How the Heck Do You Write about Japan?

by Alice Gordenker

Journalist Alice Gordenker spoke to SWET on September 16, 2010 in Tokyo, providing a behind-the-scenes account of how she crafts her popular “So, What the Heck Is That?” column for the Japan Times. In this monthly column, in its seventh year as of this writing, Gordenker has achieved a balance of humor and respect in meticulously researched yet decidedly offbeat reports on everything from traditional talismans to industrial safety. This article is based on that lecture, in which she covered topics ranging from the genesis of the column to translation challenges and how she met them.

I hope that none of you came tonight expecting a definitive answer to the question I posed in the title of my talk, “How The Heck Do You Write About Japan?” If you did, I’m afraid you’ll be disappointed because I don’t believe there is one right way to write about Japan. There are a lot of ways to write about Japan, and we’re all doing it every day, whether we’re preparing press releases, translating literature or dashing off emails to the folks back home. What I can do is tell you how I myself write about Japan, and share a few of the things I’ve learned along the way.

Most of my current writing about Japan is for a monthly column in the Japan Times called “So, What the Heck is That?” Each month I take a question from a reader about something they’ve seen in Japan and are puzzled about, and do my best to deliver an answer that is detailed, original and based on first-hand research. The paper gives me about half a page on the third Tuesday of every month. That’s enough space for a thousand words and one good-sized photo.

I’ve been doing this column since 2005. The idea came to me during a walk in my neighborhood, when I happened to notice a ball of clipped evergreen branches hanging from the eaves of a sake shop. I had no idea what it was, or why it was there, and it suddenly seemed very important to find out. So I walked into the shop and asked.

The shopkeeper, who seemed pleased by my interest, explained that the ball is called a sugidama or sakebayashi. Traditionally, he said, sake brewers would hang up a ball of green fir branches in November or December, right after the sake was started. Customers knew that a few months later, when the branches had turned brown, the sake would be ready for sale.

Whenever I passed the shop after that, I felt the pleasure of understanding and residual warmth from the shopkeeper’s enthusiastic response to my question. I thought about how I might share those positive feelings with others, and began to form a vision of a column featuring informative and entertaining reports about things we see in our daily lives here. My hope was that such reports might make a difference to readers because each time we come to understand something around us, our lives become richer and our appreciation of this country grows.

The Accidental Japanologist

Before I explain how I put the column together, I’d like to tell you, very briefly, how I came to Japan. That’s relevant since the subject of my column is Japan, but I also think we’re all interested in hearing how others ended up in the same place as we did.

In my case, the starting point was a casual interest in linguistics when I was a student at Princeton University. I knew very little about Japan, and even less about the language, so enrolling in a Japanese course was a whim rather than a carefully considered decision. That first year of Japanese study proved difficult, in part because I’d never been to Japan. I tried to compensate by taking a culture course, reasoning that it might help with the language. Before I knew it, I was majoring in East Asian Studies.

After graduation I came to Japan on a Rotary Foundation scholarship. That allowed for another year of language study at International Christian University, and then a year studying labor relations at Rikkyo University in Ikebukuro.

I did not, at that point, have any intention to write. I returned to the U.S. and worked for several years in international trade. The switch to journalism came only later, when my husband and I moved to Washington D.C.  We were starting a family and I wanted work I could do part-time. I started out writing for a produce industry weekly, and gradually worked my way up to better jobs, covering Capitol Hill for food industry publications.

I was no longer traveling to Japan, nor did my work have anything to do with Japan. Between play-dates and trips to the park I wrote straight news stories on topics like seafood inspection and additive safety. If you Google my name you can pull up articles I wrote with gripping headlines like “Meat packers protest new regulations on E. coli 0157:H7.”

So how the heck did I make the transition from Washington to Tokyo, and pathogens to pachinko? The physical transition was straightforward: in 2000, we moved to Tokyo for my husband’s work. The shift in my own work happened entirely because we put our children into Japanese public schools.

“What the Heck?” is actually my second column for the Japan Times. The first one, which I wrote for four years from 2001 to 2004, was about Japanese elementary school education. I didn’t go looking for that gig; it pretty much fell into my lap.

When we arrived in Japan, our kids were 8 and 5. They had never lived outside the United States and didn’t speak a word of Japanese. So it was quite difficult for them to settle into their Japanese schools. But as it turned out, it was just as much of a challenge for me.

I spoke Japanese but had never set foot in a Japanese school. Things were very different from what I grew up with, and I had no idea what my responsibilities as a parent were. I spent a fraught first six months trying to learn school vocabulary, from aisatsu (greetings, which are a big deal in Japanese schools and became a sore point because my sullen older son refused to make them) to zekken (the oversized name label I had to sew on his swimming trunks).What was needed, I decided, was an A-to-Z guide to Japanese schools, written in English for foreign parents.

