Japan has long attracted artistic types from around the world, but support for such communities has improved remarkably over the past few decades.

Evidence of this trend is clear from the roster at the annual Japan Writers Conference (JWC), where the English-language writing community is set to gather, via Zoom for the second consecutive year, from Oct. 15 to 17. This year’s program features a slate of talks and hands-on workshops from a list of notable poets, novelists, translators, editors and journalists.

While the work of producing art in a foreign country can be as alienating as it is exciting, the steady development of collaborative communities throughout Japan has contributed to a flourishing environment for creative writers and an impressive body of written work, from best-selling thrillers to award-winning poetry.

“There’s quite a range of opportunities for the international writing community in Japan, far more so than when I first lived in Japan in the 1980s,” says Holly Thompson, a presenter at this year’s conference who teaches creative writing and has authored a number of picture books and novels. Her talk at this year’s conference is titled “Possibilities with Poetry and Picture Books.”

From long-standing institutions such as Kyoto Journal and SWET (The Society of Writers, Editors, and Translators), to specialized groups like the Japan Chapter of the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators and the Haiku-focused Call of the Page, to new institutions and collaborations like the literary journal White Enso and the Nagoya Writer’s Collective, a powerful community infrastructure has emerged behind the creative international projects born out of Japan.

“Japan has shaped who I am as a writer, as well as how and what I write,” Thompson says. “Soundscapes, landscapes, neighborhood interactions, ecology and Japanese language all weave into my writing. In Japan, I love opportunities to immerse myself in rural areas for growing writing projects.”

JWC presenters also include award-winning haiku poet Alan Summers; poet, journalist and filmmaker Yuri Kageyama; novelist and poet Hans Brinckmann; managing editor of White Enso, Linda Gould; Pushcart Prize-nominated poet Michael Frazier; and a dozen other notable writers. Presentations range from workshops on poetic craft, to talks on marketing memoirs, researching history and self-publishing.

Summers, long involved with the international haiku community, will be discussing the “single line” haiku at his workshop. English-language haiku is unique because it links international artists to a highly specific Japanese cultural object, and while haiku are steeped in linguistic and cultural forms, Summers says that writers often fall into the trap of accepting rules and expectations that shouldn’t exist.

“I would say that (in) English-language haiku … there are innovative writers that deserve support, and there are writers overwhelmed with do’s and don’ts that are either Western urban myths or an unknown individual’s opinion that has mysteriously gained traction,” Summers says. “Writing haiku is a creative act, and there should be an aspect of rebellion — not against institutions, but keeping haiku fresh and relevant in this new world of COVID and social change.”

Author Linda Gould recommends getting a good writing group that will 'tell you where your story works' and 'where it needs work.' | COURTESY OF LINDA GOULD
Author Linda Gould recommends getting a good writing group that will ‘tell you where your story works’ and ‘where it needs work.’ | COURTESY OF LINDA GOULD

The act of creative rebellion is a theme embraced by several of this years’ presenters. “Don’t expect anyone to approve, or support your writing. It comes from within,” says Yuri Kageyama.

Kageyama first took part in the conference in 2013 in Okinawa, reading poetry with her band. This year, she will be presenting her recent film, “News From Fukushima: Meditation on an Under-Reported Catastrophe by a Poet” alongside its director, Yoshiaki Tago.

“Unfortunately, we live in a divided world and so we must connect with like-minded artists,” Kageyama says. “We must keep expressing ourselves, at the top of our lungs, even if it means no one is listening. I am especially grateful to the organizers of this conference for understanding what that celebration can be about.”

Kageyama, like many presenters at this year’s conference, is bilingual. The generative nexus between languages, cultures and countries is one of the key sources of both creativity and collaboration for presenters and attendees alike.

“I think trans-national poetry is vital to the life-blood of contemporary literature, because these poets ask us to reconsider what many of us take for granted: The idea of a home, the many distance(s) between loved ones and the idea of national and racial ‘identity’ itself,” says Michael Frazier, whose poems often meditate on his experiences as an African American in Japan.

Frazier’s workshop, “A Poem is a Thing that Moves: Contemporary Lyric Poems,” aims to help readers and writers tackle lyric poetry, which can feel intimidating to many because of its nonlinear nature.

“In studying and writing a lyric poem, we are essentially studying how the human psyche moves and functions,” Frazier says. “Which is to say, to write a good lyric poem is to write a poem that is unique to the writer’s idiosyncrasies and voice. I hope the participants in my workshop leave feeling more confident when they approach these types of poems in the wild, and excited to write their own.”

Hans Brinckmann, who lived in Japan from 1950 to 1974 before moving back here in 2003, will address how multicultural experiences can contribute to the production of art. His talk, “Maintaining Close Connections With a City or Country Can Help Your Career,” discusses his own connection to the city of Kyoto in nourishing his writing.

“I first fell in love with Kyoto in 1956, when I began spending weekends there while working for a Dutch bank in Osaka after meeting a Kyoto-based Japanese poet and Zen practitioner at an art exhibition,” Brinckmann says. “We became friends, and he introduced me to artists and Zen monks, potters and hermits, tea masters and kimono designers. … I was enthralled by Kyoto’s cultural and historical environment.

“My Kyoto contacts also helped my research for a Kyoto-related book, which finally got published in 2011 as ‘The Tomb in the Kyoto Hills and Other Stories,’ ostensibly fiction but based on my Kyoto experiences.”

The workshops promise practical tips on editing, publishing, marketing and maintaining a balance between the professional and the creative.

“What does every writer want? For someone to read their work,” says Linda Gould. “So having a community of fellow writers who you respect and trust, who know the feeling of putting your work out there, is a must.”

Gould, the founder of the Women’s English Writing Group of Japan and author of fantasy and ghost stories, is running a workshop titled “Ten Things to Do Before Submitting Your Work for Publication,” which is based on her experiences in working with writer submissions to the White Enso journal.

“I can’t talk enough about the importance of a writing group,” Gould says. “A good writing group will tell you where your story works well and where it needs work. They will help you figure out parts of your story where you are struggling. And, they will commiserate with you about the writing process, because every writer suffers in some way.”

While the experience of an online conference isn’t the same as an in-person one, there are still benefits to the inclusivity of a Zoom event.

“Because of tourism, the JET Programme and university exchanges, there are so many people who have experience with Japan,” Gould says. “I want to encourage people within the country and around the world to share their art and however Japan has influenced it.”

The Japan Writers Conference takes place Oct. 15, 16 and 17 via Zoom. For more information, visit japanwritersconference.org.

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