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Dahl still drawing on the joys and absurdities of expat life

by Louise George Kittaka

Special To The Japan Times

Earning a living as a cartoonist may be the stuff that childhood dreams are made of, but they seldom turn into reality. Roger Dahl is one of the fortunate few who have made the grade, and it all started in Tokyo. For over 20 years the versatile Dahl has been making Japan Times readers both think and smile, as the mind behind not only the Opinion Page political cartoons but also the “Zero Gravity” comic strip, which pokes gentle fun at the foreign experience in this country.

“Zero Gravity” features the day-to-day exploits of Lily and Larry, a married couple employed in the English-teaching sector.

“I chose the names tongue-in-cheek, since the Japanese typically have trouble with the ‘l’ sound in English,” Dahl grins.

Like his cartoon counterpart Larry, Dahl was teaching English at a junior high school in 1991 when he tentatively put together a few strips with a view to submitting them for publication. Against the well-intentioned advice of a journalist friend, who warned him he stood no chance of success, he sent his work to the four major English daily newspapers operating in Japan at the time.

“I was hoping I would hear back from even one of the papers, so I was delighted when two said they were interested in my work,” he says. Dahl chose The Japan Times as he thought there was more scope for growth with the paper, and the rest is history.

But it wasn’t the prototype for what would become “Zero Gravity” that initially drew the newspaper’s interest.

“I threw in one of my political cartoons at the last moment, just for variety, really. And it was that cartoon that got me in! I remember that cartoon well: one of old Tokyo Gov. (Shunichi) Suzuki demonstrating his spryness by bending down to touch his toes and being unable to upright himself.”

Dahl had long wanted to be a cartoonist, but while he drew for two university publications and one community newspaper, things didn’t progress any further in his homeland for the Washington state native. “I ended up managing a silk-screen printing shop after completing an arts degree. We made the uniforms for the Seattle Seahawks,” he adds with a touch of pride.

He experienced his first taste of Japan around this period, arriving in the early 1980s at the invitation of an aunt and uncle who were working as missionaries in Karuizawa, Nagano Prefecture.

Back in the U.S., he took his artistic talents in a completely new direction, winning a place at the University of Washington’s School of Medicine to study prosthetics and orthotics. “In other words, making artificial limbs!” he explains. “However, it turned out that I didn’t really like the work and I was working with carcinogenic substances, which bothered me, so I gave it up.”

Looking for new avenues, Dahl answered an advert for a teaching job and in due course found himself back in Japan, working at a small family-run English school.

“Although I arrived with no prior experience, teaching turned out to be a natural thing for me. I had to find my own way, and I later drew on these experiences — literally — in my cartoons.

“After two years, I decided to try creating a cartoon strip based on my life at the school. I was living in a dormitory in Nakameguro in Tokyo at the time, and I cloistered myself in my room to see what I could come up with.” The results were the first “Zero Gravity” strips.

Before The Japan Times could run his creation, Dahl needed to decide on a title.

“I had once tried to do a cartoon strip based in outer space, and I thought about the similarities to life in Japan. There was this sense of floating around and being detached from familiar surroundings, particularly in the pre-Internet era.”

The title is also a play on words. “If ‘gravity’ is serious, then ‘zero gravity’ is lighthearted,” he explains.

According to Dahl, the editors didn’t expect too much from “Zero Gravity” at first. “There was a lot of skepticism. They didn’t think there would be enough material for it to last very long. Twenty-three years later, I’m still going!”

Dahl has worked with various editors over the years, and while each had their own approach, all gave him free rein over his choice of topics.

“It has always been up to me,” he says. “Obviously, there has to be a little bit of self-censorship and there are certain things you need to be sensitive about. For example, cartoons about Fukushima and radiation.

“With ‘Zero Gravity,’ I try to use the vernacular — natural English — but not peppered with cultural references that might be hard to grasp,” for Japanese and other non-Americans. “I think Lily and Larry have gradually become less American and more representative of ‘every-expat’. ”

He also notes that their appearances have changed a lot over time, although the changes were probably too gradual for readers to spot. “They were quite crudely drawn in the beginning! The quality has definitely improved over the years.”

Around the time his cartoons debuted in the paper, Dahl changed jobs and went to work at the private junior high school.

“Like me at the time, Larry works at a boys’ school, while Lily is employed at an English language school, similar to the first teaching job I had,” he explains. “This has enabled me to have some diversity in the scenarios presented.”

Dahl has developed a cast of supporting characters to flesh out the strip. These include Larry’s colleague Buck, the ubiquitous single foreign man looking for a girlfriend, and a Japanese family who are Lily and Larry’s neighbors.

