Author Interview with Shogo Oketani: A Message from the First Tokyo Olympics

Excalibur Books is proud to announce that the forthcoming Tokyo Olympics anthology, “Warriors of Olympia”, will include a contribution from award-winning author, poet and translator Shogo Oketani. Today’s blog post is an exclusive interview with Mr. Oketani, conducted by J P Catton.

ABOVE: Shogo Oketani with authors Leza Lowitz and  Donald Keene at the Awards Ceremony for the Japan-U.S. Friendship Commission Translation Award.

ABOVE:  Mr. Oketani giving a presentation on Bob Hayes at the American School in Japan.

You seem to have used a lot of personal experience in the book “J-Boys”. Could you tell us a little about yourself and your background?

That’s right. I based the novel on some aspects of my childhood. I was born in Tokyo in 1958. When I was three or four years old, there was still a lot of nature in my area of Shinagawa—rivers and vegetable fields and empty land. But just before the 1964 Tokyo Olympics, Japan started changing quickly—especially Tokyo. There was a lot of urban development–the Shinkansen tracks were one of the main changes in Japan, and they went right through my neighborhood. The area was pretty working-class, with a lot of small industries and factories. Most families were blue collar, but my father was a university professor, and my mother was a schoolteacher.  Despite my family background, I was not into studying, so I was kind of an outsider within my family. I was also a bit of an outsider in my neighborhood, too.  At that time, American influence was coming into Tokyo, and I was attracted to the new and different. I grew up along with the development of Tokyo, and I related to Western culture, philosophy, literature and music. J-Boys is about that intersection, when the old ways were fading away and new influence was coming in, like American TV shows such as “Leave it to Beaver” and rock and roll and The Beatles.

Did you become a translator first and a writer of fiction second, or the other way around?

I started writing poetry in Japanese and published a book of poems. I became a translator for my livelihood—my specialty was semiconductor manufacturing–but I loved reading poetry. One of the poets I admired was modernist Nobuo Ayukawa, an anti-fascist poet and translator of T.S. Eliot, who is considered the “pilot” of Japanese postwar poetry. When I discovered that his works were not translated into English, I set about translating them. My wife, Leza Lowitz, helped me to edit his work in English. We eventually published his selected work: America and Other Poems by Ayukawa Nobuo in 2006 with Kaya Press, which brings out fantastic Asian diaspora literature.

What awards have you won?

I received a translation grant, with Leza, from the National Endowment for the Arts for the Ayukawa translations. We later received the Japan-U.S. Friendship Commission Prize for the Translation of Japanese Literature from the Donald Keene Center at Columbia University for this work, which was then unpublished. That helped us to find Kaya Press. Also, we received the 2013-2014 Asian/Pacific American Award for Youth Literature for our epic Young Adult novel, “Jet Black and Ninja Wind,” published by Tuttle.

What was the inspiration for “J-Boys”?

The death of Olympic sprinting legend Bob Hayes was really the catalyst, and my childhood was the inspiration. At that time, I was in my thirties, living in California, freelancing, and trying to write a short story for Wingspan, ANA’s in-flight magazine. Many people in Northern California love tofu, and they assumed that because I was Japanese, I did too. When I was a boy, I didn’t like it at all. I started to write a story about a boy who hates tofu, and when I was online doing research, when I saw an article about Bob Hayes’ death. I decided to write a short story about Kazuo, a boy who hates tofu and loves Bob Hayes, set in 1960s Tokyo.

That story, “The Tofu Master,” was published in Wingspan. Some people who read it said they wanted to read more stories about Kazuo, so I began to write an episodic novel about a year in the life of nine-year-old Kazuo Nakamoto, who dreams of being a track star like Bob Hayes. Third-grader Kazuo, his younger brother Yasuo, and their classmates try to navigate life filled with the old traditional Japanese lifestyle and the new influence of Western culture. It’s set in a fictional working-class district in downtown Tokyo straining under the burdens of economic growth.  I wanted the novel to deal with universal concerns about fitting in, honoring and escaping the past, and growing up. It was translated skillfully by Avery Fischer Udagawa and originally published by Stone Bridge Press.

What are you writing at the moment?

