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Kei Kurosu '76 - Free To Be Me
Posted 05/19/2017 08:00AM

By Wendy Kobayashi

(The Internationalist Spring 2017 Vol. 58)

A Nishimachi education led to self-discovery and realisation of her life's purpose. Now, as a clinical psychologist, Kei passes that gift on to others.

Before meeting Kei Kurosu, I was told she is a Nishimachi graduate, class of '76, and a clinical psychologist. Hmmm. Sounds serious, I thought. But, whatever I was imagining a clinical psychologist might be like – and without any intended disrespect to the profession – Kei was not it. Bright, engaging, dressed in a smartly fashionable manner and speaking perfect English, Kei makes an immediate and lasting impression – which must have been an asset during her time in sales. We often hear that young people today may expect to go through several changes of career during their working lives. Kei Kurosu is the embodiment of this concept and began her journey long before it became the norm. So how did this professional working woman negotiate her path from Nishimachi (via simultaneous interpretation, as well as ad sales) to clinical psychology?

Let's go back to the beginning. One of the questions I had (and "the first thing that everybody asks") was what led Kei's parents to place her in Nishimachi? Born and raised in Tokyo, Kei is the youngest of three, with two older brothers. The family was not traditionally Japanese. Her father worked for Pan American World Airways, the airline company that is now United, and they were used to having his American colleagues over for dinner. However, it was her mother who was the driving force behind Kei's entry into Nishimachi. The family lived in Todoroki, "considered to be the boonies back then", where the neighbours were missionaries and they had several "gaijin" friends. Forward-looking Mrs Kurosu would encourage her children from a young age to play with the American kids and thus learn English (actually, she would knock on doors and ask!). And so, by the early 60s, Kei's mother had already decided that her elder son should go to an international school (initially this was ASIJ Kindergarten). But it was not without its pitfalls. "Do you know how the Japanese education system reacted to that? My mother actually had to pay a FINE to the Japanese government for not sending her son to a Japanese school. My parents were going against the rules... the law." says Kei. Sending one's child to an international school was definitely not the "done thing" at the time.

But Mrs Kurosu was both ambitious and determined. It so happened that a relative was a good friend of Tané Matsukata, and that was how she learned about Nishimachi. According to Kei, her mother "thought Japan was set to become a very international country, and Japanese people would need to communicate well and so on, and she was filled with hopes and dreams for the future". She chose Nishimachi because she empathised with Matsukata-sensei's education philosophy. It is important to remember that this was only 20 years or so after the end of WWII. Indeed Japan had been under Allied occupation until 1952. Matsukata-sensei wanted to build bridges of understanding and to make sure that all the children who attended Nishimachi understood Japanese culture, no matter what their nationality. Anyone coming from abroad should learn Japanese, to the best of their ability. In addition, Kei says, "Matsukata-sensei strongly believed that we (Japanese) needed to internationalise and globalise – so your classes might be in English and all your teachers might be from America and Europe – BUT, in order to do that, you needed to learn the language, respect the culture and your identity as a Japanese. She believed that going deeper at the cultural level is the only way we can understand one another".

Mrs Kurosu decided to send all three children to Nishimachi; however, only Kei experienced a completely international education. Her elder brother, for whom a traditional male career path – and therefore Japanese higher education – was envisaged, transferred to Japanese high school upon graduation from Nishimachi. The second brother, having seen how rigorous this process had been for the first, decided to leave after grade 5 to make the transition easier. It was left to Kei – for whom, as she freely admits, the equally traditional path of marriage and child-raising and the life of a Japanese housewife were expected – to benefit from all that a Nishimachi education had to offer its K-9 "10 Year Vets". In fact, Kei never attended Japanese school (at least, not until the age of 46 – but more of that later). The seeds of a different future were already sown.

Though impossible to imagine now, Kei says that, before going to school, she was "totally inhibited, totally shy". She couldn't even say thank you when someone handed her a balloon on the street, preferring to hide behind her mother and let her do the talking. "Nishimachi did a great job in making me bloom [...] I think this happened to most children, in their own ways". She was often exhorted to speak up in class, to think of questions and not to be shy! But in grade 3 and Mrs Kerr's homeroom, an epiphany occurred. Mrs Kerr wanted the children to make aprons and show them off to parents at a kind of fashion show. Kei "freaked out", but her teacher persisted – "Just do it, Kei! Be you!" So she did. "My mask came off, and I was free – to be me!" The newly confident Kei seems never to have looked back. She says all the teachers were like that: keen to pull out what was in each of the kids. "I think that was mostly because of the size of the school. We were like a family. I don't remember having more than 20 students in a class. We were able to have more attention from the teachers, and they had more time with us to deal with our personal issues and develop our personalities". There was no teacher whom she did not like: they were all top notch, from Kindergarten through to grade 9.

