Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Interview with TOMO Contributor Andrew Fukuda

Andrew Fukuda
Andrew Fukuda (author of the Tomo story “Lost”) was born in Manhattan, raised in Hong Kong, and is half Chinese, half Japanese. After graduating from Cornell University, he worked in Manhattan’s Chinatown. Author of the novel Crossing and the forthcoming The Hunt, he lived and worked in Kansai for several years and currently resides in New York. Visit his website: 

Can you tell us a bit about your background and connection to Japan.
My father is from Osaka, Japan. When I was young, my family would visit Japan every two years. I remember great food, intense summer heat, baseball in the local park, firecrackers at night, and cool video arcade centers. The visits were too short for me to really learn the culture or language, but they left me wanting more. After college, I went to Japan on the JET (Japan Exchange and Teaching) Program, and what was supposed to be a one-year stint turned into four amazing, life-transforming years.
Andrew Fukuda as a child in Osaka with his grandfather
You lived in the Kansai area during the Great Hanshin earthquake in 1995. Can you describe some of your experiences then?
A couple of days after the earthquake, some church friends and I drove into Kobe in a pickup truck loaded with food and supplies. The extent of destruction and tragedy was almost too much to fathom. But what I took away from the experience was the courage and resiliency of the Japanese people. Orderly queues for the sento (public bath) that stretched hours-long around the block, in ripped clothes; the gentle bows of gratitude as they took a bottle of water or a packet of food, faces streaked with dried tears. It all made such an indelible impression on me.

You chose to write “Lost” from the point of view of a teenage girl. Was there a reason you chose a female point of view—was it for the voice? the plot line?
I have no idea what goes on in my subconscious, but the protagonist—Noriko—arrived fully formed in my mind. And she was quite adamantly female. This was a departure from my usual protagonist, and to this day I have no articulable reason for it. But I've learned not to attempt to recast my characters when they come so fully-formed in my mind. It was challenging, but ultimately rewarding, to write from such a different perspective. 

Do you hope to get back to Japan soon? What do you miss about Japan?
I miss Japan tremendously. I can't believe it's been over a decade since my feet touched Japanese soil. When I do finally return, I'm going to be a weeping, sopping mess at the airport arrivals hall.

Monday, February 27, 2012

Interview with TOMO Contributor Chloë Dalby

Chloë Dalby (author of the Tomo story “The Mountain Drum”) studies Comparative Literature and Japanese at Oberlin College. She builds taiko drums in her spare time. She recently returned from a semester abroad at Kansai Gaikoku Daigaku where she studied obake and yokai.
Chloë Dalby playing a taiko drum (photo courtesy of Dale Preston, 2011)
Tell us about your connection to Japan and your experience studying there.
Since I can remember, Japan has always been a part of my life. My mom (Liza Dalby) is a scholar of Japan, and was writing and travelling to Japan throughout my childhood. My brother and sister and I grew up eating boxes of mikan oranges during the fall, celebrating New Years by roasting mochi ricecakes, and reading Japanese children’s books that my mom brought back from Japan. I began studying Japanese formally in High school, and visited Japan for the first time when I was seventeen. Then in the spring of 2011 I took time off from my regular studies at Oberlin College to study abroad at Kansai Gaikokugo Daigaku, which is almost equidistantly located between Osaka, Nara, and Kyoto.

Outside of my classes at Kansai Gaidai, I explored the area with my friends and played music (mostly wadaiko, but also shamisen) in Kyoto and Kyushu. It was an incredible opportunity to learn about the many musical differences of wadaiko in Japan, and to allow my own playing style to be shaped by those influences.

What is your experience with taiko drums?
While writing "The Mountain Drum," I was building my own (much smaller!) taiko drum from scratch. See progress picture below!
Chloë Dalby's drum in progress

I was introduced to taiko drumming through watching the San Francisco Taiko Dojo perform when I was a kid, and I was fascinated by their graceful rhythmic and athletic group dynamic. In my freshman year at Oberlin College, a few of my peers, college faculty, and community members chartered Oberlin College Taiko, which I joined shortly afterward. Since then we have grown as a group, and we now have 10+ drums (which we build out of recycled wine barrels and cow rawhide,) we teach a beginning taiko class to students and community members in Oberlin, and regularly perform in the greater Cleveland area.

