January 9, 2022
The History of SWET
The late 1970s were years of growth and ferment in English-language book and periodical publishing in Japan. Book publishers Charles E. Tuttle, Inc., John Weatherhill, Kodansha International, and the University of Tokyo Press released dozens of new volumes in English annually. Japan Echo, the Japan Interpreter, and Japan Quarterly published high-quality Japanese journalism and writing in English translation. Four daily English-language newspapers and several weeklies joined book and magazine publishers in providing jobs and outlets for writers, editors, and translators working in English. Corporations hired writers and editors to tell their stories to the world as they set their sights on expansion overseas. High ideals, personal quests, and just plain curiosity brought many talented people to Japan to begin or continue careers in editing, publishing, and translation. A critical mass formed, and in 1979 a group of writers, editors, and translators in Tokyo began to talk to one another. Aware that they and many other English wordsmiths were working in relative isolation, their conversations began to turn to the idea of an organization.
The First Decade
An exploratory gathering on November 15, 1980, of "professional editors, writers, and translators working (for the most part) with English" was announced in the Tokyo English-language newspapers. When more than 100 people interested in meeting "birds of their own feather" descended on the Aoyama apartment of Barbara Adachi, to the mixed dismay and delight of the organizers, SWET was born. The tally of attendees that day listed 20 writers, 58 editors, 33 translators, 23 journalists, 20 technical and scientific writers/rewriters, 23 scholars, 10 rewriters, 19 publishing-related workers, 25 freelancers, and 40 organization employees (each person could list more than one category).
A core group of volunteers met to discuss ways of turning the energy of that first meeting into an organization: Barbara Adachi, Amadio Arboleda, Susan Barberi (Murata), David Edison, Teresa Gautry, Barbara Levene, Jared Lubarsky, Pamela Pasti, Lynne Riggs, Kim Schuefftan, Ruth Stevens, Michael A. Uehara, Fred Uleman, and Peter Ward. This first steering committee decided to begin by planning programs and activities for the three constituent groups (writers, editors, and translators) in rotation, and to publish a directory of members. Activities got off to a vigorous start on February 27, 1981, with a panel discussion about editing, featuring Meredith Weatherby (editor-in-chief of John Weatherhill), Suzanne Trumbull (assistant managing editor at Japan Echo), and Luther Link (professor at Aoyama Gakuin). This meeting, too, was attended by 100 people.
In April 1981, more than 70 translators turned out to hear Frank Baldwin (Asia Foundation Translation Service Center), Frank Hudachek (technical translator), Deborah Kinzer (Japan Echo), Kano Tsutomu the (Japan Interpreter), Fred Uleman (freelance translator), and Yamamoto Takamichi (Simul International) talk about their work. The desire for sharing information and resources inspired the SWET Glossary Bank, instigated by Jared Lubarsky and maintained initially by Ruth Stevens and later by Bill Lise. In those pre-computer, pre-database days, it consisted of typed vocabulary lists on more than 15 different subjects.
In June, Donald Richie spoke about "Writing In and On Japan" to a large crowd, sharing insights from his long career and making suggestions to both experienced and beginning writers. Founding member Ruth Stevens brought further insights from experienced writers on Japan to the pages of the first issues of the bimonthly Newsletter.
The August 1981 issue of the Newsletter contained a survey questionnaire. The responses to questions about careers, income, professional interests, and expectations of SWET were summarized in the March 1982 issue. The average age of members was then 39. That fall, Peter Ward had organized the printing and sale of the first SWET T-shirts and sweatshirts emblazoned with the SWET logo.
During the early 1980s, SWET offered a number of workshops focusing on publications-related skills: typography, proofreading, paste-up for editors, indexing, and Newsletter editing and production. In September and November 1981, Becky Davis led the first of her series of three workshops on typography for editors and others involved with the written word, followed in 1982 by "layout for editors" in May and "photo editing and layout" in December. These workshops helped develop design and production awareness and skills among people who worked mainly with words.
In January 1982, the SWET Book Exchange opened for the first time in editor Pamela Pasti's spacious apartment in a corner of Shibuya. Book-loving SWETers, often with small children in tow, gathered once a month to exchange books from the shelves in the corridor and converse in the living room. The Book Exchange, which ended in 1984 when Pamela moved to California, would later be replaced by the annual Book Fair.