Kei says she wasn't academically superior (oh, really?) but she loved mingling with people, communicating with the teachers and being active. She enjoyed playing sport or being out in the playground, fighting wars with the boys in her grade. Basketball was the only sport offered back then in the junior high school, but she was "fully dedicated" to it. (Kei herself might not say so, but the Ayumi yearbook notes that she was their "energetic Captain". Perhaps unsurprisingly, the girls had a very successful year). Swimming was on Fridays in the Olympic size pool in Tokyo Metropolitan Gymnasium in Sendagaya; there was a diving pool in addition to a large racing pool, and students learned diving and lifesaving as well as synchronized and competitive swimming. Seasonal skiing took place in Inawashiro and Zao.

Discussing Nishimachi in the 70s, we might be talking about a different world. In fact, we are. Walking around the Matsukata House, Kei remarked, "Oh, this used to be the science room" – nowadays the business and administration office – while what is now the middle school principal's office was their maths classroom. The Matsukata House actually was the school building. The Ayumi, meanwhile, openly discusses a typical lunchtime recess, including the girls' gossip about boyfriends at St. Mary's. Looking at the black and white photos that now grace the walls of Matsukata House, Kei is reminded of trips to Kazuno where there was no hot running water (they used rain and stream water) and the worst punishment a teacher could inflict was an enforced stay in the privy. Not to put it too strongly, it was obvious for quite a while afterwards if anyone had spent time in there, and naughty kids were given a wide berth by classmates. Most of them behaved.

We like to think Nishimachi is progressive in requiring students to be independent, but the tradition goes way back. I was interested to hear that in Kei's day the Food Fair was mainly run by the students themselves. Parents might lend a hand here or there, but the kids set up the booths and did most of the cooking, it seems, and Kei remembers preparing yakitori and yakisoba to sell. She was amazed, when visiting last year, to see how things had changed. "Where are the kids?" she wondered. (Having said that, the food is more professional these days). Parents wanted to make sure the children were fully experiencing everything, so the kids took ownership of the events and were responsible for them – that was part of the education. This is what "ABSOLUTELY" had a big impact on Kei's life and how she learned to take the initiative. "Sometimes it's not appreciated by the Japanese community. But the seed was put in me, definitely. It was not something that was in me, it was planted by Nishimachi".

Kei also has clear memories of Matsukata-sensei herself. "I remember her VIVIDLY (she sighs)... although I didn't communicate with her as much as I wished to. She was sort of above the clouds. Kumo no ue no sonzai. She was a very discerning teacher, an ever-present force who had all the names and faces in her mind, and she would have conversations and chats with all the students, and the kids would sit there, awed, and answer, "Hai! Hai!"". However, perhaps in keeping with the times, there was no easy familiarity between students and head in those days. Kei recalls how a visit to see Matsukata-sensei brought on feelings of trepidation. The office carpet was a good inch thick and, whenever she went in there "I would enjoy the softness of the carpet, but I also knew that I was in trouble!".

It is Matsukata-sensei's educational philosophy that Kei attributes to her subsequent choice of life and career paths – though at the time, for her, this was simply how things were and something she took for granted. Of course, if she spoke English for her brother's Japanese friends, they would look at her as if she were some kind of animal performing in the circus! It was only after she graduated from Nishimachi and could look at things from a different perspective that she could make these observations. "My classmate Mari (Takeuchi) and I always talk about this, but the one thing that was not good about going to Nishimachi was that it completely spoiled us! Because we did have a hard time adjusting to life outside Nishimachi". Kei went on to complete high school at Sacred Heart and from there to Sophia University, attending the international side of both these establishments (however, she obtained a Japanese diploma from Sophia, in a sense "beating the system"). It was only natural that she would see career openings for girls offered by a nascent spirit of equal opportunity.

Kei graduated from Sophia in 1983 and initially trained as a simultaneous interpreter ("Which I HATED"), thinking that, since there were not many bilingual Japanese, her language skills would give her a competitive edge and it would be an easy deal for her! "Back then people thought, "Wow", if you were Japanese and spoke English", but Kei says that translating other people's thoughts and ideas was not where she wanted to invest her time and effort. "My CPU just wasn't programmed that way".

