New York – Kasumi Abe is a Japanese journalist who has lived in New York for almost two decades. In 2018, she published “Tabi no Hint Book Brooklyn,” a book that explores the people, places and history of her borough. When COVID-19 arrived in the Spring of 2020, she was in New York, reporting on the city and its people. And now she watches as the streets once again swell with life — set to the backdrop of the 20th anniversary of the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.
1. Where did you grow up? I grew up in Kitakyushu, Fukuoka Prefecture.
2. When and why did you move to New York City? The very first time I came to New York was in 1990. It was for a homestay, and it was my first time traveling overseas. At the time, I wanted to be an artist, so I chose New York to see what was going on here. And I wanted to see an art school, which was the School of Visual Arts in Manhattan. The next time was during the ’90s again, and I came here to report on the Broadway comedy show, “Tony n’ Tina’s Wedding.” Then I came in 2002, almost 19 years ago. I came here to go to English school. I was planning to spend only two years, but I really liked it and found a job.
3. What do you remember about the city when you first arrived? When I first arrived at Newark Airport in 1990, I saw a couple of pickpockets at the airport, and then on Fifth Avenue, so I was surprised. I can also remember the beautiful views of the high-rises in Manhattan, the beautiful view from Brooklyn Bridge. That’s my first memory of New York.
4. In your first few months in New York, did you have a favorite neighborhood? In 2002, I lived in the Morningside Heights area, and it was very quiet and peaceful. There’s a beautiful church, and it’s near Riverside Park. My area was also close to Harlem. There’s two different aspects: quiet, peaceful and also more energetic, and there’s so many people; I really liked that contrast, two sides of New York City.
5. How does it differ being a journalist in America compared to Japan? So here in America, I am called a journalist. To Japanese people, though, if you call yourself a journalist then people might imagine a war or political correspondent. So, I didn’t realize I was a journalist in Japan. Then one day, one of my former American coworkers told me that I am a journalist, and that’s when I became aware that I was.
6. What is it like to work as a freelance journalist in New York? I think being a freelance journalist is a bit easier in America than in Japan because even if you’re a freelance journalist, it’s not too difficult to get credentials here. I’ve heard that in Japan it can be difficult for freelancers to get credentials for press conferences.
7. You’ve interviewed some notable people. What was Roger Federer like? He’s very relaxed and easygoing. I interviewed him at a launch event for On running shoes in 2019. There was less than an hour to interview him, and it was very tense. He was not tense, but there were so many people around him.
8. Why did you write “Tabi no Hint Book Brooklyn”? I got the offer from a publishing company in Tokyo, and I said “of course” because I love my neighborhood. And I love the people in Brooklyn. This area has a very unique history and culture. One day, I talked with my friend’s Italian American grandmother, she’s in her 80s. I asked her, “Are you from New York?” She said, “No, I’m from Brooklyn.”
9. What is the book about? It’s a guidebook with176 pages. It’s all about my neighborhood. I interviewed store owners, artists, brewmasters and all sorts of interesting Brooklynites. I also took photos of the stores and people. I worked with a very talented editor and designer, and they supported me in making this book happen.
10. What is your favorite spot in the borough? I’d choose Prospect Park. It’s like Central Park, but it’s more compact. Since COVID-19, I take my bike from the backside of my house and ride there almost every week. It’s very refreshing and healthy. I’m so thankful for such beautiful nature in the center of the city.
11. Where in Brooklyn should Japanese tourists visit? Many people would recommend tourists go to the DUMBO area or Williamsburg. Of course, those are popular destinations, but I would recommend walking on a street with some beautiful brownstone buildings. It’s so cool, and you can feel the history of Brooklyn when you walk down its streets.
12. What has it been like in New York during the pandemic? In March and April (last year), it looked like a ghost town. I was so shocked. On March 30, I went to Pier 90 in Manhattan to report on the USNS Comfort, a hospital ship. It was around 1 p.m. and I walked back from there to the 42nd Street Station, through Times Square, and there was almost no one.
I did meet the Naked Cowboy, a street performer. So, we talked and he was great. He was playing music, though there were only a few people — he’s still there. He even played a Japanese song for me. I tried to give him a tip, but he didn’t take it.
After the Naked Cowboy, I continued to the Times Square Station. A guy drove in on a slingshot and parked in the center of Times Square, and he played Frank Sinatra’s “New York, New York” loudly. All you could hear was the silence of New York and Frank Sinatra all over Times Square. It was like a scene in a movie, and I cried.
13. That must have been tough. Was there any way to release that emotion? It was very tough. All the stores closed, and you’d see the news of how many people passed away that day. Seeing the big refrigerator trucks by hospitals, that was horrifying. But every night at 7 p.m., you’d hear clapping. Like you were at a soccer or baseball game, which continued for a few months. So every 7 p.m. there was a bit of hope.
14. How has the city changed over the past two years? At first I thought, the medical system here is great so I should be OK. But I’d watch the news and soon realized if I got COVID-19, I couldn’t just go see a doctor. I stayed home all day because I was scared of getting it.
Then, in June 2020, there were the Black Lives Matter marches. Things changed, I saw so many people out. This year I’ve started seeing restaurants and businesses reopening. Now, there are so many people outside. I’m glad I got vaccinated.
15. It’s the 20th anniversary of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. Does the legacy of that day linger? People might think that it was a long time ago, that it’s in the past, but I don’t think I feel that way. It’s still going.
Every year, I interview New Yorkers about their experience of 9/11 for Yahoo Japan News. I also write pieces about places, including the 9/11 memorials on Staten Island. One is for first responders who worked after the collapse of the World Trade Center and, every year, more names are added. So I feel like it’s not over. (The legacy of 9/11) is still continuing.
16. Are there similarities to the ways New Yorkers dealt with 9/11 and the pandemic? Both tragedies affected New Yorkers and were sad, but I interviewed a Japanese lady who was here in 2001 and in 1993 for the World Trade Center bombing. She experienced three major disasters here.
She said that in 2001 people wanted to get together, people wanted to fight together to recover, it was a very positive attitude. But this time she feels it’s different. Regardless, we have to tell younger people what happened here.
17. Is there a Japanese community in New York? It’s something like a small Japanese village in New York in that it feels like everyone is connected. And there are also some good societies that introduce Japanese culture to Americans, like the Japan Society and Japanese American Association of New York.
18. Are there any Japanese dishes that you cannot find in New York? Real tonkotsu (pork bone) ramen. There’s no authentic and affordable tonkotsu ramen in New York. In recent years, even in Fukuoka, you can only find authentic tonkotsu ramen at very specific restaurants. It’s a shame.
19. What do you miss about Japan? Konbini (convenience stores) and beautiful temples.
20. Do you have any recommendations for Princess Mako when she comes to New York? She might not have so much freedom in Japan. So, places in New York like Central Park, Coney Island, or anywhere New Yorkers just live their daily lives, those would be good. I hope she is able to enjoy normal everyday life in New York.
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