I caught up recently with fellow Japan blogger and soon to be published author Benjamin Martin. Ben is on the JET Programme in Okinawa and writes a culture blog called More Things Japanese. He’s also got his first novel coming out soon, Samurai Awakening. Naturally, I asked him about all three!
First things first, please introduce yourself!
My name is Benjamin Martin, and I hail from Phoenix, Arizona in the US. After graduating from the University of Arizona in 2008, I came to Japan as an English teacher with the Japanese Exchange and Teaching (JET) Programme. I’ve been living and working on small islands in Okinawa Prefecture ever since.
What made you want to start blogging about Japan? Is More Things Japanese your first blog?
When you come to Japan on the JET Programme, they place you. This means that while I had never heard of my placement, and never would have gone there on my own, I ended up in one of the most unique places in all of Japan. It was an island 320 kilometers from the mainland in the middle of the Pacific with a population of 550 people.
When I arrived, I had no intention of writing. I had my first camera, a Nikon Coolpix, that I had picked up solely for the purpose of sending pictures home. My camera worked just long enough to get me interested in taking pictures of all the amazing new experiences I was having. Then the screen stopped working. I made the shift to a Canon DSLR and before long I had plenty of great photos to share.
The photos were not enough though. Many of them needed more explanations and there were a lot of unique experiences. Around the same time, I discovered a love of writing as I came upon the idea that eventually became Samurai Awakening. With my desire to share my experiences and bits about Japan at large, a blog seemed like the best way to do that while not detracting from my story with a nonfiction work. I had read Things Japanese while studying Japan and had thought it would be great to remake that book for today’s world, but instead adapted the idea for the blog.
Since More Things Japanese is my first blog, it has definitely been a learning experience. I went and researched blogging software then taught myself how to use WordPress. It was interesting to struggle through developing a voice, and as I quickly discovered, there are a lot of great Japan blogs out there. I’ve tried to find a balance between my unique times out on small islands, Japan culture, photography, and food. I love Japanese food, and living rurally provides a lot of opportunities to learn how to make great dishes. It has been fun adapting my wing-it recipes into something others can hopefully use to make great food. One of my secret pleasures is watching Top Chef, Master Chef, and their ilk.
Tell us more about life in Okinawa. What stands out to you the most?
I would have loved to be placed anywhere in Japan, yet when I stepped off the last plane on to Kitadaito Island I knew I was going to fit right in. There was plenty of green. That feeling was shocked into a whole other level when the old man next to me nudged me and pointed up. On the second story of the airport was a crowd of parents and my future students with a sign welcoming me.
Welcoming would have to be the most Okinawan thing I know of besides goya. There truly is a sense of welcome and inclusion here, though sometimes it can be a challenge for Westerners to recognize it for what it is. Okinawa has its own history and culture, and that comes through in many aspects of daily life. I think there is a stereotype that Okinawa, like Hawaii, is slower paced and more relaxed. While it can definitely be true, many of the people here are extremely hard working and driven. It is interesting how they mesh island-time with Japanese custom.
One of the things that made my first placement so interesting is that it was a relatively new island (only a little over 100 years old) and had been settled by people from Hachijo Island near Tokyo. That gave Kitadaito an extremely unique mix of Okinawan and Mainland culture, a mix that is easier to see now that I’ve moved to the other side of the Prefecture. Everywhere I go in Japan I find a new perspective.
What is a typical day in the life of a JET participant? What advice would you have for people who want to apply for the programme?
Every placement in JET is different. There’s this idea that everyone in Japan is the same. It is just not true. Everywhere you go, everyone you meet will have their own unique story. It is just a matter of learning a new way of reading that story. The best things someone can do is to be flexible, learn about the history and culture of Japan, and participate. It is easy for foreigners in any country to sit back and watch things go by, but if you do that, what’s the point of being there?