So after 3 years she called it quits and took a full-time job with McCann Erickson, the American advertising agency. She was introduced by a friend and hired as an interpreter – so her training was not entirely wasted – but, since advertising was an interesting area for her, she joined the sales department (eigyou-bu) as an account executive after a year. One might have thought this was an ideal position for a go-ahead young woman with an international education. One might have thought she would enjoy a more cosmopolitan atmosphere there. Wrong on both counts. This was still 1980s Japan! "That's where my ordeal began". In her group, there were 60 eigyou guys, but only three women among the account executives at that time. Even though ostensibly they were there to do the same job as the men, the women's perseverance was tested, and Kei spent her time making tea for her (male) bosses and photocopying. Yes, the stories you hear are true! Her male counterparts were treated as proper trainees from the start (for example, they were involved in all the important meetings) while it seemed that management was just waiting for the female recruits to announce they were going to leave and get married. Kei was at the bottom of a long, hierarchical line and had to go through two or more years of this "special training". It was very, very tough for a woman to work in that environment. One day, her senior boss called and asked her, "So, Kurosu-san, what do you think about wearing skirts rather than pants? I think it might be a smarter idea for you to wear a skirt... for the client". In other words, your clothing is effectively for the benefit of your clients. This was her nod that she was now being allowed to attend client meetings. Even if the required "dress code" made her feel more like an escort.

So how did sales go? "It went well, very well. After two years of doing all that hack work, I finally got promoted to attend client meetings". Due to her language skills, Kei often worked with foreign clients. But Japanese clients would also know that she was bi-lingual, and that didn't always sit well with them. She remembers one day being summoned to her client's office over a fax she had sent. It turned out she had committed the ultimate sin – a misplaced kanji – and he was not about to let it pass. "Kurosu-san, I know you are very fluent in English, and I fully respect you for that, but this kanji is totally unacceptable!". Rather than let it irritate her, Kei says, "I knew I had to go through that because if I decided to live and work in Japan, I needed to be immune to it... to become resilient. And that is what Nishimachi taught me... this whole thing about trying to reach out and understand where the counterpart is coming from". Gaining insight into a different mentality, one can deal with it more effectively.

She learned it wasn't always a good idea to let people know she spoke English so fluently. She had to be careful in dealing with that. "It was a big challenge for me because using English was a very important part of my identity and also a competitive edge, I think, for me". Asked if she believes things have changed, Kei says she would like to think so, but there is still prejudice. For example, after she became a clinical psychologist and was working for the Education Board, her job involved making assessments of children who would enter junior high school to make sure they didn't have any developmental issues. One day a colleague, an ex-principal in his 60s, found out she had gone through an international education – and that was it. "I don't think you are fit for this position because you have never been to a Japanese public school. I don't know why the city hall hired you because you have not been through the Japanese education system". This occurred only 5 or 6 years ago, so obstacles to acceptance and understanding can still arise.

Kei Kurosu was a highly successful salesperson and stayed with McCann Erickson until 1997. "I enjoyed my work, it took me all over the world... they gave me a lot of responsibility, and I had a lot of fun". She was working around the clock and across the time zones. She might be on a night call to New York, when suddenly she would hear birds chirping and realise it was 7 a.m. She was regularly putting in 14-16 hour days. She was a high earner. But then she had another epiphany, a wake-up call. One night, as she was coming home in a cab after another long day, she was recounting in her mind all the things she had accomplished... she had done so much work, made all her clients happy, made so much profit... when, all of a sudden, she started crying. "Oh, my God, what's going on? I realised at that moment that I was hypnotising myself to like that job for the wrong reasons: because of the glossy business card and because people would think I was kind of cool to be working as an account executive [...] and because of the stable income". She had accomplished so much, but now it felt time for Kei to get rid of all that, time to tell herself, "Stop lying to yourself!"

She recognised there was a great disconnect between her mind and her heart. This was not what she wanted to do with her life, nor where she wanted to be. She was already 36, with two different career choices behind her, but she now realised that she had always been interested in health, especially after the long, intense days at McCann Erickson and the toll they took on her physically (she had full-blown shingles for about a year). She became aware that what she really wanted to do was to help people and to heal them. "The healthiest state is to have your cognitive and your physical aspects back-to-back. My body was smart enough to make that request. I didn't have to think; I was sort of listening to my body and telling my commission to shut up!"

