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.

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