Rizalyn Pascual Gonoi (The Philippines)
Supervising organization staff
About 10 years ago, we held English conversation meetings and presentation events many times at a co-working space in Tokyo. At that time, Ms. Rizalyn Pascual Gonoi helped us as an English speaker and English MC. We met her again in the fall of this year (2023).
She, whom we affectionately call “Riza-san,” participated in the “Multicultural Panel Discussion: Psychological Barriers in a Multicultural Japan” (*Hosted by Global Peace Foundation Japan), which MET editor-in-chief Tokuhashi was involved in planning. We felt the gap of time and distance since we had not seen each other for a while quickly shrinking, and we asked for an interview with her.
In the past, Rizalyn and Tokuhashi used to talk and laugh about trivial things. She cheerfully and laughingly told us about her past episodes, many of which we could not hear without tears.
*Interview held at Koga, Ibaraki Prefecture
At “Mechakucha Night,” a MET-organized presentation event that was attended by a Japanese person who later became one of major YouTubers. Rizalyn is on the left in the photo and Tokuhashi, MET’s editor-in-chief, is on the right.
Protecting technical trainees
I am working for a supervising organization in Ibaraki prefecture. It is similar to a staffing agency. They hear the requests from Japanese companies and tell them to sending agencies, that send out people from the local areas who want to work in Japan. Then a supervising organization receives them in Japan and dispatches them to Japanese companies. I am in charge of the administrative procedures to enable foreigners to work in Japan. My company is mainly undertaking the acceptance of technical trainees from the Philippines and Myanmar, and our clients are mainly food processing companies that make prepared foods and processed foods.
Trainees study Japanese for two months before coming to Japan and one month after arriving in Japan before being dispatched to companies. They learn while they work and earn a wage equal to that of other Japanese staff. If they are not being paid properly, I would take it to the company. Furthermore, if they have any doubts about the trainees’ Japanese language skills, I ask them, “Will you be able to speak English fluently after only a few months of study?” (laugh)
I have been in this job for 4 years since 2019, but acceptance stopped for 3 years after 2020 due to COVID-19. But for one year before COVID, I was in charge of everything by myself, like administrative procedures such as visa applications, interpretations in Tagalog, English, and Japanese, management of trainees, and communications with companies and sending agencies, and sometimes I even did medical interpretations at hospitals for the trainees. So I think I was able to gain a lot of experience in a short time.
One of our clients has about 500 employees, of which 200 to 300 are Filipinos. They are not trainees, but part-timers and employees. They have cheerful personalities and do their jobs well, so foreigners, especially Filipinos, are very popular with Japanese companies. I find this job, which makes both the company and the Filipinos happy, very rewarding.
Tears falling into my lunch box
I came to Japan when I was in the fourth grade of elementary school. Until then, I grew up in the Province of Bulacan, a suburb of Manila. My father died when I was very young, and my mother was working in Osaka. After my mother married a Japanese man, she brought me, an only child who had been raised by my grandmother until then, to Osaka, and I was adopted by him. Later, he and my mother had a child together, and he became my half-brother.
I started attending a public elementary school in Osaka. My classmates laughed at me because I could not speak Japanese at all at the time and I was dark and had frizzy hair. At first, I thought their laughter was meant to be “friendly” toward me, but I soon realized that they were just laughing at me. On excursions and school trips, I was not allowed to join my classmates, so I walked alone and ate my mother’s lunch box by myself. “Why am I in Japan?” And tears fell into it. My questions and anger were directed at my mother.
I couldn’t learn Japanese very well. So I wanted to go back to the Philippines. But my mother only said angrily, “What are you thinking?”. I was saddened by such a situation where no one understood me. My mother, of course, did not want me to suffer. Her love for me was not to make me suffer but to tell me, “If you get over your difficult situations, something good will surely come out of it,” and “Hang in there, be strong.” Now I understand how my mother felt back then, and I am rather grateful to her because it made me stronger. But at that time, as a young child, I did not understand and could only think that the tough situation would continue forever.
But lucky for me, my homeroom teacher in my class spoke English. After class, he always asked me, “Did you understand today’s lesson?” After school, I took remedial classes from him in tears. My stepfather, who was Japanese, also bought me an English-Japanese dictionary, and manga books, and told me to study with them. With the help of various people, I acquired Japanese language skills. I imitated the lines I had learned from anime such as “Crayon Shin-chan” and “Sailor Moon,” which were popular at the time, in front of my classmates, and gradually more and more children began to talk kindly to me. My cheerful personality from my time in the Philippines returned.
