Searching for Buddha and Beyonce: An interview with Kaori Shoji, Tokyo’s New Yorker

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Born in Tokyo, raised in New York City, Kaori Shoji is a freelance journalist based in Tokyo whose work has appeared in international publications including Wallpaper, Nylon, Zoo, Dutch and the International Herald Tribune. She is a regular contributor to the Japan Times. She kindly took time out this month to answer Patrick Sherriff’s questions about her writing as she embarks on her first steps into fiction, a series titled The Amazing Japanese Wife published on japansubculture.com here.

Patrick Sherriff: Can you tell me a little about your writing journey? Did you always want to be a writer? How did you come to journalism and how does that compare to writing fiction?

Kaori Shoji: My first love was drawing but at the same time I love to read. I grew up in New York (Brooklyn and Queens) and loved to read my away through the YA shelves in my school library. When my family moved back to Japan in my teens, reading in English kept me sane in the Japanese school system – I especially loved reading plays (Neil Simon and Woody Allen) with New Yawk themes, plus English classics like the Bronte sisters and Arthur Conan Doyle.

I would love to say that I chose journalism because reading/writing was my passion, but it was really because the thought of becoming an interpreter (which my mother insisted was the ONLY logical option for a Japanese female with language skills) gave me hives. To this day, the mere mention of translation or similar makes me curl up in a fetal position with a high fever.

I also wish I could say that journalism was wonderfully fulfilling with endless money opportunities but (cue: sad, hollow laughter) obviously that it not the case — the last time I had a two-week vacation with no assignments attached was my honeymoon, more than 20 years ago. Since then it’s been an endless cycle of writing, proofing, pitching — rinse and repeat. I’m the black sheep of my family and have the lowest income among my siblings. But, as Hyman Roth from The Godfather II said, “this is the business we have chosen.” That pretty much sums it up for me.

So why do I do this again? It’s a question my mom still asks all the time. The answer is the same as when I was 15 and poring over Barefoot in the Park after school, in my school uniform with a sailor collar and pleated skirt.

Writing has protected me and kept me sane. For that I will always be grateful.

The difference between ficiton and journalism…mmm. I think the answer varies with each writer but speaking for myself, journalism taught me the basics of writing and how to structure the story so that the reader remains interested, at least until about 1,000 words. I also had to learn to write for the reader, and not for the editor (or god forbid my own self) before I could turn to fiction. I still don’t know whether I’m any good or ever will be, and the Amazing Japanese Wife series is, well…baby steps.

Jake Adelstein has been a great client and friend who always encouraged me to think beyond the journalism box and believe in the power of storytelling. I think every writer needs people like that to discuss ideas and writing and get into heated, drunken arguments in a bar like it’s 1978 or something. Writing is such a solitary and isolating task, but the world of journalism is very social — for better or worse. I hope that, by writing both fiction and non-fiction I can kinds. sorta, strike some kind of balance in something. That make sense at all?

Striking a balance does make a lot of sense. Like you maybe, I’m coming round to the idea that all stories, factual or fiction, need a narrative structure to propel the reader hopefully to the end of the story. Once you accept that necessity, then it’s just a matter of practicing the craft until you can make it work without readers noticing they’re being led by the nose. Whether the story is fictional or factual is secondary to whether the narrative works or not. At least that’s what I think now, but I’m very conscious that in writing, and I guess in all art, it’s a journey that only ends when you stop creating. Which is a pretentious way of saying, you never stop learning.  And, er, Jake is a Mensch, (is that the right New Yawk expression?) I don’t know about 1978, but Jake seems to gather and promote all the promising movers and shakers, like Gertude Stein in 1930s Paris hanging with Hemingway and Picasso. What kind of a writing scene is there in Tokyo for storytellers writing in English? And, a related question, what challenges do you face writing about Japan in English?

Yup, Jake is a Mensch and probably Gertrude Stein too. Actually, I don’t know very much about him but he always pays on time and always says yes to my pitches. To a freelance writer, this places him right up there with Beyonce and Buddha.

I just picked 1978 out of the blue — I love American culture from the 70s, especially film.

Uhhhhm, I don’t know much about the English writing scene in Tokyo either — but I do know it’s a lot easier for white males to find gigs than it is for local females like myself. the editor is almost always a white male, and guys will tend to favour other guys, not just in journalism but most industries I think. Also, being a Japanese woman I’m expected to be nice and well-behaved, falling behind in line with demure Japanese humility. it doesn’t help that I can speak and write in both languages — it just means I’m expected to do a lot more work for the same or less pay.

On the Japanese side, there’s a deep mistrust of people who speak and write in a foreign language. Either way, I’m sunk.

On the other hand, I get to observe white male entitlement first hand which helps me a lot when writing the Amazing Japanese Wife series. the perk of being a Japanese woman is the ability to blend into the background and observe what’s going on in the expat world and then…write about it. Have you read parts 1 and 2 of the Wife series? would love some feedback on the way guys think and act when they’re here.

My Japanese friends all think I’m weird, ditto my family and I’m probably at a point when I should either quit or come out with a NYT bestseller but… I don’t see that happening anytime soon, haha.

Writing about Japan in English — it’s so niche as to be mind-boggling. no one outside Japan gives a shit about Japan unless an English speaking geisha popped up on Tinder to offer her services. Or Uber geisha. Could be fun?

