If I were to ask, I’d be considered a monster and would lose my patients. This is because Japanese want their pets treated exactly like humans so they expect doctors to elongate their lives as much as possible. This means performing surgery and trying out various medications in the hope of curing the ailment, even if not much hope is left for a good result. Of course, at the end all we can do is provide pain killers and drips and let nature take its course. It’s often a heartbreaking process but most Japanese people feel that true love means staying by the side of their beloved pets till the very end. But when I worked in the US, we performed euthanasia very often as people there expressed their love for their pets by not letting or seeing them suffer.

Most Japanese people have “island mentality” which means that it’s hard for them to communicate with others. They often feel anxious when meeting new people and naturally their pets display the same psychological problems. This might explain why in Japan dogs usually walk with their owners, instead of playing with each other.

Animals are loyal to their human companions until the very end. Many dying cats and dogs wait for the people they love to return before they draw their last breath. This may take days or even weeks. Once their beloved person is by their side, they pass away in peace, often within minutes.