Writers In Kyoto

English-language authors in Japan’s old imperial capital

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Writers in focus

A medieval mystery


by Akihito, Zen Monk.

The following is written in a document by a little known monk, and housed in a sub-temple of Daitoku-ji.

In 1260 there was a small murder in Minami Katada, Chugoku. Early the next morning, after receiving some advice, Tsutaro left in an easterly direction. Traveling only at dawn and dusk, sleeping in the late spring woods, at temples, or on shrine dancing stages, eating what he found beside the fields, or was given by monks and nuns, he eventually arrived at the capital, Miyako. Immediately Tsutaro disappeared.

Not wanting to remain in the swamp and infested western part of the capital, living among the outcast and criminal, Shintaro, his new self-given name, chose the eastern half, on the southern shore of Lake Biwa. He found a job working for a tatami maker, but left soon to work for a kimono dealer. Not especially wanting to be a salesman, he found the job suited him because he could go into the city center frequently. He liked Rokkaku Street best, the main east-west thoroughfare in the city. Everything could be bought on this street, or nearby. Even just standing and watching the passersby was fascinating.

At night, however, this and every other street was dangerous, being patrolled by gangs of brigands and packs of wild dogs. No one ever went out at night, if at all possible. Screams for help went unanswered. He fortunately always made it back before dark.

Shintaro met and married the daughter of a neighbor to the kimono shop owner. Her family were dyers, and her hands were permanently discolored. Not only that, but she was particularly ugly. Needless to say, the whole neighborhood was happy that she had found a husband. Shintaro was not blind to her looks, but reasoned that no other man would ever think of stealing her from him, for he himself was not handsome and of small stature. Eventually, she produced 11 children, five of whom died at birth or soon thereafter. They were nevertheless a happy family.

One warm afternoon, many years later, on Rokkaku Street Kitaro (his new name as a successful and now independent kimono seller) was waiting for a fan he had ordered to be delivered. Paying no special attention to anyone,, he suddenly heard someone speaking in the dialect of Minami-Katada. Beneath the temple gate stood an elderly man, poorly dressed but in clean clothing,  asking for directions to an iron-maker’s forge. Kitaro knew the forge; it was nearby on Third Street where there were several ironmongers. What shall I do, he asked himself? Someone was trying to give the stranger directions, but was not succeeding.

“I know that shop well; it is famous,” Kitaro called out, and crossed the dusty road. The old man recognized Kitaro’s intonation, but did not know him. Nor did Kitaro know this man.

“Follow me, please. And how do you know the forge’s name?”

“A new family that lives in my neighborhood has a pot of excellent craftsmanship. I live with my brother whose wife wants the same pot. I have no family myself, so was free to come to the capital and buy one. But why do you speak in the same way as I do?”, he asked.

This was a problem for Kitaro. His sudden departure decades ago might still be remembered, and he would be questioned too closely for comfort. “We are almost there, you can smell the iron.”

“Yes. You are from Minami-Katada? When did you leave? What is your family’s name, I wonder?.” he continued.

Kitaro took a chance and replied, “It was the Wada Saburo family. I left as a tiny child to live with my mother’s sister.” he lied.

The old man paused, then said, “The family next to my brother’s. We are still close, even after the killing of Joo, one of the sons. Fortunately, the killer confessed the next day, and was killed.”

Kitaro could not think or speak. In front of the forge, he merely pointed. Then, in a low voice, ‘Who was the killer?”

“One of the Wada boys, Akio.”

Akio had been Kitaro’s closest buddy and friend, a half-brother, through their mother’s third marriage. Akio knew everything concerning Kitaro. They had loved each other deeply, spending hours in the fields talking together.

Kitaro, speechless, looking down, turned and walked back along Third Street towards Rokkaku-do.

And again, the former Tsutaro disappeared and was never found anywhere.

(Submitted to WiK on behalf of Akihito, Zen Monk, by Richard Steiner)

Writers in focus

Reviving an Ancient Buddhist Pilgrimage (Chavez)

Reviving an Ancient Buddhist Pilgrimage

Amy Chavez

A pilgrimage is a magical world brimming with history, beauty and solitude. Shingon Buddhism goes even further by presenting pilgrimage as a mandala, a type of map to the cosmos. These circular routes act as vehicles to enlightenment. There are myriad personal reasons for going on pilgrimage, all of them valid and acceptable, no matter what religious affiliation you may, or may not be. Pilgrimages are there for those who want to tap into their special powers.

The Shikoku 88 Temple Pilgrimage (and its spin-offs) encapsulate the ideals of the mythologist Joseph Campbell. It is a quintessential hero’s journey but infused with the metaphysical aspects of mikkyo 密教. Pilgrimages test both your physical and mental endurance.


I knew we had a mini-version of the Shikoku 88 on Shiraishi Island when I moved here in 1997, but there was no map and long stretches of the 10 km route were completely overgrown and impassable.

In 2004, my husband and I decided to try to find all 88 of the shrines. After several weeks of being led down dead-end paths, and battling spiders and other architects of the forest, we managed to locate them all. Equally interesting were the things we found along the way: sacred rocks, bamboo forests, lonely beaches, and the most enchanting views of the Seto Inland Sea. We came across still inhabited houses (with no driveways) that were set so far back off the road you had to walk 15 minutes to get to them. We understood that we had discovered something precious, something akin to the heart and soul of the island.