Accordingly, Kei spent the years from 1997 to 2005 preparing to become a clinical psychologist, working as a consultant to management at a different ad agency and for a marketing consultancy company while studying psychology in Japanese! Obviously she needed a relevant qualification, and that meant (hand-written) exams. So the first thing she did was brush up her knowledge of kanji, starting with the equivalent of grade 5 (yes, kids, you may need those kanji when you grow up – better study now!). She went to weekly psychology classes and attended workshops run by the Coaches Training Institute in the US and the UK, which was fun. But to become a CP she needed to get a Master of Arts degree, so she began to study seriously at a yobiko (cram school) for about 6 months before her entrance exam. Then it was not only back to full-time school, but Japanese grad school – and in her 40s, no less. This was another eye-opener. She was now effectively the "mama" among the other, 20-something students in her tutorial group – and she bumped up against the cultural requirements of learning in Japan. At first she imagined it would be exhilarating, because she could concentrate on studying what really excited her. But that wasn't exactly the case. None of her professors had any international experience, so she was entirely in the Japanese world, and the learning process was completely different from what she had experienced before. It was very one-sided: the professors would tell the students everything they needed to know or study and there was no discussion. At the end of a meeting, they would be asked "Does anyone have any questions?". Back in high school, if they didn't have questions, the teacher would say, "Hey, girls, don't sit there like cabbages!" and, to Kei, asking (lots of) questions was the norm. Now, far from it being a sign of interest and dedication to ask questions in an open forum, it was a sign of disrespect: maybe sensei hadn't discussed or explained everything properly (and, there was always the possibility that, if sensei couldn't easily answer a question, sensei would be embarrassed – which was cultural death). As a student, one was a mere learner, and asking an actual question was "shitsurei", or rude, because it was effectively a challenge. Kei needed to re-think her approach!

Such experiences may seem daunting, but Kei says they have made her realise she has to adapt, that there is another way of doing things. The right way at grad school was to go to the professor's office afterwards and ask her questions there, being sure to say she knew it was impertinent. It wasn't that the professors were unwilling to answer questions, it wasn't detrimental, or right or wrong – it was just different. Rather than getting angry and giving up or walking away, she had to work out why someone was behaving in that manner; what made them think like that? Her training at Nishimachi prepared her well for this analysis of other people. "As long as you know (why), you don't shut yourself out of the culture. You have to have the attitude of being open, of being able to understand". This has also helped Kei move between different school and office cultures and has given her a broader perspective in the work she does now, as a counsellor and clinical psychologist.

I wondered if Kei feels truly comfortable in the Japanese world. Kei says this is her reality: she lives in Japan, she is Japanese and she respects the Japanese culture. But she has learned to become very flexible. Anyone, no matter where they are, may have cultural discrepancies – within a company, for example. "The reason why I am able to "bulldoze my way through" is because I am now doing something I enjoy. I love being at school, seeing the children grow. Same with my clients, I love to interact with them, see their life progress. It's something I totally like to do. And all the other elements are secondary".

Kei qualified in 2008. Since then she has worked at Kanagawa Prefectural Child Consultation Center and Musashino City Education Board; as a school counsellor in Tokyo and Saitama (currently she works at two public elementary schools and a junior high school in Tokyo); and at a paediatric clinic and a psychiatric clinic. She is still putting in 16–hour days! She has no children of her own but loves to work with kids. It will be hard for her to step away from that, even though she must do so, eventually. She aims in future to concentrate more on working with parents on how to raise their kids, because sometimes parents can be at a loss how best to do this; parenting children with different needs can be especially hard, and there are many choices in terms of education. Her main focus will probably be mothers and children, because of her training; and her dream is to work with kids who attend an international school, because that is her own background.

We discussed the differences between a 60s and 70s childhood and that of kids nowadays. It's difficult for Kei, with her experience of an international education, to compare because now she's seeing children in public schools. She says these days grade 2 kids might talk about things grade 5 students would speak of 20 years ago. But, whereas children now see and hear a lot more at an early age, they don't have the same actual learning experiences in real life that she had. "Back then, kids had less information, but it was more experience-driven. I'm not sure which is more natural, more human, so to speak. Kids are seeing things now on a virtual basis, and a lot of it comes from playing games. This affects their communication [...]. A lot of children don't know how to communicate with each other". Nowadays maybe 80% of Japanese mothers work outside the home. Many families can't afford to have children unless both parents work, so the kids are stuck with gakudou hoiku (after-school care) or left with paid strangers, and there is a growing lack of communication within families.

