Writing About Japan

This month marks two years in Japan for me. A lot has happened in that time, the vast majority of it positive. There’s no doubt that this place has become a home to me.

When I was preparing to come to Japan, many people (some who had been here and some who hadn’t) told me that I would always feel like an outsider in Japan because of the homogeneity and culture. The thing is, they weren’t wrong. In the rural area where I live, foreigners are rare enough that young children—and sometimes even elderly people—will often stare, and anytime I visit a larger city, I’m assumed to be a tourist who’s visiting from abroad for a week or so. I know that no matter how long I lived here, that would stay more or less the same. I’m never going to feel absorbed into the country in the same way I might if I lived somewhere else.

Still, Japan has had a profound impact on me in many ways, and that feeling of being an “other” hasn’t negated that. In some ways, it’s probably strengthened Japan’s influence on me because it makes me think about things a lot.

One of the things I often think about is Japan’s influence on my writing.

I’ve written only one story that takes place in Japan, and it was in the point of view of a tourist visiting Japan who met an American living here. I doubt I’ll ever feel comfortable writing from a Japanese person’s point of view. I’ve watched too many white authors try to write from the point of view of nonwhite characters and screw up majorly.

For similar reasons, just setting stories in Japan makes me uneasy. It’s not like the world needs a story set in Japan that centers white people or is written by a white person. Outside of anime, that seems to be most of the stories about Japan that Americans know. (Lost in Translation and Memoirs of a Geisha being prime examples.)

At the same time, this country is where my life is, and I love Japan. I’d love to write about it more too, but the fact of the matter is that I don’t feel comfortable doing that now. Maybe I’ll discover a way that I do feel comfortable with it in the future, but for now, I don’t. Even as Japan probably continues to influence my writing in subtler ways.

Advertisements

First Person Versus Third Person

When it comes to point of view, third person seems to win out both among readers and writers. There are probably more YA books written in first person than there are in other categories, but I’d hazard a guess that the majority of YA is still in third person. And I’ve heard people say that they don’t like reading first person at all.

When it comes to reading, I’m fine with first person, but I heavily favor third person in my writing. Unless I’m writing as myself, such as with this post, I almost exclusively write third person. That was never a conscious decision on my part. It’s what I naturally gravitated towards. Most likely that was because all but one of the books that influenced me most as a kid were in third person.

There have been times over the years when I’ve challenged myself to write in first person, and I have one particular project I wrote in first person and was very happy with. In that case, it seemed to fit the story. But, most of the time, writing first person feels forced to me, and I’ve stopped challenging myself to write it over the past year or so. Sticking to third person is familiar, and perhaps because of that, I think my writing is better when I use third person.

I’m impressed with writers who can effectively write first person. It has a lot of advantages as readers feel like they’re even more inside the character’s head. I also think it can help a lot as a writer if you want to get to know a character deeper, but for whatever reason, I just keep sticking with third person, and I likely will for now.

Whirlpools

Recently, I got the urge to experiment with poetry again even though it always turns out horribly. We’re starting off with a haiku because the first poem I ever wrote was a haiku and this is about an experience in Japan, so why not?

Greens and blues contrast
Angry water of the sea—
Small typhoons abound

Awa Odori and Pow-Wows

In July, I moved to Japan after years of dreaming about doing so, and it’s been a whirlwind. Living in a foreign country can be very stressful as you do your best to understand and use a language that you’ve never needed to use in a practical way before. It’s a strange change from the way I had to actively seek out Japanese when studying it at home, and it’s entirely different.

Living somewhere new also means adjusting to a new culture, and Japanese culture is very different from the American Midwestern culture.

One of my experiences in Japan so far was Awa Odori. Bon Odori is a festival that takes place throughout Japan, but Awa Odori is specific to Tokushima, the prefecture I’m living in. It’s a special dance meant to honor one’s ancestors and is unique from the Odori dances of other areas of Japan. Legend has it that the Awa dance was created by drunk people, which explains why it looks the way it does. (If you want to see if for yourself, there are plenty of videos on Youtube.)

The Awa dance is older than the United States, yet people still celebrate it year after year. Schools here in Tokushima teach it to students, I’ve been told, and there are so, so many different groups who perform in the festival, some of them famous and some of them just doing it for fun. There are even more people who practice Awa dance but never plan to enter in the festival.

The closest experience I’d had to Awa Odori previously was attending a pow wow in the United States. Music and dance play fundamental roles in both events, and both have roots older than the United States. They also both have huge religious and cultural significance.

