Writing from Japan: English-Language Newspaper Columnists in the 1980s and 1990s—Kathy Morikawa

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 first installment in the series.


Couch-Potato Professional: Writing about the Japanese Media 

Kathy Morikawa

I can still remember back to November 1980 and the excitement of attending the first meeting of the group that was to become SWET in 1981. Not only was it awesome to be surrounded by over 100 other people working with the written word in Japan, but the meeting was hosted by Barbara Adachi. She was the well-respected Mainichi Daily News and Asahi Evening News columnist who helped SWET take off and who so generously opened her home to us that day (although no one expected quite so many of us would show up.)

Along with Jean Pearce and Donald Richie of The Japan Times, she represented an earlier generation of Japan-based columnists who wrote well-regarded and carefully researched articles that spoke to the needs, interests, and concerns of their readers. Their skill, enthusiasm and kindness also helped the growing expat writing community by forging a path forward for those of us in the next generation of Japan-based columnists. Over the years, my own career was aided on several occasions by acts of kindness from Donald Richie, although I met him in person only once—years later on the panel of a SWET event, of course.

Writing textbooks and an occasional freelance piece on my Maruzen 100 manual typewriter back in 1981, I aspired to become a columnist one day myself, and much to my surprise, within a decade I had two weekly columns running concurrently. Using the pen name Wm. Penn (I grew up in Pennsylvania), I wrote the TV column “Televiews” for the Daily Yomiuri for 25 years from 1987–2012. Under my own name, I wrote the “Weekly Watch,” a column for the Asahi Evening News on Japan’s weekly magazines (shukan-shi) from 1991 to 2004. Around that time, the number of quality weekly and monthly magazines had begun to decrease significantly, and it seemed time to move on.

There was much to be said for the pre-digital era. We worked at a slower pace, had more time to research and follow up on stories in our columns, and enjoyed a strong bond with our readers. Being a columnist back then went beyond just writing on a set topic each week. The newspapers gave us a “platform” before the word “platform” became a thing in the digital age. In a world without Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, Instagram, and all the rest, weekly columnists were a source to turn to with one’s questions, opinions, and comments. This created a sense of connection and continuity between writers and readers, many of whom lived and worked in relative isolation in those days. I know myself that being able to turn to the views and information provided by certain columnists each week felt like visiting with old friends, albeit ones I had never met. It was reassuring that they were there for us.

Before instantaneous communication, readers often took the time to write to us, too. I still have folders full of letters from readers written during my first decade at the Yomiuri, back in the days when if someone had a question or comment to make they actually wrote it down, found an envelope and a stamp and sent it. No tweets and comments to repent at leisure back then, just genuine correspondence. It was delightful.

It was a golden age for columnists, not just because there were so many paying publications to choose from but because it was an era when it was easier to approach those publications as well. I acquired both my columns by simply typing up a few sample columns and submitting them by mail to unknown editors who were willing to give me a chance.

In the pre-digital age, things moved at a snail’s pace compared to today, when I can submit an ebook to Amazon and have it go live to the world in less than 48 hours. In 1987, I had a long lead time for the weekly TV column. This meant the column I submitted June 1 would not appear until June 8 and the column readers saw on June 1 had been written the previous week. By the time the June 1 column actually appeared, I often had trouble myself remembering what it was I had written about since I had already written another column in between and was busy thinking ahead to the approaching deadline for the June 15 column. But this was necessary because each column was composed on my Brother Word Shot II electric typewriter with its ultra-convenient spools of correction tape installed inside. I then sent the column to the Yomiuri by express mail, and there they had to retype it again before editing.

By 1991, I could bypass the post office and fax my columns to the paper, but they soon balked at that, too, since it still involved retyping. So I learned how to send my column directly into the Yomiuri computer by modem from my new Casio word processor. I used a separate modem approximately the size of a cereal box. Now that was memorable progress, especially since I will probably never forget the day I sent the column from my home in Nagano Prefecture and forgot to turn off the modem afterwards. The Yomiuri and I were blissfully locked in cyberspace for 19 hours before I realized my mistake. This resulted in an equally momentous landline telephone bill equivalent to half a month’s pay.