Entering the Computer Age
The introduction of word processors revved up the pace of everyone's lives. By 1983, editors and translators were embarking eagerly, if anxiously, on the computer age. SWET surveyed its members to find out how to help and advise them. The Newsletter printed the names and phone numbers of members willing to help out others with word processing problems and questions; articles offered advice on choosing hardware and software.
In 1983, membership dues were raised from ¥1,000 to ¥3,000 a year. The May 1983 issue of the Newsletter carried the first of a long series of columns by the Book Mavin, who reviewed "periodicals and books of special interest to writers, editors, and translators"—dictionaries, style guides, books on design and typography, dictionaries for translators, books on writing, editing, and copyediting. Another columnist, the Publishing Hexpert, appeared in occasional issues with advice on typography-related editorial problems.
In January 1982 the first SWET-wide social gathering was held at the Amaltheia restaurant in Takadanobaba. SWET's semiannual parties attracted large crowds of members and friends for networking, noshing, and schmoozing throughout the decade.
SWET's first book-length publication, the Japan Style Sheet, was another product of the collective process that has fueled most of SWET's activities. Drafted mainly by Susie Schmidt, Lynne Riggs, Ruth Stevens, and Jared Lubarsky, with input from dozens of other writers, editors, and translators, the first edition (1983) was typed on an IBM Selectric; the pages were laid out by Becky Davis. The first edition was reprinted twice, and more than 2,000 copies were sold. (A second edition was published commercially in 1998 by Stone Bridge Press, the Berkeley, CA-based publishing company founded and run by SWETer Peter Goodman after his move to the United States in the mid-1980s.)
Founding member Barbara Adachi ushered in the trend of the times in the January 1984 issue of the Newsletter with an ode to the charms of word processors, and SWET members never looked back. The Book Mavin specialized in word processors that year; a WordStar user's group, SWETStars, was formed for networking and information sharing; and a major autumn event was a panel discussion, "The W/P and Me."
A "Writer's Market: Japan" panel session in June 1984 drew more than 100 people to learn how experienced freelancers market their work. The year marked the publication of the Kodansha Encyclopedia of Japan, now an indispensable tool of J-E translators, scholars, and students of Japan. Other 1984 events included a session on computer-assisted J-E translation systems and a two-day hands-on workshop (attended by 40 members) on "Proofreading from A to Z," led by Susie Schmidt, Suzy Trumbull, and Becky Davis. The 13-page kit prepared for this workshop was later offered for sale as a SWET fund-raising activity. The workshop was repeated in May 1988, when 32 more members benefited from six decades' combined experience of the three instructors.
A perennial problem for SWETers in the days before Amazon.com was obtaining English-language reading (both professional and personal) at reasonable prices. Core volunteers Becky Davis and Yobuko Yuriko inaugurated the SWET Book Service in August 1983 to enable SWET members to order professional reading and reference books at U.S list prices and pay for their purchases in yen. Despite numerous problems, the service continued for three years, helping many SWET members obtain important reference tools they still rely on and treasure. To link the book-thirsty membership to booksellers' marketing efforts, SWET volunteers also organized special sales: a 20-percent discount sale of the Kodansha Encyclopedia of Japan, a group special order of the Chicago Manual of Style, and year-end "Super SWET Special" book sales from 1984 to 1987 with the cooperation of major Japan-based publishers and booksellers who offered 20 or 30 percent discounts.
In 1988, the annual Book Fairs began, held in the early years (through the good offices of Jiho Sargent) at Taisoji temple in Komagome. Books donated by members were sold at bargain-basement prices. Partial revenues from the sale were donated to charities, and remaining volumes were handed over to Stella Maris, a mission to seamen in Yokohama that provides books in Western languages to merchant ship crews. (The Book Fair tradition continues today, with a change of venue to Temple University, under the capable organization of Cynthia Yenches and later Holly Ueda.)
At the beginning of its fifth year, in 1985, SWET had over 300 members. A group called PrintStars was formed to address problems of communication between publishers' and typesetters' computers. Desktop publishing know-how became increasingly important to writers, editors, and translators, and SWET responded with Newsletter articles and a workshop conducted by Becky Davis.
