Since its founding in 1986, Kyoto Journal (KJ) has enlightened readers with an in-depth, on-the-ground look at Asia, from its base in Japan’s ancient capital to modern day Central Asia, once a key section of the Silk Road. Run entirely by volunteers, the quarterly journal’s inception was fueled by a passion for the life-enriching discoveries that came from moving to Asia, and the desire to pass them on to the rest of the world. Or, as founding editor and art director John Einarsen calls it, “heartwork.”
Although only one of its founders had professional media training, KJ has been awarded Utne Reader’s prestigious Independent Press Award for Excellence in Art & Design and has been regularly shortlisted for the categories of General Excellence, Local/Regional Coverage, Writing Excellence and Best Essays. Most recently, this week Einarsen accepted the Bunkacho Chokan Hyosho (Comissioner’s Award) from Japan’s Cultural Affairs Agency for his contribution to promoting and interpreting Japanese culture, most notably via his work with KJ. The award is made every four years, with a total of 12 recipients this year.
KJ’s diverse and illustrious roster of globe-trotting contributors – described by former associate editor Stewart Wachs as a “psychographic community” – includes a long list of luminaries. To name but a few: Beat poet Gary Snyder; essayist and novelist Pico Iyer; iconoclastic photographer Nobuyoshi Araki; seminal Japanese film scholar and writer on all things Japan, Donald Richie; National Book Award winning environmental and humanitarian author Barry Lopez; novelist and Nobel Prize nominee Abe Kobo; and Indian writer Arundhati Roy.Enjoying this article? Click here to subscribe for full access. Just $5 a month.
This year, KJ took its operation fully online after working for 25 years in print. The transition was a fundamental one, but the magazine is successfully adapting to the digital world and has big plans for its new incarnation. The Diplomat’s Jonathan DeHart spoke with Einarsen and managing editor Ken Rodgers about the passionately independent publication’s journey thus far and where they see it going from here.
First off, how did you end up in Japan?
JE: I first came to Japan on a minesweeper. We had been deployed in Haiphong Harbor in North Vietnam during the waning days of the Vietnam War and during that time we had come to Japan for fire-fighting school. I was enchanted with Japan the very first day I walked outside the base gate. When I returned to America, I could not relate to the culture and society around me, so I yearned to get back to Japan. I made it and settled in Kyoto, which captured my heart.
KR: I became interested in Japan through translations of novels by Tanizaki, Kawabata, and classic haiku and renga — the usual story for our generation, whereas now it’s more likely to be TV anime or manga that is the gateway experience — plus a few Kurosawa movies. I came here from Australia on a working holiday visa in 1982, became fascinated by Kyoto’s temple gardens, discovered that in addition to unexpected anomalies like pachinko and Lawson convenience stores there was also a thriving alternative counter-culture, and have lived here ever since.