“Activism starts by helping a friend within your community.” An interview with an ICU graduate (ID19) Kisaki Saishu who offers Tebana Space

October 10th was World Mental Health Day!

To raise awareness around mental health and well-being, numerous events were held in Japan under the slogan: “let’s get connected with whoever you need, wherever you are.”

To commemorate the day, ICONfront interviewed Kisaki Saishu, an ICU graduate (ID19). She is an activist who aims to improve the well-being of the ICU community, hosting “Tebana Space” as a means to “let go” (tebanasu) of anxieties and worries among the participants. We asked her why she started Tebana Space, what motivates her through her activism, and how she feels about hosting an event like this for ICU students even after graduating!

Q1. What do you do as an activist?

I work to improve the well-being of people. At ICU, I host Tebana Space every month for ICU students with the help of another ICU graduate (ID 89), Ikuko Handa-Williams, and Professor Makito Kobayashi from Biology and Environmental Studies Majors. This event offers a safe space for ICU students with anxieties and worries to simply talk about them and let go of them as a result.

To introduce a little bit about myself, I graduated ICU in June 2020 and am currently working in environmental management and suicide prevention. 

Q2. Do you pick a specific topic in advance when you host Tebana Space?

Usually we don’t. We work flexibly with the participants. We usually start with a self-introduction and an icebreaker, then move on to an open conversation where the participants can discuss whatever they want. Each session is very different depending on the participants; some end like a daily conversation, while others go in depth with a discussion about mental illnesses. Each session has a different atmosphere.

We began its planning process in February 2020, and in May, we almost held our first session at the library of ICU Religious Center. Unfortunately, we had to go online instead due to the spread of COVID-19.

Q3. What is it like to host an event like this online?

I feel like there are pros and cons to having this event online. 

A pro could be that the participants can join from the comfort and convenience of their houses. As a matter of fact, some have joined from their parents’ house in another prefecture. Others have told us they were too unwell to meet face-to-face and that they couldn’t have joined if it wasn’t online.

A con would be that it is a bit hard to read the room and see how each other is feeling at the moment.

With all the above in mind, I am planning to add the option of doing it face-to-face and alternate with online hosting, once the campus opens back up.

Q4. What made you want to start Tebana Space?

Since everyone of course becomes anxious and worried through life’s thick and thin, I wanted to create a space where people can openly share and discuss those feelings. Unfortunately, there are only so many chances where we can casually do so in our daily lives. But when we do, there often is healing that comes with it. Three of us organizers, in fact, came together to offer such a space, knowing the potential for it. 

Now in the middle of a pandemic, I’m sure many are experiencing some emotional exhaustion and confusion. I really hope this space will provide comfort and solace with them. 

Q5. Is there anything you make sure to do when talking with the participants?

I make sure to listen to their story without judgement. 

When someone opens up to you about their concerns, a common response would be to tell them words of encouragement saying “good luck fixing your issues!” or “I hope these issues will soon be gone!” However, the other side of the coin is that you are saying their current situation is bad and that there is some fixing that needs to be done.

At Tebana Space, we simply listen to each other and take on a perspective that there might be nothing wrong with our current situation. It can be a liberating experience that, when you’re feeling low, someone tells you that it’s okay to not be okay or that there is nothing wrong with your current situation. You might even realize that you’re not the only person who’s suffering. Our goal is for participants to have this kind of cathartic experience.

Q6. How did you feel when you first started?

To my surprise, the starting process was quite smooth. With the help of Ikuko-san, a former chaplain (a religious leader at a private chapel or medical institution), and Professor Kobayashi whom I met at Senior Thesis Presentations, we were able to start off no problem.

We have a Counseling Center at ICU; however, it is located far back in Gakki (school cafeteria) and doesn’t seem to be approachable for many students. This really pushed me to start Tebana Space; I wanted to create a space that is accessible to everybody who feels the need to share and discuss their feelings but doesn’t know where/who to reach out to.

On another note, we already have a LGBTQ+ support group (CGS) at ICU. Unlike this one, I wanted to make a general support group that covers anxieties and worries of any kind.

Q7. What motivates you to continue on with your activism?

