Monday, January 30, 2012

Interview with TOMO Contributors Leza Lowitz and Shogo Oketani


Leza Lowitz and Shogo Oketani are the co-authors of the Tomo story “Jet Black and the Ninja Wind."

Leza Lowitz (co-author “Jet Black and the Ninja Wind”) is an award-winning writer and yoga instructor. Her work has appeared in The Huffington Post, Shambhala Sun and Best Buddhist Writing of 2011. She has published over 16 books, most recently Yoga Heart: Lines on the Six Perfections. Visit her website:

Shogo Oketani (co-author “Jet Black and the Ninja Wind”) is author of J-Boys: Kazuo’s World, Tokyo, 1965 (translated by Avery Fischer Udagawa) and Designing with Kanji, and is co-translator of America by Ayukawa Nobuo, for which he received the Japan-U.S. Friendship Commission Award. He lives in Tokyo and is an editor and self-defense instructor. Visit his website:

Can you tell us a bit about your backgrounds and how you met? 
Leza: I was in Tokyo, writing reviews for the Japan Times, and art criticism for the Asahi Evening News and Art in America, teaching at Tokyo University. One night the American jazz trumpeter Wadada Leo Smith invited me to Yokohama to hear him play at very small, smoky jazz club. There was a typhoon that night and I almost didn't go. Also, it was free jazz, which, to be honest, gives me a bit of a headache. I saw Shogo across a crowded room, and the rest is history. Shogo was working as a journalist and editor for the Sangyo Times, a semiconductor industry newspaper, and was also a poet and fiction writer. His friend Sabu Toyozumi was the drummer that night. Unlike me, Shogo loves free jazz. He says it helps him relax.
Shogo Oketani and Leza Lowitz in 2006

This story was authored by both of you. How does a husband and wife team go about writing together? What is your process?
After Memoirs of a Geisha came out, we had a conversation about how few strong Japanese heroines there were in popular fiction, and how we'd like to create one. Shogo told me about female ninja, and then he set out to write a novel about one. Shogo was also really into Native American culture, and wanted to include that element in the novel. I had no idea how he was going to manage that connection, but I remembered the Navajo Code Talkers and suggested that he work them into the plot. A year later, on New Year's day, Shogo walked into the kitchen and announced that the novel was finished. I’d actually forgotten all about that conversation! Shogo then spent another year translating the novel into English. I spent the next few years editing it, adding and taking out characters, refining the plot and language. Several editors and writer friends have also read it and helped us shape it. Over the years, the novel has evolved into a much different book than either of us envisioned on our own. It was also a great test of our marriage and patience. We work together a lot on various books, translation projects and creative endeavors, and this novel has been our toughest collaboration yet. But we both feel it's so much more rewarding to face challenges; you learn so much more. After all, "smooth seas don't make skillful sailors." We're still tweaking the novel, and are honored that a portion will appear in Tomo.

“Jet Black and the Ninja Wind” includes martial arts/ninja style fighting. Do either of you have personal martial arts experience?
Shogo Oketani
Shogo is a black belt in karate and has studied a variety of martial arts including shaolinquan, kendo, and judo. He teaches self defense courses at Sun and Moon Yoga, and at various corporations. I studied Shorin Ryu, which is an Okinawan-style martial art combined with Chinese shaloinquan in my early twenties. Now I am a yoga teacher and own a yoga studio where we teach many different styles of yoga and meditation. I’m particiularly interested in Tibetan Buddhist teachings of compassion and service. Though Jet is a ninja, her goal is to restore peace and harmony to her homeland, so both of our backgrounds come into play in her character.

Historically speaking, were there female ninja? Can you tell us a bit about ninja and the influence on this story? 
Female ninja, or kunoichi, were an important part of ninja history, known for their skills in espionage and spying. They were highly trained in the art of henge (disguse) as well as in psychological warfare and manipulation so they could infilitrate enemy territory. Kunoichi were skilled in using weapons that were smaller than that of their male counterparts, such as blinding powders, poisons, darts, daggers, ropes, neko-te (cat’s claws) and metal fans. All of these tools were easy to carry and to conceal. Kunoichi used their feminine charms to gain access into enemy clans and build trust, then they used the close-range weapons to subdue their victims, without ever leaving a trace.

Kunoichi are usually shown in manga and anime as seductresses, but we wanted to create a deeper character with very human concerns and conflicts. Though our novel is contemporary, we used the actual history of Japan’s indigenous Emishi tribe and their fight to save their history and land as Jet’s family saga. The natural landscape of the American Southwest desert and the sacred mountain of Osore-zan also play important roles in the novel.  Dogs were also used in ninja warfare, and our novel introduces Aska, a powerful ninja dog.

