Welsh writer finds inspiration in Japan

Based in Yokohama, Jon Mitchell has a novel in the works and three scripts in development

by Kris Kosaka

Fade in. Swansea, Wales. The scene opens on a hushed front room. A 6-year-old boy taps away on an old-fashioned typewriter, the keys punctuating his thoughts in the gathering shadows. It is past his bedtime, but he fights drowsy temptations, determined to write a novel while his parents sleep. Four hours, scant pages later, his eyes close, his arms drape across the keyboard.

Cut to Yokohama, present day.

Jon Mitchell has never stopped writing since that first attempt as a child. After winning a writing contest sponsored by British television at the age of 11, he realized he might actually be able to make a career of it. He’s been writing ever since.

“I sold my first poem at 17 years old, and when I came to Japan at 23, I started writing about Japanese pop culture, articles for magazines in Wales and Britain, a lot of poetry about Japan at that time. It’s been escalating, my writing, from short pieces like poetry and articles to screenplays and now a novel, longer and longer pieces.”

Although it’s now a full-time job, Mitchell spent many years squeezing in words after his day job as an English instructor at Nova. With a bachelor of science degree in American history and a master’s in applied linguistics, Mitchell’s wordsmithing frequently found a historical perspective, and he eventually focused on an appreciation for film noir and history to create his own version of “Yokohama Confidential.” The screenplay is a gritty look at postwar Yokohama, at the difficulties and struggles the people faced in rebuilding from devastation.

The screenplay “Onlies for Lonelies” allowed him to give up the day job for good and focus solely on writing. “Onlies” placed first in the Other Genre Division of the 2006 American Accolades Screenwriting Contest; he immediately turned in his resignation to Nova.

“My manager told me, you’ll never do it, you’ll be back in three months, begging for your job. In three months, Nova went under.”

He appreciates the irony (“A beautiful moment; wish I had filmed it”) and has not looked back toward the classroom since.

Winning a major American screenplay contest opened the door to full-time writing. Three scripts currently wait at different levels of development with studios in Britain and Japan, and Mitchell is on the second draft of his first novel, “K-City.” He also writes articles on modern Japanese history and culture, and recently sent off submissions to Zoetrope All-Story, a short-story contest sponsored by Francis Ford Coppola’s company.

All this writing translates to hard work. “I’m up by 7, write until lunchtime. Then I go for a long walk. Being stuck in my own mind all morning does my head in.” Afternoons are spent making connections, sorting through correspondence, talking with his manager in Britain. Evening comes. Mitchell cooks dinner for his wife and is back at the keys, usually until 10 p.m.

“Basically, it’s an 8-hour job. I try to take Sundays off, but sometimes I can’t, deadlines and such. I stick to that routine, because it’s my work, and I must keep that discipline.”

Discipline aside, there are certain perks with writing screenplays. Mitchell recently got the chance to work with top Japanese actors on the film “Ashita e no Yuigon” (“Best Wishes for Tomorrow”), a courtroom drama set in Yokohama. What began as a favor for a screenwriting friend in answer to a casting call for foreigners turned into a speaking part with 24 days on the set.

“When it came time to actually delivering my lines, I have never been so afraid. I have so much respect now for actors.”

Mitchell also learned more as a writer. “I learned a screenplay is always a collaborative thing. It is never created in isolation. One of the Japanese actors said to me, ‘Kyakuhon ha, ikimono nan desu’ (a script is a living thing), and I really found it affected my writing. It’s made me more fluid, more open to suggestions from outsiders.”

Mitchell admits there are certain parts of the writing game he does not embrace fully. Hollywood is one.

“I’ve been to L.A. countless times and I despise the place. I’m British, I can’t drive, and it’s dangerous if you go to the wrong block, you’re in trouble.”

He does not always enjoy the necessary research; to keep up with the Hollywood scene, Mitchell must take in all the newest films, from “Harry Potter” to “Transformers.” When he first started work on his novel, he grappled with the wide-open lack of confines in prose compared with the rigid structure of a screenplay.

Still, he tries to see everything as a chance to grow and live his dream. “I am happy where I am. I’m doing exactly what I want to do here. It’s my dream job.”

Part of that dream is uniting the worlds he knows and loves best: his native Wales, his love of history, his appreciation for cultural differences and divides.

His novel, “K-City,” unites all these worlds. Set in Okinawa in the 1960s, the story explores the mingling of cultures and ideals: “It was such a melting pot of American culture; you have the Vietnam War and the B-52 bombers taking off from these base towns in Okinawa. It’s a coming of age story about three kids, growing up in Koza, the main American air base.”

Okinawa has long attracted Mitchell, with its similarities to Wales. “People don’t think so. They imagine Wales as this mountainous, cold, British place and Okinawa as a subtropical paradise. Yet, you had the suppression of the Welsh language by the English in the 19th century. Welsh kids had to wear a plaque around their necks, and inform on other kids who spoke Welsh. . . . Okinawa had exactly the same system, right down to the plaque.”

Mitchell points out the two cultures are also similar in their love-hate relationship with tourism, in their ideals of independence. In some ways, his work with “K-City” offers an opportunity to explore the ambiguity of subculture and ethnicity.

“I have a lot of sympathy and empathy for the situation in Okinawa. When I was growing up, the teachers called us to the front of the class and spanked us if we spoke with a Welsh accent. They told us ‘You won’t be able to get a job’ because many British people look down on a Welsh accent, think of us as the country cousins of the English.”

Although he admits it “killed a part of my culture,” Mitchell also wonders if he would be where he is today without the teachers’ strict insistence on speaking “proper” English. He sees the same conundrum in Okinawa. “The government thought the only way Okinawa could survive was to rejoin Japan, rather than go it alone.”

Mitchell shrugs, admitting there is no pat answer; indeed, a writer’s job is not to have all the answers but simply to tell one story. With his love of history, his appreciation for the darkness that lurks under hope in difficult situations, for his discipline and hard work, this writer has found a vocation with the written word.

The scene ends. Mitchell will be back at the keyboard tomorrow. Fade to Black.

Jon Mitchell’s short story, “no night to be alone,” set around a rain-swept U.S. base in 1960s Okinawa, will appear in the Timeout section on Aug. 30.