Their feedback encourages me. I have had some people tell me their hearts feel a little lighter after attending Tebana Space or they were finally able to speak about the things they usually fear at Tebana Space. It’s my pleasure to help friends in my community.

In my opinion, many activists at/from ICU are overambitious, attempting to launch a business or obtain an award as an end result, which isn’t necessarily what I aspire to. I feel more accomplished when I’m told thank you by the people around me rather than when I’m recognized or awarded by a stranger.

We just started Tebana Space; we’re still trying to figure out how this all works. It would be great if a wider range of people, such as graduates, can join us in the near future.

Q8. Did you learn anything through your activism? Would you like to say anything about activism to ICU students?

I would like to remind all ICU students that they can be different from others, yet they don’t necessarily have to. I say this because in ICU, there seems to be an extremely strong pressure for everyone to be different, that way only you can stand out. I actually used to feel this pressure. Let’s say… when someone starts a business or gets an internship with a well-known company, it feels as if their life has outshined yours. However, I came to the realization that, just because their life looks “glamorous” doesn’t mean they are successful in actuality.

I don’t necessarily think that activism needs to be “glamorous.” As you can see, my activism is quite small-scale and not so “glamorous” in many people’s eyes. I don’t have any job titles nor organizations for this. However, since the ultimate goal of activism is to “make the world a better place” rather than to “get attention” I think it’s fine. No matter the scale, popularity, and effect, anything that brings about change in the society should be considered “activism.” Hence “encouraging a friend in your community” is indeed activism to me.

Overall, I think it’s important for us to do something based on our own passion and not necessarily what others want and value. Whether it’s the same with or different from others’, I would encourage all ICU students to do what their heart wants if they start activism. 

Q9. What do you think we can do as an individual to make the world a little more accepting?

I do not want Tebana Space to end as a monthly event but as an everyday practice among people. I wish everyone felt comfortable opening up to their friends without feeling judged or wondering if they might weird their friends out. To make this a reality, we all should learn what it’s like to listen to others with an open-mind or dare to share our honest thoughts and feelings when we’re ready to do so. The thing is, it takes both the listener and the speaker to make a safe space.

It would be great if we could live life together like this. We should feel comfortable talking about our weaknesses and flaws in such a society where people genuinely support each other and live life together. 

Q10. We’re sure many have reached out to you by now, but how do you look after your own mental health?

Sometimes, I share my anxieties and worries at Tebana Space myself so I get a chance to let go of my burden and organize my thoughts. The benefit goes both ways.

On another note, I work at a suicide hotline, through which I learn mental health jargon. This helps me look after my own mental health. Let’s say, I have an inexplicable uneasiness going on within me. In such a situation, jargon in your head often serves as a framework to grasp what it is.

So I am indeed benefiting from running Tebana Space and that’s how I maintain my mental health. Oh, I also try to rest whenever I feel the need. I feel like I have finally found the balance between my life and work. 

Q11. What would you like to say to society?

My interest in mental health stems from my own experience. 

Awareness and importance of mental health is a sentiment that is slowly but surely growing in Japan. However, it is still extremely challenging for people to openly discuss their feelings and concerns due to the stigma around it. You don’t need to share everything about you in public (and I know it would take a long time to finally speak about your traumatic experience), but, as for me, I dare to share my mental health experience with others, hoping that more people will recognize that they are not alone in their journey. I hope that this action will contribute to lessening the stigma and prejudice surrounding mental health. Well, I want to emphasize that life gets hard sometimes and that no one is always healthy throughout their life!

I hope for a society where everyone can speak about their anxieties and worries without feeling ashamed and people around them will warmly accept them with that part of them. 

(From ICONfront: If you are interested in Kisaki-san’s experience, please contact her directly! She’d be willing to share!)

Q12. Please tell us about your future goals if you have any!

One is to continue offering Tebana Space at ICU.

Another is, through my work for an environmental non-profit, to make more nature integrated in our daily life.

These goals may seem to be irrelevant on the surface, but I believe they’re otherwise at a deeper level – these practices will contribute to improving our well-being. Since our well-being is multidimensional, consisting of the physical, mental, social and environmental, it is important to work on it from various angles. I will continue on with my activism to improve the well-being of people and the environment and to create a society where everyone can live their best life.

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