Founding of JAT
The translators' contingent of SWET decided to organize, first as a subgroup of SWET and then, in 1985, as the independent Japan Association of Translators (first anchor, Clive Crews). JAT now has about 440 members. Its Newsletter, begun as a monthly printed publication, went online in 1997. It holds monthly meetings and since 1990 an annual international conference of J-E translators.
In late 1986, the SWET Newsletter column "Rough Words" was inaugurated; the column, which ran for more than four years, shared Jiho Sargent's collection of "words to be viewed with deep suspicion" when they crop up in translations from Japanese to English. The first "Over Their Shoulders" project, compiling renderings of a single Japanese text by three or more experienced translators, began in July 1987. (Early articles in the "Rough Words" and "Over Their Shoulders" columns that appeared through 1990 are collected in Wordcraft.)
SWET activities toward the end of the 1980s included lectures by invited speakers from outside SWET: Charlotte Kennedy Takahashi of Oak Associates on "Professional Communication," James Fallows of the Atlantic Monthly on journalism between the United States and Asia, and a panel of journalists including David Benjamin, Christine Chapman, and Damon Darlin discussing "The Art of the Interview."
In late 1989, Kansai SWET members held the first of a series of regional workshops and talks that would continue until the Kobe earthquake shook lives and professions in the region in January 1995.
The Second Decade
The energy of writers, editors, translators, and other professionals working with English in Japan carried SWET into its second decade in the 1990s. The 1990 Directory reported that SWET had 430 members. Members contributed their time, energy, and talent to making SWET a viable organization that continued to meet, publish, and organize meetings. The guiding principles of professionalism, collectivity, and sharing were a continuous thread in the early years, inspiring and energizing a steering committee whose membership is open to any SWETer; a cadre of volunteers who wrote, produced, and mailed the Newsletter; members who shared their professional skills at workshops and on panel discussions; dedicated members who produced an annual Directory, hosted meetings, and husbanded SWET funds; and many others who contributed in countless ways to this network of people who work with the English word in Japan.
In addition to the by-now-traditional summer and New Year parties, the early years of the decade featured events at which members shared their experience and knowledge with others. A sampling: the 1990 two-day "Proofreading from A to Z" workshop (led by Becky Davis, Susan Schmidt, and Suzanne Trumbull), a desktop publishing workshop (Hunter Brumfield and Ted Mills) in 1991, a six-member panel on "Making It as a Freelance Writer" in 1992, a two-day intensive "Typographic Literacy" workshop (Becky Davis) in 1993, an introduction to electronic communications, "The World from Your Desktop" (Eric Bossieux), in 1994, and "Using the Internet" (Stephen Anderson) in early 1995.
SWET's membership peaked in 1994 at nearly 500, when the organization was at its most diverse and also most prosperous; but, perhaps reflecting trends as the aftereffects of the burst "bubble" caught up with English wordsmithing in Japan, membership fell through 1996 and 1997 to about 250, and stood at 265 in 2000.
In February 1990 work on publication of SWET's second book was launched mainly through the efforts of Becky Davis and Yobuko Yuriko. By the end of that year Wordcraft was on sale. An anthology of selections from the first decade of the SWET Newsletter, Wordcraft reprints articles on professionalism by a number of SWET's founding members; three continuing columns, "The Logomagus," "Rough Words," and "The Publishing Hexpert"; and eight "Over Their Shoulders" comparative translation projects in the fields of social commentary, electronics, short fiction, religion and politics, finance, marketing, urban architecture, and humor. Its "Resources" section reprints "Book Mavin" reviews of major dictionaries, speller-dividers, and translation references; books on style, usage, and grammar and design, typography, and production; and a series on major libraries in Tokyo with accessible English-language collections. Despite the advent of the Internet age, the insights, lore, and advice collected in Wordcraft continue to address the special needs and concerns of wordsmiths in Japan.
