A “Filipino” Sushi Bar in Tokyo and the “Conquest” of Mt. Everest

The author is a visiting scholar of Waseda University and associate professor (on sabbatical leave) at De La Salle University. This piece was published in the Yellow Pad column of Business World, 26 April 2004 edition.

Now and then, amidst widespread defeatism and cynicism, stories of
admirable Filipinos crop up. The indomitable Filipino spirit is found
in those who choose to demonstrate certain human qualities and defy the
odds wherever they are. Most of the time, the odds are
socially-embedded constraints, structures that limit opportunity and
achievement. Whether they come from the elite or lower social strata,
individuals are usually powerless against such limiting structures.
Many have responded by migrating without losing their love for country.
Others quit their jobs, not for lack of trying but to find a greater
sense of fulfillment elsewhere.

Near my apartment in Waseda, there’s a famous sushi bar. Its fame
derives from its owner (okami-san) being a Filipina and which serves
excellent sushi in the traditional Japanese fashion. The Yanagawa sushi
bar has regular customers from Waseda University, the nearby government
ward offices and publication companies, and others from farther places.
I was introduced to the sushi bar by a Waseda University professor.
“Come,” he said, “let’s go to the sushi-bar owned by a Filipino
mama-san.” Not a few famous Filipinos visiting Tokyo have gone to the
place.

Born the second of thirteen children, Marie “Mayang” Nihei (nee
Bernabe) left Cabanatuan, Nueva Ecija in 1980 after graduating from
high school. An aunt had encouraged her to become a cultural dancer
like herself. Marie had other options like staying with another aunt in
London and continuing studies there. She chose Japan to help her
family, and was four out of 150 applicants who made it to a Tokyo-bound
cultural dance troupe.

She landed in Shinjuku and danced the tinikling and other folk dances
for the contracted four months. Marie returned to Cabanatuan with
20,000 pesos in savings, which was principally used to improve the
family house. Then, about a year later, she returned to Shinjuku. This
time, Marie worked as a solo singer. Her voice wasn’t good, she said,
but the merry Japanese enjoyed it when anyone sang enka (or Japanese
songs).

In Shinjuku, Marie met her future husband, who was 10 years her senior.
Tabo, as he’s called, fell in love with her and she with him. They got
married soon and had two children, Maiko and Seiichi. Tabo was the only
son of a tuna broker in Tsukiji, the famous Tokyo fish market.

For about ten years, Marie centered her life on family. She never
complained and lovingly worked the chores. She cleaned the house, did
the laundry, and took care of the children, her husband, and in-laws.
These were chores that daily occupied her until midnight. The day
usually started early since the adults had to wake up at 4:30 in the
morning and go to the fish market. Marie learned how to properly clean
the house when, as a student, she stayed with her aunts and uncles.
They were university professors in Nueva Ecija. She saw how the maids
did the general cleaning—from the ceiling down to the floor. This was a
valuable experience for her, living with the in-laws and all. She
admitted that she was fortunate to have stayed for sometime with her
aunts.

Like most Japanese and Filipinos, Marie lived simply, was polite and
humble. She was also personable, caring, and responsible. These were
qualities that immediately endeared her to everybody in the household
and eventually gained her respect in the community. When the children
went to school, Marie met and became friends with the other Japanese
mothers. She was not afraid to approach people and ask. In turn, her
fellow mothers willingly taught her things that she wanted to learn.
Marie endeavored to know many things about Japan, including the
language, how to cook Japanese food, and other aspects of culture.
After all, she decided to focus her life on family and stay in Japan.

But life has its ups and downs. Her father was killed a few years
later. Not long after, her son, Seiichi, was diagnosed with a rare
sarcoma. The doctors in the hospital thought that the boy would not
last the year. Marie refused to believe this and asked her husband to
bring their son elsewhere. If needed, they would sell their possessions
to pay for the hospital bill. Near Tsukiji, they found a hospital that
specialized in cancer. For three years, the boy was confined there and
underwent chemotherapy and other treatments. Finally, the boy received
a successful bone marrow transplant that made the condition benign.
Seiichi is now in college.