An interesting thing about the word kunoichi is that the 'ku' is written in hirigana, the 'no' in katakana and 'ichi' in kanji.
ku (
no (
ichi ()
The three strokes together comprise the kanji for woman or onna:

This story is adapted from the opening of a novel in progress/recently finished novel. Can you tell us a bit about that novel? 
Jet Black and The Ninja Wind  is set in the American Southwest and the Japanese North Country of Aomori. It weaves culture, history and adventure with martial arts against a backdrop of environmental concerns and a teenager’s quest for identity and belonging.

Basically, Jet Black is a ninja. There's only one problem–she doesn't know it. Everyone else does, and they all want to capture her and uncover her secret–a secret she doesn't even know she has. When her mother dies, half-Japanese Jet must go to Japan to protect a hidden family treasure in her ancestral land. Stalked by bounty hunters and desperately in love with the one man sent to kill her, Jet’s powers must be strong enough to protect the treasure, preserve the ancient culture and save a sacred mountain from destruction. Can she emerge triumphant as the last living female ninja in the world? And is her one true love going to join forces with her, or continue to fight against her?

Do you have any message for teens in Tohoku? 
This novel is based on the ancient history of the Tohoku area. We hope you’ll overcome the current difficulties and grow up strong with your great ancestors’ history to guide you. Thank you for being a wonderful example of grace and courage to teens all over the world.

Friday, January 27, 2012

Tomo Support for Japan NPO Hope for Tomorrow

I'm happy to announce that the Japan NPO Hope for Tomorrow will be the first recipient of funds raised through the sales of Tomo (publication date March 10, 2012). Recently I had the pleasure of meeting with Rieko Tanaka, who serves on the board of directors of this new NPO. We discussed Hope for Tomorrow's activities thus far and their goals for the future.

Hope for Tomorrow aims to fill in the gaps of government funding and to ensure that high school students in the affected areas can further their education. The Hope for Tomorrow program has three main areas of support: Educational Support, International Exchange Support, and Foreign Language Support. Hope for Tomorrow will provide funding for the costs of exam fees, transportation and accommodation associated with taking university entrance exams; enable meaningful intercultural exchange opportunities; and encourage and facilitate foreign language learning. Hope for Tomorrow has already provided funding for Tohoku students in the current winter 2012 round of university exams, and international exchanges have taken place via Internet between university students in the U.S. and select high schools in hard-hit areas of Tohoku. In March a group of high school students from the affected areas will travel to a school in New York for home-stay experiences. "Education is essential. And we really believe that ability in language and ability to communicate with people from other cultures is key to their futures. With people from around the world focusing on Tohoku recovery, and people from many countries coming to Tohoku to help, students in the affected areas need these skills more than ever," Tanaka explained.

Hope for Tomorrow endeavors to enable teens in the the earthquake and tsunami affected areas to hold onto their hopes and see a meaningful future full of opportunities.

Currently the Hope for Tomorrow website has only Japanese explanation, but English pages will be added soon!

Holly Thompson

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Interview with TOMO Contributor John Paul Catton

John Paul Catton (author of the Tomo story “Staring at the Haiku”) is a British writer who has lived in Japan for 15 years. He teaches at an international school in West Tokyo and is studying for an MA in Creative Writing from the University of Canberra. Japanese myths, folktales and urban legends are a major influence on his work.

Can you tell us about how you came to live in Japan? 
John Paul Catton

I have been interested in Japan ever since university. I bought books on the subject, and I went to a special performance of kabuki, noh and taiko drumming at the Barbican in London. Many years after that I decided to leave the UK and go traveling, it was kind of inevitable that I would end up working in Tokyo. 

Tell us about your fascination with yokai and how that began. 
The Japanese supernatural presents a range of complex themes, characters and tropes that are fresh to Western eyes. Even after the Hollywood remakes of the J-Horror films, the subject has barely been touched in Western fiction. I find it to be a fascinating way to explore universal conflicts and issues important to all of us, in new settings. 

