You may know South Bay native Lisa Aihara (she/her) from her long list of accomplishments and illustrations for Delicious Little Tokyo, Little Tokyo Community Council, Changing Tides, or her latest book, One Musubi For Me: Counting Things Japanese —the list truly goes on. Or you might know Lisa as a regular Yo! contributor, who peels back the curtain on motherhood and raising a family.
I met Lisa through Yo!, and have been a huge fan of her work ever since. I had the opportunity to ask everything I've always wanted to know about her, which made this interview one of the fastest and most inspiring interviews I’ve ever done. Aside from being a mom, Lisa is everything, everywhere, all at once—even down to her Nikkei generation, which she explained as her mother being sansei who was raised by a nisei and a Japanese national who married a Japanese national, and shin-nisei on her dad’s side, and is now married to the epitome of yonsei (say that five times fast). Lisa, her daughter Millie, and I sat down in April to catch up and to let you in on who Lisa Aihara really is, and talk about her new book too.
Yo!: Hi Lisa! Thanks for chatting with us. Firstly, how did you get to where you are now with your own business?
LA: This is kind of dating myself, but I was when I was building the “super exciting digital marketing career”, I was at sort of the pinnacle of my resume, which was running online marketing at Disney—so close to being a dream job, right? When you're doing corporate, Disney is the one that you want on [your resume], but I was there and yet always had this sort of itch to do something creative. When I turned 30, it was the big milestone year, I was first thinking “Should I get myself a designer bag?” but instead, I decided to throw a bunch of money at myself to start my own business. That started out as a stationery business, then from there I started doing wedding stationery, and then I was doing more B2B client work supporting other entrepreneurs with their branding and graphics. Even today, I feel like I'm continuing this scavenger hunt/what am I doing next kind of thing in between having a baby, having another baby, and now currently settling into a freelance illustrator/aspiring children's book author, kind of place where right now I'm trying to seek representation.
The story I want to tell is “I started my corporate job and started my business and it just blossomed into this thing so I have to go full-time,” but instead it's been kind of just figuring out as I go and [seeing] where everything goes, allowing it to ebb and flow a little bit. It’s been really, really interesting and also really uncomfortable. My undergrad is in creative writing, so I'm kind of back at that place again, after all that and doing my MBA and everything. It’s been a wild ride. I don't know, I'm still figuring it all out to be honest.
Yo!: Your creative writing background definitely seems to be very present in a lot of your work.
LA: I feel like I'm still trying to figure out my own style, which is this common thread throughout; the writing background—not just as a writer on Yo! but with this whole storytelling aspect that I'm leaning back into—has been really, really fun to explore again. Artistically, when I grew up Sanrio was my jam, we had this Sanrio store near our house and I think we were there probably every day, if not like once a week definitely. I love playing with bold lines, bright colors, really simple shapes and also adore being able to work with the Little Tokyo Community Council (LTCC) in doing those really traditional Japanese icons and imagery but bringing it into a more modern poppy kind of way, so that's been really, really fun.
Yo!: Do you feel like your background or your upbringing as Nikkei, Japanese American Shin-Nisei kind of Influenced how you, you know, make art or what you kind of are drawn to in art?
LA: Making art is such a personal process that I think it's really hard to separate what you grew up with what you like, all of your preferences, what you find aesthetically pleasing is all built upon, what you were seeing as you're growing up. I love white space because it's that sort of minimal Japanese style of everything that's there should be necessary, and you shouldn't have anything unnecessary in there. That's definitely something I think about a lot upbringing-wise, too, I was always doodling.
My dad was a musician, so it was a very “artistic-y” home where my mom loved it when I did math and my dad loved it when I drew. We had Photoshop because he was one of those weird Mac guys, and so we were playing with graphic software when I was 10. Even when the whole Myspace, Xanga thing was blowing up, it was all about doing all these colors, like the hex codes and web design and all this. It's been really interesting how all of that has been culminating into digital art, into characters that are Japanese heritage, into books about Japanese culture, what have you. It's nice that the scavenger hunt is finally sort of paying off it seems like.
Yo!: On your website, you say “Sarcasm is a love language,” and we as readers can really get to know your personality out of your writing. How did you land on this sarcastic writing style?
