In a Japanese bar in the middle of Manhattan within walking distance of her workplace, Yoko Shioya, the artistic director for Japan Society, looked back over three decades: “I came to New York in June 1988 with my husband at that time, who was a visual artist. He had dual citizenship in the U.S. and Japan and so it was not difficult for me to obtain a green card. We were young and New York in the ’80s looked much more exciting than Tokyo, especially to the eyes of contemporary visual artists in Japan, so we started discussing the possibility of moving there right after my father passed away in 1986. The inheritance money I received would allow us to live for a few years without working, and that would give me enough time to find some means to survive if we wanted to stay longer. So we decided to move.”
Born in Tokyo in 1960, Shioya graduated from Tokyo University of the Arts with a major in musicology — a sign she’d already achieved a certain level of English proficiency in reading and writing. But listening and speaking were different. She overcame her verbal communication skill gap in stages, by immersing herself in an English-speaking environment.
The first stage was traveling. Right after Shioya moved to New York, Shioya had to spend three months without her then-husband as he was commissioned to work on a public art project in Japan. So she decided to travel around the country by herself. On the road, she had to repeatedly ask people for information and that helped her to gradually gain confidence.
The second challenge was the telephone. In the pre-internet era of the late 1980s, she had to ring people up on a daily basis to sort out mistakes made by banks, credit card companies and mail-order companies. She found telephone conversations to be easier than face-to-face conversations, with fewer distractions. On the phone, the person on the other end can focus solely on the conversation.
Shioya also found her English improving around 1991, when she started writing for Japanese newspapers such as The Asahi Shimbun and the weekly journal AERA on the subject of arts support systems in the U.S. She came to enjoy the process of preparing for interviews, exchanging opinions on arts, and spontaneous, intercultural conversation, which she says were like “playing catch.”
Nonetheless, she says that “party talk” was a challenging task until recently. Since becoming director of performing arts at Japan Society in 2003 and then being promoted to artistic director in 2006, she has increasingly embraced roles as a public talker and diplomat.
“You have to joke, make witty comments, and engage in a topic you’re not necessarily interested in. I have to play the role of a hostess,” she says, adding that all the practice she has had means she is much more at ease at parties.
Shioya’s personal life has helped her polish her English, too. After her divorce, she met her significant other about 10 years ago. She says she has learned new vocabulary and expressions through her involvement with his immediate family members, most of whom live in Houston — she’d never heard of such phrases like “hitch cover” in New York, for example.
“After living in the U.S. for 30 years I feel like I’ve finally opened up to discover some very American lives,” she says with a smile. (Mika Eglinton)
Words I tell myself