Inspiring Japanese student on how a summer visit to Belfast led to a life-changing decision

Yumi Omori will graduate with a PhD in Sociology from Queen's University Belfast on Wednesday
-Credit: (Image: Queen's University Belfast)

A decade ago, Yumi Omori arrived in Belfast from Japan for Queen’s University's Irish Studies Summer School, a three-week programme offering international students an introduction to the rich tapestry of factors that make Northern Ireland the unique place it is.

It was during this programme that Yumi fell in love with the place and made the life-changing decision the following year to leave her life in Japan behind on a longer-term basis, returning to Queen’s to study a Master’s in Conflict Transformation and Social Justice at the Mitchell Institute.

After successfully completing her Master’s, Yumi moved to Dublin to work at the Embassy of Japan for two years, which she says was quite the experience: “Through the diplomatic lens at the embassy, I witnessed the seismic change in the political dynamic on the islands of Ireland and Great Britain, in light of Brexit.

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“My work experience in Dublin, where I was involved in policy research and analysis, has also expanded my horizons beyond academia.”

In September 2019, Yumi restarted her academic journey, returning to the Mitchell Institute at Queen’s as a PhD student to explore women’s reflections on their motherhood experiences during and after the conflict in Northern Ireland.

While Yumi enjoyed her studies, the PhD life brought many unexpected challenges with the Covid-19 pandemic derailing her fieldwork and interviews. However, she was able to mitigate this with assistance from her supervisors who helped her adapt the project’s research design.

The biggest challenge would come just one month later with a phone call from home: “In April 2020, my sister called me from Japan and notified me of the sudden passing of our dearest Mum. I flew back to Japan amid the lockdown to attend her funeral and handle the family duties following her death.

“I ended up spending five months with my family in Japan, during which we lost our grandmother as well. It was an emotionally turbulent period that made me reflect on my personal life and family back home.”

In September of that year, Yumi returned to Belfast, with what she described as “heartful, caring support from my supervisors, Professor John Brewer and Professor Lisa Smyth, my friends and their families”, as she settled back to her studies.

Yumi turned her focus to her PhD and was grateful for the generous contributions from the mothers who participated in her research, from whom she managed to collect an important dataset and write a PhD thesis.

Foregrounding the stories of motherhood in war-torn and post-conflict Northern Ireland, Yumi describes her research as highlighting: “the neglected yet significant contributions women played as mothers to social peace processes.”

She is deeply grateful to her respondents: “They shared insightful stories about their lives in difficult times. Their voices will continue to be the foundation of my sociological imagination, which I endeavour to carry on as I pursue an academic career.”

Yumi graduating on Wednesday with a PhD in Sociology from the Mitchell Institute at Queen’s and a deep love for the island of Ireland after 10 years of living here.

Yumi Omori from Japan graduating with a PhD in Sociology from the Mitchell Institute at Queen's University
Yumi Omori from Japan graduating with a PhD in Sociology from the Mitchell Institute at Queen's University -Credit:Queen's University Belfast

Though Yumi is graduating from Queen’s a decade after her journey in Ireland first began, this is not the end of her overseas academic adventure – she has recently been awarded a postdoctoral fellowship from Stellenbosch University in South Africa.

Here, she will be working on a new research project on mothering and motherhood in post-apartheid South Africa and will be turning her PhD thesis written in Northern Ireland into a book.

Reflecting on her journey so far, Yumi said: “My journey in Ireland, North and South, proved much longer than I had initially planned and after 10 years, the island of Ireland has become my second home, and I will surely keep coming back throughout my life.

“I cannot imagine myself without a deep attachment to the country. The warmth of the people I met and the rich history, culture and nature surrounding me all contributed to my deepening love for this country. It is not just a place where I studied; it is a place that shaped me.”

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