LA: It was “fake it ‘til you make it” to a certain extent because up until high school, I said what I meant and meant what I said, and I honestly didn't even know what sarcasm was. I was one of those people where you would be sarcastic and they would not get it, until junior year high school. After that I think I kept aspiring to this place where [I was] doing a lot of self-reflection and even just understanding what kind of person I was, and how I was perceiving the world and how I was kind of giving back to the world and realizing that a lot of my identity was wrapped up in being that really good girl.
I was the first-born daughter and I was studious, honest, and all of these things that were very positive, but that maybe wasn't necessarily what I wanted to be. Slowly by recognizing that and also trying to understand what part of it I wanted to keep—like being considerate—but also what parts I wanted to give back to myself and bring that power back to myself and say “Maybe it's okay to say things that might not be perceived correctly by everyone all the time. Maybe it's okay to complain. Maybe it's okay to ask from myself. Maybe it's okay to be loud and disruptive as long as I can also balance out with the respect and consideration that was also drilled into me, because it's hard to break out of that too.”
Having my daughter was a really big shift too because with my first kid who's a boy, I was just really trying to figure out how to be a mom, how to be a person, how to be someone who took care of another person. But when I had my daughter who I saw a lot of myself in, I told myself now's the time to really strap [on] my boots and walk the walk instead of just talking to talk, to be the role model and the type of woman that I want her to be, should she choose to take that path. She's very loud, so I'm trying to channel my inner Millie actually because she’s not taking shit from anybody. She is the type of woman I want to be but also really don't want to raise her. I wish that I could pawn her off somewhere and just get her done like ready-made when she comes back. [Laughs]
Yo!: How have you been able to stay connected to the community while being a full-time mom and also full-time employee? Was there a break? What was that journey like?
LA: I think what I've learned about being a community is that it's something that you actually have to try hard at. It's so easy when you're growing up that there's this built-in community that was always there. It’s similar to friends, you saw your friends every day in school and you didn't have to try hard to maintain a friendship. But once you start working once you're an adult, you realize, “Oh my God, I have to make an effort to talk to these people, why aren’t they just there for me?” and the community is really similar in that way.
I actually didn't grow up with a really strong Japanese American community, especially with my all-over-the-place family, I didn't have a built-in JA base here. The first time that I really came into contact with sort of the LA community here was through the NCI internship program, and through that internship program, one of my first earlier corporate jobs—or big girl jobs—was at the Japanese American Community and Cultural Center (JACCC). Through there, I started on this path of being involved in the community through my work, and because I made those connections, I was able to get my first job there.
But in a personal setting, my husband’s family is very involved in their temple and so we're able to go in and do the seasonal stuff for the kids, doing celebrations and they get to see their grandparents. Being able to kind of not only see it as a work opportunity and a connection in networking situation, but also seeing how it enriches our kids’ lives has been really cool to see since that's not something that generationally I was able to have knowledge of right because that's not the way that I grew up per se.
I think the biggest way that I was able to keep connected was understanding that there isn't just one entry point, or one type of involvement, or one way of fulfilling your way of participating in the community. There's always a way that you can find yourself fitting in with the time, or the money or the availability that you have in your current season in life. I think you change, the community changes, everything is kind of always ebbing and flowing and you'll always be in each other's orbit as long as you care to or want to.
Yo!: How have you been handling burnout? And is it kind of doing stuff like following passion projects and doing stuff that you just genuinely enjoy doing?
LA: Burnout is so interesting because it's one of those things that follow you no matter what. Even when you're in a dream job, even when you are living the life that you wanted. A part of what's worked for me fighting burnout is really again going back to that self-inspection and self recognition of why do I get burned out? How do I work? How does my mind work? What is it that I'm looking for? What is not working? Is it me? Is it them? Is it the situation? Can I get advice from so-and-so?
Everybody is so different but it just really becomes an experiment of throwing spaghetti at the wall and seeing how it [sticks]. Because I've been such a shit show, yelling and screaming and just trying to figure this whole thing out, I've been able to come to a place where I realize that I get burned out because I get bored—that’s my thing. Every two years or even sometimes less, when I feel like I've become decent at something I get really bored of it. Even if it's fun, even if it's great, if I know what I'm going to do and know everything that there is to know about it, then I'm just gonna want the next thing.
I think having kids actually helped with that because every day is so different with them and they continuously change and I never know what I'm doing. I have also made a conscious effort to lean into that discomfort of being a novice at a lot of things and taking up things that I know I am awful at and paring down my expectations that way so that I don't get my head big and think I've got this figured out it's like no actually I don't, I don't have anything figured out. I'm constantly able to exercise that part of my brain where I'm trying to figure something out or try something new.