Here is a link to an Oberlin College Taiko Fall 2011 performance. We are playing our arrangement of the traditional piece “Chichibu Yatai Bayashi.” 

The story features tanuki. Can you give us some background about both the real and the mythical tanuki?
Tanuki are one of the most well known creatures in Japan, though it is sometimes tricky to tease apart what is real and what is myth. There is a real animal “tanuki,” which in English is often translated as “raccoon dog.” There were tanuki families rumored to run around after dark at the campus of my University in Japan. The mythical “tanuki” has been a staple of Japanese folklore for centuries. As my story suggests, the tanuki are often referred to as the trickster spirits (along with foxes, although tanuki are usually benign.) Big-bellied tanuki statues can be found everywhere in Japan as signs of prosperity and good fortune. For reference, see nineteenth century print artist Tsukioka Yoshitoshi’s particularly humorous ukiyo-e of tanuki frightening wayward humans with their shape shifting.

Why did you weave tanuki folklore into your story?
We have a couple tanuki statues in our garden at home, and I’ve always found them appealing—mysterious, but not dangerous. When I learned about the tanuki’s connection to drums (their bellies are purportedly very resonant) I thought they would be perfect to incorporate into my story.

Do you have any message for teens in Tohoku?
In the wake of the disaster, the bravery and kindness you have shown for one another is beautiful and touching. I hope that you can carry this strength into the future. 頑張って、日本!

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Interview with TOMO Contributor Trevor Kew

Trevor Kew (author of the Tomo story “The Bridge to Lillooet”) has lived in Yokohama for three years, teaching English and traveling extensively throughout the country. He teaches at Yokohama International School and is the author of three novels for children: Trading Goals, Sidelined and Breakaway. “The Bridge to Lillooet” was partially inspired by the excellent Canadian National Film Board documentary Sleeping Tigers. Visit his website: 

Tell us a bit about your background and how you came to Japan.
Trevor Kew
I’m originally from a small ski town in British Columbia, Canada. Last year, I returned home and found that my hometown now has an izakaya! I guess the world really is getting smaller. When I was growing up there, Japan seemed like nothing more than a prawn-shaped squiggle on a map. And so when I first came to the country in 2006 to visit a friend who was teaching English in Nagoya, I did not have high expectations, but at the end of the trip, I didn’t want to go home. A few years later, while teaching in England, I received a job offer to teach English Literature at Yokohama International School and seized the opportunity. So far, it’s been three and a half great years of biking up volcanoes, cheering on Japan in World Cup soccer matches, and battling daily with the terrors of learning kanji.

This story is based on an actual event. Can you tell us how you learned about this event and what moved you to then create a story based on it?
I’d known about the Japanese internment camps in British Columbia for a long time but never really looked into them extensively. Last summer, while back in Canada, I visited the Nikkei Internment Museum in New Denver, about a two-hour drive from where I grew up. This small museum contains several original buildings from the time of the internment and has some fascinating photographs of the camps. Later that summer, I attended a Japanese festival in Oppenheimer Park, a baseball park in the area that was once Vancouver’s Little Tokyo. It got me thinking: a lot of the people who ended up in New Denver’s internment camps would have come from Vancouver. What had that experience been like? How did the young people feel about it? Soon after, I found an excellent documentary, Sleeping Tigers (available free online from Canada’s National Film Board), on the Asahi Tigers, an all-Japanese baseball team that dominated Vancouver leagues in the 1930s). The fact that the internees kept playing baseball in the camps, organizing whole leagues and even playing inter-camp tournaments, was interesting to me. Finally, I heard the story about the bridge in Lillooet used to segregate Japanese and Caucasian residents, and about how the bridge was first crossed for a baseball game between the local police and the Japanese internees. It was a true story about sport overcoming boundaries, at least temporarily. I also found some old baseball manga lying around in the back of the New Denver museum. Sport was clearly important to the young people in the camps.

