By Joel Phelps
Yukiko Taylor thought she was leaving her Japanese hometown of 1.6 million residents for the bustling American city of Philadelphia. Little did the 23-year-old know, she was headed to a city with a similar name but it was a far stretch from the nation’s sixth-largest city.
Taylor de-boarded a small jet airliner in Little Rock, where was told she had another hour to drive before reaching her final destination. She assumed Philadelphia’s airport must have been in the countryside. As she rode on Interstate 30 that night, the lights of Pulaski County began to disappear. The farther south she traveled, the fewer city lights she saw.
“I remember it was getting darker and darker,” recalled Taylor, now 48. “When we got off at Caddo Valley, it was so dark. I had never seen so much darkness in all my life.” But even without the bright city lights and 24-hour lifestyle she had left behind, the young Japanese woman was about to fulfill a lifelong dream of going to an American university. She was also embarking on a journey of personal liberation she had long been seeking.
Her name translates to “free hope child.” It was the perfect moniker her parents could give her. Japanese family life is centered around the patriarch, and the women are expected to meet all of the father’s needs without him having to ask first. If the man of the household asks for salt at the dinner table, the woman has failed. The woman is expected to have a bath prepared for the man when he is ready, then to have his pajamas at the door once he has bathed. Throughout all this, the woman is expected to remain silent and to never question or give an opinion.
Taylor instinctively knew her freedoms as a human were being oppressed. As her name suggests, she questioned what was expected of her as a woman. “I was called rebellious and too opinionated,” she said. “My mom said, ‘Be smart, don’t say those words.’” She was an outcast in school because she questioned the norms of society there, as well. In Japan, there is a mantra: Nails that stick out should be hammered in. “People stopped talking to me because I would question things,” she said.
Having grown up in a traditional Japanese home, Taylor had excessive pressure from her parents to succeed academically. As a kindergartener, she walked to school alone. One day she was struck by a motorbike. Her mother scolded her for not watching both ways before crossing the street. And once the hospital discharged her, she went to kindergarten the next day, walking herself to school. It was a daunting task just to get accepted into an respectable high school. For two years, the teenager had a strict study routine to get into a prestigious high school. She attended class from 7 a.m. – 5 p.m., took a one-hour break and then went back to school until midnight. Once she got home, she had homework to do for the next day’s classes. “Sometimes I went to school without any sleep,” she said, recounting that she would sometimes prick her thighs with a safety pin to keep herself awake to study.
One of the main social issues in Japan is the teenage suicide rate among junior high students, who are under tremendous academic pressure from society. “That’s when your life will be determined,” said Taylor, recalling that her parents gave her an ultimatum. “They kinda made me feel they would kill me” if she didn’t make it into a reputable high school. “I believed it at the time, because I had no choice.” Because each school has its own student uniform, it’s evident where teenagers fit in academically. Also, the student’s secondary education and career is determined by which high school selects her. “Our parents gave us a lot of responsibilities and discipline from a very young age,” she said.
What Taylor really wanted was to be able to express herself as an individual.
Across the street from her childhood home stood Seinan University, a sister school of Ouachita Baptist University. There were always American missionaries, professors and exchange students at Seinan. One of those missionary children was Jenni Johnson, an American fluent in Japanese.
Taylor and Johnson became close friends throughout Taylor’s teenage years. “Jenni started teaching me English,” Taylor said. She immersed herself in American culture through her new friend, and dreamed to finish her high school studies so that she could pursue higher education in America. Because her parents couldn’t afford to send her off to college, Taylor found vocation with Japan Coca-Cola as a bookkeeper.
Again, the societal norms were a burden for Taylor. The company expected her to resign if she were to get married, so that she could pay full attention to her husband. The female employees were thought to be promiscuous if they lived alone. And, she was expected to marry at a young age. “In Japan, a woman is like a flower,” she said. “The fresher, the better. Nobody wants an old flower.” She likened young women to a Japanese tradition of eating cake on Christmas Day. On Christmas Eve, the cake is bought at full price. After Christmas Day, the cake is sold at 10 percent discount. By Dec. 27, the cake is likely free.
Living up to her name as the “free hope child,” Taylor took issue with that mentality. As soon as she had saved up enough money to afford to study abroad, she left. But where to go? “I would go wherever Jenni was,” she said, noting that her childhood friend studied at Ouachita because of her status as a missionary. “What I knew about America was from visiting Jenni’s family and the professors’ houses,” she said. What really stood out in her mind about the missionaries’ houses was the smell of popcorn and the bright-red appeal of Kool-Aid. When Johnson informed her she was at college in Arkadelphia, Taylor thought she had said Philadelphia.
It was Johnson who greeted Taylor at the airport in Little Rock.
Regardless of whether she was in Pennsylvania or Arkansas, Taylor’s life changed once she stepped off that plane onto American soil.
In Japan, Taylor found herself in trouble many times because she expressed her opinions. In America, that wasn’t the case at all. “What I liked the most was the freedom,” she said. “You might not think that you have much freedom, but, as a woman, that’s what I felt. In Japan we’re not supposed to say what we think. Here, you can say whatever you feel like, whatever you want, and I love it.” Also she had an equal opportunity to seek higher education; in Japan, women are expected solely to be mother and wife. “My mother was like that,” Taylor said. “My father didn’t have to get up or ask for anything.”
