Savvy Spotlight: Breaking Childcare Barriers With Aki Higuchi of Selan

How one woman chose to tackle two of Japan's most pressing issues

By Alexandra Homma
September 30, 2016
Careers

When earlier this September, Japan's Ministry of Health, Labour and Welfare announced that there are 27,185* children on the waiting list for day care facilities in Tokyo alone, Japan once again stood in shock, confronted by the gravity of women's struggles of managing a career and a family. The problem is persistent and real. "It is the predominant belief that mothers should handle everything at home" that adds much to the pressure on working women in Japan as they strive to build families.

Thus argues Aki Higuchi, a 27-year-old entrepreneur who in 2015 launched Selan, a Tokyo-based company providing bilingual babysitting and education services for children of busy parents. A year into the launch, the service — called “OmSister” — is observing a rapid growth of users, with the company now looking after over 100 children. The ground-breaking service tackles two of Japan’s most pressing issues: the necessity of child-rearing support and boost of naturally established bilingual education — while it also teaches children to have role models and take nothing for granted.

Savvy Tokyo catches up with Higuchi at her office in Daikanyama to learn more about her business and background.

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First things first. Tell us about your background and current career.
I was born in Japan between a Japanese father and a Chinese mother and grew up living in China, Japan and the U.S. at different stages in my life. Since my parents were both working full-time, ever since I can remember, we had college students coming to our house to take care of me and my younger sister.

Being exposed to different cultures was very natural for me and that largely affected my career path.

After graduating from college in China, I returned to Japan and worked at a recruiting company for two years, following which at the age of 26, I established Selan, which provides “OmSister,” a bilingual service assisting working mothers.

What exactly is “OmSister”?
The word derives from omukae (pick up) and “sister,” referring to a person who is close to you just like your older sister. Our bilingual babysitters pick up the children from daycare, kindergartens or school and take them home or go directly to the clients’ homes upon request. When we meet the children, we send a photo to their parents, letting them know that everything is on track.

Once at home, we have English lessons, which are filmed and later submitted to the parents as daily reports. During the lessons we build a book called “The History of Me,” which asks children to research about themselves and learn how to present that in English. It’s a step-by-step process. After three months, the book is ready and the children conduct a presentation on it in front of their parents. We also have a “Show and Tell” session  during all classes, which asks the children to talk and present about something they like. We then wait for the parents to return home after work.

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How did you develop the idea of “OmSister”?
It’s entirely based on my own experience. When I was a child, my parents were constantly struggling to keep up with all their responsibilities. So one day, when I was three, they posted a note at a university nearby our house, reading “Recruiting students to pick up our daughters from daycare and look after them (while we’re at work).” A lot of international students applied and began taking care of us.

On Mondays we had a babysitter from Canada, on Tuesdays from Malaysia, on Wednesdays from Taiwan, on Thursdays from Turkey and on Fridays from Korea.

This continued until I was 18. All of them taught me so much about the world and I am still very close with a number of them. So when I first thought of starting my own business, I wanted to do something that would help children learn about the world, expand their views and be grateful to their parents in the future.

Why did you chose to base your business in Japan?
With a major lack of day care facilities, Japan has a great demand for a service of this kind, and at the time when I decided on founding my own company, I was based here in Tokyo, so it was only natural to start here. However, in the future I want to expand the company to other countries as well.

You’ve moved quite a lot around the world. How did each of the countries you lived in influence your life and in what way?
U.S. is a multicultural society where each ethnic group strongly maintains its identity, making it acceptable to be different. I still vividly remember how my school arranged a sign language class to accompany the needs of a hearing-impaired classmate. As a result, we all began communicating in sign language. America taught me how to naturally accept different people and adapt to various situations. It also taught me that being different makes you unique.

China, on the other hand, inspired me to dream and fight for what I want. Everyone I met there was full of ambitions and had very clear life goals. Chinese people are also extremely good at finding alternative routes for dealing with problems, which taught me to always think from a different perspective. To give you an example, I went to Peking University, which has too many students. When the registration period starts, popular classes fill up quickly and everyone on the waiting list starts competing. We would stay up all night pressing the update button, hoping for vacancies. But one day, that button wouldn’t work and it turned out that one student, tired of waiting and clicking, developed a 24-hour software that automatically registers you when there is a vacancy. I remember thinking that this way of solving problems is so different from Japan’s way. I ended up buying that software and that student ended up starting his own company.

