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!

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