Your story takes place in the days leading up to hina matsuri or Doll Festival. Can you tell us a bit about this holiday and how it ties into your story?
The Doll Festival (Hina matsuri) takes place on March 3rd, also known as Girls' Day, the day to celebrate the daughters of the family. It has always struck me as unfair May 5th, now Children's Day (Kodomo no hi), which traditionally celebrated the boys in the family, is a national holiday, but March 3rd isn't. The festivities that usually take place on March 3rd are special meals of chirashizushi (sushi and vegetables over vinegared rice served in a special box), ushiojiru (hamaguri clam soup), and a glass of shirosake (sweet nihonshu/sake) to toast the daughters of the family.

Every Japanese festival has its own special ornaments, and for Girls' Day those ornaments are a special set of dolls displayed in the house. The dolls are placed on a series of platforms covered with a red carpet, although the number of platforms, dolls and accessories will depend on how wealthy the family is--the full set extends to seven platforms and can be very expensive to purchase. The dolls are dressed in traditional costumes from the Heian Era (794-1185). The two dolls on the top platform are always the Emperor and Empress, and the dolls on the platform below represent the Imperial Family's court servants, musicians, ministers, guards, accessories and miniature furniture. 
Seven-tiered set of Hina matsuri dolls on sale (WikiMedia Commons)
The inspiration for "Staring at the Haiku" came from the highly ambivalent position of dolls in Japanese culture. Dolls can inspire feelings of great sympathy and affection--but also fear. The religion of Shinto teaches that everything, both natural and man-made, has a soul--and that 'soul' can easily be seen in something that is artificial but resembles a human form, like a statue, a scarecrow, a doll. Looking at a doll, with its blank eyes and fixed expression, makes you afraid to look away, because of the feeling that it will move as soon as your back as turned. 

Or, as Xin Yao put it herself, in "Staring at the Haiku"; "I saw a doll once. It freaked me out. End of story."

Do you have more adventures planned for the ghostbloggers led by Tomoe Kanz
Yes! I am currently working on the YA Urban Fantasy Trilogy Sword, Mirror, Jewel which features Reiko, Tomoe and a hellish host of yokai.

Where were you and what were you doing on the afternoon of March 11, 2011? 
Strangely enough, I had taken the day off from work, and I was in a record shop in the Kichijoji district of west Tokyo. I had just picked up an album when the whole shop began to vibrate. I ran outside with the manager and staff and customers and we huddled in the middle of the road, with dozens of complete strangers, while we watched the city sway around us.
Now I understand the feeling when you cannot trust the ground beneath your feet. It is a feeling that is with me every day, I have to look at what I am doing and examine it, listen to what people are saying and then question them, because I cannot take anything for granted anymore. There is no promise that tomorrow will be the same as today.
And the title of the album I was looking at at 2:46 pm? "Heroes," by David Bowie.

Do you have any message for teens in Tohoku?
It is very difficult for me, sitting here in Tokyo, to say anything about  your pain, your loss and your struggles in your new life; but if I say anything at all, I would like you to think of this as the start of something new. You know that you can't rely on those ministers in Tokyo for support. Think of self-sufficiency in the community, of the local crops, animals and construction materials that can keep all your families united, fed and sheltered. At the same time, look to the Asian and Western volunteers, students and business people who are coming to help Tohoku rebuild and rediscover itself. Look at the sources of energy that do not rely on nuclear plants and nuclear waste in your back gardens. Together, you have the potential to make a Tohoku unlike anywhere that human beings have seen before.    

Monday, January 23, 2012

Interview with TOMO Contributor Charles De Wolf

Charles De Wolf (author of the Tomo story “Borne by the Wind”), Professor Emeritus, Keio University, is a writer, linguist, and translator of Japanese literature, both classical and modern. His translations include numerous stories from Konjaku monogatari, a twelfth-century folktale collection, excerpts from The Tale of Genji, and works by Ryunosuke Akutagawa, Hyakken Uchida, Keizo Hino, Ryu Murakami, Haruki Murakami, and Akiko Itoyama. He has spent most of his life in Japan.   

What led you to a life in Japan and to settling as a permanent resident with a Japanese name?
Charles De Wolf
As a young man, I was what one would now call “Eurocentric.” As a boy, I had read about Commodore Perry and the opening of Japan; later in university I took a survey course in Asian history. I remember seeing a young instructor and his students in a campus café, looking through a pile of Japanese weekly magazines. It seemed to me to be quite a different world. I thought that any attempt to acquaint myself more than superficially with any non-Western culture would either take too much time or prove to be frustrating. And then, as fate would have it, I wound up spending two years in Korea. With the vague idea of becoming a specialist in East Asian studies after all, I came to Japan, mostly to learn Japanese. I did not intend to linger. But then after graduate school, I was hired by a Japanese university, and so I returned, together with my Japanese wife and the first of our four children. Eventually, I was granted permanent residence; more recently, I have become a Japanese citizen. As my wife and children all go by the same surname, Suda, I have adopted it as mine as well, adding Rōan, which literally means ‘wolf’s hermitage’, as my personal name. I have never been a starry-eyed romantic about Japan but nonetheless feel a deep attachment to this country. It is now home. 