In 1997 pilgrimaging as a tradition was still being practiced, albeit in an abbreviated form, by pious elderly women who visited particular shrines during the conventional pilgrimaging periods of O-higan.

In Western Japan people still feel a strong urge to go do the Shikoku 88 Temple Pilgrimage to pray for parents after they’ve passed away. So pilgrimages like ours have served a dual purpose: to act as a proxy for those who couldn’t make it to Shikoku, and as inspiration for those whose dream was to go to Shikoku.

Indeed, 400 years ago most people couldn’t easily get to Shikoku, so these smaller renditions, scattered throughout Western Japan, popped up to fulfill a demand. Very few, however, have been preserved.

As our island’s population has aged and declined over recent years, it has been a challenge to continue the twice yearly trail clean-ups, the minimum needed to keep the pilgrimage extant. In the winter of 2012 it was finally decided that the island would cease this activity. Fallen trees and disappearing paths are the plagues of the smaller pilgrimages and within six months, ours had degenerated as such. In fact, its defunct status encouraged people to no longer take interest.


But there was one pilgrim on the island still diligently walking the route: me.

I contemplated the fact that the 88 sacred sites, with their gods that had been so faithfully looked after for hundreds of years — and who, in turn, looked after us —were being left behind. These deities would no longer receive fresh sakaki branches, flowers or offerings by pilgrims. Among the detritus of the forest would be abandoned Jizos with their knit hats and bibs on. Hidden behind tall weeds and yoshinoki bamboo grass would be Kannon, Goddess of Mercy, who put off her own enlightenment to bring salvation to us all. Soon these stone statues would be the last inhabitants of an abandoned forest, unfindable to even those who dared to search for them.

Surely it is our responsibility to preserve these historical paths, these ancient routes worthy of inspiring wandering poets like Basho. What will happen if we can no longer wonder, nor wander?

I’ve been told that the government can’t provide funds to preserve these ancient Buddhist pilgrimages because people complain when public money is given to support religious activities.

But let’s not confuse religion with spirituality. Nor history. Nature has always been at the heart of Japan’s spirit. Have we given up on becoming one with nature? If nature is man and man is nature, then abandoning nature is the dumbing down of the human spirit.


I started organizing friends from the mainland to come help clean the trails on weekends. I contacted organizations such as Greenbird Okayama and several international schools, all of whom expressed a keen interest in helping me.

After four years of these volunteer activities, we launched our first fund-raiser: The Run with Kobo Daishi 10k Trail Race, of which the proceeds are put back into maintaining the pilgrimage route.

“Our first race was a great success,” I announced at the island’s town meeting. “We had 30 volunteers come help put on the event for 147 registered runners from around Japan. We made enough money to pay for maintenance for the first few kilometers of the pilgrimage route for the next year.”

The lady sitting next to me, a board member on the city council, replied: “I think it’s a little embarrassing that a foreigner is holding this event to help our island. I hope that next year more locals will help Amy with the race.”

While it was true that the islanders hadn’t helped with the event, I was perfectly fine with that. This year, however, strange but wonderful things started happening. Unofficial things, like certain parts of the trail were magically cleaned and a few helpful signs were put up here and there. We still have a long way to go, but changing people’s attitudes is a good start.


This Dutch couple came to Shiraishi after completing the Shikoku 88-Temple Pilgrimage. They ended their two-day Shiraishi 88 at the Daishi-do, where they received an official temple stamp朱印 from the Buddhist Priest at Kairyuji Temple. Tourists are given a map, sedge hat and staff to borrow. We also offer accommodation at the Pilgrim’s Lodge.

Tourists have commented that our pilgrimage impresses on a level that the Shikoku Pilgrimage can’t because the Shiraishi Pilgrimage is devoid of Japan’s three C’s: crowds, concrete and commercialism.

The Shiraishi 88 is pilgrimaging in its pure form, the same as it was 400 years ago. There are no groomed or fabricated trails, no fake steps built into the path, no handrails to make it easier. It is a pilgrimage through time and nature, dotted with carpets of moss, tables of rock and lined with Buddhist statuary.

On the Shiraishi Pilgrimage, it’s just you, nature and the gods.


The second annual “Run with Kobo Daishi 10k Trail Race” is Sunday, October 29, 2017. This year we’re also adding a family event for children and adults who want to walk a section of the pilgrimage route. Sign ups here: https://www.sportsentry.ne.jp/event/t/70786

For more information on the Shiraishi Pilgrimage, see our Facebook Page https://www.facebook.com/shiraishi88/

See you on the island!


For previous pieces by Amy, please see her piece on Serow Island here, or her thoughts on reader comments here.

Writers in focus

Karen Tawarayama’s blog

WiK Competition Organiser Karen Tawarayama runs a blog which investigates the lives of ordinary Kyoto people.  The following interview is extracted from a longer piece which can be found here.  There are now six illustrated pieces altogether on her blog, which looks sure to grow into a rather special resource about the life of people in the ‘real Kyoto’ rather than the tourist one – two cities which overlap but do not coincide. (Her blog site incidentally has recently changed from Squarespace to WordPress, with the new address being kyotofaces.wordpress.com.  For an introduction to Karen, see here and for a previous item about Kyoto Faces click here.)


“Why did you choose this location to sketch today?”