Then also just knowing how to recharge because sometimes rest is the way that people recharge, sometimes it's doing something else that helps them recharge. Sometimes it's going in a dark corner of your room and just breathing deeply that works. Just allowing yourself that permission to figure it out and to know that this is an ongoing thing and not a solution that I'm going to get to and figure out completely will be the best way because what works for me today might not work tomorrow.
Yo!: Do you have any advice for working moms or even more specifically JA moms raising Gosei kids?
LA: There is a point where you do need to be your own advocate, and know what you're working with and understand what works best for your family, yourself, your career, and your children—really your whole life isn’t what will work for someone else. We're all kind of figuring it out together and the more definitive someone tries to give you advice, they probably don't know anything to be honest. You get to make those decisions and figure out everything yourself.
I feel like there's this movement that's happened where you're trying to relinquish control of yourself and your autonomy for the sake of other people's comfort, but It's okay to take up space and it's okay to want things and it's okay to try to figure it out yourself.
Yo!: Was One Musubi For Me: Counting Things Japanese something that came out of your experience as a mom and not seeing Japanese American children's books? How did you land on children's books?
LA: Absolutely yes. Our options in the bookshelf for the kiddos were either American, Asian American which has similarities but wasn’t quite right, or Japanese. Luckily I can read Japanese so I was able to introduce that to them, but I still felt that there’s this void, where we’re missing the target on our true experience as Japanese American. Also, my partner in this book is my mother-in-law, who had published a Japanese cultural book in the past. She was looking to write a children’s book just as I began to get into children’s book illustrating. So it all kind of fell into place, and we decided to start our publishing company together.
Yo!: How does it feel to finally have your book out in the world? What was the process of publishing like?
LA: It feels surreal still. The writing process took longer than we’d have expected for such a simple book, and we also had explored getting published traditionally vs. self publishing. It feels so scary to push it through because it’s so final and we kept finding edits throughout the process, as well as considering how much to print—all those decisions had to be made by us. Now that it’s here, the thought of having to sell them feels super daunting! As an instinct, it’s easier to make for me than is to sell, and I have to turn on the business side for it.
Yo!: What were your kids' reactions to the book? Family/friends?
LA: Unconsciously (or maybe conscious) I’d illustrated the kids in the book to look like my kids, so they’re excited for “their” book. The reception has been so kind and warm that it’s overwhelming and I feel so proud of it.
The other day my son pointed to a maneki neko in the store and knew what it was from the book, and it felt so rewarding. He’s seen them before but hadn’t felt this sense of ownership to it until now. It feels truly special to be able to offer these new ways where they could get a sense of belonging to this big scary world.
Yo!: What do you hope to accomplish as a children’s book illustrator or author?
LA: I’d love to wear both hats as an author and an illustrator soon. It’s such an interesting medium because both sides are needed to tell stories to children. Seeing how my son “reads” some of his favorite books without knowing how to actually read makes me passionate about illustrating in a way that truly feels synonymous, or even additional the words on the page so that literacy or an availability to an adult reading to them doesn’t become a barrier to appreciating stories. I also want to tell stories that children can see themselves in, whether through culture or circumstance or whatever their truth is. The counting book specifically is an example of wanting to pass on our culture and making that connection to these items to expand their world a bit.
Yo!: Will there be a sequel to this book or another project we should keep our eyes peeled for?
LA: We have a couple more books on the docket for next year that’s a bit more story-based, to for the older reader. I’m still interested in revisiting this simple 0-3 age group again because I’m finding that it’s a really lovely and safe introduction. Maybe shapes or colors and connecting that to Japanese culture.
Yo!: Any last takeaways you’d like to share with our readers?
LA: It feels like in our current climate we’re expected to have it all—a fulfilling life, working remote so I can make money while volunteering and traveling the globe and donating to the right organizations to save the earth and raising world-changing humans in a clutter-free home because I wake up early to meditate and journal and… like, impossible. Overwhelming. When I instead came to terms with my limited capabilities and mortality, I was finally able to recognize that I just need to pick one thing that’s important, and the rest doesn’t matter. I literally have no time for it, I’m gonna die. Letting go has consistently fulfilled my life, not taking on more. I guess if anyone is open to any advice from a random lady on the internet, it’s to figure out what you want and then just screw the rest.
Thank you Lisa! You can find Lisa below:
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