May 18, 2022


Enjoying both work and life: an individualistic career approach not compared with others

Finding my own way to live as who I am with some of my turning points such as marriage, childcare and incurable diseases

  • Business Strategy Div., DENSO Solution Japan Corporation (Transferred from DENSO Corporation)Sayumi Hirota

    She studied marketing at university and joined DENSO in 2011. After gaining experience in sales, she transferred to her current department where she is involved in business strategy in relation to carbon neutrality. As a founding member of the in-house volunteer organization DOIT, Hirota participates in a working group focused on child-rearing leave for employees. She is also active in various fields both within and outside of the organization.

Based on her personal motto, “make work fun,” Sayumi Hirota is in charge of business-strategy planning for new fields, and also participates in volunteer activities. Her values and views regarding both work and life changed dramatically due to her experience with illness and encounters with various people. Today Hirota values doing things her own way.

Contents of this article

    Following one’s own way, even against the current

    Most of us heard our mothers say during childhood, “We have our way of doing things, they have theirs.” Although such words didn’t leave a particularly positive impression on me at the time, after growing up and experiencing life a bit more, the saying closely reflects my views.

    As an adult, I’ve often found myself to be the exception to the norm: I was the only woman in the sales department; after marrying, my husband became our family’s homemaker. I suspended and resumed my career twice after taking maternity and child-rearing leave for my two kids; and I have battled a serious illness. So, I have often been different than others, and as a result have felt lonely and left out.

    However, I eventually realized that, while I may be in the minority within the narrow confines of a corporation, from the perspective of society as a whole I am quite typical. For example, although men in Japan are rarely the homemaker, there are millions of such husbands around the world, so it’s not uncommon at all.

    Conversely, some people who consider themselves to be the norm may actually be considered an exception by wider society. For example, DENSO is well-known in the Tokai region, but people in other parts of Japan may not have heard of us.

    In other words, whether or not you’re in the majority or minority depends on the environment. When I realized this, things became a lot easier for me.

    Even if you’re in the minority in your current environment, you don’t have to feel pressure to conform with others around you or adopt their standards.

    As your mother probably told you, we have our way of doing things, and they have theirs. I focus on my own way of doing things.

    A more enjoyable future through interpersonal connections

    Although I enjoy my work now, I used to worry about my career direction. Back then, I had been doing the same type of work for a long time and felt I was in a rut. Coworkers and former school colleagues seemed to be moving forward with their careers, which made me worried about my future. Something needed to change, and I even thought about leaving DENSO.

    I continued to harbor those uncertainties until 2017, when a fortunate opportunity came my way: just as I came back to work after child-rearing leave, I was offered the opportunity to join a special team comprising mostly young members from my department.

    Founded with the goals of rectifying vertical divisions within the organization and forging new connections with other people, the team arranged interpersonal-exchange activities with other sections of the company. Through these, I found out just how interesting other people throughout the organization could be. Some people were outstanding inventors, others were highly active outside of the organization, and some had truly awe-inspiring talents. I realized that my view of DENSO was only a small part of the whole, and so I decided to stick with the company a while longer until I got to know it more fully.

    That team expanded rapidly to involve various departments throughout the corporation, eventually evolving into the larger-scale DENSO Open Innovation Team, or DOIT, volunteer organization. As of 2022, the organization has some 1,700 members and hosts activities, brainstorming sessions, events and more, most of them online.

    Within DOIT, I created the Child-rearing Leave Working Group, where both men and women who have already experienced using the child-rearing leave system share ideas and offer online consultations for DENSO associates who have concerns or questions about using the leave system. Group members have a great time sharing real-life experiences with each other, and we are still actively involved in those efforts today, even working with people from other companies who face the same issues as we expand our endeavors.

    DOIT has had positive effects on my work at DENSO: higher-ups have seen what I do within this volunteer organization and given me new opportunities and challenges as a result. When DENSO launched their in-house carbon neutrality project, they asked me to join, and now my job centers on new-business strategy in that field.

    Back when I was fretting about my relationships with other company members, someone from another department whom I got to know through my volunteer activities told me something that ultimately helped me start enjoying my job more: “You seem to get frustrated because you expect too much from other people. That’s because you’re too nice a person.” This really hit home. It made me realize that I can’t change how other people think and feel, so I began to focus on finding ways of working that would enable me to enjoy my job more.