I chose this location because my friends and I swam in this body of water when we were children. We all joined the local Tousuikai  Swimming Club. There were bars to block off both ends where the water is flowing in a river on either side, and there was even a diving board right in the center. There were long planks of wood that we would stand on and jump off. All of the neighborhood kids belonged to the club, and we all wore red swimming caps. The caps were all marked with our swimming level: 2, 3, etc… There was a boat that went from here, all the way down the river, to Heian Shrine. I swam here a whole lot. Now I’m seventy-seven years old. That was about fifty years ago. I sure made a lot of mischief around here when I was a high school student.

The Kamo River is down the street. When there was a typhoon, some materials, such as planks of wood, would break off from here and there. We would play on top of them and send them floating off down the river when we were done, and we’d get in trouble with the Kyoto City Officials.

I’m the fourth generation of my family to live here in Kyoto. My father worked for the prestigious Shimadzu Coorporation. My grandfather was a candy-maker, craftily using scissors to create shapes like rabbits, etc. His shop was in the Gion area, in a place that Geisha would often frequent.

“What is a big difference between past and present Kyoto?”

The difference between Kyoto then and now is that now, there are so many more rules. You can’t enter there; You can’t swim there. There were so many things we could do in those days. Now it’s a society of prohibitions. Today’s children are inside using computers, playing games. It’s just a different time. Before, we used to run, climb to the top of Mount Daimonji. If the children play outdoors these days, the neighbors get upset and scold them. There are open places to play, but there are still many things you can’t do there. It’s almost just like taking a walk. It’s the same within the wide Imperial Palace Grounds. There are so many prohibited activities… even sparklers aren’t allowed.

In my junior high days, there were big fireworks held along the Kamo River, between Sanjo Street and Oike Street, I think. They were on a huge scale. And once, one of the buildings in the Imperial Palace Grounds caught on fire from a fallen ember, and then that event was prohibited. I feel sorry for today’s children.

“When did you start sketching?”

Three years ago, my wife developed lung cancer and was admitted to Kyoto University Hospital. She was released and then re-admitted over a one-and-a-half year period. During that time, the cancer spread from her lungs into her brain. She was getting weaker and weaker, and we were told by the doctors that the treatment she was undergoing would no longer have any effect. So, it came to that point. I continued to care for her at home, and it was very expensive. It was my first such experience as a human being, and I feel the first time my eyes were really open to my wife. Then, she passed away, and I felt for the first time as if I had the realization of what makes us human.

After her passing, I had been at home doing absolutely nothing for about a week, and my son recommended to me that I should take up a hobby. I thought, even if I’m not good at it, I’ll start sketching pictures here and there which really reflect who I am. These will be for me. For my memories. I’ll draw all of the places I went with my wife. My wife and I took a lot of walks together. To Heian Shrine, for example. She also loved snowy scenes, so I drew a picture of the snow in Ohara.

I’ve been drawing for about two-and-a-half years now, and the process has become really enjoyable for me. I’ve started thinking, “Hey, I’ve done pretty well on this one,” and my daughter compliments me on ones she feels are especially pretty. Or she comments, “Oh, that’s the place you went with Mom.” Most of the drawings are places we went together, so I’ve been connecting this hobby with my happy memories. That was the starting point for it all.

I wanted to take my wife on one last vacation so we drove by small car, all the way to Mount Fuji, and stayed by Lake Kawaguchi. I knew it would be the last time, but she had been dreaming of going there. We went by car because her bones had become so weak by the cancer treatment, and she needed to use a wheelchair. That was my last chance to make memories for her. It took about eight hours to get there, but I’m glad I did it.



Poetry and improv

WiK was able to showcase its talent at a Poetry and Improv event held Sunday, June 6 at the Gnome Irish Pub. On display were five of our best poets, including Frost scholar Mark Richardson, WiK Competition winner Mayumi Kawaharada, poet-photographer James Woodham, the poems of A.J. Dickinson, and a tribute reading of Edith Shiffert’s poetry by John Einarsen. Plus a bonus ‘Fireflies’ poem by Ken Rodgers at the end.  The poetry was interspersed with improvised musical interludes by Preston Keido Houser on shakuhachi and Gary Tegler on saxophone.  A superlative evening full of magical moments. You could say the poets hit the right note, while the musicians took it to a different level. (iphone pics by John D., poems by Preston Keido Houser)



Why in the world
is why
in the world?
Why not not?

Just so because no.




The island of smart is out there
visible on the horizon,
Accessible, but one must swim
across a sea of stupid.

Alas, most drown on the way.

Writers in focus

Three pomes by A.J.

A.J. in good spirits, mind fully engaged, legs occasionally AWOL

over time monk


with the stick
for back pay
this sitting life
the bowels clear
brings satisfaction
immovable quiet cheer
over time
must drink & eat again
sate then deflate

then just fall in

sitting is

as sitting does
union too
this breath
not separate
forever never
white hair
white clouds
blue sky
timeless faceless
mountains seas
planets quarks
atoms galaxies

waking up deep

in the unseparate dark

under this sky-skin

i breath the fresh crisp air

taste the flex of light

feel the uncoiling stretch of sinews

the growing reaching branches limbs

singing life

budding life

sitting breathing

stretching stillness

this wondrous delight



yours, ours, embracing, walking
the quarky mountains
resounding valleys streams
of our beings so vast so tiny
this moving flowing heart mind

the freshness inside
snow line flowers
waterfalls of light
the dust of civilizations
stars eons lava ice sparkling life

so briefly joined in space
under ever changing skins, aging agelessness
each particulate every wave temporary
passing through, birthing, together, untogether
dark bright interconnected being

a momentary comet a firefly a spark yet we breathe
such feelings such perceptions such changings
such distance such immediacy such interconnections
so much in each breath, breathing breathing us
such great grace we are this is

Writers in focus

Kyoto and food

Kyoto: The City of Hungry Gods (by John F. Ashburne)

October 12, 2016

Kyoto: The City of Hungry Gods

John Ashburne, Food Writer for Louis Vuitton City Guide Kyoto introduces the wonderful food culture of Japan’s ancient Imperial capital


It was born, wrote the old Poets, as the city of celestial spirits, where temples outnumbered even the Gods, and the very water that sprang from the earth was purer than the dew on the lotus leaves of the gardens of Nirvana. Its fame ‘spread to the four known corners of the terrestrial earth’.

