Voices | FOREIGN AGENDA

So you want to write about Japan?: the 10 essential tips

by William Bradbury

Special To The Japan Times

The foreign writer — say, an expat Brit in Japan with a reading list longer than his bucket list — is on a journey of self-discovery. Having taken the daring — not reckless or avoidant — step of leaving your home country, you’re now in a cubicle-sized apartment in a Tokyo suburb not known for its nightlife. You have a million stories to tell. You do it by following these steps.

Make sure to go for grand psychodrama. Tears stream down your face as you contemplate the consequences of this choice to live abroad: There are no scotch eggs; there are no bacon sandwiches; the beer is watery and tasteless. It might be a good idea to fill your writing with references to home: references to “Little Britain,” Oasis lyrics and quotes from “Hamlet.”

An alternative approach is to cast off the chains of the Western world. Be sure to mention you don’t waste time communicating with other expats in Japan. You no longer go to British pubs, foreigner-friendly izakaya chains (with, ugh, English menus) or Roppongi. You’ve graduated from that. You’ve achieved what your readers can only dream of: full-on integration into Japanese society.

Let reader know how uniformly great your new life is. Set the scene with details of walking under the cherry blossoms with your Japanese spouse. Remember to mention that you communicate with your partner in Japanese only. It’s as natural to you now as having miso soup for breakfast, as normal as KFC on Christmas Day, as routine as using a vending machine in the middle of the street.

As for technique, adopt a writing style of world-weary sagacity. Phrases like “It was then I realized we can learn equally from one another” are effective in ending paragraphs. You’re a figural son of Hemingway now, so better not to mention that you developed your new writer’s persona in Starbucks, family restaurants and through heady memories of your college philosophy course.

Always refer to yourself as a “freelance writer” in the byline, despite the fact you only write occasionally and are only able to get your English-language articles on Japan published because you’re one of the few people who used moving abroad as an excuse to withdraw from social life and study writing-advice books. Rarely mention your day job as an English teacher, unless it’s to write a hard-hitting expose of the inadequacy of the Japanese school system or a think piece on how teaching English is at least better than any job you could get in the busted economy that is the U.K.

Concede your own personal transformation as a result of your Important Life Choice. Point out your unique epiphany, now that you have lived in Japan for at least a month — that the Japanese are unlike any stereotype of Japan ever mentioned in Western media. Salarymen? Housewives? Otaku? You used to believe in all these things. Not anymore.

Learn at least 10,000 kanji and then stop writing about yakuza. Write instead about your friend Kenji, 54, who also happens to enjoy horseback riding. Mention that Kenji has no other foreign friends, and that you communicate with Kenji in Japanese only.

Try reporting on music, and take the snide tone of a modern-day Lester Bangs. Things just aren’t what they used to be. Luckily, you can introduce readers to your mates from Cloud Calculator, a three-piece female punk group who are bringing it back to the good old days of all the ’90s Japanese bands fickle Westerners have long forgotten. Avoid mentioning that the band only plays at events run by you.

When blogging about Japan, keep complaints minimal: too many plastic bags, too many train announcements, nowhere to get a reasonably priced steak. Save all your serious stuff for your articles on politics and currents events. You’re qualified to write extensively on Abenomics now. After all, geographical closeness gives you knowledge on subjects such as politics and economics, since, like osmosis, proximity is all that matters.

In high school you protested the Iraq War, not just as an excuse to avoid class: It was tremendously important for you to present yourself as the kind of person who cares. You can put this earnest side of your character to use and expose Japan’s nuclear power situation or the country’s militaristic right.

It won’t be easy to educate yourself on these topics; it will take a lot of late nights reacting to Facebook posts. But you can do it. As for article ideas, “Brexit: Why I’m never going back to an island nation run by conservative old people” is a suggestion.

Still, don’t limit yourself as a writer. You can write about beaches, mountains and pancake restaurants. You can write on anything now! Never mind that you have no interest in these things. When in Japan, absolutely everything is interesting by virtue of the fact it’s in Japan.

Sure, in the U.K. all you did was sit in the same coffee shop by day and local pub by night. However, when you’re in Japan you’re transformed not just as a writer but as a person, too. And what’s more, you don’t even have to go to any of the places you write about. Sit at home on Google Maps to write your recommendation for the top five nature walks in Japan — it’ll help show your diversity as a writer.

Writer’s block shouldn’t be a problem. If you ever fear of running out of material, you can always change things up. No, not by leaving Japan or altering your life in any important way. You don’t need actual change upsetting your writing routine when you can write a think piece about the concept instead.

You shouldn’t have to justify this, but, if necessary, remind your readers you were born in the U.K, but made in Japan.

William Bradbury is a freelance writer and English teacher living in Tokyo. Foreign Agenda is a forum for opinion on issues related to life in Japan. Your comments and story ideas: community@japantimes.co.jp

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