October 3, 2021
Writing from Japan: English-Language Newspaper Columnists in the 1980s and 1990s—Karen Hill Anton
As part of SWET’s 40th anniversary celebrations, we are chronicling the memories and experiences of some of the many columnists of that era. We have asked these writers to reflect on how they wrote and communicated back in the pre-digital days, a time when Japan boasted four English-language newspapers and plenty of magazines looking for English-language contributors. It was a golden age for Japan-based writers before the Internet and social media changed the way we live and work. This is the second installment in the series.
Writing Columns, Sharing a Life
Karen Hill Anton
My first submission to the Japan Times was an essay for the “Living in Japan” column. At the time, 1979, I was living with my husband and children in an old farmhouse at the top of a mountain. We didn’t have plumbing; I sure didn’t have a typewriter. To get my writing typed, my husband regularly borrowed a portable Smith-Corona from a friend’s office in town. I’d type anything I’d written over the weekend; he’d return the typewriter on Monday.
I sat down to type the essay, which had a 500-word limit, and when I looked up I had 2,000 words. I submitted it anyway. (Totally unprofessional! I wouldn’t do that now!) Fortunately for me, they liked it, asked for photographs, and published my essay as a Sunday feature article, April 1, 1979.
I had no other purpose in writing that essay than to tell people about the beautiful place where we lived—where we live still—in Tenryu, Shizuoka prefecture, a place with panoramic views of mountains, bamboo groves, terraced rice paddies and rolling green tea bushes. I wrote:
Everyone can appreciate the simple joys of awakening to a beautiful sunrise, of breathing sharp pine-scented air, and drinking the clear clean water that comes into our house from the mountain stream above us. There are no coffee shops, no movies, no stores—but taking a walk in the woods you might spot a rabbit, a bevy of quail, or an odd-looking mushroom.
I wanted to tell readers about the people we lived among, farmers who lived and died in houses built from tress cut from their own land, people whose simple lives were carried on in a quiet continuum with the seasons.
I often visit my nearest neighbor, Ōishi-san, sometimes to give her a loaf of my fresh-baked bread. She gives me fresh vegetables and usually mentions a word or two about how to prepare them. (I wish I’d listened more carefully when she told me how to prepare nigauri! It was so bitter I thought I was poisoned!) She’s shown me how to make many kinds of tsukemono, umeboshi, and at the end of every year we make omochi together.
That was my life, but the Japan I read about in the newspapers was mostly one of “rabbit hutches” and crowded trains. I heard that “foreigners can never be accepted in Japanese society” and that country folk are narrow-minded and unfriendly. Much of what I saw in the media purporting to be about foreigners living in Japan simply did not reflect my experience. Often reference to “Japan” meant “Tokyo.”
Gyo Hani, then managing editor of the Japan Times, praised my essay and encouraged me to continue to write. Years would pass, but when the opportunity presented itself, I asked if they would let me write a column with a Hamamatsu dateline. Given the go-ahead, I jumped at the chance to introduce readers to the city people speed past on the Shinkansen on their way to other cities.
If every person has a story, I reasoned, so does every place. I gave the column the title “Hamamatsu Highlights” and I was happy to introduce people, sites and events of interest. I had no access to a library or bookstore, obviously no Internet, so it was a challenge to uncover relevant details and historical facts. When I interviewed local Japanese artists and craftspeople with minimal Japanese, it was a challenge—and Google Translate wasn’t there to save me. I typed my columns on A4-size paper with carbon paper copies; I met regular deadlines by driving to the post office and mailing my fortnightly submissions. I’d later fax them.
• Giants of Japanese industry and pillars of the “economic miracle” Yamaha, Suzuki, and Honda, founded in Hamamatsu, are still based here.
• Hamamatsu, the largest city in Shizuoka prefecture, has the world’s largest concentration of musical instruments manufacturers, and not surprisingly the world’s largest electronic organ (listed in the Guinness Book of Records).
• The ruin Shijimizuka Iseki, in the middle of the city, preserves the remains of an ancient village of the Jomon Period (3000 B.C. to 500 B.C.)
• The shogun Tokugawa Ieyasu, who once resided in Hamamatsu, fought one of his famous battles on the Mikatabara Plain, which was depicted in the Kurosawa film “Kagemusha.”
• Visitors to Hamamatsu will want to stop at “Yukitan” a café 5-minutes from the station. Offering the usual fare of coffee, curry rice and cake—it’s special in that it was designed expressly for those handicapped by our environment.