I decided to write one. My first pitch was to the Japan Times’ book division because they had published a similar guide for Japanese parents sending their children to American schools. They turned me down, as did other publishers, on the grounds that the market was too small. But some months later, when I’d given up on the whole idea, someone from the Japan Times’ newspaper division called and asked if I’d write a column instead.

The column, which was called “Matter of Course,” was a great learning experience. Since I had to produce a regular column, I paid more attention to my kids’ education, and attended more meetings and events, than I probably would have done otherwise. I covered all the obvious themes, like o-sōji (cleaning) and o-shūji (calligraphy lessons), and went deeper into topics like outsourcing of school lunches and testing for color blindness. By the time I hit kōtei no shibafuka (planting grass in schoolyards), I knew it was time for a change.

I dusted off my idea about things you see, lined up a photographer, and went to the paper with a pitch. The editors liked the idea, but seemed worried that I’d run out of material before the year was out. They asked me to submit 12 possible topics before they’d give me the green light. And here we are today, five years and 68 topics later, with no sign whatsoever that the well is running dry.

The Process

People often ask me where the questions come from and how I go about my research, so I’d like to walk you through the process.

It took me a few columns to find my formula, but from the beginning every “What the Heck” column opened with a question. And yes, Virginia, the questions really are sent in by readers. The paper gives me a very free hand, and since I’m the boss of the column, I can, very occasionally, bump a question of my own to the top of the list. But mostly I really am working from my inbox.

I have a general idea of what I’ll write about over the course of the year, but it’s a pretty rough list and it changes if a really interesting topic comes in or research takes longer than I expect. I try to alternate traditional and modern topics. And since we have readers all over the country, I prefer not to have two Tokyo-centric topics in a row. Some topics are seasonal, and need to run at a certain time of year. For example, I’m holding a story about a flowering shrub so it can run right when readers are likely to see it in bloom.

My research always starts with an Internet search in Japanese. This is tricky when I have no idea what the object in question is. Sometimes I ask around until someone suggests a search term that works. Other times I just keep searching until I hit on what I’m looking for.

Another feature of the column is that I always consult an expert. That’s part of the fun—the reader gets to find out that there’s someone out there who has cataloged 1,114 different ways to say “toilet” in Japanese (December 19, 2006), or devoted his life to unraveling the genetics of Japanese alley cats (March 17, 2005). But no matter how wacky the topic may be—and I really hope this comes across in my articles—I approach all my sources with respect and a genuine desire to learn.

Getting an interview can take time. If I’m trying to secure an appointment with a government agency or a large corporation, I start with a call to the kōhōbu (public affairs division). I’ve got an introductory spiel I do in Japanese, and that, coupled with the paper’s reputation, seems to get me past the gatekeepers. In fact, I’ve only been turned down once, by an orthopedist who refuses all interviews.

Public affairs departments usually ask for what’s called a kikakusho. This is a written proposal in which you explain who you are and what you want. The first time I ran into this I panicked because it’s difficult for me to write in Japanese. I asked a senior editor at the paper to prepare one for me, and ever since I’ve used that as a template to write my own.

A government agency will usually insist that the proposal be submitted by fax. Who still has a fax machine in this age of email? Not me. So when I’m trying to get an interview with, say, the National Police Agency, I know I will have to run out to a convenience store in order to fax in my proposal.

I do my interviews in Japanese. In five years I’ve only had one subject who was able and willing to be interviewed in English, and even then we mixed in a lot of Japanese. Whenever possible, I do my interviews face-to-face. This is partially because phone interviews are not as accepted in Japan as they are in the United States, but mostly because I get much better material that way. That’s true even in interviews when both parties are speaking comfortably in a shared native language. But with my handicap in Japanese, it’s helpful to see my subject and be able to use non-verbal cues to signal when I don’t understand.

I will only do a phone interview if I absolutely have to talk to someone outside of Tokyo. The paper doesn’t reimburse expenses and I’m not paid enough to lay out the cash for an expensive trip for an interview. But with so much centered here in Tokyo, most of the time I can find a good interview nearby.

The last part, of course, is writing the column up. I love doing the research and the interviews, but I’m a very unhappy person when it comes time to write. The problem is that I’ve done all the groundwork in Japanese but now I have to write in English. In effect, I have to translate in my head everything I’ve read and heard in order to produce the words I will write down. Whereas if I were doing the entire process in English, I’d already have all the words before I started to write. It would just be a matter of rearranging them and putting them down on paper.

