If eyes are the seat of the soul, then a smile is the seat of the heart. All you really have to know about Megumi Hagiuda is that smile.
Of course, there’s more to her story, but it is her smile that draws you in—and those gorgeous flowers that travel nearly 7,000 miles to brighten up our lives here in Japan.
Hagiuda is a rose stylist. The life journey so far for this 30-something-year-old Japanese begins with Tokyo and includes an American stint to finish her undergraduate degree and a study abroad year in Spain.
And all this happened long before she figured out a way to import roses from Kenya to her home country.
I met Hagiuda in 2014 at a crafts fair in Omotesando, an avenue in the Harajuku district of Tokyo. Featured were small business merchants who were dedicating part of their proceeds to charity.
She had a small stand and I walked over to admire her flowers.
To my surprise, she engaged easily in English conversation and I even questioned whether she was 100 percent Japanese, which made us both laugh.
It turns out that we had two things in common:
California State University (CSU)—I taught at the Fullerton campus; she finished her degree at the Chico site—and study courses in international relations.
Hagiuda’s global “distance learning” in life and business began as a child.
“My mom went to [Nova Co. Ltd.], a conversation school where she learned English for some years and her teachers used to come over for a party, so I was exposed to talking to foreigners since I was a kid. It was natural for me to talk with non-Japanese people.”
This was before Hagiuda began her formal English classes in junior high school, but the teachers’ stories made her curious about the world.
Her maternal grandfather did the final convincing. A top manager at Tokyo Gas Co. Ltd., he told her, “From now on the future will be globalized, so it’s mandatory for you to learn English.”
“In high school, I studied so much English but I didn’t get an ‘A.’ All I got was a ‘B.’ I didn’t like that at all. I always wanted to get an ‘A’ but I couldn’t. So I decided to go abroad and learn ‘live’ English.”
Her negative feelings about not getting top grades gave her a drive to be better at everything she did. But it was also a positive motivation—to gain experience of other points of view.
“Japan is a small island [nation]. I didn’t want to end up spending my whole life [here].”
And her work today as owner of Afrika Rose in Hiroo, Tokyo, reflects an international outlook.
Hagiuda arrived in California in July 2001, at age 19, just over a month before the terrorist attacks of September 11. She had already completed some college courses through NIC International College in Japan, which prepares Japanese high school students for study in the United States.
At CSU Chico, she became involved with National Model United nations (NMUN), an NPO that manages college-level experiential programs and conferences modeled on the United Nations, and flew to New York where she learned about extreme global poverty—people living on less than a dollar or two a day.
The World Bank estimates in 2012 were that 12.7 percent of the world’s population—896 million people—lived on or below $1.90 a day. That’s the population of Japan seven times over.
To Hagiuda, these global poverty figures were shocking. She wondered if Japan, a highly developed country, was doing enough for the benefit of poorer populations globally, or whether it was satisfied with its current contributions, and not thinking about what the world needs.
Her answer? “I wanted to see with my eyes and feel with my heart.” She needed to see the situation, and talk to the people to see how they feel and what they need.
“Are they happy? Not happy?” All of this mattered to Hagiuda.
As she participated in NMUN in New York, she said to herself, “Someday, I will go to Africa.”
She returned to Japan after finishing her degree and worked in private industry in the fields of pharmaceutical sales and global HR. Once she had saved enough money, she made her African dream come true.
Why Africa? Sub-Saharan Africa is one of the most poverty-stricken areas of the world. What’s more, it was the one continent she had not yet visited—she’d had stints in North and South America, Europe, and Australia. “I had experienced four continents before Africa,” Hagiuda says.
In 2011, her participation with a Japan-based NPO, Community Action Development Organization (CanDo), took her to Kenya. There, she helped to build a primary school.
But she had no idea that Kenyan soil grew the most beautiful roses in the world. “Kenya was known for animals, safari tours, coffee, tea, nuts, but I didn’t know about its roses.”
The first weekend that Hagiuda returned from the village where she was helping to build the school, she went to a shopping mall in Nairobi, where she discovered the beautiful roses.
She can still picture the bright proud eyes of the Kenyan merchant who sold her the first rose saying, “Kenya is number one in exporting roses.” In Japan, the country’s flowers still comprise just 1 percent of the market.
Hagiuda, who has a teacher’s certificate in ikebana, the Japanese art of flower arranging, has seen many roses in her lifetime, but never like the Kenyan roses. Her company name, Afrika Rose, has a “k” in Afrika, as a tribute to Kenya.
She’ll never forget buying her first Kenyan rose, leaving for a work week in the village, and returning to see the rose still in bloom.
“Wow, I thought these roses are so powerful, strong, and energetic.”
They reflect the spirit of the Kenyans she’s met, especially those hardworking, powerful, and strong women—many of whom are single moms—who grow roses for the global marketplace.
Hagiuda is on a mission to romanticize the concept of giving and receiving roses as part of the gift-giving culture of Japan.
Too often men are shy about how they present roses. They come in to buy but then want her to hide them in wrapping.
She refuses to do that.
The man, she believes, should be proud to walk down the street carrying his bouquet.
Imagine, she tells him, what other Japanese women will think of him—“what a nice boyfriend (or husband) who cares to show his love in public.”
Hagiuda hopes that, by telling the stories behind the Kenyan roses, people will think about the origins of all flowers, even those grown in Japan. And, she adds, in every gift you bring, don’t forget to smile, which, for Hagiuda, is as powerful as a Kenyan rose.
Dr. Nancy Snow is a speaker, university lecturer, and author who has been published in outlets such as The New York Times and The Guardian. She is Pax Mundi Professor of Public Diplomacy at Kyoto University of Foreign Studies.
“I wanted to see with my eyes and feel with my heart.”