Recently, she was in a classroom when she heard this banging sound. One girl was banging her desk on the chair of the girl in front, and that girl was reciprocating by pushing back, and they were doing this, back and forth, for about 5 minutes, without saying a word. She had to go over and tell them to use words. Since they were annoyed by one another's actions, she expected them to say to one another to stop – to verbalise. But they did not. This is why, in her social skills classes for grades 1 to 6, Kei teaches kids how to communicate. "We never had that. We used to learn those skills naturally from interacting with our friends, but now I have to teach that". In the old days, for example, boys would learn through kicking and punching each other how much strength would be detrimental to the other person and how not to abuse that. Now teachers and parents try to stop boys fighting, and virtual games can't teach them how to manage their physical strength. Kei says it's worse when parents are negligent, when they are in the same room as the kids, but they are all playing games online and not talking to each other at all.

With an eye on the future as she passed the mid-50s mark, last year Kei opened her own private practice, Keyakizaka Healing. Even as we debate globally the age at which people must (or can) retire, she won't be employed for the rest of her life – she needs to employ herself. And, as she says, "I plan to work until 5 minutes before my death!".

Right now it's difficult to manage this alongside her other work. Referrals are by word of mouth and she can only allocate one day a week (Saturdays!), so she needs to be careful and have control over her time. Kei mentions how clients can be demanding – for valid reasons – so, for her own benefit, as well as that of her other clients, she has to have strict rules against them calling her at all times of the day. Dealing with clients can be exhausting; Kei uses every nerve of her body, and she knows she could break down if she doesn't have such a policy in place. In accordance with global practice, she does not personally know her clients. "Unless you stand back, you get pulled into the client's realm, which is not good". Training and experience are what enable her to know how to deal with each client. "The way to do it is like having one foot in your zone and one foot in the client's zone. If you don't have a foot in the client's zone, you cannot empathise. And, if you don't empathise, the client cannot move forward".

Clinical psychology is becoming more prevalent in Japan (although apparently fortune telling is still more popular here than counselling!) and clients tend to be company employees whose life is out of balance in some way. She remembers that some of her ex-bosses became depressed and some died from the stress of overwork. That was originally why she wanted to go into this profession, even though she's in the education field right now, rather than business or industry. Especially for women these days, it's a lot of work to have a job and raise children. It's easy for women to lose track of who they are in their own lives. She hopes to be able to help in these areas.

I hesitated to ask if she has time for a hobby, but it turns out she has several. (Why was I not surprised?). She continues to play tennis every week and "until I opened my practice, I was taking voice training and singing lessons, and piano lessons... and I did painting with lots of supervision from my mom, who is an artist. All of this was possible because I had decided to commit a certain time zone in my life to indulge myself in creative activities". For Kei, life is to be lived to the max.

Our meeting was the first time Kei had been back to the Matsukata House after it was renovated. "What a shame I didn't return earlier, the experience has brought back very special memories of my dear days at NIS that urge me to thank my parents again for making the great decision to send me here".

Kei struggled to think of anything she might have wanted to tell her 15 year-old self (actually, she laughed uproariously, eventually deciding that she would say she didn't have to flirt so much with the St Mary's boys!). But did she ever think her life would unfold this way? "NO!! Not. At. All. I was supposed to be a housewife, that was my plan. Nishimachi made me this way. I was supposed to be a shy, inhibited, conservative, modest, humble, dutiful, subservient wife to some guy. I was supposed to be a Nishimachi parent, to work at Food Fairs, be part of the PTA and all that". But in third grade, with Mrs Kerr, everything changed. If she had to do it all again, she would do the same. Plus have children to send to Nishimachi. We laugh. There is not a hint of regret that these things didn't happen. A life lived with purpose and full of different experiences, challenges and people. Who wouldn't want that? Listening to Kei's stories of her experiences and adventures, I was reminded of the tag-line of those 70s commercials, "You've come a long way, baby!"

Kei Kurosu can be contacted at or by telephone on 090-6044-4196

Nishimachi International School
2-14-7 Moto Azabu, Minato-ku, Tokyo 106-0046 Japan Tel: +81- (0)3-3451-5520

A well-recognized, independent, and coeducational K-9 international school in central Tokyo.

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