“Borne by the Wind” is a combination of a retelling of a translation and original fiction. What led you to combine a twelfth-century tale with a story set during and after WWII?
The story-within-the-story is an adaptation of a folktale that is included in an early twelfth-century compilation written in Classical Japanese. I had translated the tale some years before but hadn’t been thinking of it, when it occurred to me that its themes of trust and courage in the face of uncertainty might appeal to English-speaking young people. In the original, the boys are already grown men, the author merely noting that they are not of “high estate.” They have no names, no leader, and no distinct voices. As through almost all of the collection, the tale concludes with a moral drawn by the compiler, who (predictably) suggests that the good fortune of the fishermen should be seen as a karmic reward for good deeds in previous lives.

The great short-story writer Ryunosuke Akutagawa, whose work I have also translated, likewise drew from Konjaku monogatari, adding personal and psychological elements. I have, I suppose, tried to imitate him, adding a sense of uncertainty that is absent in the original.

Can you give us some background about the fire bombings in the “great air raid” mentioned in the story, about children evacuated during the war, or about Japanese in Manchuria captured by Russians at the end of the war? Can you give us any historical background on these topics?
Japanese soldiers captured by the Soviet Union's Red Army
The bombing of Tokyo on March 9/10 1945 was the single most destructive air raid of World War II. At least 100,000 people were killed in the terrible firestorm. (My elder brother-in-law, living to the north of Tokyo, was among the earlier evacuees. Like Toshio in the story, he suffered bullying.) The Soviet Union declared war on Japan in early August of that year and immediately invaded Manchuria, then part of the Japanese Empire. (My father-in-law was among the soldiers captured there and sent to a labor camp in Siberia.)

Have you spent time in the Kanazawa area where this story is set?
No, not yet, but descriptions of the area from other translation work I have done make me most curious.

Do you enjoy translating and representing local dialects?  What are some of the challenges to translating dialects in Japan?
A fundamental challenge for translators is the need to keep themselves hidden from view; that is, they should not remind their readers that the story they have before them is being filtered through another language. English-speaking readers may readily take it for granted that a Japanese character is (somehow) speaking a general sort of English, but if suddenly that character begins to sound like someone from Yorkshire, New Orleans, or the Australian outback, there is very likely to be a feeling of: “Huh?” Thus, unless the author makes a specific issue of different ways of talking, including dialect variation, it is generally better to be bland than clever. My excuse for not erring on the side of caution in this piece of fiction is its setting: In 1945, before the age of television and cultural homogenization, the speech of a boy from Tokyo would very likely have stood out in Kanazawa and thus played into the hands of local bullies. Those who have been newcomers in a strange land or region will find Toshio’s plight familiar.

You have translated many works of fiction. What fascinates you about Konjaku monogatari—the twelfth-century collection of folktales of which one is featured in this story?
The oldest manuscript of Konjaku monogatari, circa early 12th century (courtesy of Kyoto University)
Much of Classical Japanese literature is written by aristocrats, for aristocrats, and about aristocrats. Konjaku monogatari, on the other hand, covers a wide social and regional range. There are emperors and Buddhist monks, men and women, saints and sinners, gods and monsters—and, as we see in this story, fishermen. Many of the stories are rather quaint, even stodgy, but some are entertainingly earthy and, for all their magical elements, remarkably realistic.

You translate and write. Do you find you have to change gears with each process? Or can you move easily from one endeavor to the other?
As a translator, I do not have to worry about the plot line or the development of the characters. That might suggest that the process is fairly mechanical and that the chief concern is accuracy. In fact, translators are constantly “fussing” with their style and choice of words, endeavoring to be true both to the original text and to the spirit of their own language. As a writer, I can actually produce more words in a single day than as a translator. Of course, how many of them survive the revision and editing process is quite another story. Unlike translators, original fiction writers have to take full responsibility for their work. That makes for an exciting but also intimidating challenge.

Do you have plans to incorporate other stories from Konjaku monogatari into short stories?
Until I wrote this story, I hadn’t given the idea the slightest thought, but now I think I would like to try it again. 