 I’m writing WINDRIDERS, the sequel to Jet Black and the Ninja Wind, an epic novel Leza and I wrote about a female ninja and a band of Ecowarriors trying to save the world. It’s set in Japan after the 3-11 tsunami, and also takes place in the American southwest, where our teen heroes discover a secret laboratory making biological weapons that threaten the planet’s survival. I’m also working on a speculative novel about an eccentric samurai that takes place in medieval Japan.

 You have a black belt in karate and teach self-defense workshops. How does your knowledge of martial arts influence your writing? 

 There are a lot of dramatic fight scenes in Jet Black, so my training was a good background to choreograph them realistically. In addition to the main character, Jet, the novel has a ninja boy, and a fighting ninja dog, so the combat scenes get interesting. Another less obvious way that martial arts training comes into play is through the act of writing. One needs to control the mind, regulate emotions, and have discipline and focus to write. I think my many years of training in martial arts helped with all of that.

Which writers have inspired you in the past?

So many! A few are Baudelaire, Dostoevsky, Nietzsche, Walter Benjamin, George Orwell, Henry Miller.  Osamu Dazai, Ango Sakaguchi, Haniya Yutaka, and Yukio Mishima.

Do you have a special time to write?

 I used to be a night owl and write after midnight, but now I wake up early (or rather, my dogs wake me up to take them out for a walk). I’m an editor at a publishing company during the day, so even if I’m doing that work from home, I try to write in the afternoon or evening after the editing work is finished.

How is your day structured?

On days I don’t have to go into the office, I wake up at 7:00am to walk my dogs. When I get back, I feed them and eat breakfast, then check the newspaper and internet. I start writing around 10:00am and try to write until 5:00pm. On days I go into the office, of course, it’s much harder to carve out the time and energy to write. At night, I try to relax—I read and watch a movie if I can.

Do you work to an outline or plot or do you prefer to just see where an idea takes you?

I definitely make an outline. Then I do research, reading dozens of books and scouring the internet for historical and background information, and flesh it out.  In this preparation phase, I make short notes of each scene.

Do you let the story stew – leave it for a while and then come back to it to edit?

Yes. Especially, in my case, because I write in Japanese first, I have to let things percolate. I edit and re-write, and eventually, I translate the work into English. During the translation process, I change the plot and edit the original Japanese again many times. The translation becomes another process of editing and shaping. Then,  Leza edits my English, and we go through another deep editing and re-shaping phase. Rinse and repeat. Then if the book has a traditional publisher, it goes through another editing process that takes months if not longer.

For your own reading, do you prefer ebooks or traditional paper/hard back books?

I definitely like physical books. I love to hold a book in my hand and put it on the shelf, to refer back to and read later. My bookshelves are busting at the seams. I like the old style—even in writing. I still use a fountain pen to write in Japanese (vertically). I work sitting on the floor at a Taisho-era Japanese style desk. I sit under the kotatsu blanket in winter.

 What book/s are you reading at present?

Kind of a mix—The Philosophy of History (Hegel), Theory on Color (Goethe), and The Promised Neverland (manga by Kaiu Shirai, Posuke Demizu) which my son was reading, so I got into it.

 How do you relax?

Listening to music, spending time with my dogs, reading.

 How has the COVID-19 pandemic affected your lifestyle?

It has been really tragic witnessing people suffering so much around the world. The isolation part has not impacted me that much personally, since I can work at home, and I like spending time alone at home. I have been really lucky, for now.

 How can readers discover more about you and your work?

 I hope readers will visit www.j-boysbook.com to learn more about J-Boys.

You can learn more about Jet Black and the Ninja Wind online here: 

https://thediplomat.com/2014/08/jet-black-and-the-ninja-wind-slice-and-dice-of-a-japanese-myth/

 And see the book trailer here:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4X2aa0Sc_oM

I also want to thank my translator Avery Udagawa, who is co-leader of the SCBWI Japan Translation Group. Her website is:

https://www.averyfischerudagawa.com

 Thank you for inviting me on this site to talk to you about writing! I wish everyone good luck with their novels and thank you for the support.

You can find “J-Boys”: Kazuo’s World, Tokyo, 1965″, a semi-autobiographical novel by Shogo Oketani, available here!

“Adult readers will find Kazuo’s mid-1960s world a valuable key to the mystery of the Tokyo we know today.”–Kyoto Journal

About J P Catton

Speculative storytelling and skewed fiction: the blog and website of author John Paul Catton.
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