Alas somewhere, something got lost in translation. Although Fifty million domestic tourists visit Kyoto annually to marvel at its seventeen World Heritage sites, its temples and shrines, its stone gardens, and its impossibly elegant ryotei restaurants, internationally it has rarely gleaned significant mention.

Budda Statue at Kuridani Temple

Budda Statue at Kuridani Temple

Most heinously, the great star in Kyoto’s cultural crown, its massively sophisticated and alluring food culture, has, until recently, passed beneath the international global tourist radar completely.

The city’s signature cuisine is Kyo-Ryori, a catch-all term that encompasses the sophisticated multi-course kaiseki and chakaiseki feasts associated with the tea-ceremony, and the nuanced vegetarian fare that constitutes the Buddhist, and in particular, Zen culinary arts.

Directly translated Kyo-Ryori simply means ‘Kyoto food’, yet the phrase is synonymous with the ultimate in quality, service, refinement, omotenashi hospitality, and luxuriant style. It emerged from a unique combination of factors historical, artistic and geographic.

An abundance of natural spring water and fertile soil provided the essentials. However the city’s remove from the ocean posed, in the centuries before refrigeration, a serious logistical problem for the non-meat eating Buddhist enclave.

Raw materials were thin on the ground, and the hot humid summers made matters worse. Kyoto chefs had to develop new ways of salting, preserving and pickling fish, and using soy beans and locally-grown vegetables Kyo-yasai to satisfy the dietary demands of the ubiquitous priesthood. Thus from its very outset, Kyo-ryori has been associated with innovation.

Autumn themed Hassun Sushi at Kikunoi honten

Autumn themed Hassun Sushi at Kikunoi honten

When, in 794, the capital moved to Kyoto, the city’s kitchens and markets had to fulfill the needs of an even more important customer, Tenno, the Emperor, and the hugely powerful imperial court. Despite the paucity of raw materials, chefs had to produce new and ever-more entertaining cuisine. As master-chef Toshio Murata of Kikunoi Honten explains, “It was a difficult and dangerous business. If a cook’s dishes displeased the imperial retinue, it was ‘Off with his head!”

The threat of imminent decapitation proved an effective spur to culinary creativity, but it was a gentler, more benign influence that was to move Kyo-ryori to even more exalted heights. The newly emerged aristocratic art of sado the tea ceremony, demanded a culinary accompaniment that incorporated wabi-sabi aesthetics of beauty in impermanence. Thus was born chakaiseki, the beautifully-crafted antecedent of all formal Kyo-Ryori.

Centuries later Kyoto and its cuisine have finally arrived on the international stage. In 2010 the modern sages of the Michelin guides awarded 85 Kyoto restaurants the sum total of 129 stars, with seven receiving the coveted three-star accolade. This year the LV City Guide showcased a hundred and forty eateries that reflect the city’s unique ‘cultural DNA’.

And so it should be. After all, as the Poets remind us, this is the city of the spirits. And the Gods, even in Nirvana, are always hungry.

John’s Top 10 Kyoto Dining Experiences:


  1. High-class Traditional Cuisine at Kikunoi Honten

  2. Home-crafted Artisanal Fare at Ryozanpaku

  3. Contemporary Kaiseki at Ultra-chic Hana Kitcho

  4. Wonderful Fish Dishes at Ranmaru

  5. Exquisite Sushi at Sushidokoro Man

  6. Pike Conger Cuisine at Kappo Nakagawa Shijo

  7. The Art of Tofu at Shoraian

  8. Strolling and Eating at Nishiki-Koji Market Arcade

  9. The Taste of Tradition at Honke Owariya Honten

  10. Gourmet Green Tea at Ippodo


A version of this article originally appeared in the award-winning luxury travel and lifestyle magazine DestinAsian, the prime publication for those who love to travel, and travel in style in the Asia-Pacific region and beyond. Sincerest thanks for their permission to reprint it here. Photos © John F. Ashburne.

Please visit The Foodies go Local website by clicking here.