Do you have any message for teens in Tohoku?
My message would be: Some years before you were born, there was a lot of exaggerated talk about Japan as the world’s emerging economic superpower. It might be said, however, that Japan had many admirers but not many friends. Japan has now experienced a series of adversities. The courage and calm with which the Japanese have faced the natural disaster of March 11, 2011, has inspired a new sense of genuine affection. This to me is the true spirit of the country. Don’t be afraid to love and believe in your homeland.

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Interview with TOMO Contributor Misa Dikengil Lindberg

Misa Dikengil Lindberg  (translator of the Tomo story by Kenji Miyazawa, “The Dragon and the Poet”) grew up in a bicultural (Japanese/Turkish) home in New Jersey and has lived in both the United States and Japan. She was first drawn to translation studies while teaching at a bilingual Japanese-English school, where she fell in love with Japanese children’s literature. She currently writes, edits, translates, and teaches in Vermont. 

Can you tell us a bit about your cultural background/connection to Japan? My mother is Japanese and the only one in her family to have immigrated to the U.S., so I have a lot of family in Japan. In college, I studied Japanese intensively and later lived with my grandmother in Japan for a few years while continuing my studies. I've also taught in a Japanese-English bilingual school and am an avid reader of Japanese children's literature.  
Misa Dikengil Lindberg with her grandmother in Kamakura in 2009
When did you first encounter the work of Miyazawa and what were your impressions?
Honestly I cannot remember my first encounter with Miyazawa's work! My mother gave me a beautifully illustrated copy of Milky Way Railroad in Japanese when I was younger, but I mostly just admired the pictures. It wasn't until I read a collection of Miyazawa short stories in English translation that I felt the themes of his work strike a chord in me. I loved how nature is always depicted as magnificently complex, magical, and possessing a wisdom that is just beyond the grasp of conventional human minds. Through his writing, Miyazawa shows us how deeply connected we all are to the natural world. All of this inspired me to read Miyazawa in Japanese, as difficult as it was for me at the time.  

Can you tell us a bit about Miyazawa’s background?
Kenji Miyazawa was born in Hanamaki City in Iwate (part of the Tohoku region) in 1896. He was the son of a wealthy pawnshop owner and was raised in a Jodo Shinshu Buddhist family, although he later converted to Nichiren Buddhism. He was blessed with deep empathy for all living things and remained a devout Buddhist throughout his life. Not only was he a radical vegetarian, but he also deeply troubled by the plight of poor farmers in Iwate. Always fascinated by science and nature, Miyazawa graduated from the Morioka Agriculture and Forestry College in 1918 and worked in a variety of professions, including teaching (agronomy) and working with farmers as a fertilizer specialist. Miyazawa struggled with his health throughout his life and died of pneumonia at the young age of 37. 
Kenji Miyazawa, circa late 1920s (photo courtesy Kamakura Museum of Literature)

What do you particularly admire about Miyazawa’s writing?
I admire his ability to interweave his thoughts and beliefs about nature and Buddhism into thought-provoking fiction. Of course, one can still enjoy his writing without much understanding of Buddhism, but with background knowledge, his writing really gains so much depth. He was obviously so passionate about the themes he chose to write about.

What do you hope readers will take away from this story?
I hope that readers will see the ultimate message of the story as positive. The dragon is atoning for his sin of wreaking careless, egotistic havoc on humankind--havoc that brought natural disasters and suffering to many innocent people. The world, however, always balances itself out, and for every negative there is a positive. If the dragon were not trapped in the cave, the exchange between Surudatta and the dragon may never have taken place. To me, the passing of wisdom to Surudatta is a symbol of hope--hope that the world can be saved, regain harmony and balance, and witness an end to suffering. 

Do you have any message for teens in Tohoku?
Be strong. Stay positive. Continue to be compassionate to friends, neighbors, and strangers, even after the damage is cleared and normalcy returns.  

Monday, January 16, 2012

Interview with TOMO Contributor Deni Y. Béchard

Deni Y. Béchard
Deni Y. Béchard (author of the Tomo story “Half Life”) is the Canadian-American author of Vandal Love, which won the 2007 Commonwealth Writers’ Prize. Cures for Hunger, his memoir about growing up with his father who was a bank robber, is forthcoming in 2012, and in 2013 he will publish Empty Hands, Open Arms, a book about conservationism in the Congo rainforest. He has lived in Japan off and on since 2009. Visit his website: 

Tell us about your connection to Japan. 
I first came to Japan in the summer of 2009, intending to stay a month in order to research a short story set in Tokyo. I fell in love with the country and stayed three months, then again returned in May 2010. On my third trip to Japan, I met my girlfriend who is half-Japanese and half-French, and since then I have spent a great deal of time in Tokyo.