Maybe you weren’t expecting me to start comparing Japanese and Native American cultures in this post, but I think they have a number of things in common, even if the initial realization kind of surprised me too. I was struck by it as I watched the dancers at Awa Odori, and I was struck again when, while talking about traditional Japanese music, a student commented that Japanese and Native American people “have the same origins”. (That is one theory by the way, though not one undoubtedly proven or accepted by everyone.)

That being said, there was one key difference: the amount of people.

I saw more white people in Tokushima during Awa Odori than I had the entire rest of my time here. People travel from all over Japan to see it too. It’s a huge event with entire streets lined with food stalls and various groups all dancing at once.

The pow wow I attended, however, was much smaller. It was inside one building. There was one dance going on at a time, one stand serving food. And, as my sister so aptly pointed out, the two of us were the only white people there.

The same pride went into both events, but the amount of outsiders who cared was vastly different. It’s a striking difference. The two events felt so similar in tone and even in what events they contained, yet I wouldn’t be surprised if more Americans expressed a passing interest in attending Awa Odori than the pow wows that happen in their own backyards.

(Please note that this is not a call for Americans to take over pow wows, and I’m definitely not saying that Native Americans need for white people to be interested in their events. If you go to a pow wow, please be respectful of the fact that it’s not your event. Also, make sure you’re actually invited, not personally but as someone who isn’t a member of that Native nation.)

I’d highly recommend going to both if possible. After all, I can’t judge anyone for wanting to experience Awa Odori, it’s a truly great experience, but don’t assume that America doesn’t contain the same richness of culture or events that have been handed down for centuries. (A lie that even I fall for at times.) It does, even if, in America’s case, it’s not white culture.

Dear Toph,

Note: This is part of my letters series where I write letters. They’re almost always to fictional characters or concepts, not so much real people. (I have to admit that this is one of my least favorites that I’ve written.)

Of all the characters of Avatar, you’re likely one of the most popular. It’s not surprising.

When we learned of your later life through the comics and Korra, I have to admit to initially being surprised. I hadn’t pegged you for someone who would open a metal bending school or run a police force. Looking back on it now, though, I don’t know why I didn’t.

I was young when I began watching Avatar. When I was first introduced to you I was in middle school, and I don’t think I appreciated your depth in the same way I do now. Your hard outer shell was all I saw, and while I thought you were incredible, I didn’t think someone like that would want to help people through teaching or want to help uphold the law, especially with your penchant for rule breaking.

You were always a kinder person than I gave you credit for though. I’m not at all calling your personality a shield that hides a soft side. That’s not how I think of it. Instead, both sides of you coexist, and I’m glad I can see that now when I couldn’t before.

Sincerely,

Haley

Writing as Routine

They say that one needs to write every day in order to make it a habit. For me, at least, that has turned out to be true.

I remember high school and am amazed at how infrequently I wrote then. I’d write in bursts about one day a week or so, and when I sat down to write, it was often difficult to get going.

Freshman year of college, I grew more dedicated and started making myself write every day, just five hundred words, then a thousand. Today, I can sometimes write five thousand words or more in a day, though the “more” is not a usual occurrence. I think back to high school and realize that writing feels so much easier to me now than it did then.

Of course, that’s a generalized statement. There are still days where I struggle to write anything at all and others where words flies out in what feels like minutes. Overall, though, it’s so much easier, which I try to remind myself on the difficult days.

Now, even when there are a million and one other things that I have to do, I make time to write. As I write this, I’m preparing to move to a new country, and while I’m bogged down with packing, saying goodbye to friends and family, etc., I’ve consistently made time to write. I don’t even know if I can say that I made time. It was the unspoken truth that I would write every day.

In fact, I think times like these are when I need the time to write the most as it helps calm down what is otherwise a stressful time. I don’t know that I would call it an escape necessarily, but it is a crucial part of my daily routine. My day would feel rather empty without it.

Words Are Important

The importance of word choice is such a large topic that I can’t scratch the surface in one blog post. As I sit here, I have no idea where to begin or what, exactly, I want to say.

Two words can have the same basic definition, but we know their connotations are different even if said connotation is difficult to put into words. The words we choose to use say something important about our message and, by extension, us.

My belief in this concept is one of the reasons I get frustrated at the belief that we have a new “politically correct” culture that is ruining society, an argument that is typically used when someone disagrees with another’s language.

Word choice matters. It always has and it will continue to as long as we have language. Otherwise, we wouldn’t have multiple words with the same basic meaning. Which word you choose says something more than it’s basic definition, and though I never lived in an ancient civilization, I imagine that it was the same in the past in most (if not all) cultures. I’m also willing to bet that people always got angry at the words of others, even if that person had the freedom of speech to say them.

That’s nothing new. Why are some of us pretending like it is?