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“Life is Learning” – Toko Shiiki: survivor, warrior, Renaissance woman

Updated: Mar 6, 2021

Special note: This is the first of what I hope will be many articles featuring the artwork, insights, and inspiration of my friends. Band photo credit to Fred Ellert

Photo credit Fred Ellert

When you see my friend, Toko Shiiki, on stage with her band, October Babies - when you see her jumping, dancing, and soul singing - the word that comes to mind is joyful. Toko has incredible stage presence. You would never imagine, watching her, the struggles she’s endured.

Born in 1972 in Japan, Toko spent her early years being raised in a converted nursing school dorm room.

In my house, we didn’t have anything. My mom and dad were very young when they married. We were all living in one room. We didn’t have our own bathroom. I didn’t have many toys, but my mother loved art so there was always painting and drawing supplies.

A quiet girl, Toko moved from Tokyo to Osaka just before entering elementary school. The dialect in that part of the country was very different from what she spoke, so the other children teased her.

These children, they made a game of targeting different kids to bully. They would bully them for a week or maybe two until “the target” cries and asks forgiveness and then move on to the next person. Only, when it was my turn to be bullied, they didn’t stop because I didn’t cry. It escalated. They would bump into me, throw sand in my face, kick me. One day, my harmonica was gone and I found it inside a food disposer. I will never forget that. I refused to cry, though. That’s when they decided to act like I didn’t exist, which was much worse.

Toko remembers feeling ashamed; hiding the bullying from her family.

My father was a very harsh man; he called me names, like slug. I was afraid to say anything, especially to him.

Toko struggled to eat and started getting headaches. One day, she began throwing up every time she ate. Her mother took her to the hospital for testing several times. Finally, it was recommended she see a psychiatrist. Someone listened. Gradually, she started getting better. Throughout this time, Toko escaped by drawing, creating imaginary worlds.

I needed art. I could forget everything and go into another world. That was my way to survive. I found a voice and I felt as strong as a warrior through my art. Around that time, my mother gave me a camera. She really liked what I was shooting. I thought, I can speak to her through my photos. Even now, if I shoot something and my view speaks to someone, I think that’s great!

In 5th grade, Toko’s family moved back to Tokyo.

That’s when I went too far the other way. I was aggressive because I was afraid to show a softer side. It made the other children not want to talk to me. Again, I was lonely and lost. Then, one of my teachers put me into a leadership role. Also, when he saw the children excluding me, he stuck for me in front of everyone. It was the first time in my life anyone had ever stuck up for me. I learned it was ok to cry.

Toko started to flourish in high school and was accepted into the high level program. She grew passionate about music and put together a cover band, playing the Tokyo bar scene. One day, never having acted, she decided on a whim to audition for Japan’s elite Actor’s Guide. Acting was another form of art she could lose herself in. The guild was intrigued by her spark and bravery; they accepted her.

I felt like a fish in water. It was really amazing for a while. After a couple of years acting and modeling, I started feeling this odd competition from others. Competition sucks the life out of you, so I decided to go a completely different direction and became a fitness instructor. It was separate from art, but so much fun.

Toko said she felt alive and loved the sense of community at the fitness center. She felt a sense of peace, until the day she was involved in a car accident and a neck injury prevented her from working.

I couldn’t eat, again, and I was so miserable and depressed. That’s when I turned back to art, mainly watercolor and pastels this time. I also met Erik Santos (Toko’s husband) who was in Japan working with a dance troupe. Erik suggested I come to Michigan and go to school for photography and art. I thought, OK, let’s do it! I saved for two straight years and finally was able to enroll in Washtenaw Community College.

Toko earned a two-year liberal arts degree with a major in photography. The acting, modeling, and painting enhanced her photography skills.

One of her first major works was a photo diary. For “Time Traveler”, Toko went back her homeland and visited the places where she had experienced so much trauma to ask: “Are these places actually the dark places I remember? Shouldn’t I witness these places now, in person, as an adult, in order to confirm that these stories belong in my past, and I belong to now?” It was a very healing journey.

After I finished, I was relieved because I felt I could let go all those negative beliefs I hold on. When I was young, I never wanted people to know I’m weird or strange. That photographic journey helped me to move on. The purpose of that was not to create artwork, but simply to know that I need to be ok just being me.

Following that project, Toko created her first full-length documentary film "Threshold: Whispers of Fukushima" which won an Accolade Global Film Competition Award and features several people, mostly musicians, who experienced the Great East Japan Earthquake and nuclear disaster in 2011. It illustrates how a love of music helped them to endure. For the past two years, Toko has traveled the states to show her film, as well as Japan and Vienna, Austria. She is currently working on her second short film, “A Diary from Fukushima”.

I went to that internal place, but now I am really interested in sharing other people’s lives. Now it’s more than survival, it’s a vehicle. People may not realize how beautiful they are; I want to help them see that. Life is learning.

To learn more about Toko’s band, October Babies, documentaries and other artwork exhibitions, you can go to or follow her on Facebook. You can check out Toko’s joyfulness in this October Babies video.

Thank you for sharing your incredible story, Toko!

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