In “Half Life,” the main character discovers some writings by his American grandfather about his time working at Los Alamos. What led you to connect Los Alamos with a post-Great East Japan Earthquake story?
James H. Ellis, Béchard's grandfather
The grandfather in “Half Life” is based on my own grandfather who worked near Los Alamos during the making of the first atom bomb. He was exposed to its radiation and suffered radiation poisoning throughout his life. In April 2011, when I returned to Japan after a trip to the US, I had my grandfather’s papers in my bag. Before his death, he asked my mother to give them to me. He’d wanted me to write about his struggle to have the US government recognize what he’d suffered. The nuclear meltdowns at Fukushima-Daiichi had recently taken place, and, reading his papers, I considered the way his life had been changed and how thousands of Japanese were now being affected. Though some friends and family members were concerned about my decision to return to Japan at this time, I did so to be with my girlfriend, and when I wrote “Half Life,” I was thinking about the choice to overcome fear of personal loss in order to act with a larger vision of the future.

You have a mixed-culture background yourself. Can you tell us a bit about this? How has this background influenced your writing? Did any aspect of your experience inspire the main character Kenji in “Half Life”? 
My father grew up in rural Québec, a six hour drive north of Montréal. He spoke French and learned English when he was in his twenties. My mother was from Pittsburgh, a second generation descendant of Scottish and German immigrants. She went to college for art but left during the Vietnam War and moved to British Columbia, where she met my father and I was born. They were incredibly different. He had a fifth-grade education and had been raised Catholic, and she had studied art and grown up Protestant. My childhood was marked by a sense of deep divisions that I didn’t understand until I was in my twenties. It took time to learn to navigate the two cultures and appreciate both, and the process of exploring and reconciling my cultures inspired a great deal of writing during my twenties. At the time, I felt that by getting to know both cultures better and writing about them, I was learning what had made me who I was. 

When I wrote Kenji in “Half Life,” I was drawing on my memories of a strong desire to reconcile the differences between the cultures I was born into. I also wanted to evoke the sense of confusion I often had growing up, when I couldn’t reconcile my parents’ conflicting points of view. However, in writing the story, I also drew on my girlfriend’s experiences. Her mother is Japanese and her father is French, and she and her sister grew up in Paris, but spent a fair amount of time with their family in Tokyo. Furthermore, in writing “Half Life,” I was aware not only of her stories and my own, but of the challenges we have faced with our four cultures. Though we speak French together, French-Canadian culture is different from French culture, and we also have American and Japanese influences to sort out (not to mention some English-Canadian influence). It took us months to stop misunderstanding each other just because of what we considered normal in our own cultures. On the other hand, since we each had grown up with two cultures, we expected this challenge and knew how to deal with it.

What have your experiences been in Japan post-3/11? 
My strongest impression of Japan post-3/11 has been that of the Japanese reevaluating who they are and what is important to them. The tsunami motivated a lot of people to take action in order to help fellow citizens; it reminded them of the importance of self-sacrifice. However, I think that the nuclear meltdowns at Fukushima-Daiichi have resulted in a sense of confusion and often in anger. Given that I am not Japanese, it has been hard for me to understand the real implications of Fukushima-Daiichi. Even my girlfriend, who speaks Japanese, has struggled to learn whether the information she hears from others or in the media is true. There has been so much conflicting information that it is difficult to evaluate the full impact of the nuclear meltdowns. When I wrote “Half Life,” I wanted to convey this sense of confusion and frustration, how people struggle to determine the truth and what is best not only for themselves and their families, but for their society as a whole

Can you tell us about some of your other writing projects? 
Over the last seventeen years, I have been working on a memoir about my father, who lived an extraordinary life. I have already mentioned his cultural background, but what I didn’t say was that after leaving his village in rural Québec, he spent over a decade involved in crime, robbing banks and jewelry stores, among other things. He was an extremely colorful character and a storyteller, and his wildness and exuberance deeply shaped my childhood. After his death, when I was twenty, I began trying to write his story. It has taken me nearly two decades to finish it. The memoir’s title is Cures for Hunger. Publication is set for May 2012. 
Béchard in Somaliland 

The project that is now taking most of my time is a book about conservationism in the Congo rainforest basin. It looks at the work of conservationists who have devoted their lives to the protection of endangered species, in particular the bonobo, a matriarchal great ape. The book will, in part, show how one or two people with a vision can change the world, bringing medicine and jobs to desperate people, saving endangered species, and protecting the environment. 