The Electronic Networking Era Begins
Many editors, translators, and writers who had made the initially traumatic, but ultimately delighted, transition from the typewriter to the computer were just beginning to gain a sense of confidence in word processors and PCs when the new world of electronic communications via the Internet appeared on the horizon. SWET's computer-savvy contingent, including Maynard Hogg, Phil Ono, Jiho Sargent, and Keith Wilkinson, among others, offered their experience and knowledge to members, and a series of articles on modems and electronic networking in the 1991-93 issues of the Newsletter signaled members' avid interest in the uses and potential of the new technology. The buzz about Internet service providers was audible, too, with the more intrepid members encouraging the rest to investigate such services as TWICS, one of Japan's earliest Internet service providers. By mid-1993, TWICS had set up a special topic for SWET, launching SWET online for the first time. Discussion of an independent online network for SWET began; it continued until 1996, when Paul Findon volunteered to launch SWET's own Internet mailing list and to serve as its list owner, a task he performed until mid-2002. The mailing list, SWET-L, opened for discussion in May 1996. By October, Paul had also set up SWET's Web site.
Unlike some organizations, SWET has never had elected or appointed officers but has moved along in fits and starts punctuated by irregular brainstorming gatherings of the Steering Committee. The organization has maintained no permanent office headquarters, and SWET's mailing address and contact point have been provided by volunteers: from 1981 to 1985 by Lynne Riggs in Komae, Tokyo; from 1985 to 1993 by Fred Uleman in Shibuya, Tokyo; from 1993 to 1997 by Susan Murata in Asaka, Saitama; from 1997 to 2002 by Nina Raj in Kokubunji, Tokyo, by Naomi Otani from 2002 to 2012, and by Lynne Riggs in Komae 2012 to the present.
A SWET-wide survey was conducted in 1992 to get feedback and input on the six-times-yearly Newsletter and suggestions for new activities, as well as obtain a consensus on raising annual membership dues, which had been ¥3,000 a year since 1985, to ¥5,000. By 1994, a slowdown in volunteer energies was evident: only one special event other than the regular social gatherings and the annual book sale was scheduled in Tokyo; SWET Kansai was the more active chapter that year.
In January 1995, the strong tremors that hit Awaji and Kobe firmly shook up the lives and employment of the vigorous SWET contingent active in the area since 1989. Many former SWET members left the area or the country, and others concentrated on putting their lives back together. The year in general was one of transition and adjustment, and even Tokyo activities were limited in scope.
The Steering Committee in Tokyo nevertheless rallied to generate new energy for SWET beyond its fifteenth year, and a round of "town meetings" was scheduled in 1995 to encourage members to contribute ideas and help facilitate activities. New ideas for the Newsletter led to the launching of a series on "frequently asked questions." The FAQs mined the accumulated experience and practical advice of members on such topics as handling translation clients, charging for freelance work, and assembling reference works. Begun in response to questions from aspiring translators and rewriters, the "A Day in the Life" and "How We Got Here" columns showed the variety of ways members have carved out their professional lives. In 1996, "Aunt Eva" began a regular column that offered wise counsel and practical tips to the worklorn.
As desktop publishing software became more sophisticated, wordsmiths without formal training in layout, design, and production found themselves increasingly faced with the need to make typographical and design decisions. "True to Type," a series of Newsletter articles by Becky Davis answering questions on type, typography, and production, continued from November 1992 (No. 50) to 1995 (No. 67) in 11 installments. Davis designed and produced the SWET Newsletter from May 1983 to 1996. Adding to opportunities for members to boost their design-related knowledge and acumen were a pair of hands-on workshops in 1996 covering the basics of QuarkXPress and PageMaker, and lectures by veteran book designer Arnie Olds in 1996 and 1997.
In 1994, when stocks ran low of the second printing of the Japan Style Sheet, of which SWET had sold nearly 2,500 copies, the Steering Committee decided to prepare a revised edition and publish it commercially. The process of revising and updating the text began, and a contract was signed with Stone Bridge Press in Berkeley, California. After several stages of rewriting and revision, SWET received its first shipment of the new 80-page book in May 1998.
In 1996, Susie Schmidt, long-time editor at the University of Tokyo Press, moved to the United States. SWET's core had long relied on her knowledgeable and steadfast work in compiling and editing the Newsletter. Lynne Riggs undertook coordination of the Newsletter editorial work, and Ruth McCreery took over layout and production beginning with issue No. 71. Internet mailing lists for the Steering Committee (SWET-SC) and a new Newsletter Committee (SWET-NC) were set up, and most SWET business began to be conducted via the two lists.