You often write about sports. Can you tell us a bit about baseball in the Canadian internment camps?
Well, baseball was a huge source of pride for the Japanese community in Vancouver due to the winning ways of the Asahi Tigers. You have to remember that this was a time when Japanese people in Canada were widely thought of as an inferior race. To know they were the best at something must have meant a lot to those people. Later, in the camps, many of the internees had lost their homes, their boats or their cars, or had been separated from their families. Watching or playing baseball must have given them a brief but valuable escape during the bleakest times of their internment, as well as a sense of solidarity and shared tradition. And playing baseball against teams from local communities seemed to begin to break down prejudices, as well.

Do you know of other sports practiced in the Japanese internment camps?
Photo of boys skating at a Japanese internment camp (courtesy of Nikkei Internment Museum, New Denver, BC)
During my visit to the museum in New Denver, I saw a photograph of a young Nisei boy playing ice hockey in one of the camps. For me, the photograph was a poignant reminder of the cruelty of the internment. Here was a boy who had been torn away from his home because he was allegedly not Canadian enough to be trusted to live near the coast during the Second World War, and there he stood, playing Canada’s national sport.

You decided to write a Japanese story set outside Japan for this anthology. Why? Many of the foreign students in my classes right now in Japan are living in a society where they feel that they don’t always feel that they belong. Some have even lived in that society all their lives. In “The Bridge to Lillooet,” I wanted to explore the reverse side of this situation, focusing on Japanese-Canadians during a particularly difficult time in their history. The main character and his brother are torn between Japan, a land they’ve never been to, and Canada, a land that doesn’t seem to want them. This would be a difficult situation for anyone, but for teenagers, who are generally wrestling with issues of identity anyway, the struggle is magnified.

I also think it can be tempting to view Japan in isolation from the rest of the world, as a bizarre, foreign land that outsiders can never even begin to understand. During my time in Japan, I’ve discovered that this simply isn’t true, although understanding does take time, effort and a willingness to rethink your own perspectives. Cultural divides can be bridged and should be bridged, as I hope my story demonstrates.

Can you tell us about your most recent book?
Sure! Breakaway is about a boy called Adam who moves from a small town to the big city with his family, a transition he finds very difficult. Adam has been an all-star hockey player his whole life, but after making friends with a group of soccer players at his new school, he is tempted to try the new sport, much to the chagrin of his pushy hockey-loving father. In the novel, I wanted to highlight the difficulties that young people can face in expressing what they want to do when faced with outside pressures. I also wanted to demonstrate that sport can bolster your confidence and sense of identity in the face of adversity. There are also some very personal touches in the book. When I was young, my mom used to make my little brother wear a blue helmet so that he’d be safe playing street hockey with me and my friends, a situation mirrored in Breakaway. The novel also begins in Castlegar, a small town near where I grew up, which is quite close to New Denver, in fact. It’s interesting how Adam and the two boys in “Bridge to Lillooet” both experience upheaval in their lives, albeit within extremely different circumstances, and both use sport to try to prop themselves up.

Do you have any message for teens in Tohoku?
Tsunami-damaged sports academy in Ishinomaki, Miyagi Prefecture
While volunteering up in Miyagi prefecture, I was surprised to see a group of young athletes emerging from a sports academy that had been partially destroyed by the tsunami. They told me that they were swimmers doing dry-land training, because their pool had been destroyed. Their determination inspires my message to teens in Tohoku. Keep playing the sports you love. Sport is like nothing else we do in life. Sport is one of the great joys of life. Whatever sport you play, I hope it brings some light to the dark days and helps you go on.

Monday, February 20, 2012

Interview with TOMO Contributor Marji Napper

Marji Napper (author of the Tomo story “The Lost Property Office”) is a teacher and language consultant for businesses in Tokyo. She has a deep interest in children’s literature. She has worked in high schools and colleges in the UK, and in language schools in Italy and Japan. 