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How would you evaluate the current education system in Japan?
I think that Japanese education still emphasises on unity in all aspects, which is rather regretful. I was teased for not being able to write kanji or do math well after my return to Japan from America, just as I was treated differently for having pierced ears. There were times when I didn’t want to go to school because of that. The Japanese education praises uniformity and discourages uniqueness, whereas it should be the other way around.

Based on your experience with working mothers in Japan, what are some of the major challenges they are still facing nowadays?
In Japan there is still this predominant belief that mothers should be responsible for everything at home. Globally, however, it is completely different. Fathers take equal responsibility in child-rearing and people are not afraid to ask for help outside. In China, for example, it is normal that husbands cook the dinner — many of my Chinese friends tell me that they’ve never seen their mothers in the kitchen. It goes that far. I think culturally and socially it is still very challenging to handle a successful career and be a mother in Japan, largely because of this belief.

What is the most memorable event in your career so far?
The time when we got contacted by our very first client. I was over the moon and felt so motivated to provide the best service to her family. Recently I had the chance to talk to her again and she told me that “OmSister” is an irreplaceable part of their life.

The realization that the service we provide is directly influencing someone’s life gives me incredible satisfaction.

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What do you consider the biggest setback in your life and how did you rebound from it?
I failed my university entrance exam in Japan, which ironically later became a life-turning point for me. I failed brutally — despite studying day and night and being an ideal student, I couldn’t enroll at the university I dreamt of. I spoke with my parents and they advised me to try again, but first travel to China for a change. And so I did and after my third day there I fell in love with the place. Everyone was full of dreams and they were proactively working to realize them. I felt inspired and decided to apply for college in China instead of Japan. I started from scratch by studying Chinese and for the next nine months I was just at my desk — on an average of 15 hours a day. I passed my exams successfully and got accepted to Peking University. Being a non-native speaker among a group of students aggressively pursuing their goals, however, was a great challenge. I can’t even tell you how many times I was defeated in public debates in front of hundreds of Chinese students. (laughs) But that taught me not to be afraid to speak up in front of large audiences, nor to fail.

In Japan there is a saying that the nail that stands out gets hammered, but my experience in China taught me that only the nail that stands out survives.

What are your future goals?
Professionally, I want to break all old-fashioned education norms and introduce a new innovative system that challenges and motivates people. What “OmSister” does for children is to expose them to various “role models.” We are providing an environment where learning is entertaining and natural. We want to show children that learning doesn’t have to be difficult. We are yet to discover the most efficient learning method for children and that is what I would like to challenge in the next few years, while expanding our services.

What kind of advice would you give to young women looking to start their own businesses in Japan?
Pay close attention to what you really want to do and have the courage not to over-consider what other people think or say. If you have an idea, don’t wait to make a move. The sooner you start the better.

What do you like to do in your free time?
I play tennis, the piano and I also post videos online. I have my own YouTube channel called “Chinese you won’t learn in textbooks.” My friends help me put those together and we usually spend the weekends enjoying this.

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And finally, what’s that one thing that readers would be surprised to learn about you?
I’m actually really into extreme sports! I love bungy jumping, paragliding, rafting, flying board and all other thrilling activities. 


* The number also combines the so-called “hidden taikijido” (children on the waiting list), including such whose mothers had given up looking for jobs; have prolonging maternity leaves due to inability to secure a daycare vacancy; are using other day care services or are waiting for vacancies at a particular facility. 

OmSister

Learn more about Selan's bilingual babysitting services from the official OmSister website.

Originally from Bulgaria, Alexandra came to Japan as a teenager and has—as of 2015—officially spent half of her life here, studying, working and enjoying Japan’s culture and outdoors. A true lover of coffee, her hobby is exploring Tokyo's cafes, and she doesn't mind a train ride of two or three hours just for a sip of a carefully dripped, hot, black cup of java.

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