SWET Cyber and Face-to-Face
SWET workshops and lectures in the 1980s and early 1990s had drawn relatively large numbers, but lower attendance at scheduled events from 1995 onward signaled an increasing diversification and geographical spread of the membership. In place of skills-related workshops and talks drawn from SWET's own resources, the events of 1997 and 1998 featured lectures by outside people, including Andrew Horvat lecturing on "Revisionism and Beyond" (August 1996), Glen Fukushima on "Challenges of Communication" (August 1997), Frederik L. Schodt with "On Translating and Being Translated" (January 1998), Judith Clancy on "An Author's View of Publishing and Self-publishing" (Kansai, June 1998), and Frank Baldwin (Jr.) with "A Published Novelist Tells (Almost) All" (November 1998).
One dimension of the lull in SWET activities in the late 1990s was the advent of new networking options that the Internet provided for professionals working in isolation. E-mail and the growing body of online information accessible from one's desktop offered new responses and options. Discussions on SWET-L began and continue to address a wide variety of ongoing concerns of SWET members, and some of the discussion threads, edited for publication in the Newsletter, reach all members.
The Newsletter also featured articles introducing the special language of the Internet in "Cyberjargon," authored by Michael McDonald and Paul Findon, as well as articles on such topics as the identifying trails left by users of the Internet, Adobe's Acrobat software, and graphics file formats for publishing.
In April 1999, SWET Kansai was relaunched with a talk by translator Juliet Carpenter, and under the leadership of Richard Sadowsky, Darlene Davidovic, Kay Vreeland, and Gretchen Mittwer, has continued an intermittent but steady succession of workshops, panel discussions, and lectures. A locally maintained list of members was created and intra-regional communication helped rouse interest and networking among Kansai members. Social events have provided opportunities for isolated members to meet face-to-face. Reports of SWET Kansai activities reached all members of SWET through the Newsletter.
In the autumn of 1998, Ruth McCreery redesigned the SWET Newsletter to an A5 size and format. With nearly one-third of SWET's membership based outside the Tokyo area, the Newsletter was an important vehicle for sharing experience and information in the far-flung community that is SWET and for setting down a printed record of their specialized professional lore.
In January 1999, the Steering Committee decided to institute regular meetings at a permanent Tokyo site, to be held the fourth Thursday of each month and to feature speakers from both within and outside SWET. The monthly meetings began in March that year, and continued almost without pause through 2005, drawing in new members and introducing new topics into the networking circle. In 2003, the meeting day was changed to Saturday, and an average of eight "SWET on Saturdays" events yearly were held through 2005.
Paul Findon had managed the SWET Web site, SWET-L, and SWET committees online from 1996 until early 2002 when Sako Eaton took over, with a redesign of the site done soon after. SWET's second website redesign went online in August 2005.
Through the 2000 decade, regular lecture and discussion events mainly in Tokyo and Kansai (Kobe, Osaka, Kyoto) continued, with write-ups compiled and edited by volunteers published in the SWET Newsletter sharing substantial and engaging stories of the work, lives, and endeavors of Japan-related wordsmiths with SWET members. SWET had become a gathering place for writers, editors, and translators connected with Japan, especially for those with literary aspirations who worked in more than one profession, and the Newsletter provided a platform for these people's many voices. Collaboration among authors, editors, and proofreaders mainly by email made possible issues 104 through 130 (March 2004–May 2012). Many of these newsletters, documenting diverse topics and stories, are available to members in the SWET Newsletter archive.
Volunteer energies for SWET print-publishing activities were in shrinking supply as SWET entered its fourth decade in 2010. English-language periodicals long published in Japan were being terminated, and the closing down of Kodansha International in 2011 signaled the end of the era of Japan-based English-language book publishing. In the aftermath of the March 2011 Tohoku disaster, as the move toward online publishing gained momentum, the media for which SWET wordsmiths worked began to shift significantly away from print publishing. The SWET Newsletter, too, succumbed to this trend in May 2012.
The Fourth Decade
In summer 2011 plans began for the revamp of the SWET website, with Richard Sadowsky, Hugh Ashton, George Bourdaniotis, and Neil Ramsay helping to shape the new site and Sako Eaton providing backup. Work got underway after Jade Carter and his company Resourcecode Media agreed to undertake the redesign. The new site was opened in June 2012.