Tell us a bit about your connection to Japan and how you came to live in Japan. 
I came to Japan because I wanted to continue teaching but I wanted to work somewhere completely different. Teaching in Europe would have seemed like cheating, because it’s so close to the UK, where I come from. I also wanted to prove to myself that I could live and work abroad for a year. 

I stayed for three and then went to Italy for a year. But at the end of that year, I couldn’t think of anything I wanted to do more than come back to Japan. 

What was the seed, or inspiration, for this short story? 
One Friday morning, on my way to work, I’d got off the train at Kasumigaseki Station in Tokyo and I was walking through the tunnels that led to the exit I wanted. This particular morning I noticed that one of the sections in the left-hand wall had been changed and there was a door set into it with a notice (in English and Japanese) above the door. And I misread it.  I read “Temporal Lost Property Office.” I was astonished, so I read it again and it actually said, “Temporary Lost Property Office.” 

My mistake actually made me laugh out loud. A temporal lost property office!  A place where time didn’t matter! A place you could go to find anything you had lost, however long ago and however far from Tokyo! And that set me thinking. What if there were a lost property office you could go to and the people there could travel in time and find something you had lost, even if it was something impossible like a toy you had lost when you were a child or a photo you hadn’t been able to find for years? 

Did you ever lose something in Japan and have to visit a train station’s lost property office? 
What I usually lose is my sense of direction! Honestly, I can get lost anywhere. But I did lose my favorite muffler when I was going home one cold December day.  Unfortunately I couldn’t remember where I might have left it or dropped it. So I tried my local station’s lost property office as the most likely place to find it. 

The man in the lost property office was nothing like Mr Motomeru, except in his friendliness and kindness. He asked me about the muffler and I managed to tell him, in stumbling Japanese, that it was a long, black one. He looked incredibly pleased and shot off, returning with two. Sadly, neither was mine.  He looked so disappointed that I almost pretended to recognize one of them after all. 

Have you explored some of Tokyo’s underground world—the many tunnels, shops and restaurants? 
Yes, I have. Frankly, with my hopeless sense of direction, it’s more or less inevitable. I often have to explore Tokyo’s underground world simply in an effort to get back above ground.

Long tunnel in a Tokyo metro station
That happened to me in Shinjuku Station (another of Tokyo’s huge stations with a zillion exits). One of my friends had given me instructions for getting from the train station to the bus station but they were complicated. I kept following the instructions and finding myself wandering out of the station and on to the basement floor of a big department store—in the umbrella department. I must have ended up there three times before I decided to ask for help. 

I wandered back into the station and a really nice assistant, in the first shop that I tried, showed me to the exit I wanted. She was exceptionally happy, giggling all the way. 

After I’d bought the bus tickets, I happened to pass the shop on the way back to catch my train home. I gave the assistant a smile and a cheery wave. I realized then why she thought it was so funny. The shop I’d chosen (without realizing it) was a travel agent’s. 

Do you have any message for teens in Tohoku? 
Everybody I know who has been to Tohoku has been amazed by the courage and resilience of the young people who live there. They think that you are remarkable. Lots of us, who don’t know you personally, think that you are amazing and we admire your courage and care about you.

Friday, February 17, 2012

Interview with TOMO Contributor Thersa Matsuura

Thersa Matsuura (author of the Tomo story “The Zodiac Tree”) is a long-time resident of Shizuoka, Japan where she lives with her husband, son and various dogs, cats and newts. Her collection of dark, mythical short stories (A Robe of Feathers and Other Stories) was published by Counterpoint LLC. Visit her website: 

How did you end up living in Japan? 
I think one of the first loves of my life was Ultraman. We had this afternoon TV program that showed all the old—badly dubbed—Japanese sci-fi flicks and I just couldn't get enough. From there I became interested in martial arts, Buddhism, and the Eastern culture in general.
Thersa Matsuura

Later, during high school and university, I studied Chinese kung fu while doing Zen meditation at a local zendo. But it wasn't until I began studying both languages (Chinese and Japanese) that I quickly learned Japanese came much more easily to me. In another stroke of good luck I discovered my university had a sister university in Shizuoka, Japan, and every year the Japanese Ministry of Education offered two full-ride scholarships to study there for a year. I applied, wrote the papers, did the interviews, and was thrilled when I was chosen to go. That was back in 1990. I ended up extending my studies and staying for two years, returned to the States just long enough to graduate before heading once more back to Japan. I live in a smallish fishing town now. 

