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.

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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 Azula,

Note: It’s been a long time since I’ve done one of these letters. This one is to Azula, who’s a character in Avatar: The Last Airbender. This is a result of recently reading the Avatar comic The Search and contains spoilers for that comic trilogy as well as the TV show. It was difficult to write because it was impossible for me to put into words what I’ve been thinking.

I can’t say that I ever expected to write this letter. Throughout the television series, you’re characterized as someone who cares only about power. You did things that were inexcusable, but by the end of the series, it was clear that you needed more help than you received.

Your brother, Zuko, wished for a closer relationship with you and struggled to see why that wasn’t possible. Despite loving Zuko dearly, I do wish he had shown more initiative in getting you help after he was crowned Fire Lord. Maybe he did somehow, but if he did, it was unseen.

You’re convinced that your mother didn’t love you. I have to say that I didn’t believe that for a long time, but then I read The Search and was disappointed. It didn’t entirely change my belief. I do think your mother loved you, but I think she failed both you and Zuko in greater ways than I had believed before.

Throughout your life, you have desperately needed someone, though you couldn’t see that yourself, and there has never been anyone willing to make the effort needed to help you. The only bright side I see is that Zuko and Ursa do seem to want to help, even as they remain completely oblivious as to how. I understand running away from them, but I can’t stop hoping that one day you will speak to them again. Maybe, just maybe, that could be the beginning of bringing you peace.

Sincerely,

Haley

Dear 2016,

Judging by the state of my Twitter feed and Tumblr dashboard, you’ve been rather universally loathed. That seems to be a trend year after year. We reach December, and I become inundated with “this year was terrible” remarks everywhere I look. In years past, I rolled my eyes. Yes, terrible things happened each of those years, but I always struggled to believe that any of them were worse than the years that had come before. They all seemed rather equal in their terribleness. We were never going to have a year where something bad didn’t happen.

You, though, did seem different. I have to admit. Things seemed to reach a new level of awful, and I don’t think I was the only one broad on board to the “this was the worst year ever” sentiment who may not have indulged in the past.

However, you also weren’t all bad. I saw a tweet the other day about reconciling personal great moments with the less than stellar moments of the world. It resonated with me. I mean, I graduated college this year, and while that’s been terrifying, it’s also rather important. Maybe I would have been more excited about it if the overall tone of the year had been different, but I’m too preoccupied by everything else to give it much thought.

It wasn’t your fault really, 2016, even if you’ve become a great scapegoat. There are a lot of people at fault for a lot of different things, which means 2017 won’t be inherently better, but I do hope that it does get better.

Sincerely,

Haley Keller

The Spill

It’s been a long time since I’ve written something this short and without planning. We’ll see how it goes. I watched a documentary on the BP oil spill recently called After the Spill. That’s what this is based on.

For decades her family had lived on this land; Angie hadn’t expected that to change. Since childhood her ambitions had been to stay here and take care of it herself once her parents had passed. She’d broken up with a boyfriend over it. He’d had dreams of living in New York. Last she’d heard, he’d made it there.

Maybe she should have followed him, she thought forlornly as she struggled to pull her boot from the ground. Tar coated them–the boots, the ground, all of it. The oil was everywhere now, engulfing much of the land that had already been disappearing. That was what she owned, oil. It was supposed to make people rich. She laughed bitterly. It had ruined what little she had.

She stooped down, taking a handful of the oil and mud in her hand. She wasn’t sure why she did this to herself, came out here day after day and scooped up another handful. She’d given up long ago at actually clearing the oil from the land. That was a hopeless mission. The land was gone along with her dreams.