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Writer, teacher, advocate finds her stride in the Japanese countryside

Jane Joritz-Nakagawa juggles a busy life reaching students, readers, like-minded activists

by Kris Kosaka

Special To The Japan Times

For Jane Joritz-Nakagawa, her sociopolitical outlook colors all aspects of her life, as a writer, educator or activist. “Activism runs through what I read and what I write and what I’m teaching; It’s all one big thing, as the same mindset invades all those activities. It is inescapable,” she says.

A strict vegan and advocate for women and animal rights, all of Joritz-Nakagawa’s interests merged in the countryside of Japan, where for more than 20 years she has reached students and readers, united fellow writers and similarly minded activists.

From early on, teaching would balance her writing, as she realized that “a teacher is so other-directed. You are thinking about what the students need and how to best give it to them. But when you are writing, you are focused on your own intellectual needs, doing what interests you.”

With the advent of the Internet connecting Joritz-Nakagawa to the insular poetry world both in Japan and abroad, she has achieved an impressive array of publications, including seven books of poetry, numerous chapbooks, a poetry broadside and hundreds of poems published in online and print journals around the world and in Japan.

Also the author of numerous essays and dozens of interviews and academic papers, Joritz-Nakagawa found further creative energy to connect writers within Japan.

“Writing was clearly becoming the main passion in my life, but from the countryside, I was isolated. I knew there were people out there writing in English in Japan and I wanted to meet them.”

She organized the first Japan Writer’s Conference, gathering writers in English from across the country to exchange insights and knowledge. The event is now in its seventh year, currently under the organization of a fellow writer, John Gribble. She also cofounded the Japan International Poetry Society, and continues to volunteer for various international and local Japanese organizations devoted to gender, environmental issues, literature and education.

Her sociopolitical outlook also an extension of her teaching. Joritz-Nakagawa has founded or participated in various academic groups, including Peace as a Global Language, and the special interest groups Global Issues in Language Education and Literature in Language Teaching. In her last position, at Aichi University of Education, where she taught for nine years until last spring, she designed courses in poetry, gender, history and culture, and pedagogy.

Growing up in the suburbs of Chicago, Joritz-Nakagawa admits she was once a “city girl,” a teenager fascinated by philosophy and penning her own poetry. She had earlier discovered both of her future vocations in child’s play.

“As a young child I wrote ‘plays,’ but they were really dialogues between female characters around the dinner table. I also constructed lesson plans and pretended to be a teacher in front of imaginary classes.”

Faced with the daunting task of supporting herself through university, however, Joritz-Nakagawa tried to be a practical adult. Enrolled at DePaul University, she recalls: “I was poor, and studying economics seemed a way to break out of that circumstance. But I soon realized I had no passion nor drive for the subject, so I switched to literature, as I had always loved books.”

Something still did not satisfy the independent young woman.

“Literature courses sometimes boiled down to the instructor, usually a man, telling the class what a book meant, explaining his viewpoint without discussion, and expecting us to feed it back to him. I was writing poetry all the time anyway, and I discovered a small arts college nearby, where I could finally focus on poetry as my major.”

Joritz-Nakagawa transferred to Columbia College in Chicago, graduating in 1985 with a bachelor’s degree in creative writing. Devoting herself full time to her writing, she found immediate success in many aspects of her life, publishing her first poems and doing readings while still an undergraduate, participating in her first activist march, for woman’s choice, and discovering a knack for teaching international students at Columbia.

“They pulled people out of the writing program and asked us to tutor. Many were foreign students and I really liked doing it, teaching and meeting people from different countries. I think that’s how I ended up focusing on applied linguistics for graduate school.”

Although she “never stopped writing poetry,” her focus gradually shifted to international teaching as she completed her master’s degree.

“I had Japanese students as a T.A. in graduate school, and it was the bubble period in Japan and relatively easy for a foreigner to come over and get a job. I was also exposed to Japan in my research of sociolinguistics, and I was fascinated how the linguistic rules in Japan seemed to indicate the exact opposite of the dominant American way of behavior. To me it was the ideal learning experience, to totally shake up the reality I had with a chance to grow emotionally, intellectually and as a writer. There were all these strands that pulled me towards Japan.”

Borrowing money for the plane ticket, Joritz-Nakagawa moved to Japan in September 1989 after a graduate internship at Harvard University. She soon met her future husband, Junichiro Nakagawa, and her connection to the countryside of Japan was complete.

Junichiro, whom she calls “my muse,” introduced her to his quiet appreciation of nature.

“Starting in our brief courtship he would put me in the car and drive hours to some out-of-the-way spot in nature.”

Although the young couple lived briefly in Yokohama while Joritz-Nakagawa taught at Temple University, they quickly decided to make the countryside a part of their new life.

“I felt I was leading so much a foreigner’s life in Japan, surrounded by foreigners, teaching in English on a foreign university’s campus. My job was taking up a lot of time and when my husband, a urologist, was offered work in the countryside, Hamaoka in Shizuoka Prefecture, it was the perfect chance to immerse myself in the language and the culture. It was really difficult to do that in Tokyo working at Temple. We’ve never lived back in the city again.”

Joritz-Nakagawa made many early connections that would later influence her writing and teaching.

“I met so many strong women in Tokyo, and I became active in various groups, like the International Feminists of Japan, and later WELL (Women Educators and Language Learners) and GALE (Gender Awareness in Language Education). I also became very serious about being a good teacher, studying educational psychology on my own in the 1990s. I wanted to improve as a teacher and learn new ways to connect to my students.”

After two decades as an educator in Japan, Joritz-Nakagawa recently took a break from full-time teaching to assume more family-related, community-related, and writing-related responsibilities. A death in the family, the declining health of relatives in her immediate Japanese family and other events led her to make the difficult decision to leave her tenured university post. Next year, she looks toward her eighth published book of poems, also planning numerous other writing projects, including a book of prose essays and textbooks for use with Japanese students. She hopes to find a part-time lecturer position, and currently keeps active as a presenter for local academic societies and community groups where she gives speeches and workshops in English and Japanese relative to gender, literature and education.

As much as possible, Joritz-Nakagawa and her husband also head out into nature, enjoying the idyllic beauty of Nagano.

“I’ve just fallen in love with the mountains. It’s hypnotic and there’s something magnetic about it. It is a cliche for a writer to go out into the woods, but it is also true; you get so much accomplished within that solitude.”