Student Spotlight:The Reinvention of Yoko Ozaki

Photos: Macus Ong

It’s never too late to start over. This sentiment is something former Japan Air-Self Defense Force officer turned aspiring chartered accountant, Yoko Ozaki, knows all too well. She grew up in a small rural village in Japan and aspired to achieve something bigger than herself.

Growing up, she dreamed of being the first female fighter pilot. However, when she was accepted into the National Defense Academy, she wasn’t allowed to train as a fighter pilot; women weren’t allowed to become fighter pilots at the time. Her grandfather served in the second world war in the Japanese Navy and knowing that as a part of her heritage, inspired her to make a career in the Japan Air-Self Defense Force where she could “contribute her energy and time for society.”

 

The National Defense Academy was some of the most rigorous training Ozaki had ever gone through in her life. She had to practice even more than her male counterparts at the academy to overcome the gender stereotypes she was confronted with. Although the training was brutal, she gained invaluable “leadership and teamwork skills.” The most vivid training routine she was quick to share was a swimming exercise she and the other cadets went through. They were required to swim across eight kilometres of ocean water, in a set formation without breaking that prescribed formation.

Her time as an air force cadet is something she says she will forever be grateful for as it gave her a profound sense of discipline and focus on the goals she sets out for herself. After graduating from the academy, the need to overcome gender stereotypes did not seem to shake off. Ozaki says when she began working in the Japan Air-Self Defense Force as an aircraft maintenance officer, she had her authority challenged simply because she was a woman by some men who had to report to her. During the times her authority was questioned, she says she strived to be as communicative as possible with her teammates and slowly she gained their trust. Ozaki says “I tried to communicate with my staff as much as possible and create opportunities to learn about each other’s personalities,” and this style in leadership eventually developed a relationship of mutual respect with the men she worked with.

Her love for airplanes kept her in the Japan Air-Self Defense Force for over ten years despite how rigid the rules may have been. “As is often the case in the military, there were various restrictions on our private activities in order to set up a state of immediate readiness.” The nature of her job in the air force allowed her to travel to over 40 countries. She had never set her sights or been to Vancouver until she moved there in 2017 after she got married.

When she recalls that big move, she gleefully indulges that she “enjoyed the freedom” to just do anything, whenever she wanted. It was a way of life that was parallel to her experience in the Japan Air-Self Defense Force.

That feeling wore off when Ozaki wasn’t surrounded by people who spoke Japanese all the time. She had to learn English, adjust to a new country, and learn a new way of thinking and perceiving the world; the limited parameters of the air force weren’t in her life anymore. She says that for the first time in a really long time, she had time to focus on herself and the things she wanted. When the relief of being away from the air force rigidity had settled, Ozaki shares that  she felt confused and overwhelmed by the cultural and language differences. “I often cried because I felt like I couldn’t be adaptable to [a] new culture,” she says.

Confiding in her friend and her husband, she saw an opportunity to reinvent herself. The cultural differences between Japan and Canada showed her that it was possible to start a new career for herself in her mid-30s—something that would have been unattainable if she was in Japan. She remarks that the environment in Canada not only gave her space to start a new career, but it was accepting enough to allow her to be successful at it without having her age barring her. Ozaki highlights Canada “is different from Japan in its diversity, flexibility, and adaptability.” She decided to pursue accounting after she found someone in the field who shared with her how expertise in the field could be used in an altruistic manner. In leaning on her mentor’s support and connecting with other CPAs, she grew inspired to reshape her career and start working towards her accounting degree and eventually CPA certification.

Brand new to the traditional sense of post-secondary, Ozaki says she has enjoyed her time so far as a part-time student at BCIT because her classmates have “helped [her] learning with their practical experience.” She adds when she first came to BCIT she was “afraid because it’s totally different from my military experience because it was my first-time diving into a diverse [learning] environment.” Her fears mellowed when her instructors showed their empathy and respectfulness for their diverse students.

 

Ozaki emphasized that the career support services offered by the BCITSA were a huge help to her forge her new pathway as an aspiring CPA. She says the career services staff helped and encouraged her with résumé writing skills (something they don’t do in the air force), interview coaching, and gave her networking tips that jumpstarted her career.

The support system she had in her mentor and her determination to start something new for herself, compounded to have her be selected as one of a very small number of applicants out of many in the auditing and assurance department at PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC). She is set to start this exciting milestone in her new career in the fall of 2021. Ozaki credits the invaluable soft skills she developed while working in the high pressure and high-tech air force environment, as one of the reasons she earned this opportunity.

She looks forward to starting at PwC next fall. The opportunity feels very surreal to her because she knew nothing about accounting before starting her program. Ozaki is hopeful at the prospects her chosen path can bring her because as she would like to continue “contributing her energy and time for society and people.” For now, when she is not working on her school assignments, Ozaki fills her time up with volunteer work at the at the Canadian Association for Security and Intelligence Studies – Vancouver, which empowers and enhances research, discussion, and multidisciplinary engagement with issues of national security and intelligence.

In addition to utilizing her military experience and leadership, she has the opportunity to meet Canadian researchers and develop roots of her own here.

Ozaki says when she moved to Canada as a recent immigrant, she “was crushed with anxiety, but attending BCIT and developing my expertise has helped me regain my confidence.” Her new life in Vancouver has given her a new set of priorities that allow her to focus on her family and friends in a way she couldn’t quite manage to do in her past life as an air force cabin officer.