Your story involves some bullying of Izumi. Were there instances of bullying that you witnessed that inspired those scenes? 
Yes, I've witnessed bullying back in the States as well as here. But what the girls do to Izumi is actually inspired by a talk I had with a friend many years ago. She was telling me about her daughter being bullied at school. The way I remember bullies back home involved a lot of taunting, making up names, maybe picking fights. But my friend was explaining how this group of bullies would sneak into her daughter's desk and mess with her stuff. Once they got into her calligraphy set and broke all her brushes and poured ink into her things. To me this seemed so much more devious and cruel than what I was used to. The story really stuck with me and I knew one day I wanted to use it in a story. 
The story touches on insider/outsider issues in Japanese society. Can you discuss this theme? 
Japan is a very group-oriented society. If you belong to the group (sports, work, neighborhood) and you fulfill the unwritten rules that go along with that group it's golden, a very comforting and safe and powerful place to be. However, if for some reason you don't belong to the group, or if you do something to get ostracized from the group, it's quite shocking and can be incredibly lonely. In the story "The Zodiac Tree" Izumi has recently moved from another prefecture and is very much the outsider. She learns, though, that sometimes for an outsider rather than trying to be a part of the "in" group it's better to find another outsider.

"The Zodiac Tree" features zodiac animal carvings. Can you explain about the zodiac system?
Ceramic dragon for 2012, a dragon year

If you can imagine a twelve-year rotating cycle with each year represented by a different animal, you have the Chinese/Japanese zodiac. It's neat because the year—and every person born in that year—is said to have some of the qualities of the animal. Ox-year people are dependable, calm, hard working while monkey-year people are quick-witted, innovative, and clever. Much like the western zodiac it's a lot of fun to get together and see if your friends and family really are like their designated animal. 

Some of the story takes place in a tree. Did you spend time in trees as a kid? Do you still climb trees now? 
Yes! I was your typical tomboy. But I've found that in Japan because yards are quite small compared to back home—at least where I live—there aren't a lot of good climbing trees. Trees are more ornamental and dainty and trimmed within an inch of their lives. I'd do some serious damage if I scaled the dwarf maple I've got in my front yard. That said, places with more room, big parks, temples, and shrines tend to have larger trees. This is where the main characters in my story go to do their tree climbing. And for the record, since coming to Japan I've only climbed one tree at a temple and that was to get a better photo of a local festival and I was one of many that day. I think my tree climbing days are long gone. 

What was the inspiration for the character who is the son of the head abbot of a Buddhist temple? 
Like I said I'm very fond of Buddhism and studied quite a bit back in the States, but one of the perks about living in Japan is I actually get to visit temples and meditate or talk to the monks. I remember meeting a young monk in another prefecture once who turned out to be the eldest son of the head abbot at that temple. While not quite as much as it used to be, being the eldest son in Japan is a big deal. And it was this young man's duty to follow in his father's footsteps and become the head of the temple. However, he was still young and had other dreams he wanted to pursue. It was fascinating to talk with him about his problem. All these years later, I still I wonder which path he chose. 

Do you have any message for teens in Tohoku? 
I think it would be wonderful if all the young adults in the Tohoku region were able to find some creative outlet for their stories. Maybe through photo journals, keeping sketchbooks, making music, writing essays, anything at all. I believe they can create some amazing art just for themselves or for others to enjoy. The world would be very receptive, help in any way it could, and be deeply interested in what these brave teens had to say.

