Books

Cultural historian James Vardaman reflects on his journey into Japanese publishing

by Matthew Chozick

Special To The Japan Times

Between two sips of coffee, Waseda University professor James M. Vardaman comes clean to me about his decades of addiction.

“I’m hooked on that rush,” he says. “The adrenaline high I get when selling a publishing idea.”

Hailing from America, the acclaimed author has published five books already this year, adding to an extraordinary lineup of more than 40 Japanese and English titles. While Vardaman does not admit to having superpowers, he tells me that one secret to his productivity is remaining curious. (“I also take a lot of walks and I never forget lunch,” he adds.)

It’s lunchtime now and the two of us are speaking at a Tokyo cafe within walking distance of Vardaman’s home in Ginza. We’re surrounded by well-dressed young mothers with well-dressed toddlers. The cafe’s speakers play a song by The Jackson 5 about how love is as simple as “do re mi” and “A B C.”

Writing for decades with those simple ABCs and also with the more complex Japanese orthography, Vardaman’s books explore a remarkable array of topics, including Japanese cultural history, U.S. race relations, language acquisition, American roots music, Buddhism and the Japanese education system.

Born in 1947 and raised in a place where everything he learned about history “was about Texas,” Vardaman’s career as an expert on Japan would have been hard to predict when he was a child.

As a college student in the 1960s, Vardaman liked living in Memphis, Tennessee, where he enjoyed the music scene that had launched Elvis Presley, B.B. King, and Johnny Cash. Bands flocked here, and those musicians who couldn’t afford tour buses showed up in “used hearses with bass fiddles on top,” says Vardaman.

But although he loved being in the midst of American culture, Vardaman became ideologically conflicted about living in the U.S. — the Vietnam War was underway and he strongly opposed his nation’s role in that conflict.

“I came to Japan to be exempt from the draft,” Vardaman tells me. “America had gone to Pot — to Pol Pot — and we were not getting the full story.”

Vardaman found a job teaching English in Nagoya in 1971.

“I arrived with almost a blank slate, which turned out to be a good thing,” he says. “I quickly followed writers — Lafcadio Hearn, Donald Keene, Edwin Reischauer.”

After a few semesters of teaching in Nagoya, the draft ended and Vardaman resumed his studies in America. He finished a graduate degree at the Princeton Theological Seminary in New Jersey and then moved on to Asian studies at the University of Hawaii.

“I didn’t have much money, but I spent eight hours a day reading about Japan in Hawaii and I enjoyed the free beach,” Vardaman says.

In 1976, after he finished his second master’s degree he was offered a job in Hawaii teaching a course titled, “The meaning of existence.” While tempted to take the class, Vardaman was keen to return to Japan and he found a university position in Tohoku.

There weren’t many Americans living in northeastern Japan in the late ’70s, Vardaman says, and although he hadn’t yet published a book, an editor contacted him about chronicling his experiences in Japanese.

“So that readers would believe an American wrote the book, a photograph of my handwritten Japanese was printed in the front,” he says.

This exposure to publishing opened Vardaman’s eyes to other potential writing opportunities for general, non-academic audiences. He noticed “there weren’t really any English guidebooks to Japan that took you outside of Tokyo” and so he wrote one and explored the country by “hitchhiking around Japan for weeks.”

Vardaman’s best-selling titles — the ones you see on the shelves of many Japanese bookstores — often combine language learning with American or Japanese cultural history. His newest bilingual English and Japanese book, “Everything Nippon: Talking about Everyday Japan in English!,” delves into dozens of topics related to daily life in Japan, such as the British colonial legacy of curry rice, how public baths were shared by both sexes during the Edo Period (1603-1868), and the influence of Zen on art.

Vardaman tells me that he sometimes checks the viability of book topics in his classroom.

“I’m teaching contemporary Japanese history at the Waseda Extension Center and students, some in their 60s, have never studied this stuff before,” he says. “They’re curious and want to learn more.”

When considering a publishing project, Vardaman seeks new angles from which to explore familiar topics.

“You have to hit it just right, so readers know something going in and they’re interested. I try to not reinvent the wheel, and I spend a lot of time in Japanese bookstores, looking at books, hearing from the staff about what customers wish they had.”

Once Vardaman develops an idea for a new book, he sometimes cold-calls publishing companies and has had a lot of phone success when speaking with editors about his ideas.

But what Vardaman enjoys most is the stimulation of daily learning. This week, he tells me, he’s been reading about the history of Venetian glassmaking and the Teutonic intellect, and even about the baseball player Ichiro Suzuki, who he sees as a particularly inspiring figure.

“Ichiro can do what he does in both the U.S. and Japan — he’s not big and strong but he works hard and teaches us that we can all succeed,” he says.

This description of the way Ichiro masterfully navigates multiple worlds is one that could just as easily apply to Vardaman himself.

In March, 2015, James Vardaman published two books through The Japan Times. For more information about “Japanese History in Simple English” and “American History in Simple English” see this press release.