Do you have any message for teens in Tohoku? 
Over the last fifteen years, I have traveled in about 50 countries, and one thing I have seen repeatedly is how much one or two individuals with determination and vision can change the world around them. Often, these people have suffered; they have told me that they tried to heal themselves but were able to do so only when they started helping others and working for the benefit of those around them. For them, their hardship became a source of strength. They could recognize the suffering of others and knew how to help.

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Interview with TOMO Contributor Graham Salisbury

Graham Salisbury (author of the Tomo story “Bad Day for Baseball”) grew up on Oahu and Hawaii. He received an MFA from Vermont College of Norwich University, where he was a member of the founding faculty of the MFA program in writing for children. He lives with his family in Oregon. Graham Salisbury’s books including Eyes of the Emperor and Under the Blood Red Sun have garnered many prizes.

Graham Salisbury
You have often included Japanese-American characters in your stories and have written novels (Eyes of the Emperor, Under the Blood Red Sun, House of the Red Fish) about Japanese-American history. Can you tell us a bit about developing these Japanese-American characters? Although you were raised in Hawaii with kids of many races and backgrounds, did you undertake particular research or language study to help you portray your characters convincingly? 
I could not have written any of my World War II novels without extensive research, though that research was centered more within the historical events than my Japanese-American characters. However, I did have to do some research having to do with Japanese customs, language, and traditions. But for my characters and their sensibilities I relied on intuitive knowledge, that which was already in me as one who’d grown up around kids of many races. I attended public schools through sixth grade, and that was where I absorbed most of what I needed to write with some accuracy. I as a haole growing up in Hawaii was not so different from a Japanese boy growing up in Hawaii. We were just kids growing up in the same time, the same place and situations, and experiencing the same experiences. At that age race was not an issue. We were the same, inside and out. It was good.

Were there any particular childhood friends or experiences that brought you close to Japanese-American culture?

One of Graham Salisbury's favorite wartime photos--taken by Robert Ebert, a former Honolulu Star-Bulletin photographer who was nominated for the Pulitzer Prize in 1946 for this shot of Hawaii resident Iuemon Kiyama tearfully embracing his son, Sgt. Howard Kiyama of the 442nd Regimental Combat Team upon Howard's return from Europe
Most of my childhood contact with the Japanese-American community happened during my elementary school years. I spent grades seven through twelve at a boarding school on the Big Island of Hawaii. There, my culture contact was all east coast American, as almost all of our teachers were young men fresh out of ivy league colleges. My interest in the Japanese-American experience in Hawaii deepened as an adult, especially as I began to research the events surrounding the attack on Pearl Harbor. As a kid I didn’t think much about anything more than buzzing around with my pals. The war, race relations, and politics were of no interest to me, or to any of my friends, for that matter. I guess you could call it typical empty-headed boy-consciousness. But as an adult looking back at World War II, I am amazed at the history that engulfed the islands. It still amazes me. The sacrifices of that time were immense, and I am in awe every time I read about them. 

Can you tell us a bit about the story behind this story “A Bad Day for Baseball”? Is this based on a real incident on the day of Pearl Harbor bombing? 
This story is based on some of my research. “Bad Day For Baseball” could very easily have happened as I’ve told it, and probably very nearly did. I put what I discovered in my research into my head and let it roll around a while. Soon my eyes lit up with a few “ah-hahs” and a story emerged, fiction based on fact. This is how all my historical novels grow … imagination combined with fact. It’s amazing how it all happens for me, and it thrills me when a story or a character comes to life. I call it “magic,” because writing is magic. You put your fingers on the keyboard and things happen.

Below is a shot of the first newspaper of the war that the Honolulu Advertiser put out. It was on December 8, 1941. It ran the unfortunate headlines “Saboteurs Land Here” and “Raiders Return in Dawn Attack.” Both of these stories were false rumors. "Bad Day for Baseball" is a story about those rumors.

Dec. 8, 1941 edition of the Honolulu Advertiser--headlines based on rumors
Did you ever join ROTC? Were you ever in a combat situation?

U. of Hawaii ROTC students training during WWII, circa 1942
I was in ROTC in college, but did little more than study military strategy and march around in mass formation carrying old, decommissioned army rifles. I was drafted when I turned 21, but was somehow reclassified as a sole survivor and turned loose. This was during the Vietnam War. I can’t even imagine what kind of person I would be today if I had been deployed to -- and survived -- Vietnam. That was a terrible war, as all are, but this one was especially awful.