I learned Japanese, became popular in class, and had hope that a happy life awaited me in Japan. However, when I was in the second year of junior high school, my mother divorced the man. For various reasons, I was forced to return to the Philippines alone and stay there. I had to make friends from scratch in a new place and a new environment. I resented my mother at that time too (laugh).
Later, after high school, I enrolled in college. While enjoying my campus life, I became a mother at the age of 19.
During the summer vacation, I visited Yamanashi Prefecture, where my mother and younger brother were living at the time. During that time, I stayed at my aunt’s house in Tokyo and worked part-time. There I met a Japanese man 25 years older than me. My father had died early in life, and I must have been starved for affection from him. I saw in him the image of my late father and fell in love with him.
Stepping into English education
I married the man and we had three daughters. At first, we lived in Tokyo, but my mother wanted us to move to Yamanashi. However, due to visa issues, I had to travel back and forth between Japan and the Philippines. The time I could spend with him was short. When I was finally able to live with him in Japan, the differences in values between us due to cultural and age differences began to affect our lives to a greater or lesser extent, and we concluded that we had to divorce. This was five years after our marriage.
Left behind in Yamanashi, I worked at izakayas, bars, and restaurants to raise my three children. I even made buckwheat noodles (laughs).
Eventually, someone told me, “Why don’t you try teaching English? There is a job called ALT (Assistant Language Teacher), and I think you would be good at it.” I went to college so I wanted to do something intellectual, but I had never taught anything before, so I was not sure if I would be able to do the job. Moreover, the image of a Japanese school teacher is that of a “serious professional”. I wondered if I would be able to teach as well as they did.
With these concerns in mind, I interviewed at an ALT dispatch company and was easily accepted (laugh). I studied mass communication at my first university to become a newscaster, and tourism at my second university because I like talking to people. As such, I thought a job teaching people something while communicating with them would be a perfect fit for me.
“What time do you start work in the morning?”
I wanted to leave Yamanashi, where I had negative memories of my divorce. I wanted to make a fresh start in a new place. The dispatch agency recommended a school in Tokyo, but I refused because I was afraid of teaching at a private school in Tokyo, where the students were of a high level, as someone with no experience at all. The agency then recommended a public elementary and junior high school in Naka City, Ibaraki Prefecture, and I decided to go there.
I left my daughters with my mother in Yamanashi and went to Ibaraki by myself. While living in a small apartment for a single person, I went around to two or three schools a week to teach and went to Yamanashi every weekend. To earn money for the expressway and gas to travel back and forth between Ibaraki and Yamanashi, I took a part-time job at an izakaya near my house after work.
While I was gaining experience at schools in Naka City for a year, one day the principal of one of the schools asked me, “What time do you start work in the morning?” as if I had a night job, which was both sexual harassment and discrimination. I immediately dyed my hair black, thinking that the fact that I had light-colored long hair at the time might be the reason for this. Moreover, the same principal even invited me out for a drink and I refused.
I’m not a native English speaker, so I need to do my best!
Some of the ALTs were from other English-speaking countries, such as the United States. Perhaps I was compared to them and Japanese teachers felt that I was not a native English speaker. No matter how much I had learned English since kindergarten in the Philippines and felt familiar with it, my native language is Tagalog. They worried if I would be able to teach English properly. There was a big difference in salary between native speakers and me. While accepting this reality, I took time out of my work to attend English teaching workshops to learn how to teach, and I also obtained a certification to teach the language.
Having thus gained confidence, I offered to teach at schools in Tokyo. However, there were no openings in Tokyo at that time, and instead, they offered me a town in Hokkaido and then Koga City in Ibaraki Prefecture. I was attracted to Hokkaido because it was an unknown place to me, but I hesitated to take my children so far away from home. Moreover, if I went to Hokkaido alone, I would not be able to see my children in Yamanashi easily. So I asked the staff of the dispatch agency, “Where is Koga?”.