Writing for SWET publication continued for a while in the tradition of the substantive articles published in the print Newsletter, and an anthology of these contributions was published in book form in 2014 as Wordcraft: The SWET Files 2013–2014. After publication of the SWET Newsletter was ceased, ending SWET’s regular postal communications with members, e-bulletins were published on an occasional basis. In May 2014, the bulletins began to be sent out via the Mailchimp platform on a roughly monthly basis, and they have been issued via a Google Groups mailing list since July 2017. The bulletins announce SWET events and other news of interest, point to new articles published on the SWET website, and share personal news items received from members.
A survey of SWET members held in February 2018 that the membership skews toward an interest in translating (63% of respondents), and a hefty portion are writers (43%) and/or editors (35%). We also have several members with an interest in publishing, design, or illustrated writing. Members keep informed mostly through the website (62%) and bulletins (64%). A smaller portion use the listserve, SWET-L (29%), or the Facebook page (21%) and a few use Twitter and Instagram. The survey results are published on the SWET website.
In November 2018, the Japan Style Sheet, third edition, was published in book form, to be directly marketed by SWET. SWET also created a website dedicated to the JSS, providing the book in PDF format free of charge, and opening a Q&A page to answer questions about style for Japan-related publications.
40th Anniversary amid the COVID-19 Pandemic
The onset of the coronavirus pandemic in March 2020 began a period of both consistency and change for SWET. We managed to stay true to our mission, launching in April a series of interviews with SWET members and other wordsmiths working in different parts of Japan. During the summer we completed the archive of all 130 issues of the SWET Newsletter (published 1980–2012) on the website. What changed in 2020 was that our networking, experience-sharing, and meeting each other, as well as celebration of our 40th anniversary, all became closely centered around the website and videoconferencing via Zoom. A set of three 40th-anniversary commemorative events featured “Three Teachers of Translation” (Susan Jones, Lynne Riggs, and Judy Wakabayashi) in October, “Founding Members Recall and Reflect” in November, and “Publishing Books on Japan: 45 Years and Still Trying to Get it Right” (Peter Goodman) in December.
In March 2021, our Talk Shops via Zoom resumed, featuring a wide range of topics and speakers. We had sessions on editing tourist signage and website texts, translating essays of art criticism (with Andrew Maerkle), writing about Japan’s edible wild plants (with Winifred Bird), translating specialized cultural content (collaboration with The Creation of Japan), and translation of Japanese poetry into English (with Spencer Thurlow and Janine Beichman), along with meetings featuring translator and writer Polly Barton (author of Fifty Sounds), columnist Karen Hill Anton (author of The View from Breast Pocket Mountain), Diane Durston (author of Old Kyoto: A Guide to Traditional Shops, Restaurants, and Inns), and six members of SWET’s Steering Committee.
The SWET website constantly undergoes under-the-hood changes. During this two-year period updates included: a page in the Shop section for a new book; a page for the 40th anniversary tote bag; Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, and RSS feed links on the top page; a new SWET Reference Shelf category in Columns; a new Event Videos page; regular behind-the-scenes membership and usability tweaks; and research on creating a responsive mobile version of the SWET site. The job of editing and posting the video recordings of our highly successful online events has proved time-consuming and is still a work in progress as 2021 draws to a close, but the fruits so far can be viewed on our YouTube channel.
Write-ups of some other events held in 2020 and 2021 are currently in progress, and one series of articles is well underway recalling the lives and endeavors of English-language columnists who were prominent in Japan during the 1980s and 1990s. The 40th anniversary SWET tote bag, especially designed as a gift for members, is currently being mailed free of charge to those who have requested it; it is also available for purchase at https://swet.jp/shop/swet-40th-anniversary-tote-bag.
As SWET heads into its fifth decade, the membership stands at about 200. We look forward to the passing of the pandemic, when we will be able to resume in-person events. We expect that on-line sessions will also continue to be a major part of our program, now that we are comfortable with the technology that allows us to bring people together to share ideas wherever they may be.
From Newsletter No. 89 (June 2000) and Newsletter No. 91 (December 2000)
(© 2000, 2005 Lynne E. Riggs, Nina Raj, and Susie Schmidt; updated Lynne E. Riggs 2022)