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Writer, translator, yoga instructor finds inspiration in ‘the voices that history silences’

by Kris Kosaka

Thanks to comedian Takashi Okamura’s popular show “99 Size” and a nationwide broadcast about her Restorative Yoga program on Japanese TV, Leza Lowitz, 50, laughingly admits she used up her 15 minutes of “gaijin fame” nearly 10 years ago when she helped usher in the yoga boom. Laughter aside, it’s not fame that fuels Lowitz, and it’s not even yoga; it’s what she calls “stewardship” — looking back at history to help guide the future.

Citing her own historical inspirations, from literature to Chief Seattle to a Buddhist world view, Lowitz explains: “There are rarely straight paths in life, but I try to take each unexpected turn as a teaching: What do I need to be learning here, why is this happening and what is the lesson? As ‘parents’ to the next generation, we must think about our real world, about the history on all sides, and try to find a way to inspire. We are only borrowing the Earth from the future, and if poetry or storytelling or creating a space for transformational work like yoga can convey these teachings, that’s a very powerful way to create meaning.”

Lowitz says she has always found meaning in “the voices that history silences” in one way or another. As a writer, editor and co-translator, Lowitz has published a number of books introducing various aspects of Japan to an English-speaking audience. Lowitz has shared the worlds of kamikaze pilots and their last letters to their families, published lesbian writings by contemporary Japanese poets, specifically sought out Ainu writers, revealed the life in prison camps of World War II internee Itaru Ina and journeyed into the mind of Japan’s foremost modernist poet, Nobuo Ayukawa.

Also responsible for editing the journals of the late Donald Richie, the leading Western authority on Japanese film, in the realm of literary culture she has steadily and quietly shared a cultural spectrum of Japan with English speakers. In addition, Lowitz has published four volumes of her own poetry, including a groundbreaking book of yoga poems.

Her work with yoga in Tokyo is another example of Lowitz “translating the raw material of my life to help people learn from the raw material of their lives,” she says. Yoga became a core focus for Lowitz when she moved back to the States after four years in Japan in the mid-1990s. Coming back to America in 1994, Lowitz admits, “was reverse culture shock. I was not sure who I was anymore. I realized that I was kind of an expat in my own skin, that I wasn’t really living in my own body. I was out of touch with myself, and yoga brought me back to my own body literally, since of course yoga is connecting body and mind.”

When she and her Japanese husband, Shogo Oketani, decided to return to Japan after nearly a decade in California, friends were skeptical of her teaching yoga in Tokyo, a city that had very much nurtured her academic, intellectual side the first time around. Back then, in 1989, Lowitz had just completed her master’s degree in creative writing at San Francisco State University, with a focus on Japanese literature and language. Lowitz quickly filled a void in the literary world of expat Japan, writing for a number of publications, teaching English at the University of Tokyo, interacting with the brightest minds and most creative art in the bubble years, and then sharing the insights of those minds with the rest of the world.

“I got to see so much of the arts and to write about it, and that really opened my eyes to different modes of perception and expression. So much was happening here, on the literary and the arts scene, so it was a good time for a struggling writer to be here.”

Planning a return, however, Lowitz resisted the idea of revisiting the same place. “The academic world is intellectual, and the yoga world is more balanced, body and mind. After my teacher’s training in California, I wanted to stay in that balanced world longer.

“Friends worried that Japanese people might not like California-style partner yoga — that they are not going to want to touch a stranger. But I knew what living in Tokyo was like, and I felt that if I needed the connection and stress relief, others would too. We’re all in it together, and in my own little corner of the world, if I can start to chip away at some of these things that separate us, I’ll do it.” Lowitz’s studio, Sun and Moon Yoga in Gotanda, remains a popular retreat for city-dwellers.

Lowitz’s feelings about stewardship have their source in her childhood experiences. Raised in Berkeley, California, during the 1970s, Lowitz explains, “It was a socially volatile time. I was a white girl who was bused into Malcolm X Elementary with desegregation, and I was beaten up a lot. It was a powerful lesson on perception for an 8-year-old — that what I looked like to people on the outside as a white girl was not necessarily how I saw myself.

“Even within the social upheaval of desegregation, however, there was also the understanding and the recognition that we are all one. We have a responsibility and a capacity to help people, and it is possible to be of service.”

A different shade of this world view emerged once she and her husband became parents, late in life. “I was almost 45 and Shogo 50 when we adopted a son. We had always wanted a family, so once we moved back to Japan we decided to adopt.”

Lowitz has written extensively about those experiences, most recently in the New York Times, and also in a memoir she is working on. Another inspiration from being a parent: Lowitz released her first work of fiction on Oct. 29, the young-adult novel “Jet Black and the Ninja Wind,” co-authored with her husband. Already optioned for film, the book provided another opportunity for Lowitz to work with her frequent collaborator, fellow writer and life partner.

“I got the idea in California, when ‘Memoirs of a Geisha’ was released. Although on one level I liked the book, I was also tired of seeing only one face of Japanese womanhood: the whole kimono-clad, bowing woman stereotype. My husband is really interested in indigenous peoples, the Emishi [of Tohoku] and the American Indians, so we found a connection with the Navajo code-talkers, and decided to create a modern eco-warrior in Jet.”

Regardless of Lowitz’s future path, she remains focused on her way: “All of us have the ability to become aware of how we impact the world and how we can do our part to change things for the better, even in small ways. Writing or creating art out of life’s challenges helps me to better appreciate all the blessings and reach out to others to strengthen the web.”

Wrapping up her explanation, Lowitz can’t resist citing words from the past: “As E.M. Forster said in 1910, ‘Only connect.’ “

On Saturdays, Telling Lives profiles interesting individuals with links to Japan. Send all your comments and story ideas to community@japantimes.co.jp.