Featured writing

Tokyo and Kyoto differences (Eric Johnston)

The differences between Tokyo and Kyoto have often been commented on, though as far as I’m aware no one has addressed the effect this has on the writing that comes out of the two cities, particularly as regards the expatriate community.  It’s with great pleasure therefore that we are able to offer a ground-breaking article on the subject by Eric Johnston, in which he generously gives mention to Writers in Kyoto, including member John Ashburne, and to Kyoto Journal. The article below first appeared in No. 1 Shimbun is the monthly magazine of the Tokyo-based Foreign Correspondents’ Club of Japan, whose nearly 3,000 members include foreign and Japanese journalists, writers, photographers, filmmakers, government officials, diplomats, business leaders and cultural figures. The vast majority of FCCJ members live or work in Tokyo, but a few can be found in other parts of Japan and abroad. Articles are written and edited by, and for, FCCJ’s membership and focus on journalism in Japan and club issues. Back copies, in PDF form, are publicly available at: <http://www.fccj.or.jp/number-1-shimbun.html

Though few in number, Kansai’s writers and journalists reflect a different perspective than their Tokyo-based counterparts.
by Eric Johnston

Eric at a WiK meeting in 2015 held with the head of Tuttle and his wife (photo Dougill)

For virtually all Japan-based foreign journalists, Tokyo is home base. Naturally, their views of Japanese politics, economics, and society tend to draw heavily on Tokyo-based sources. Thus, unconsciously or not, this “Tokyo view” of Japan, with all of its advantages and limitations, becomes the lens through which they – and their readers – see Japan as a whole.

Kansai is the only region that has a sizable foreign community of writers, photographers, and video documentarians capable of providing the outside world with a moderate amount of non-Tokyo-biased foreign journalism regarding Japan. Compared to the professionals in FCCJ, however, much of the work of Kansai-based journalists is not the kind of hard news that editors and producers overseas want for their daily papers, websites or TV stations.

Kyoto has long been the center for Kansai-based foreigners writing about Japan – and not just the Noh-Kabuki-tea ceremony-geisha aspects of traditional Japan that Kyoto embodies. Those remain key subjects, of course. But writers and photographers in Kyoto also use the discipline needed to practice such traditional arts, and the observations gained from doing so, in their approach to tackling broader themes related to Japan, Asia and the world.

Kyoto has long been the center for Kansai-based writing about Japan – and not just about the Noh-Kabuki-tea ceremony-geisha aspects that Kyoto embodies

While there is no equivalent to the FCCJ in Kyoto, in 2015, a group called “Writers in Kyoto” was formed by author John Dougill, whose book In Search of Japan’s Hidden Christians was reportedly read by Martin Scorsese as he prepared to film Shusaku Endo’s Silence. Its members include a wide variety of Kyoto-based writers, bloggers, essayists and journalists, including some with freelance experience with major international media. Guest speakers have included Karl van Wolferen and Robert Whiting, as well as local Kyoto-based writers who talk about covering the city as guidebook writers, but also as amateur social anthropologists – which is one definition of being a journalist.

THE CENTER FOR KYOTO writing and journalistic efforts, though, has long been Kyoto Journal. The all-volunteer publication is now celebrating its 30th anniversary, and while Kyoto Journal is widely admired for its photography and graphic design, it has also long served as a laboratory of sorts for all types of writers, often producing excellent magazine journalism by any standard.


Kyoto Journal is widely admired for its photography and graphic design, but it has also long served as a laboratory of sorts for all types of writers. (photo Johnston)

That approach has resulted in an eclectic history of fascinating themes and articles. A 1991 issue entitled “Kyoto Speaks,” a collection of long interviews with 58 Kyoto residents, ranging from a street vendor to a member of Japan’s old aristocracy, remains one of the finest collections of English-language journalism on the Japanese people – as opposed to Japanese political events, social developments, technological advancements or cultural trends – to ever appear.

A 1995 issue, called “Word,” traced the history and development of words and languages. A 2001 issue, “Media in Asia,” included an interview with Richard Lloyd Parry of the Times. And, in September 2010, Kyoto Journal produced an issue on biodiversity that had several pieces on Japan’s practice of satoyama. The magazine was distributed to delegates at the United Nations Conference on Biodiversity, which met in Nagoya that autumn (disclaimer: I contributed to the issue).

Like so many of its magazine brethren around the world who faced financial crunches in the internet age, Kyoto Journal was forced to go entirely online in an attempt to save money after the Biodiversity issue. However, some print versions are now scheduled to return later this year.

But it remains a place to go to for journalists, writers and aspirants. Founding Editor John Einarsen says that one big difference is that Kyoto Journal is all-volunteer and not “professional” like Tokyo’s media, where a writer’s qualifications and educational background often play a role as to whether an editor considers a submission. “We are a platform where anyone can share their creative work” he says, “but we want to feature those who are genuinely into their subject.”

He sees that approach as offering more opportunity for young writers in particular. “I don’t think we have a bias. We don’t say, for example, ‘Oh, this person graduated from Columbia Journalism School.’ If their work has heart and you can see it, then it doesn’t matter if they’re beginners or professionals,” he says.

KYOTO JOURNAL HAS A reputation for being ultra-liberal, though a careful reading of their articles over the years actually allows one to make an argument that they are “conservative” in the sense that many writers advocate or pay respect to the conservation or preservation of traditional cultures and lifestyles.

Ken Rodgers making a point to one of KJ’s many avid readers (photo Dougill)

But even if one applies the admittedly outdated tag of “liberal,” Associate Editor Susan Pavloska asks what’s wrong with that? “The word ‘liberal’ has become an insult in the U.S.,” she says. “But what’s wrong with being in favor of freedom? We have never felt the need to publish a line along the lines of ‘the views of this piece do not necessarily represent the views of Kyoto Journal.’”

The focus of Kyoto Journal has also expanded far beyond Kyoto, so that many of its articles today are about the larger Asian region. Managing Editor Ken Rodgers describes the ideal submission: “We look for value that goes beyond style or technical skill,” he says. “Genuineness, a commitment to engagement with society and culture. Writing from the heart. And, of course, a connection – preferably first-hand – with Asia.”