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Interview with TOMO Contributor Liza Dalby

Liza Dalby (author of the Tomo story “Shuya’s Commute”) is a cultural anthropologist and writer whose career has focused on Japan in non-fiction (Geisha, Kimono), fiction (The Tale of Murasaki, Hidden Buddhas) and a memoir (East Wind Melts the Ice). Visit her website:

You first lived in Japan as a teenager. How did that experience affect your future?
The chance to go to Japan was something of a fluke for me, but I took it for the adventure, not knowing at all where it would lead. As it happened, that experience completely changed my life, and I have been going back and forth to Japan for my work and writing since that time.

"Shuya’s Commute" features cellphone or keitai novels. What inspired you to make keitai stories key to this story’s structure?

Keitai novels burst on the Japanese literary scene just in the past decade. They became so popular that for a while, many things on the best seller lists in Japan had originally been cellphone novels. I was very taken with the idea of reading in small screenfuls, and thought this was a really creative use of a new medium. I guess I wanted to try writing keitai stories myself, and inserting them in the structure of "Shuya's Commute" was a way of doing that.

You have a remarkable background—you have worked as a geisha and studied the history of kimono and you wrote a fictional biography of Lady Murasaki...much of your work has focused on women. What or who inspired the male character of Shuya in your story?

Last summer I was talking with a Japanese friend who has a young teenaged son--named Shuya, as it happens. She mentioned that Shuya was into reading the short science fiction stories of the Japanese writer Hoshi Shin'ichi, whose work, curiously enough, I had recently discovered and had been reading as well. I tried to incorporate the sensibility of Hoshi's micro-short stories into my selection--and the image of the Shuya I knew was in my mind.

You have lived and conducted research in various parts of Japan—Saga, Kyoto, an island in the Inland Sea, Tokyo... Do you return to Japan often and what are some of your favorite places?

I usually manage to get back to Japan about once a year. Saga in Kyushu is like my home town, although I feel Kyoto is probably my spiritual home. Last summer I journeyed in search of fireflies deep in the mountains of Shikoku, traveling with my daughter Chloe. I love riding trains in Japan, and especially going new places by train.

You write fiction and nonfiction. What’s next in the works?

Right now I am taking a break from writing and learning how to mount hanging scrolls.

Do you have any message for teens in Tohoku?

You have survived the unthinkable, and this will make you strong.

Monday, February 13, 2012

Interview with TOMO Contributor Claire Dawn

Claire Dawn (author of the Tomo story in verse “Ichinichi on the Yamanote”) grew up on the Caribbean island of Barbados. She has been teaching English as a foreign language in Ichinohe, Iwate Prefecture, for three years. In her spare time, Claire writes YA novels. Her work can also be found in the Write For Tohoku anthology. Visit her blog:

Can you tell us a bit about your path from Barbados ultimately to Iwate in Tohoku, Japan?

I ended up in Japan purely by accident. I love traveling and seeing other countries. One day, I was back on my university campus after graduation. A lady in Student Affairs asked me where I was working and I told her I was teaching but I wished someone would pay for me to go overseas. “We have this thing from Japan,” she said. Then she handed me an application packet for the JET program.

Claire Dawn

Why Iwate? I heard about the miserable humid heat of Tokyo in the summer, so I decided to go North. I didn’t know anything about anywhere, but I thought that choosing places that weren’t often chosen would give me a better shot at being selected.

So it was a fluke I ended up in Iwate. But I love it, and wouldn’t have it any other way.

Tell us about your work in the JET program in Iwate.

I work as an Assistant Language Teacher. In junior high school, I’m mainly responsible for pronunciation. At elementary school, I teach English, with the purpose of getting the younger children interested. In my town, we also do English at kindergarten where lessons comprise simple vocabulary like colors and numbers. Once a week, I also teach an adult class.

Can you explain the form you chose for “Ichinichi on the Yamanote”?

This form is called a choka—Japanese long poem. It has a structure of 5 syllables followed by 7 syllables, which repeats until the final stanza of 5-7-7.

Why did you choose this form? Do you usually write in verse?

I can’t remember how my interest in Japanese poetic forms started, but when it did, I was surprised by how many forms exist. Most people are familiar with the haiku only. I chose to use verse because I thought it would allow me to get more in depth with the character. Before coming to Japan I performed at Poetry Slams but “Ichinichi on the Yamanote” is my first attempt at a narrative in verse.