Fortuitously, the modem era passed quickly and we were all soon working from computers. Although the rise of the Internet presented its own challenges when I began to find columns or parts of columns usurped (or “borrowed”) by others for their blogs and websites without permission. Eventually it became obvious that in the digital age columnists were expected to “share,” and to be quoted and commented upon by anyone with a computer keyboard—and to consider being noticed and quoted a compliment to our talents. We had indeed arrived at a new era.

By 2012, the quality of Japanese TV and Japan’s standing in the Reporters Without Borders (RWB) world press freedom index were both in free-fall. (Japan was number 12 in the rankings in 2010. By 2013 it had fallen to 53. It sunk to number 72 in 2017 before rising to 67 in 2021.) After 25 years, it finally seemed time to move on.

In my final “Televiews” column, which appeared in the Daily Yomiuri on March 9, 2012, I wrote:

Somebody grab the glitter. I’ll recycle the Christmas tree tinsel. It’s time to celebrate Televiews’ Silver Jubilee! I’ve often been asked how Televiews started. (I sent a few sample columns to The Daily Yomiuri, they hired me and, to their credit, let me write unhindered for two decades.)

This column was born 25 years ago this month on Monday, March 30, 1987—a time when the then eight-page Daily Yomiuri and I were both a lot younger and thinner. That the column still plods on week after week a quarter-century later is a miracle and a tribute to its loyal readers and the Japanese TV world. Only a topic as endlessly amusing as Japanese TV could make that possible. It just never stops giving. Even when it's not entertaining, “terebi” is a gold mine of trivia, quirkiness, and sociological observations.

Over the years, this column has moved all over the page—top, bottom, left, right and center—and tried out every day of the week before settling down here on the Friday page in 2007. Now, it seems time to move off the page completely . . . and move on to new adventures.

The lovely thing about the writing profession, of course, is that one never really has to retire. As long as one can push a pencil or click a mouse, the writing life continues. It will probably be hard, maybe impossible, to break the TV habit, so I'll be posting occasionally on my blog. Readers who wish to contact me can do so via that website.

Who knows, if an old bird can learn new tricks, I may even get with the times and teach myself to tweet and twitter too—after a few weeks of vacation from the TV to clear my head after 25 years of total immersion. My only regret is not having had the good sense to number these columns like Beat Takeshi does with his weekly magazine columns. The best guesstimate is that Televiews passed the 1,200-column milestone in the winter of 2011 and is now near the 1,250 mark.

Yes, Televiews has had a very good run. The years and the readers have been kind. I’d like to thank everyone who has assisted with this column over the last quarter-century, and most especially, you, dear readers, who have made it all worthwhile. My trusty remote, Rocinante, and I bid you a fond farewell. March 9, 2012.

Actually, it turned out to be quite easy to leave Japanese TV behind. The exciting world of Korean TV dramas quickly filled the void to overflowing. I did have good intentions about blogging on, but, after several attempts, it was clear that blogging and social media didn’t really hold much appeal for me. Dealing with the technical side of running a blog and trying to build an online platform required too much time and energy I preferred to use for writing.

But the joy of the digital age is that it has opened so many other possibilities for us all too. I found that digital publishing via Amazon did suit me very well and now have the pleasure of spending my days creating ebooks for my little self-publishing venture Forest River Press. Wisely or unwisely, I can write whatever I want when the spirit moves me—non-fiction, fiction and even experiment with genres I never thought I’d try like magical realism, which is the subject of my latest ebook The Strange Life of Mrs. Kato.

I feel very fortunate to have experienced the challenges and charms of both the pre-digital and digital worlds of writing and publishing in Japan.

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Kathy Morikawa, a native of Pittsburgh, Pa., has been in Japan since 1973. She spent most of the 1990s writing from Nagano Prefecture and is now based in Hokkaido. She is the author of The Expat's Guide to Growing Old in Japan, The Casebook of Irving and Innocence - The Complete TrilogySelf-Publishing from Japan, Who Changed the Channel? Sixty Years of Japanese TV, and  the children's book, Hana the Bilingual Beagle. Her latest work is the Willful Mysteries Series—-Who Gets What? (Book 1) and The Strange Life of Mrs. Kato (Book 2). She can be reached via her website.