Translation Issues

I consider myself a writer first and a translator only by necessity. But in addition to the mental translations described above, I really do have to translate, to paper, as part of every column. The biggest part of that is taking what my interview subject said in Japanese and recreating it in English worthy of quotation marks.

The quotes have to be accurate. They have to have the right tone and level of politeness. But for me, the writer of the column, it’s also very important that the quotes read naturally and match the overall tone of the article. I really hate reading articles in which Japanese speakers are quoted in English that is so awkward that you can figure out, word for word, what the original Japanese must have been. That kind of translation makes the speaker sound stilted, and sometimes, dumb.

I give myself quite a bit of latitude when translating quotes, because I want to dig as deep as necessary to find words and phrases that sound natural. I always give my subjects a chance to review what I’ve written, asking them to look particularly carefully at their direct quotes. But I’ve rarely been asked for a change. I think my subjects trust me, as a native speaker and someone they’ve sat with for an hour or more, to choose the right words for them.

Putting too much Japanese into an English article can disrupt the flow, so I often don’t include any of the original Japanese. When I do, it’s because I think the Japanese will add something. It should be interesting or helpful for readers who are learning Japanese, or it should be a clue for Japanese readers who are trying to figure out my English.

In some cases, I do a straightforward translation, like this example from my September 2010 column on laundry frequency:

Miyamae opined that there are two basic philosophies when it comes to laundry: yogoretara arau (if it’s dirty, wash it) and kitara arau (if you’ve worn it, wash it).

Other times I try to convey the great range of possibility in translation (and shield myself from nitpickers) by working in qualifiers such as “could be translated as.” Here’s an example from my March 2008 column about people who attach bells to their belongings:

Another common way to sound like a bell is “chirin chirin” (something between “ting-a-ling“ and “jingle-jingle”), which is somewhat more likely to carry the implication that you find the noise irritating. In which case it might best be translated as “jingle-jangle.”

And here’s an example from my January 2006 article on why Japanese take their shoes off before committing suicide:

I asked why park officials assumed a suicide when they got your report. “Nantonaku,” was all he said, which in this case is probably best translated as “That just seemed to be what it was.”

Sometimes I’m playful in my translations, as in this example from my March 2009 column on feral parakeets:

When I asked for a detailed description to use in my article, Fujii excused himself and came back with a plastic baggie. From it he pulled out a karihakusei, which I will translate here as “very dead bird on a skewer.” (The correct term in English, I learned after picking myself up off the floor, is “study skin.”)

Yes, it’s silly, but I thought it out very carefully. It wouldn’t have worked to translate it as “. . . he pulled out a karihakusei (study skin).” Most readers, including native speakers, don’t know the term “study skin” and wouldn’t have been able to form a mental picture without the vivid description. And if you see a Japanese word like karihakusei, don’t you want to know the English for it?

In translating, I let myself, the columnist, be visible to the reader. I do this deliberately, and at every stage of developing the column, because I want my column to have a friendly, intimate tone. I want the reader to feel invited along, from the original ponder—“Yeah, what the heck is that?—to the translating. I want the reader to share in the adventure and thrill of discovery, which is so much of what I love about Japan.

At the end of Gordenker’s talk, SWET members and guests posed a number of questions. Here are a few of those questions and Gordenker’s answers.


What’s the weirdest thing you’ve written about? Or not written about?

I wanted to write about Oto-hime, the electronic device placed in public restrooms for the benefit of people who are embarrassed to have someone else hear the sound of bodily functions. But I blew it by asking the paper for help in getting the photo. My editor at the time (an American male) got the ickies and asked me not to do it. That’s the only time the paper has interfered. I may yet do it. There are all sorts of interesting angles I could take, including toilet design and water conservation.

How difficult is it to tread the line between wacky and just in poor taste?

The trick, I think, is to treat every subject, no matter how “off-the-wall,” with respect and straightforward curiosity. Everybody has bodily functions, for example, and it’s possible to write about them without being gross. It’s also possible to write about sex without tittering, although I did decide to skip the question I got on a sex aid for men.

Have you thought about putting your columns together in a book?

I’d love to. People often ask if such a book is available. I’ve thought about doing it as an e-book, and selling it myself on Amazon. I think a translation into Japanese, or a bilingual edition, would also be interesting, as either would open up the large market of Japanese readers who aren’t very comfortable in English. People have also suggested Korean and Chinese translations.

Alice Gordenker’s columns, going back to “Matter of Course” (April 2001) may be read at the Japan Times website. Her blog includes links to current columns. A textbook for English learners based on her columns will be published by Shohakusha in spring 2013.

(Originally published in the SWET Newsletter, No. 127, April 2011)