Japan Writers Conference 2014 – Iwate University (Morioka) – Oct 25-26

The Japan Writers Conference (JWC) is a unique event for writers, poets, translators and publishers who live in Japan but work (for the most part) in English. Held at Iwate University (岩手大学) in Morioka (盛岡), the 2014 edition of the JWC offered two full days of presentations and plenty of opportunities for informal chat and discussion.

As most of my published work so far has been fiction for children, most conferences or workshops I have attended tend to focus exclusively on children’s literature. That was one reason I found the JWC to be such a refreshing experience, as it allowed me to speak to creative people working in other areas of writing such as historical non-fiction, academic journals and even kamishibai, but with the common interest of sharing what they know about Japan with a wider English-speaking audience.

A Few of the Sessions 

In “Arts-Based Research–Why do you write?” James Crocker spoke about his work with The Font, a literary journal for language teachers. Along with some comments on the value of arts-based research, Crocker shared a set of wonderful poems that dealt with ideas of creativity and language learning.

“Literary Magazines in Japan – Translation” presented attendees with an intriguing publishing conundrum: a story, as yet unpublished in English, translated and published in a Japanese literary magazine. Translator Hiromi Mizuguchi, along with writer Hans Brinkman, explained some very interesting things about the Japanese publishing industry including editing practices, attitudes to translations, and practicalities of finding the right publication for you.

Rebecca Kool, who formerly lived in Japan but was now visiting from Canada, provided a riveting and intimate kamishibai performance of her children’s picture book Fly Catcher Boy. Following the performance, Kool related how she had originally conceived of the book as a bilingual teaching aid for Japanese children learning English, but eventually published it in Canada as a way to get Canadian children interested in Japan and the Japanese language.

On the second day, Bob Tobin led an interactive session – “Dreams and Demons” – which allowed participants the chance to discuss aspects of writing such as motivation, jealousy and goal-setting. Participants found Tobin’s enthusiasm to be very heartfelt and encouraging.

Bern Mulvey, Iwate University faculty member and site coordinator of the JWC, spoke to us about poetry in “Nuts and Bolts: How to “Write” Japan in Verse.” Mulvey’s knowledge of the poetry publishing industry was very useful for aspiring poets, but what intrigued me even more was when he shared several of his own published poems. I am always on the lookout for new and effective ways to integrate the Japanese language into stories in English, and Mulvey’s poem about visiting Japanese in-laws did so in a way that was psychologically accurate and emotionally effective.

A witty set of editing tips (such as “beware the ‘which is’ curse”) were shared by Tom Baker in Brevity. Baker often edits work that has already been translated from Japanese into English and so it was interesting to hear his observations on many of the common stylistic problems with such translations. He also did a great job responding the many opinions and objections of the participants (always going to happen in a room full of writers…), reminding us that editing does not have to be tedious, but can itself a fun, even playful, part of the process.

SCBWI (the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators) Japan was also well-represented at the JWC with author Suzanne Kamata and blogger/writer Claire Dawn-Marie Gittens presenting sessions.

My Session – “Why is It So Hard to Write About Japan?”

My session on Saturday was a whirlwind (some might say ‘impenetrable tangle’) of travel photographs, Japanese history, personal stories, and literary references. However, my hope was that the presentation would provide attendees with a glimpse at some of the ideas and concerns that swirl around in my head when I sit down and try to write about Japan.

Literature is an ongoing conversation with itself. If you've ever read 'Shogun,' please read 'Samurai William' for a different approach to similar historical events.

Along with the swirling whirlwind, I shared five “rules” that I have chosen for myself when writing about Japan:

  1. Writer vs Reader – remember the difference in experience between you and your reader (they may have never been to Japan). You don’t want to alienate your reader but you also don’t want to pander to easy stereotypes (we discussed the samurai as an example) just to make them feel comfortable.
  2. Japan is Not an Island – not every story about Japan has to be set in Japan. Try not to treat Japan as if it is cut off from the rest of the world.
  3. Translation – think carefully about how and when and whether to include Japanese words in your story. It maybe isn’t necessary to write arigato gozaimasu on every page…
  4. Show, Don’t Tell – always a fundamental piece of advice for writers, but somehow trickier when writing about a culture and place that your reader has little experience of. How can you let your reader into a new world without “teaching” them?
  5. Get Your Facts Right – Japan is not Narnia or Westeros or Middle Earth. Feel free to be inventive (or even magical) but try not to contravene facts, even in fiction. Using other countries as venues for Western fantasy devalues them as real places. Avoid the word inscrutable.

Below are some of the Japan-related books that were mentioned during the presentation.

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