In America, Taylor found herself liberated from all those cultural norms she had been raised knowing. She earned two bachelor’s degrees — sociology and psychology — at Ouachita, and during that time met Jane Lucas, the woman who would steer her in the direction of a career perfect for Taylor’s spirit of being a “free hope child.”
Lucas, who then was longtime executive director of Group Living, Inc., talked Taylor into applying for a position at GLI. At 27, Taylor got her start in 2000 with the Arkadelphia organization that serves adults with developmental and intellectual disabilities, working as a waiver assistant. By 2003, Taylor became a mother to Emma and her husband at the time got a job in Japan. Because the couple wanted to live close to Taylor’s family in Fukuoka, the family relocated to Japan for two years until they returned. Lucas took Taylor back on board at Group Living, this time in a different position. As the years rolled on, Taylor served Group Living in various roles — pretty much everything but accounting — and moved back to Japan in 2012 to care for her aging parents. What Taylor recalls of the time spent with her father now was setting boundaries with gender roles. “I told my father, ‘I won’t do that bath thing. I’ll do whatever I can, but you’ve got to do your part.’”
Taylor, by this time divorced, wanted to ensure her daughter would be close to her father and that her green card didn’t expire. “I did everything I could (in two years) to organize my parents’ lives,” she said. Those two years spent back home were “very difficult” for Taylor, who had by now grown accustomed to the freedoms American women have. She had to portray herself based on the expectations her parents and Japanese society had of her.
Her father was the typical Japanese “company man,” a workaholic who left for work at 7 a.m. and returned home at 2 or 3 the next morning. “That’s another societal problem in Japan,” Taylor said. “People die young [from heart attack] because they are workaholics. You almost have to die for your company.” Also, her father was a functioning alcoholic — also expected of company men in Japanese culture — as their life is so dedicated to their company that they spend after hours drinking with their boss in order to get a promotion. “If you don’t drink alcohol you will never get promoted,” Taylor said.
Japanese are geared to drink at a tender age. “Your parents teach you how to drink,” Taylor said, noting the first time she partook was at her grandfather’s funeral. “They teach you how to pace yourself, they teach you when to stop.” Those high school students who study all day long? They apparently need a drink to relax during their study break so they can return to studying. Well-disciplined drinkers are able to study more. To top it off (pardon the pun, bartender), once most Japanese youth hit college age, they aren’t as likely to overindulge because they know their threshold.
Her mother, on the other hand, was free-spirited, at least outside the home. She cut her hair differently than most Japanese women, and voiced her opinion outside the home — inside the home, Taylor noted, she played the typical role as Japanese wife. Taylor said her mother gets the credit for how she turned out as a woman.
In 2015, Taylor returned to Phila … Arkadelphia, where Lucas once again had her on board at Group Living. Lucas retired two years later, leaving the door open for Taylor to take the helm as executive director. When the Group Living clients told Lucas they wanted to leave a central facility and have their own place, Lucas made it happen. Taylor says she wants to continue the vision Lucas had for keeping the local Group Living unique in that there are no other providers like the one in Arkadelphia.
There is a parallel between Taylor’s instinctual quest for individuality and her vision that Group Living clients should have the same basic freedoms as everyone else. Although the clients are dispersed throughout the community rather than in one centralized location, it is worth the extra staff required to give the clients their own freedom.
“We strongly push independence in the community,” Taylor said. “It’s not a group home, not a facility. The majority of our clients live in the community, in their own apartment. We want to help them have an independent life and have choices, just like the rest of us.” What she loves most about working with Group Living clients is their pure innocence and love for fellow man. “Every day they remind you of the most human thing in life,” Taylor said. “There is no judgment. They see you through their heart. No matter what crappy things there are in your life, it makes you remember the most important things in life. They have a genuine curiosity about your life. They tell you how beautiful you are, but you feel like they’re talking about your soul.”
But working with this set of clientele has its own downfall: premature death. “The hardest part is seeing a beautiful, innocent soul gone,” Taylor said. “Sometimes I’m the one who sees their last breath, and sometimes we have clients who have no one.” Group Living staff, including Taylor, are often the ones holding their hands when they take their last breath, to make sure they’re not alone. “We all have to face death,” Taylor said. But, in the end, the job is worth every minute spent working with a client. “Their smile is contagious,” she said. “It’s almost like I’m not helping them; they’re helping me more. There’s this magical power [they have] that makes you want to be a better person.”
- More About Yukiko Taylor
- Birthplace: Fukuoka, Japan
- Influential People: Jane Lucas, Tim Kauffman
- Family: Daughter, Emma; dogs, Wilber and Willow
- Education: Ouachita Baptist University: Bachelor of Arts in psychology and sociology (double major)
- If you could have dinner with anyone: Mom. We always need mom. She was the one who made me who I am. She’s the one who showed me you don’t have to fit into a mold.
- Favorite food: Traditional Japanese