Those years of ordeal gave Marie Nihei the determination to work extra
hard and succeed (in her words, ganbaru). A year after Seiichi’s
successful operation, Marie and Tabo opened the Yanagawa sushi bar.
Tabo’s parents liked the idea and supported them with capital and fresh
fish coming from Tsukiji. In the winter of 1993, Marie biked through
the biting cold wind in order to distribute hundreds of promotional
leaflets to households, companies, and government offices in the
neighborhood. The sushi bar was a hit since opening day.

Marie said that the key to continued patronage was pakikipag-kapwa tao.
The sushi chef and staff were treated like family. She was not timid
and got to know her customers, who became regular patrons. The select
fresh fish from Tsukiji was excellent. Through word of mouth, more
patrons came, including foreigners who saw comfort in a sushi bar owner
who could speak in English. It was not uncommon for foreigners billeted
at the nearby Waseda Rihga Royal Hotel to drop by.

At the sushi bar, Marie did all kinds of work. She cleaned the place,
washed the dishes, waited on customers, prepared tea and miso soup, and
even cut fish. She had to learn how to use the formal Japanese terms
and language expected in a Japanese sushi-bar.

Marie recounted how fifteen Japanese volunteered their blood to save
her son in the hospital. In 1996, she decided that it was time to pay
it forward. Through a Philippine contact, she helped the Nueva Ecija
voluntary blood donation campaign, which became an ongoing social work.
Material donations were sent from Japan to help create awareness among
potential blood donors. Through her, tokens from Japan such as radios
and hearing aids were given to blood donors.

She began by posting a sign inside her sushi restaurant. The sign asked
for donations of all kinds for the blood program. To her surprise, many
customers later brought bags of material donations. Then, one day, the
Japanese broadcast media interviewed her for being the Filipino owner
of a sushi-bar in the heart of Tokyo. During that interview which was
shown on TV, Marie plugged a plea for non-financial material donations
for the Nueva Ecija program. Since then, people and NGOs from all over
Japan responded by sending towels, dentures, hearing aids, transistor
radios, computers, etc. She used her savings from the sushi bar for
shipping these items and other expenses.

During her spare time from family and business, Marie goes to the gym
and involves herself in a number of other activities. She is the
current president of Teatro Kanto, a theatrical arts group performing
in Japan. She is a reporter of the DWNE radio station and a member of
the Japanese Filipino Golfers’ Association. She has received awards
abroad and in Nueva Ecjia.

Marie and others have found that in some foreign countries
opportunities abound for personal fulfillment. They have conquered
their initial limitations. By their example, they are able to counter
the sliding international image of Filipino qualities. For sure, there
are also limiting structures abroad but these structures could be
overcome if one worked hard and made the right decisions. Many Filipino
migrants are not able to successfully integrate in their host
countries. Their attitudes towards learning the local language and
adopting the culture have been obstacles to effective social
integration. Their timidity has frustrated successful interaction with
locals. As such, they find themselves increasingly marginalized and
discriminated.

Back in the Philippines, mass migration goes on because of strong
economic disincentives and scarce opportunities. In government, the
service could be frustrating to many because hopes of creating a better
government are blocked by people constituting a system that profits
from it. (The System is not exclusive to any one presidential
administration and its eradication is a primary challenge to collective
action.)

Recently, a Philippine government official has announced his intention
of quitting his post soon. He wants to uplift the Filipino spirit
elsewhere by joining the first national team to climb Mt. Everest.
Indeed, to conquer the Earth’s highest summit entails risk of life and
limb. Once more, we become aware of the indomitable Filipino spirit in
the search for national glory. Will the Mt. Everest team encounter
limiting structures? Hopefully not. The team deserves the country’s
support and prayer.

No comments yet.