“If I had to pick a favorite character, it’s probably Obachan, the widowed grandmother from the neighbor’s family. She’s based on several spunky older Japanese women I’ve encountered. They were some of the funniest and most delightful people I’ve ever met.”

It comes as a surprise to learn that Dahl left Japan in 1995 for family reasons and has been living back in Seattle ever since. He fully expected his departure from Japan to signal the end of his cartooning for The Japan Times, so was gratified when the editors asked him to continue.

While admitting it is occasionally challenging, Dahl says the Internet has made it entirely possible for a U.S.-based cartoonist to keep current with trends in Japanese politics and popular culture.

Drawing a cartoon for publication isn’t just a matter of dashing something off. “It’s actually a three-step process,” Dahl explains. “There’s the rough pencil sketch, then the inked version done on nice paper over what is called a light table, and then finally the computer-enhanced version that you see in the newspaper.”

If he had known that his strip would endure for so long, Dahl says he would have come up with a numbering system from the start. “They quickly multiply, so you definitely need some kind of system. Before I could organize them on the PC, it was a logistical nightmare.”

Just as he was growing concerned about how to maintain the original hand-drawn cartoons, Dahl had the recent good fortune to meet a curator from the Washington State Historical Museum at a social event.

“As a result of that chance meeting, we agreed that I would donate the originals to the museum.” This is a double coup for Dahl: Not only will his artwork be preserved in the archives, but it is also a nod from the museum to the importance of his work as a local cartoonist.

He will be in good company: Other cartoonists hailing from Washington state include Gary Larson, creator of “The Far Side,” and the late Hank Ketcham, who drew the U.S. “Dennis the Menace” strip.

In 2012 Dahl teamed up with Japan Times alumni Payal Kapadia, a former staff writer now based in India. He drew the illustrations for Kapadia’s novel for young readers, “Wisha Wozzariter,” which won the national Crosswords Book Award for children’s literature in India for 2013.

There are potential opportunities for further illustration work in the pipeline, but fans will be pleased to know that Dahl is currently busy working on his own book, a “Zero Gravity” anthology. Tuttle will publish the book, as yet untitled, later this year.

The process of selecting and collating cartoons for the collection has afforded Dahl an opportunity to reflect on just how far Lily and Larry have brought him.

“It is a little crazy, really! Sometimes I wonder how long this ride will last. But as long as the ideas come, I’ll keep drawing.”


Always rooting for the wildest political animal

While Roger Dahl has a soft spot for his long-running “Zero Gravity” comic strip, some two-thirds of his 4,000 works for The Japan Times have been political cartoons for the Opinion pages, by his own estimation. Here, Dahl shares his observations on 23 years of lampooning Japan’s political leaders.

How do you come up with the ideas for your political cartoons?

My approach to the Opinion Page cartoons is completely different from “Zero Gravity.” I feel I must have a clear understanding of what is happening in Japan and what people are talking about. I must know the historical context and enough details to not misrepresent the facts, even though I often use exaggeration to make my points.

I try to be fair and honest, but then not worry about people who might be offended. It is impossible to make a strong point without being a bit controversial. I figure it’s my job to stir things up and make people think about things in a different way.

News moves fast. How hard is it to keep the cartoons coming in a timely fashion?

This is one of my most difficult challenges, frankly. As I submit my cartoons quite a few days before they get published, I am often at risk of the story changing. It has happened that I have sent in my cartoons, and then the issue has changed, making my cartoon obsolete. So I try to be careful in considering contingencies.

I must admit, however, that I regularly make prognostications and forge ahead with what I think will happen. For instance, I have made cartoons commenting on the results of elections before they happen. Things nearly always go the way I am expecting, but I have to be ready if they don’t. Other times, I just stretch out my deadline to await the result of an event, such as the awarding of the 2020 Olympics to Tokyo. There was no way to confidently figure out that result.

Any favorite characters from Japanese public life?

I like colorful personalities — bull-in-the-china-shop characters who constantly make an impact. Propensity for making gaffes is a big plus!

Shinzo Abe is pretty interesting, and also has a fun face to draw. Former prime ministers Murayama and Koizumi were also fantastic, not just because of the big eyebrows of the former or the big hair of the latter, but also because their tenures were so eventful.

Some people are so difficult to draw. Nice-looking people are the worst. When a change in prime ministers is imminent, I am always rooting for the odd-looking person with the big nose or funny hairstyle. Bland faces are a nightmare!

I have always harbored hope that political stalwart Ichiro Ozawa would become prime minister, as everything he does is impossible to ignore. On the other hand, because he is an amazing political survivor, he never disappears completely. I am expecting to see many more political resurrections of Mr. Ozawa. (LGK)

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