What YA authors have particularly inspired you? What do you love about YA writing?

I’m inspired by Natalie Whipple (pre-published), Jay Asher, Courtney Summers, Stephanie Perkins and Elana Johnson. I love the depth of character in YA. I love the sense of discovery. I love the possibilities. And I love the fact that as a YA writer, you can make a difference in someone’s life in a way that you may not be able to make in many other genres of writing.

Claire Dawn cleaning up post-tsunami in Miyako-shi on March 26, 2011, pointing to the waterline on the van

Do you have any message for teens in Tohoku?

That’s a difficult question for me. I live in Tohoku. I see Tohoku teens every day. I was here for the quake. I’m inland so the tsunami didn’t affect me, but I know what it felt like waking up every 20 minutes all night long, wondering if the Earth would ever stand still. I know what it felt like to wonder if my missing friends were alive or not. I slept in below freezing temperatures with no electricity. I felt the shortages. No gasoline. No toilet paper. No cheese. I had no transportation services. I even went out to the coast (Miyako and Kamaishi in Iwate) to help, so I saw first-hand, the boats on roofs and cars wrapped around poles.

I guess that’s my message. I know. I know what you’ve been through. What you’re still going through. The sights and sounds and feelings you can’t forget. And I’m amazed. I’m amazed by your strength.

Friday, February 10, 2012

Interview with TOMO Contributor Mariko Nagai

Mariko Nagai in Vietnam
Mariko Nagai (author of the Tomo story in verse “Half a Heart”) was born in Japan but, having grown up in the U.S. and Europe, writes in English. Author of two books for adults, Histories of Bodies: Poems and Georgic: Stories, she has won numerous awards as well as fellowships from art foundations around the world for her writing. Her work has appeared in Asia Literary Review, The Foreign Policy, Southern Humanities Review, New Letters, Prairie Schooner, to name a few. She lives in Tokyo. Visit her website:

Can you tell us a bit about your background? 
Mariko Nagai, age 3
Though I was born in Tokyo, I was raised in Belgium, San Francisco, and Tennessee. When we lived in San Francisco in the 1980's, our family friends were Japanese-Americans who treated us like a part of their families but they didn't speak any--or spoke little--Japanese.  

How did you come to write fiction and poetry in English?
Having gone to schools in the US, the natural language for me is English though I am fluent in Japanese as well. I don't think this question will be posed if I lived in America, but because I choose to live in Japan, people assume that I should write in Japanese because I am Japanese. 

“Half a Heart” describes a period in a Japanese-American girl’s life just prior to detention in an internment camp. Have you visited Manzanar or any other internment camp sites?
Yes, though I did not go to Minidoka, Idaho, where "Half a Heart" takes place, to do research, I grew up in San Francisco where I heard elderly Issei and Nisei men and women who experienced internment during World War II talk about their experiences. 

Can you tell us about some of the research that you did for this story? Have you interviewed internees? Studied artifacts? Read personal accounts?
I am an avid researcher--in order to recreate a world that existed or exists, I have to immerse myself completely into that time period--be it listening to the music, reading magazines and newspapers, or looking through Sears and Roebuck catalogs. I read books after books--both academic and autobiographical, interview people, and study many photographs from that period. One of the most important artifacts I found was the complete set of "Minidoka Irrigator," a newspaper published at the Minidoka War Relocation Center, which conveyed day-to-day affair of the camp. This, in turn, inspired me to make Mina's father as an editor/journalist for the newspaper. 

“Half a Heart” is adapted from the opening of a novel. Can you tell us a bit about this YA novel?
It's a novel about Mina, a twelve-year old, and her family's experience in the Minidoka War Relocation Center in Idaho, which is less well known than Manzanar. Mina Masako Tagawa and her Japanese-American family were sent from their home in Seattle to an internment camp in Idaho. One moment, Mina's just like all of the other girls, singing in the chorus and dreaming of becoming a cheerleader. But all of this changes on December 11, 1941. Seemingly overnight, Mina is no longer the same—she and her family are uprooted from their home and sent to live, "evacuated," to the dust of Eden. 