Ha! I fear there’s much truth in what you say. Certainly if you want outside interest in Japan but don’t want to confirm people’s stereotypes, you’re in for a hard climb. Hat’s off to you surviving as a freelancer in as you say a white man’s world. My recommendation, if you want to hear yet another middle-aged white man’s opinion, would be to build up a self-published portfolio. Granted, it’s hard to make self-publishing pay now, but think long term and keep in mind you own the copyright of what you create. There’s money there and you don’t have to kiss up to any (white, male) gatekeepers. You have to write something that people would want to read, but that’s true of any writer who wants to be read. Or do your own thing, and wait for the market to come round to your way of seeing things. You’ve got your life plus 70 years (the life of copyright) to find your audience. Don’t give that power away too cheaply. But what do I know? I’ve been relatively unsuccessful in traditional journalism and self-publishing, I’m an equal opportunities under-achiever.

I enjoyed your Amazing Japanese Wife trilogy. I think it’s brave and a fundamentally worthwhile exercise to attempt to get into the head of someone unlike yourself. The worldview of the WAM (White American Man as you label them) is both alien and familiar to me and perhaps uncomfortably close to me to attempt to comment on objectively. I’d like to think I married my (Japanese) wife because I fell for her, not some stereotype of Japanese femininity, but then I met her when I, an Englishman, was living in the States and felt (and still do) I had more in common with her as a fellow “foreigner” than I did with the Arkansan locals. It’s complicated, this identity business. And now we have two daughters who must negotiate their way through the world with a double identity as British and Japanese. Novels have been written about less. Speaking of which, any plans to write a novel? Seems to me you are in a fascinating place, able to dip in and out of US/Japanese worlds at will. 

I’ve dreamed about publishing my own book or starting a micro publishing business –perhaps it will come to pass one of these days. Ah, the identity thing. What a thing that is. Thank you also for sharing your personal story. There’s always the danger of reverting to stereotypes with something like the Amazing Wife series. I guess my ultimate aim is to sculpt a story into something from which everyone can grab off a chunk and recognise as his/her own.

What story are you most proud of in your journalism career? And if you could commission yourself, what story would you go after?

That’s a real toughie. can’t say I’m that proud of anything but a cover story I did for ZOO Magazine in Amsterdam — a profile of Nobuyoshi Araki, was OK, I guess. Also a profile on Yohji Yamamoto for Nylon New York.

If I could commission myself, I would do a story on old Asian cities — Kyoto, Hanoi, Vientiane, Kathmandu, Jaipur, Yunnan… before they’re swallowed up in developmental concrete. but I fear it’s too late.

What advice would you give to a newbie trying to write about Japan? What are the best resources in English? Any must-read novels? Any stories being told in Japan that the rest of the world should know about, but doesn’t? 

I think the first step is to procure some language skills — ideally, being able to read Shukan Bunshun headlines on the Ginza Line and make sense of what’s going on.

The best resources in English… probably the Japan Times. They have a huge expat following and the editors are always open to new story pitches from the English-speaking community (or at least that’s what I’ve witnessed). but I’m not an expat so am not the person to ask. I compartmentalise the two languages, cultures and experiences so they don’t mix, like peas and mashed potatoes in the military mess hall. I’m often floored by what foreigners find interesting or intriguing about Japan and one of the biggest challenges of the job is coming up with a pitch, enticing enough to woo a western editor with his own notions of what has relevance and what doesn’t in Japan.

Of course there are stories being told here that the rest of the world doesn’t know about, but isn’t that the case with every place? And I’m not sure it’s journalism’s job to unearth those stories and lay them bare. There really is no market for that stuff anymore, at least not vis a vis a Western audience.

If anyone wants to know about Japan, Google and Instagram will take care of everything and there are any number of excellent travel blogs. anything beyond that are incovenient truths and no one has the time or inclination to read up on that.

On the other hand, Jake Adelstein’s Tokyo Vice was a big success, so I guess crime, sex and violence are exceptions to that rule. yakuza and geisha are Japan’s biggest draws besides natural disasters.

Compartmentalising the experiences makes sense. But I’d imagine that gets harder as time goes on. I ask questions of you as a window on Japan, but I’m curious, do you find yourself having to explain the US to your Japanese friends and family? That must be especially difficult in these Trumpian times. I know that I have difficulty explaining Brexit to folk who assume my Englishness makes me an expert on the idiot decisions of my compatriots. Also, what’s next for you in your writing career? 

Hmmm. I don’t think anyone Japanese has ever asked me about Trump or the US. I would offer my opinions of course, but they’re not terribly original or insightful. Sorry for not being more helpful.

The thing is, friends and family who speak English are in the US and friends and family who are Japanese talk to me about Japanese stuff. There are casual discussions about what goes on in the US but these mostly occur at work and we mostly regurgitate the stuff we see online and in the news. But, the Japanese rarely say anything that hasn’t been said 100 times before, to avoid any kind of risk or fallout.

What’s next? “Eriko” — Part 4 of the Amazing Wife series. at last, a Japanese wife speaks.

I look forward to it. This English husband will listen. All that remains is for me to say thank you, I really appreciate your time and candour, and I’m sure my readers will too.

I really appreciated going back and forth with you — I learned a lot and was much more fun than the usual grind.

Read Part 1 of Kaori Shogi’s the Amazing Japanese Wife series for free here.

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