Friday, March 2, 2012

Interview with TOMO Contributor Louise George Kittaka

Louise George Kittaka
Louise George Kittaka (author of the Tomo story “Just Wan-derful”) is a New Zealander living in Tokyo with her family and three cats. She is a freelance writer and editor for educational publishing, and also works with teens with special learning needs. She has co-authored two parenting books in Japanese about using English with young children. Visit her website:

Tell us a bit about how you came to settle in Japan.
My decision to major in Japanese at university in New Zealand was the starting point! After my second year, I came to Japan on a working holiday during my summer vacation (mid-November to mid-February). I’d heard older students bragging about coming to teach English and earning enough money to pay for their next year’s tuition. However, I was only 18—and as the staff at the Working Holiday Center in Tokyo pointed out, I looked about 16. “Nobody is going to hire you to teach English,” they told me. They suggested a job as a waitress at an exclusive coffee shop in the heart of the Ginza, the Tokyo version of millionaire’s row. It turned out to be a lot of fun and my Japanese really improved. (I also loved eating my way through all the cakes offered free to the staff!)

I was a shy, quiet kid, but in Japan I made friends easily. For the first time in my life, people thought I was outgoing and fun. It was a welcome surprise to find that I could reinvent myself like this in Japan.

After graduation, I landed a job as manager’s assistant at a new Japanese-New Zealand joint venture company. Within a few short weeks, I found myself training at their head office in a provincial city in Western Japan. I was working 10 hours a day, six days a week in the office, which was common at the time. Moreover, the people in the area often used slang and dialect that my “standard” Japanese didn’t cover. Even so, it was all very exciting and I looked upon everything as a learning experience.

Louise, age 18, in Tokyo
I made friends with a group of other young foreigners in the city, and as Christmas rolled around, we rented out a restaurant for a party. I almost didn’t go, as a Japanese friend had invited me to a party at her café the same evening. However, her party was rather dull, so I decided to check out the foreigners’ party around the corner. Thank goodness I did! That’s where I met my Japanese husband. I was still only 20 but I fell head over heels in love and within 10 days we were engaged.

We had some opposition from his family: They thought it was too quick, I was too young—and too gaijin (non-Japanese). Six weeks after that, I had to return to work at the firm’s New Zealand office. But things have a way of working out. After a year of lots of letter writing and weekly phone calls (no email or Skype then!), and several visits back and forth, everyone realized we were serious. We had two weddings, one in New Zealand and one in Japan, and then I was launched on my new life back in Japan.

Have you or your family members had adventures with acting in Japan? Any funny moments to share?
About a year after getting married, I found myself on national TV in the final of a Japanese-speaking contest for gaijin. Someone at a talent agency in Tokyo saw this and asked me to sign up. One day they called me about a role as a foreign exchange student in a drama show. The part was a 17-year-old high school girl, but since I still looked young for my age, they thought I could pass for a teen. There was only one problem—I was five months pregnant with my first child at the time! Needless to say, I didn’t get that particular job.

When my son was 12, he and I appeared in a TV special called “Children Around the World” with nine other parent-child pairs. One segment was about “typical” school lunches. In a pre-interview, they asked us what kids eat for lunch in New Zealand, and my son told them about Vegemite sandwiches. New Zealand and Australian kids love Vegemite—a dark, savory spread that goes great with bread. However, if you’re not used to it, Vegemite can pack a real punch! On the show the kids were taken to a table with ten “typical school lunches” covered with lids. Labels told which country the lunch was from, but not the contents. When the lids were lifted up, the kid who got the New Zealand lunch looked very disappointed: It was just a Vegemite sandwich on thin, white bread, and rounded out with half an apple, peeled and cut into small pieces. In comparison, the Korean lunch had a variety of hot dishes, the Italian lunch was a hearty serving of pasta, and the American lunch was a nice looking hamburger. If the kid with the NZ school lunch thought it looked bad, it was even worse when she took a bite—that Vegemite!
Louise George Kittaka and her son on the NHK set for a TV program on which they regularly appeared
What other types of writing do you do?
Learning English is big business here. A lot of my work is for educational publishing companies, and has been featured in a wide variety of textbooks and English courses. Most is aimed at teenage students, but one of the most challenging things I have done recently was to help develop an English course for toddlers! For the last 12 years, I’ve also been writing for the Eiken, a national English exam that is given three times a year all over Japan.

When I have the time to develop an idea, I enjoy writing articles for English newspapers and magazines, and for some years I was a contributor for an English parenting magazine. I loved that, as I got to take my own kids out on fun outings and was paid to write about it! Finally, I’ve co-authored two parenting books in Japanese about using English with young kids.

My contribution to Tomo is my first published piece for a YA audience. I’d love to write more YA fiction!

Do you have any advice for bicultural teens?
I think it is important to feel comfortable in your own skin. I know this is something that each of my three kids has had to come to terms with. Although there are more bicultural kids here now, Japan is still very monocultural compared to many other countries.

In Japan, people usually tend to comment on the fact that my kids are “half” (i.e. have one non-Japanese parent), particularly since they all look more like me than their Japanese Dad. This can get tiresome, for example when some people seem to think they have to speak English to my kids, or act surprised that they can speak Japanese at all!

One thing I feel strongly about is that my kids are lucky to have two cultural heritages. Since they have mainly grown up in Japan and attended Japanese schools, their experiences have been the same as most kids their age in Japan. However, we have also celebrated Western holidays and take annual trips to New Zealand. I worked quite hard to help keep up their English, and taught them to read and write English when they were small.

Do you have any message for teens in Tohoku?
You guys have gone through something that is hard enough for adults to bear, let alone for young people with so much of life ahead. Most people will never know how it really feels to have lived through the earthquake, the tsunami and the aftermath. But people in Tohoku have picked up the threads of their lives again and communities are working to help each other. It might not be the same as before—and may never be again—but it shows the courage of the people of Tohoku. I pray that the teens of Tohoku will be able to pursue their goals for the future with the same spirit.

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