• The Gallery Hiro is definitely worth a visit. Recognizing that quite a few Japanese women produce beautifully handcrafted articles that are never seen outside their close circles, this gallery was established to showcase artwork previously regarded only as “hobbies”: embroidery, quilting, jewelry, ceramics, and more.
• Once overhearing a dispute between two locals about whether Hamamatsu’s beautiful-from-a-distance Lake Sanaru was the country’s first or second most polluted, after some sleuthing I could report it was the third.
I started writing the column I titled “Crossing Cultures” in 1990, shortly after we bought land and built our house. I realized then there were not many couples, in which both the husband and wife were foreign, living and raising families in rural Japan. I suggested to my editor that readers might be interested to read about life in Japan from the perspective and experience of a foreign woman participating in society here at every level. Not overly enthusiastic, she responded dryly: “Let me see something.”
That something was the first “Crossing Cultures” column, published November 8, 1990.
I enjoyed immensely telling my stories of raising my four children here, their school and community life, and recounting experiences like the time a 13-year old Japanese boy did a six-month “American homestay” with us. I wrote about my interactions with neighbors, and my time serving as vice president of the local children’s association (Kodomokai). Finding I was not the only mother reluctant to take on neighborhood and PTA duties, readers told me they laughed out loud when I told them how another mother and I were practically prepared to show surgical scars we didn’t have all in an effort to get out of a school obligation! I expressed my sadness at the unrelenting depopulation of the countryside. A tragedy in so many ways, I felt it personally as it accompanied the deaths and funerals of my old neighbors, farm women who’d kept me supplied with daikon, green tea, shiitake, and practical advice for country living.
The column proved popular, and what a joy it was to share my life and experiences with such a large and interested audience. The many letters of appreciation I received I still keep, and not least because these handwritten and typed letters are now relics of a bygone era.
I was honored to share the pages of the Japan Times with the much-loved columnist Jean Pearce, whose long-running “Getting Things Done” column was a true lifesaver for so many. The columnist (“The Asian Bookshelf”) and prolific author Donald Richie became a good friend; with Richie’s direct support a collection of my columns was published (1993).
With the publication, the Japan-America Society arranged a book tour of the United States. At the Hawaii venue, a woman came up to me saying, “You were my best friend.” Having never laid eyes on her before, I could only give her a puzzled look. “When I lived in Saitama for five years I was often lonely and unhappy,” she said. “I knew few people and couldn’t seem to adjust to Japanese culture. Reading your column, faithfully [every second and fourth Thursday], kept me going. I really thought of you as my best friend.” I knew what she meant. I’d experienced extreme loneliness, and writing the column was both outlet and connector.
Although “Crossing Cultures” never proposed to be an advice column, that didn’t deter the many readers who wrote asking for advice. I appreciated the confidence they had in my opinions; I was glad they thought I was accessible, and willing to listen. I replied to every query. But imagine my astonishment when a Japanese woman, living in California, wrote a letter (an aerogram—do they exist anymore?) asking if I thought she should return to Japan, and marry a Japanese man. Wow, is what I thought, and that the cultures had certainly crossed and the tables truly turned. It took me two weeks to write her a well-considered reply.
A young man, an aspiring columnist, wrote: “Reading your columns, it seems you have a found a great deal of satisfaction from your work and have touched the lives of many warm appreciative people. That’s the kind of reward I hope to find as a columnist.”
That kind of reward truly characterized my column-writing experience.
When my last column was published May 13, 1999, I bid readers farewell saying: “Writers do not retire, and certainly I am not; I plan other writing projects. I think of writing as a way of crossing and taking down the barriers that separate us from other minds, other hearts. If I’ve been able to accomplish that here, only in part, it has been both a privilege and a pleasure.”
Karen Hill Anton wrote for the Japan Times from 1979 to 1999. Her bi-monthly column “Another Look” appeared in the Chunichi Shimbun 1983–1996; from 1988 to 1995 she wrote monthly essays for Shukan ST (now Japan Times ST). Her essays and stories have appeared in various collections; she is currently completing a novel. Originally from New York City, she has lived continuously in Shizuoka prefecture since 1975. Karen’s memoir, The View from Breast Pocket Mountain, is winner of the SPR Book Awards Gold Prize, and the Book Readers Appreciation Group Medallion. See her website at KarenHillAnton.com
© 2021 Karen Hill Anton. Written for the SWET website, September 2021.