Since I live rurally I teach both elementary and junior high. Anywhere from 6 to no classes each day depending on schedules. Since I’ve moved to a slightly larger island, I end up teaching an average of 3-4 classes a day. In the evenings I’ve had a lot of opportunities to participate in local events and activities. In the past I’ve done both Edo Sumo and Okinawan Sumo, dragon boat racing, eisa, fishing, skin diving, volleyball, tennis, badminton, and am even in a community band now. There’s almost always something going on.
What was your inspiration for writing Samurai Awakening? I take it you’re particularly fond of samurai history.
Japanese history was definitely the spark behind my writing. I had actually hated writing up until I took Modern Japanese History with Gail Bernstein and had to do analytical essays about articles concerning different aspects of the modern era. I thoroughly enjoyed the assigned readings, especially her own works on Japan. I’d say that planted the seed, but it wasn’t until the winter between 2009 and 2010 that I was completely out of reading material. On top of that, I sprained my ankle so couldn’t do any of the team sports I had been doing up until then. When I read, I mostly like to read for fun, so I decided I would try to write a story that would be something I’d like to read, introduce others to Japan, and most importantly be fun.
Easy question, what is the plot of Samurai Awakening?
David Matthews is having a rough time. Being a teenager is bad enough, but when he picks up and moves to Japan, with barely any knowledge of the language, he’s faced with a year of isolation and misunderstandings.
Until a clumsy attempt to help his host family gets him possessed by a Japanese god.
Suddenly able to speak Japanese, David finally begins to understand the world around him. He soon learns, however, that there are prices to pay for his new powers. When the most terrifying creatures of Japanese legend show up in Nakano, he’ll have to ask himself, “Can a young American become a True Samurai in time to save his friends?”
Someone at Publishers’ Weekly called an early manuscript “smartly plotted.” I just hope people enjoy it.
What advice would you have for someone who wants to write a novel about Japan, or any novel, for that matter?
I thought that writing a novel was beyond me. It seemed like such a monumental thing that I could never achieve. Even when I sat down and started putting a story together, I didn’t think I could actually do a book. I had jotted out my ideas for the story by hand in a simple notebook, and then tried to decide on a medium. I could easily see it as a manga or even anime, but I have little to no drawing skills. The idea of a book was too intimidating, so I eventually opted for a script. I went online and did a little bit of research on how to write a script and within two weeks I had the basic story done in about 80 pages. The way it just kind of shot out was surprising. I edited a few times, but the initial success gave me a bit more confidence.
It took me about a month to convert the script into a novel, and then I had about 80,000 words. The final version is many, many drafts later, and took about a full year, year and a half to finish to completion. The best advice I can give is to just, simply, write. You can always go back and change things, but creating the first words is the critical step between having a story… or not.
As far as writing about Japan goes, I had studied Japan for over 10 years, and had lived there for over one year before I ever started writing. Experience and knowledge feed stories, write what you know.
Sum up Samurai Awakening in three words. Go!
Japanese realistic fantasy.
What do you miss the most about Arizona? How often do you go back to visit?
The thing about Arizona is the multitude of unique climates all in one state. It was nice to go from the dry desert heat to the forests and farms around Prescott and Flagstaff. I also miss the snow on the mountains in summer time. Yet I guess it’s a fair trade, humidity and subtropical beaches in Okinawa. Family and friends are, of course, the biggest thing I miss from the States. Family and sandwiches. Japan needs more delis.
I’ve been able to make 2 trips back in the last four years, and I’ll be back in Phoenix for the October release of Samurai Awakening. We’ll be doing at least one event at Changing Hands Bookstore in Tempe.
After JET and Samurai Awakening … what next?
That is the big question. I have a lot of interests. Photography, writing, film, music, teaching… It is going to be interesting to see if I can find opportunities that will allow me to tie as many of them together as well as the JET Programme has. Short term, I’ll continue teaching here for my last year with JET. I’d also like to explore more of Japan so that I can share it with the rest of the world. Long term? I’m working on books two and three.