Japan’s travel boom over the past few years has benefitted Kyoto, and Associate Editor Lucinda Cowing says the boom has worked in Kyoto Journal’s favor in some ways, but not in others. “People see the name and think that we are a travel magazine dedicated entirely to the city. On occasion, they even send in messages on Facebook asking for restaurant recommendations, or express disappointment on posts shared about China, or another Asian country, on the grounds that they followed us purely because they want content about Kyoto.”

All of the publication’s editors admit that there has been pressure from various quarters to drop the word “Kyoto” from the name. But as an established brand name, they feel no need. Japanese firms who have advertised with Kyoto Journal on various social media platforms have been happy with the results, Cowing says.

John Ashburne, a Kyoto-based freelancer who has written for the Wall Street Journal and Forbes, and is now editor of Foodies Go Local, a website focusing on Japan’s local cuisine and culinary traditions, says being located in Kyoto means different things to different kinds of editors. “Overseas editors tend to fall into two categories, those who know Japan and those who consider all of Asia pretty much one amorphous blob,” Ashburne says. “Naturally, the latter don’t care too much about my location, until I suggest they’ll need to foot up around US$300 to get myself up to Tokyo and back. That’s when they develop an awareness of Japanese geography.”

Ashburne says that Japan-literate editors are also split into two camps. “They either assume I am a journalistic bumpkin, as nothing newsworthy happens west of Hachioji, or I must be a wise and wizened old sage who meditates daily, eats only tofu and can thus only produce stories about Buddhism, food, and anything likely to not offend. Being Kyoto-based channels you towards cultural commentary whether you like it or not.”

He believes Kyoto teaches patience. “In any journalistic context relationships need to be cultivated,” Ashburne says. “But down here such matters are taken to a new level. Ancient connectivity and ancient traditions generate a strong conservatism that is hard to ‘breach’ with an investigative mindset. Getting information is tough. Processing it is harder. Thus, the ability to wait, sit out situations, listen and take time is essential. Share a cup of tea. Again. And again and again.”

SO, IS THERE A “Kyoto School of Foreign Writing and Journalism About Japan?” Yes and no. Career-wise, those in Kyoto who write for publications do so on either a volunteer or a part-time basis, relying – like many FCCJ freelancers – on non-journalism gigs to pay the bills. Nobody in Kyoto, as far as I know, is working full-time for a major overseas media organization covering general Japan news, with the possible exception of a Japanese local hire who once introduced himself as the “Kyoto correspondent” for China’s Xinhua News Agency.

Alex Kerr with Kathy Sokol at the book launch held with WiK for the publication of ‘Another Kyoto’ last autumn

Intellectually, though, one of the most original works of “journalism” about Japan to come out in book form over the past three decades was 2001’s Dogs and Demons, by Kyoto-based Alex Kerr. A long-term resident, Kerr wrote about the political, social and aesthetic corruption of Japan in the late 20th century, and the physical devastation that resulted. He wrote from the viewpoint of someone with a strong aesthetic sense honed in Kyoto, in an informed and deeply passionate way that no Tokyo-based foreign hack has ever managed to match.

Kerr’s works, along with Kyoto Journal’s philosophy, form the basis of a journalistic approach that is arguably a more aesthetic, historical, and intellectual approach to observing modern Japan, especially its people, than one finds in Tokyo. It is not necessarily an “anti-Tokyo” approach. Unlike Osaka, where disdaining Tokyo is a public sport, Kyoto residents, foreign and Japanese, often appreciate the capital city’s charms and energy, though many would prefer to remain in Kyoto if they could. For those seeking an international journalism career who want to get paid on a full-time (or even a more than half-time) basis, Tokyo remains virtually the only real option.

So perhaps “school” is really the most appropriate word to describe Kyoto’s foreign journalism scene. Most if not all Kyoto “students” eventually graduate and move on, but never quite forget the lessons and approach to Japan, and to life, learned in the Kyoto classroom.


Eric Johnston is a staff writer with the Japan Times. The opinions expressed within are his own and not necessarily those of the newspaper.  For his advice to new writers, see here.  For his argument in favour of the vital role of foreign correspondents, see here.


Published in: June 2017

Writers in focus

Japan Times anniversary speech (Eric Johnston)

At the recent party to celebrate the 120th anniversary of The Japan Times (see here), the host and main speaker was Eric Johnston whose speech was dubbed the highlight of a glittering evening.  Here by popular demand is the talk he delivered, and our great thanks to him for supplying this fine piece of rhetoric. (For more about Eric, see here.)


By Eric Johnston, Deputy Editor, The Japan Times.
Osaka Office, May 26th, 2017

Good Evening. My name is Eric Johnston, and I’m deputy editor with The JT’s Osaka office. Thanks for coming out to help us celebrate the 120th anniversary of The Japan Times. I don’t want to bore you with a long speech, but allow me to take a few minutes to talk about the paper’s history.

When The Japan Times was founded in 1897, having an English language newspaper in Japan was not a new idea. In Kobe, the Hiogo News, the Hiogo and Osaka Herald, and the Kobe Chronicle had come and, in some cases, gone. Yokohama had The Japan Herald and the satirical Japan Punch among others. And in Tokyo, American journalist Edward H. House, an acquaintance of Mark Twain, published The Tokio Times in the late 1870s.