Why did you opt to write this story in verse? Can you tell us anything about your approach to writing in verse?
In many ways, a story is a lot like a creature with a mind of its own. When a story comes to me, it comes to me at first in a flash as a first line, a character doing something, or a voice. In the case of "Half a Heart," it started out with a Japanese-American girl singing in a chorus on the day of the Pearl Harbor. Her mouth is open, she is just like any other. Then, suddenly, she is different. That’s how the story started, and she started speaking to me in a verse form. This form was a perfect shape to express my love for poetry, my first love, and storytelling, my second love.  

Do you have any message for teens in Tohoku?
"We must embrace pain and burn it as fuel for our journey." --Kenji Miyazawa

Thursday, February 9, 2012

Hope for Tomorrow Site in English

In an earlier post, I explained that proceeds from the sales of the Tomo anthology will help support the Japan NPO Hope for Tomorrow.

At that time, this new NPO did not yet have English information on the website, but I'm happy to report that the site is now bilingual, with pages in both Japanese and English. Have a look at the Hope for Tomorrow website, and see what this NPO is doing to help teens in the earthquake and tsunami affected areas of Tohoku, Japan, keep up with their education.

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Interview with TOMO Contributor Wendy Nelson Tokunaga

Wendy Nelson Tokunaga (author of the Tomo story “Love Right on the Yesterday”) lived in Tokyo in the early 1980s. She earned her MFA at University of San Francisco and is the author of the Japan-themed novels Love in Translation and Midori by Moonlight and the nonfiction e-book Marriage in Translation: Foreign Wife, Japanese Husband. She lives in San Francisco with her Osaka-born husband. Visit her website at

Tell us a bit about your connection to Japan.
Wendy Tokunaga
My first trip to Japan was as a winner in the JVC Victor Songwriting Contest. I got to sing my original song, “Tokyo Night” at the Nakano Sun Plaza in Tokyo. Sometime after that I lived in Tokyo for about a year, performing music and working as an English-language narrator. Eventually I published two Japan-themed novels with St. Martin’s Press: Midori by Moonlight (2007) and Love in Translation (2010).

Are you a big fan of Japanese karaoke?
I am a huge Japanese karaoke fan and have won prizes in karaoke contests. I was even on NHK’s Nodo Jiman when it broadcasted live from San Francisco and I had the chance to meet enka singer Saburo Kitajima (!). I like singing both enka and J-pop from the 1980s to the present. I also produced and wrote (with my husband and a Japanese friend) a companion song to my novel Love in Translation called Nozomi no Hoshi. You can see the video here.

What insights can you share about the world of J-pop singers in Japan?
Japan-based Chinese Li Chun, known as Junjun, of Morning Musume
I’ve been fascinated with the J-pop idol phenomenon ever since I lived in Japan in the 1980s, when it was probably at its biggest. Unlike in the United States, idol singers are manufactured by production companies and usually have a very short shelf life. And the philosophy is often to create stars that seem more down to earth and “real” rather than gorgeous superstars. And often idols don’t have to be very good singers—their job is more to promote an image and personality rather than talent. There’s an interesting book about the phenomenon published by Harvard University called Islands of Eight Million Smiles by Hiroshi Aoyagi.

Was the pop singer in the story, Rie Ando, based on a particular J-pop idol or is she a composite of various performers?
J-pop singer Namie Amuro at MTV Asia Aid
Rie is supposed to be the quintessential J-pop singer and, depending on the era, she could probably be compared to Seiko Matsuda, Akina Nakamori, Namie Amuro or Ayumi Hamasaki.

Does the story of Yumi Kitazawa continue? Is this the beginning of her adventure as a pop idol?
Definitely! Yumi is the protagonist in my novel-in-progress, Confessions of a Japanese Teen Idol.

Do you have any message for teens in Tohoku?
Ganbatte! And please know that a whole lot of love and support are being sent to you from all over the world!