Features Cambodia Society

Husband’s sudden death prompts Japanese woman to help poor youths in Cambodia

12, Mar. 2020

By Shizuka Yasunari

BANGKOK, NNA - At a bakery located discreetly near a busy street in the Cambodian capital Phnom Penh, three young locals were skillfully kneading dough in a lighthearted atmosphere, with the help of a Japanese woman.

Midori Kotani, a 51-year-old Osaka native, opened the Osaka Bakery in August 2019, investing her own money after quitting her career as chief researcher at the Dai-ichi Life Research Institute, a major think tank, in January the same year.

Midori Kotani
Midori Kotani

Hiring the three in their early 20s from rural areas as her staff, Kotani has taught them step by step to make additive-free breads. Each coming from a financially struggling family, two of the three are taking classes at night, with the other being the primary breadwinner.

“I wondered what I can do to help poor youths live independently. I wanted them to acquire specific skills at least so as not to have trouble making a living,” said Kotani, who mastered baking bread on her own from scratch with no previous experience.

Osaka Bakery’s breads have become popular for their unique taste, selling well at cafes and restaurants, though they are smaller in size than others on the market because they contain no baking powder.

Behind her decision to open the bakery was her husband’s sudden death back in 2011. In the month following the Great East Japan Earthquake, she woke up one morning to find her loved one dead. He had died from overwork, as he had continued to work hard for days because his foreign colleagues returned to their own home countries in the aftermath of the catastrophe.

“Everyone has things she or he wants to do some day in their life. But if you die, you will not be able to do the things you want to,” Kotani said.

Kotani and the husband-to-be met some 30 years ago aboard a ship during a program to deepen cultural exchanges among Japanese and Southeast Asian youths by visiting countries in the region. The two shared that experience together and saw the extent of poverty in Southeast Asia.

Since that time, Kotani has developed a desire “to do something for Asia sometime.” She has pursued a career as a researcher specialized in thanatology and actively engaged in writing and speaking, encouraging the members of her audiences to complete their lives by accomplishing things left undone before death.

In the meantime, she asked herself if she was doing so and found her answer negative. For herself and also for the sake of her like-minded husband, she decided to leave the institute at the age of 50 and moved to Cambodia to attain her desire.

In Cambodia, even with its economy growing, many young people still stay away from school because they cannot afford educational expenses or they have to help their parents at home. Under such circumstances, Kotani aims to encourage these youths have a dream.

Yet it is difficult for young Cambodians to have a dream as they have their hands full every day just working for a living.

But the staff at Kotani’s bakery now express their wish to “learn about nutrition.” They are careful about the ingredients they use, checking to see if they are good for health or not, while learning to bake additive-free breads, according to Kotani.

Osaka Bakery in Phnom Penh (Photo courtesy of Midori Kotani)
Osaka Bakery in Phnom Penh (Photo courtesy of Midori Kotani)

After her husband’s death, she formed a group of widows and widowers with friends in the same situation to think about how to overcome grief and loss after their spouses passed away and how to live a fulfilling life. She has also written books on tips to this end.

With her motto of enjoying life on behalf of the deceased, even though sorrow will never be healed, Kotani is determined to continue helping young people in Cambodia rise out of poverty.

She believes such an engagement is tantamount to living the life her husband could not have because of his sudden death.