The goal of The Japan Times was to explain Japanese politics and diplomacy from a Japanese viewpoint, and to introduce Japanese culture to Western readers. In 1898, we ran adaptations of “Kanjincho’’, “The Revenge of the Soga Brothers’’, and “Terakoya’’ and published them in book form under the title Classical Tales of Old Japan. We believe that there are only about three copies of this book in existence today, including one here in Kyoto, at Kyoto University.

Via the international wire services, we provided coverage of major events abroad. When World War I ended on Nov. 11, 1918, there were celebrations nationwide. Here in Kyoto, legend has it that guests at the Miyako Hotel gave champagne toasts. I like to envision what it must have been like in the hotel’s main dining room and bar that day, full of Taisho Era dandies and ladies with copies of The Japan Times in hand, reading about the end of the war, getting roaring drunk, and dancing to the sounds of Al Jolson, Enrico Caruso, or to a popular song by Shinpei Nakayama.

When The Great Kanto Earthquake of 1923 hit, it looked as if we might not survive. But we reappeared, in reduced size, four days after the quake struck on September 1st. Our offices destroyed, we relocated temporarily to the Imperial Hotel, one of the few buildings left standing and the center for expat life in Tokyo.

The 1930s and 1940s were a difficult time. Censorship was strong and the government forced other English papers to merge with the by-then quasi-official Japan Times. Unlike the Mainichi Shimbun, which hid a shortwave radio in the women’s restroom to secretly listen to overseas broadcasts, we did not have access to a “benjo wire service’’ and were strictly monitored. We also had to rename ourselves the Nippon Times.

The post-war era saw the Occupation with its own censorship requirements, but also prosperity that continued up to, and through, the 1964 Tokyo Olympics and 1970 Osaka Expo. It was in 1970 that The Japan Times opened its Osaka office. Technology was advancing, but reporters continued to use typewriters well into the 1980s. For those under the age of 30 who don’t know what a “typewriter’’ is, feel free to start Googling now!

Japan’s postwar success culminated in the 1980s. It was the era of “Japan As Number One’’, with unprecedented international interest in, and fear of, Japanese business practices. Our readership climbed as people from around the world came to Japan to study and work and Japanese went abroad like never before. It was the era of “internationalization’’, but also of every form of excess that would lead to the “lost decades’’ once the bubble economy crashed.

The 21st century has so far seen unprecedented political and social upheavals and accelerated climate change. In Japan it’s seen the devastating events of March 11, 2011 that we’re still dealing with. It’s also brought a technological revolution, especially in my field. Long gone are the days when, after filing a single story, a reporter headed off to the bar (tonight being an exception for some of us!). A 24-hour news cycle means daily deadlines, not a single deadline, and never really being off-duty. Journalism today is not a profession for those who prefer a routine 9 to 5 existence.

Yet in an era where anyone with an opinion, a conspiracy theory, and a website can call themselves a “journalist’’, real journalism is more vital than ever. Real journalism means reporting and editing by those who are careful, experienced, knowledgeable, fair-minded, and value the truth, even when it contradicts their own opinions. When it comes to the presentation of facts, real reporters and editors follow a simple rule: when in doubt, leave it out.

Somebody very wise once said: “Write when you’re drunk. Edit when you’re sober.’’ Sober journalism is not always as fun to read or as easy to turn out as plausible-sounding lies on a propaganda-site-disguised-as-media-outlet. But it’s critical for a diverse, intelligent, tolerant, and democratic society, a goal I know all of you share.

And that’s really who we at The Japan Times are writing for: you. All of you. We’re incredibly fortunate that you, our readers, are intelligent, curious about the world, and care deeply about a society that is just, fair, protects the weak as well as the strong, and values honest attempts to get at the truth. In these times, when parts of the world are turning away from such values, you are a pleasure to write for.

So I’ll end my presentation by saying, on behalf of all of us at The Japan Times, thank you. Thank you for being our readers and supporters. Thank you for having high standards, and thank you for always pushing us to do our best. If we have helped you understand Japan and the world, even – and especially – when you disagree with us, then we have done our job. Please continue to support us in the days, weeks, months, and years ahead.

Thank you very much.


For Eric’s piece on the need for foreign correspondents, please see here.

At the anniversary party panels were displayed with pages from past editions of The Japan Times, including front pages announcing the Tokyo earthquake and the death of Emperor Hirohito. Capturing the moment is author, Alex Kerr.



Japan Times anniversary

Across a crowded room of celebrants at the 120th anniversary of the Japan Times

The Japan Times celebrated its 120th anniversary in style with a lively gathering at Cafe Maaru last weekend. As well as admin staff from its Tokyo office, in attendance were cultural attaches from the British, American and Australian consulates in Kansai, plus a number of  writers, reporters and columnists. The whole event was put together by WiK member Eric Johnston, deputy editor and head of the Kansai office. It was quite a scoop since so far no such anniversary party is planned for Tokyo.

The newspaper began in late Meiji times, in 1897, with the explicit intent of easing misunderstanding between Japanese and foreign residents based in their enclaves of Tokyo, Yokohama and Kobe.  The Unequal Treaties by which the foreign powers had imposed ‘extraterritoriality’ on Japan meant that foreigners were tried in separate courts and could escape Japanese justice. This was the cause of great friction and came to an end in 1899.

The host for the evening, Eric Johnston

The Japan Times was set up with funding from major organisations, including the Bank of Japan, largely under the aegis of the influential thinker, Yukichi Fukuzawa. His relative, Sueji Yamada, became the first president of the company, and Motosada Zumoto, secretary for prime minister Hirobumi Ito, became the first editor-in-chief.

