Special to The Japan Times

It wasn’t the taste of sushi or the kindness of strangers that hooked American magazine editor John Einarsen on Japan on his first visit in November 1974.

Appropriately enough for a visual kind of guy, it was a single scene: “I had arrived at the Yokosuka naval base in a rainstorm so strong that we could see nothing but mist from our ship. The next day the storm lifted. I walked out the gate of the base in late afternoon as the sun was casting a golden autumn light across the landscape. To my left was a narrow road climbing a hill, so I walked up to the top. From there I could see a flat area down below, where a group of Japanese were doing ballroom dance. The scene presented an image of such incredible gentleness in their movement, and in the light . . . I thought, ‘What is this place?’ That made quite an impression on me.”

The memory testifies both to Einarsen’s singular vision and his affectionate take on Japan, both of which have sustained him as the founder and continuing editor of Kyoto Journal, an all-volunteer triannual magazine focused on Japan and Asia that is now in its 23rd year. While other, more commercial publications are folding like origami, Kyoto Journal has managed to thrive, pulling in high-profile contributors like Pico Iyer and Gary Snyder and garnering awards like the Utne Reader Independent Press award for magazine design.

Einarsen was born in Denver in 1952, the oldest of three siblings. His father, a high school science teacher, took the family on trips around the country every summer, and Einarsen grew up with a love for the outdoors, drawing and books.

Life turned eventful in his first year of university when, along with many of his male cohorts, he faced a choice: being drafted and likely army combat duty in Vietnam or enlisting in the military and hoping for a kinder fate. He signed on as a navy seaman two days before he was to be drafted — in 1972.

At that time the U.S. and Vietnam were engaged in peace talks in Paris. “The U.S. had mined Haiphong Harbor in North Vietnam, and in the talks we agreed to demine them in exchange for the release of U.S. prisoners of war. I was assigned to a 40-man minesweeper that spent three months combing Haiphong Harbor.”

Einarsen, an incurable optimist who could probably find redeeming qualities in Attila the Hun, saw his two years in the navy as a positive experience. “It was fantastic to be at sea. We went scuba diving off Midway Island, sailed up the Panama Canal and along the East Coast. I read widely — Allen Ginsberg, Alan Watts, and others — and I encountered Asia.”

After his return to the U.S. in 1974, Einarsen attended an experimental college, Prescott College, in Arizona, where, along with rafting and climbing volcanoes, he studied photography with Jay Dusard, a student of Frederic Summers. “The school went bankrupt six months later, but I learned a willingness to try new things there that is still with me today,” he said.

Einarsen transferred to the University of Colorado, where he studied art and Buddhist aesthetics under artist Ludwik Turzanski. “I didn’t feel comfortable in America,” he said. So after graduation in 1978 he returned to Japan, studying Japanese and Japanese art at Kansai University of Foreign Studies in Osaka for six months.

For several years Einarsen taught at various English-language schools and universities around the Kansai region and in Hokkaido. By 1984 he was living in Kyoto, teaching English at the YMCA and forging an expansive network of artistic and literary friends, both expatriate and Japanese. He and a friend began holding weekly poetry meetings at his house, which became a salon of sorts for many in the Kyoto expat community.

In 1985 he began working as editor of a tourist-oriented “town magazine,” but when the magazine went bankrupt two years later he decided to start his own magazine and sought funding. “I dressed up in a suit and tie and went to meet with Shokei Harada, the head of Heian Bunka Center, a Kyoto-based calligraphy educational institute. He had long hair and cowboy boots and a T-shirt, and he liked my ideas.”

The school has financed the magazine ever since. Today, circulation is 2,800, with many copies sent to libraries and book stores, mainly overseas.

With the other starting staff, Einarsen recruited work from poets and artists, friends and acquaintances, editing and pasted them up with spray nori starch, then faxing the pages to a typesetter in Osaka for layout and production.

The editorial approach was heavily influenced by publications like the CoEvolution Quarterly, a journal by Whole Earth Catalog founder Stewart Brand that blended the arts, spirituality and Asian cultures.

“In our first issue, which came out in 1987, the same year that my son, Sage, was born, we had an article by Daniel Kane on the tea ceremony, comparing it to the steps of Joseph Campbell’s ‘Journey of the Hero,’ and illustrations from ‘Gegege no Kitaro’ cartoonist Shigeru Mizuki,” Einarsen said. “Since then we’ve featured people like Donald Richie, Barry Lopez, Arne Naess, Kobo Abe, Arundhati Roy, Noam Chomsky and photographer Linda Connor.”

Why would famous writers and artists agree to contribute to a nonpaying Kyoto-based magazine? “Famous writers have been very generous because they know that their work will be presented well. And less-experienced writers get valuable lessons in writing from our three editors, Ken Rodgers, Susan Pavlovska and Stewart Wachs. The magazine is a space to create an opportunity for growth and creative work, and people can send us something they can’t place elsewhere. For young artists, Kyoto Journal is a stepping stone.”

Although Einarsen seems relaxed in person, sprawled in a chair wearing an antiwar T-shirt, with eyeglasses perched atop graying hair, his unstinting editorial standards over the years have cost him his health.

“I suffered from panic attacks for 12 years,” he confided. Trying to oversee Kyoto Speaks in 1991, a sprawling special issue with 58 contributors, actually sparked a nervous breakdown. “Too much coffee, pipe-smoking and late nights just overworked my nervous system, I think. It got so I couldn’t even speak in front of a class,” he said.

Although he still suffers in public appearances, he credits the experience for expanding his editorial reach.

Despite — or because of — their devilish complexity, Einarsen takes special pride in Kyoto Journal’s theme issues, which have covered topics as varied as gender, the Silk Road and Asian street scenes. Before working on a theme issue, he said, he reads stacks of books on the theme and lets the visual and editorial ideas germinate, as he sketches thumbnails of ideas in his notepad. “We see what comes in editorially. Usually there are resonances and things play off other things to give us new ideas,” he said.

Rodgers says of Einarsen, “John’s ability to meld images with text and his sense of the sequential flow of the design is what really sets Kyoto Journal apart.”

Kyoto Journal has published a special issue specifically for the COP10 conference on biodiversity in Nagoya. “The idea was for us in Kyoto to let people at the conference know that people care about what they’re doing, and to communicate the wonder of life itself. Most of the publications there are fairly dry, so we wanted to inject a bit of magic and poetry.”

Kyoto Journal asked potential contributors what they wanted to tell the COP10 delegates. Einarsen explained: “Our contributors include poets, Shinto priests and scientists. We got responses from famous people, like Bill McKibben, Vandana Shiva and Barry Lopez, but we also published a great piece from a high school student. This issue brought together more people than have ever been involved before, and it was an issue we were really passionate about.”

The magazine, with the theme “Biodiversity: Japan’s Satoyama and Our Shared Future,” was passed out to 800 delegates and other participants at COP10, including actor Harrison Ford and COP10 Executive Secretary Ahmed Djoghlaf, with nearly everyone seeming to have one tucked under their arm at some point. “If one of the delegates is looking through this and gets a positive idea, then we’ve succeeded,” Einarsen said.

In the coming months, Kyoto Journal has plans for a special food issue, among other things. Said Einarsen: “We’ve lasted this long because we feel excited about every issue, we feel like ‘I want to share this with people.’ That’s the key.”

More information on Kyoto Journal is available on its website, www.kyotojournal.org

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