Do you have plans to visit Japan? 
No plans, but I would love to take my adopted daughter there some day. She is Chinese, but has a huge interest in Japan. She would be thrilled to take that trip. So would I, actually. 

Do you have any message for teens in Tohoku? 
Your history is truly fascinating, as is your culture. Though you may at times be inclined to disregard it, which is a somewhat natural inclination for the young, I would urge you to come back to it later, to learn from those who came before, from their mistakes and from their successes. You have a rich tradition that places great weight on honor and all points of character, and integrity. If our world is in need of anything it’s integrity. You have so much to be proud of, as do your Japanese-American counterparts. Carry it forward. All of it. Build on it. You must.

Monday, January 9, 2012

Interview with TOMO Contributor Suzanne Kamata

Suzanne Kamata (author of the Tomo story “Peace on Earth”) is the author of the novel Losing Kei (Leapfrog Press, 2008) and editor of three anthologies including The Broken Bridge: Fiction from Expatriates in Literary Japan. Her short stories for young adults have appeared in Cicada and Hunger Mountain, and she is the recipient of an SCBWI Magazine Merit Award for Fiction. She has lived in Shikoku for over twenty years. Visit her website:

Can you tell us how you came to Japan and ended up settling in Shikoku?
Suzanne Kamata in Okinawa
I came to Japan on the JET Program a year after I graduated from college. This program places young native speakers in Japanese public schools and is meant to help junior and senior high school students develop English speaking skills, and to become more open to other cultures. I didn't get to choose where I would be sent, but I did request a school outside the big city. I figured I would learn more about the "real Japan" if I was away from the international conveniences that big cities offer.

While I was working as an assistant English teacher, I met the man who would become my husband. He was introduced to me by another JET Program participant. He was born and raised here in Shikoku.

This story confronts issues faced by bicultural children who may have parents with different value systems. In your bicultural family life, what differences in U.S. and Japanese values have been the most tricky to navigate?
In Japan, many people, including my husband, believe that a child's future is determined as early as fifth grade (maybe sooner!) so kids are often pushed to study and excel even when they are quite small. During my American childhood, I had a lot of time for playing and creating. I want my children to be free of stress as much as possible, and to be able to let their minds wander from time to time. I think that's key to creativity. We sometimes clash over my seemingly lackadaisacal approach to childrearing.

Also, generally speaking, Japanese people tend to be less physically demonstrative than Americans. Before our children were born, my husband said that he would never kiss our son! (Actually he has, but...) In Japan, affection is shown through sewing aprons and school bags by hand or preparing elaborate meals. When I serve my family cereal for breakfast or sandwiches and potato chips for lunch, my husband thinks that I am being cold-hearted. Nevertheless, I'm sure that my children feel loved.

Your story takes place in Okinawa. What were the reasons for setting the story there?
This story was inspired by our family's trip to Okinawa a couple of years ago. At one time, Okinawa was occupied by the United States, and before that it was a major battlefield during World War II. Okinawans continue to have strong feelings about the American military presence in their island, but there is a lot of Western influence. I can imagine that Okinawa is a confusing place for bicultural kids like my own, and the ones in this story. It seemed the perfect setting for a story about a bicultural teen-aged boy trying to figure out where his loyalty lies and where he fits into the world.

Did you drink A&W root beer in Okinawa? Any other favorite moments in Okinawa?
We actually visited A & W a couple of times during our short visit. My children had never had root beer before. Ironically, I was able to reminisce about my own childhood with my kids while on vacation in Japan. We also visited some key historic sites, such as the cave described in the story. While I wouldn't exactly call that a "favorite" moment, it was profoundly moving for all of us, Japanese and American alike.

Monument outside the cave at the Himeyuri Peace Museum where 80 student nurses perished during the WWII Battle of Okinawa
What are some specific challenges in writing a young adult story?
I think it's very difficult to capture a young adult voice, especially for me, living in rural Japan. I could go to the mall and eavesdrop, as others often suggest, but the teenagers at my mall are all speaking Japanese! To compensate, I read a lot in English. And whenever I'm in the States, I listen to the way kids talk. 

Do you have any message for teens in Tohoku?
Don't give up hope! The world is rooting for you! This is a tough time that most of us outside of Tohoku can hardly imagine, but the future is full of possibilities.