I was told that Koga has good transportation and I can go anywhere smoothly. So I chose it. I gained further experience as an ALT in my new location and received a good evaluation in the report sent to the dispatch company by the city’s Board of Education. Moreover, the evaluation given by the board after they saw my classes reached 9 to 10 out of 10 points in many categories, such as brightness of character and tone of voice. I was then approached by many schools in Koga City, which gave me even more confidence.
Became a very popular instructor by word of mouth
Eventually, I was able to afford to take in my three daughters and began living with them in Koga. Around that time, a friend of mine introduced me to a job at one of the major English schools in Japan, and I began doing two different jobs, teaching at the school in the evenings after my ALT classes were over. At that school, instructors were supposed to teach at home, but I was still living in an apartment at the time and didn’t have a large room, so I taught just one student in the kitchen.
However, my reputation spread by word of mouth and the number of students increased to the point that I could no longer fit them in my kitchen at home, so I asked the landlord of the old building in front of my apartment if I could rent their room. Just as I had almost given up on renting a room due to the high rent, the landlord said, “None of the rooms in this building have been used for a long time, so if you use it as a place to teach English, I will cut your rent in half.” I started teaching there, and the number of students increased there as well, eventually opening classes in Oyama, Tochigi Prefecture, and Yuki, Ibaraki Prefecture. The number of students reached about 120, and I had to hire a sub-instructor who was also from the Philippines.
However, that situation all collapsed due to COVID. Students were not able to come to class, and this led to more class cancellations. My assistant teacher also had to return to the Philippines, and classes in Yuki and Oyama were closed. Although the Koga school remained until the end, I was forced to teach online, where it was difficult to communicate with students, and my enthusiasm for teaching was gradually diminishing.
Quitting a job and getting a new job
Right around that time, I received a consultation from a Japanese person who wanted to set up a company in the Philippines and he needed an interpreter to help him. He was thinking of establishing a local company in the Philippines with another Japanese, who was the president of a food processing company in Ibaraki Prefecture, and who would later become the chairman of the supervising organization in which I am currently working. I flew there with them and stayed for a week, but in the end, we were unable to establish a company there.
I thought I would never see them again. Two years later, however, I received a call from the president of a food processing company. He wanted to start a business that hired people from the Philippines so he needed my help again. I turned down the offer because at the time I was doing well as an English conversation teacher and also teaching English at elementary and junior high schools.
But a year later, he contacted me again and asked me, “How long are you going to do those jobs?”
At that time, my energy and stamina had reached their limits. Having already left my daytime ALT job in March 2019, I discussed working conditions such as salary with him, the board chairman of the supervising organization, and then I joined it as its head of the secretariat the following month. I continued the evening English school business at the same time for a while. However I lost motivation because my classes were mainly held online, and I stopped recruiting students and finally closed the school in 2020.
Creating a place where we understand each other
Now that we have survived the Corona disaster and have resumed accepting technical interns. I think I have a lot in common with ALTs and English schools in that I like to “take care” of my students, and I was often the one they relied on, especially children with foreign roots, such as those from the Philippines.
I still remember what my homeroom teacher, whom I met in elementary school and who saved my life, told me, “If you see children in a difficult situation, help them.“ These words and my current job overlap perfectly. No, I think it is not only my current job but also my past jobs. Helping people who were having trouble communicating in English was probably a gift to others from the kindness I received from my teacher when I was struggling to understand Japanese. It is truly “paying forward”.
The daily administrative work is very hard, but I receive words of gratitude from those who have been able to come to Japan and find work, saying, “Thank you for giving me a chance.” That moment makes me the happiest. On the other hand, I often say to them, “Of course, gratitude is important. But if you are in Japan, you should learn Japanese culture and rules.” If we introduce people who do not do so to companies and they do something wrong, they will make our organization lose its face.
After gaining experience here, one day I would like to start my own business. Many young people around the world are forced to lead disadvantaged lives. I would like to create a system that allows them to come to Japan, get a job, and earn a good salary. At that time, in addition to training and dispatching trainees, I would like to convey the good aspects of Japan to the Philippines and other foreign countries and tell Japanese companies how Filipinos work, so that both sides can understand each other. I would like to create such a place.
What is Japan to you?
It is my second home.
Of course, I love my home country. But it is here in Japan that has made me stronger. It is the people of Japan who gave me various opportunities and taught me how to live. So I even think that I don’t want to live anywhere else but in Japan.
I would like to live in Japan forever.