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.

1 comment:

  1. Suzanne, you touched on an important issue. It's so hard to do teen voices from out here. Even harder is translating voice into English, where the conversations were originally had in Japanese.

    great interview. Looking forward to reading your story.