    Chance meetings and unexpected friendships are very rewarding and can really make a job more fun. Now, I always search for things that make my work more enjoyable.

    Gratitude for a regular, five-day-a-week job: discoveries after overcoming illness at age 30

    It goes without saying that, even today, there are times when work is tiring or not fun. However, I’m very grateful to be working full time, five days a week, because I found I was suffering from a serious illness—and that experience gave a more positive outlook regarding regular, full-time work.

    I was diagnosed back in 2019, at the age of 30. I had been pushing myself hard at work, trying to do more and more. But after suffering stomach pain for more than a year I finally went to the hospital for a checkup, where I was immediately admitted as a patient and scheduled for surgery. The diagnosis was Crohn’s disease, a very serious illness. Because there is no cure, I had to face the prospect of battling that disease for the rest of my life.

    My husband was a stay-at-home dad, so it was my job to provide financially for the family. I was already enrolled in an insurance plan that would provide for them in the case of my untimely death, but it was still a huge shock to think that, at such a young age, I might become incapable of continuing to work, and I struggled to cope with the situation. Why me? Would I ever be able to go back to work? Such questions troubled me every day, and based on information from the Internet and my patient support group, I learned that many Crohn’s disease sufferers are unable to continue their job, or at least are forced to change their working style. Fortunately, my symptoms abated and stabilized for the most part, so I was able to return to work. There are still times when the symptoms suddenly flare up, and I still visit the hospital regularly for checkups, but DENSO’s flextime and work-at-home systems have enabled me to work full-time again. My coworkers and supervisors have been very understanding; I can’t thank them and the company enough for all of their support.

    When I returned to work again after about two months in hospital and told everyone how great it felt to be back at work, they were all pretty surprised. I am so grateful to be doing my job as usual, without having to adapt to rigid working styles, and I’ve become more optimistic about living with my illness as well.

    In general, I’m the type who can get over something with a good night’s sleep. Although I was shocked by the diagnosis, I actually feel better now because I know what was causing my physical discomfort and pain. I still have to control my diet and take medications, but those are unavoidable and I’ve accepted them. Some people with Crohn’s disease are forced to adopt dietary restrictions from childhood, but I was fortunate enough to eat whatever I wanted for 30 years, and I’ll still be able to enjoy life even without some foods.

    Combining work with what you love: prioritizing your own desires

    When working at a company, people often feel pressured to take on new challenges and change their way of doing things, but that feels unnatural to me. Kids are often told by their parents, “Do your homework!” If they are just about to start doing it, suddenly being ordered to do it makes them want to do the opposite. It’s the same at work: the more people tell you to do something a certain way or change your approach, the more resistant you become.

    When people think about the concept of “challenging” themselves, they usually associate it with trying new things, getting more involved in activities outside DENSO, or improving themselves in big ways. It’s impressive if you can do that, but rather than focusing on big changes, I think a good challenge need not entail taking on new things or striving to maintain what you have already built, as long as you are working hard with a purpose. One of my personal challenges is to avoid being hospitalized again.

    Our personal challenges and ambitions don’t need to be lofty: my husband, for example, personally chose his role as homemaker, and he always helps me stay healthy, keeps the peace within the household, and ensures a stable day-to-day life for the family. The option of trying harder or doing more is always there, but that’s not the only approach. As long as you make a firm decision to do something and then go through with it, that itself is an impressive challenge and respectable ambition.

    My personal motto is “make work fun.” I came up with it during initial sales training at an auto dealership upon joining DENSO. A customer once told me, “It’s a shame to do a job if you don’t enjoy it!”

    Up until then, I had always put up with annoyances at work, and kept my mouth shut when things seemed unfair or unreasonable. In other words, I put my own desires and feelings aside for the sake of the job, but after hearing that customer, I realized for the first time that work can actually be fun, and that I should try harder to combine my work with the things I love to do.

    There is no reason to set lofty standards all the time; it’s fine just to make work more enjoyable. This is my treasured philosophy that I also hope to spread to other people.


    Ms. Hirota was smiling the whole time as she spoke openly about her experiences, even touching on some tough times in her life. As she mentioned repeatedly, she hopes that others will be able to pursue work in their own ways—ways that are fun for them. Her goal is to help other people around her to enjoy their jobs and be happy with the way they work.

    Listening to Ms. Hirota made me feel more optimistic about life, and also made me want to take more time to reflect on my own desires and find ways of working that truly suit me.

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