An earlier publication with the same name, started by an Englishman in 1865 in Yokohama, was incorporated into the new venture, as were The Japan Chronicle (British oriented) and The Japan Advertiser (American oriented).  By the 1930s, all English language newspapers in Japan had been merged into one organ.  It remains the only independent English language newspaper in Japan, with the current rivals being tied to their mother publications (Daily Yomiuri and Asahi).

In a moving speech full of rhetorical flourishes, Eric Johnston gave a memorable ‘Obamaesque’ reminder that in any age a vigilant press is vital to democracy, with the present times in particular need of an independent voice able to speak truth to authority. For writers in Kyoto, as for all expat authors, The Japan Times offers one of the few remaining platforms for informed and insightful articles.  And in these dark days it continues to be a beacon of light in support of such humane ideals as justice, fairness and respect for differences.

Sadly, several other publications have not survived the changing economic conditions, and Kansai Time Out for instance has long since passed on (how good it was to see ex-proprietor David Jack and former editor, Dominic Al-Badri at the party).  It is up to us readers and contributors to make sure that The Japan Times never goes the same way, for that would be a tragedy beyond contemplation.  Let us rather pledge to ensure that by our financial and moral support The Japan Times lives on to enjoy another 120 years as ‘Japan’s window to the world’!  As long as it survives, the spirit of mutual understanding and enrichment will surely live on too.

Guardian correspondent, Justin McCurry

Guardian correspondent Justin McCurry gave a talk at Ryukoku University on Friday which was open to WiK members, and four of us were in attendance, namely Paul Carty, Amy Chavez, Malcolm Benson and John D. Justin’s talk was perfectly pitched for the students attending, while at the same time providing some thought-provoking content. In the photo for instance he holds up one of the many items from a large and heavy bag which he has to lug around on assignments. This is because rather than just using pen and paper, the modern ‘cyber-journalist’ is expected to record interviews, take videos, photographs and provide instant information for a 24 hour deadline. A far cry indeed from the leisurely drunken correspondents I remember from my youth in the Middle East!
Justin has been in Japan for some 20 years, and came into journalism from English-language teaching via copy-editing for the Daily Yomiuri. Since 2003 he’s been working for the Guardian, covering not just Japan, but Korea – South and North! Considering the global importance of the area, it seems an almost impossible job for one person. Yet it’s no different elsewhere, for he gave the figures for South-east Asia as a whole: 2 Guardian correspondents in China; 1 in Bangkok; and 1 in Australia.
Other interesting bits of information concerned the very limited number of English-language correspondents based in Tokyo. Some ten organisations in all, drawing on the same Reuters and AP new sources. It explains why the media all seem to run the same stories, for the resources are so stretched.
And what exactly are the main stories about Japan? Justin gave us a list of the most common topics he’s regularly asked for by head office. Food (washoku is in vogue); prime minister Abe (what exactly is he up to?); Fukushima (toxic or not?); Geisha (a perennial fascination); tourism (hot topic); yakuza (like geisha a symbol of exotic Japan); current trends such as robots and sexless marriage. Finally the controversial matters of Yasukuni/WW2 plus the animal rights issues of whaling and Taiji dolpins.
The latter topics were picked up by Justin as illustrative of the differences between the English-language media and that of Japan. This is particularly evident in the nuance of the wording, which unconsciously shapes people’s minds. English-lang press talks of the ‘slaughtering’ of whales; Japanese press considers they are being ‘harvested’. When English lang media talks of ‘sex slaves’, Japanese talks of ‘those known as comfort women’.
The matter of ‘kisha clubs’ and the control of information through self-censorship was brought up too, with Justin pointing out that the word ‘meltdown’ was used by the Western press about the Fukushima ‘disaster’ after 7-10 days, whereas the Japanese press did not mention the word until several months afterwards in conjunction with the ‘accident’ that had taken place.
One of the dangers of reporting here is the demand for ‘wacky Japan’ stories, and Justin illustrated just how dangerous the issue of ‘fake news’ could be through articles that spread worldwide concerning a Japanese craze for ‘eyeball-licking’. This turned out to be completely false, but nonetheless matched people’s expectations for the kind of weirdness associated with Japan.
And what of the future? Will there continue to be a printed Guardian? Will its fabulously successful website continue to be free? Justin foresaw some kind of paywall being necessary to provide revenue for the news organisation, but at this stage no one can say for sure because things are changing so rapidly. One thing we can say, though, is that with his affable nature and level-headedness, Justin provides assurance for those of us living here that Far Eastern affairs will be covered in a dispassionate and insightful manner.

Justin McCurry is the Japan and Korea correspondent for The Guardian and Observer newspapers in London. As a foreign correspondent with more than 10 years’ experience, he has covered numerous news events, notably the March 2011 earthquake and tsunami, and the Fukushima nuclear disaster. Earlier this month he travelled to South Korea to write about increasing tensions over North Korea’s nuclear and ballistic missile programmes.


Justin McCurry read economics at the London School of Economics (LSE) and gained an MA in Japanese Studies from the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), London University. He was a copy editor and reporter at the Daily Yomiuri in Osaka before moving to Tokyo to become a full-time foreign correspondent for The Guardian in late 2003. He also contributes to the Lancet medical journal in London and reports and narrates scripts on Asia-Pacific topics for France 24 TV.

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