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Kyoto Journal: A Psychographic Community in the Heart of Asia

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Asia Life

Kyoto Journal: A Psychographic Community in the Heart of Asia

Kyoto Journal shares thoughts on the joy of discovery and independent media in Asia today.

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.

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.

hojok1 copyWhat was it like when you first arrived? Specifically, what was the foreign community like then?

KR: Kyoto mostly attracted people with interest in aspects of its traditional culture — theater, shiatsu, meditation, aikido, ceramics, tea, ink-painting, shakuhachi — and it was a relatively small and tight-knit community — people knew what other people were doing and it was easy to make friends and get connected with like-minded individuals or groups. It was a friendly atmosphere — if you saw a foreigner across the street who wasn’t obviously a tourist you might even wave to each other.

What was it about Kyoto, opposed to Japan’s other hubs, which drew you?

JE: Flowers, gardens, temples, Buddhist statues, stillness…

KR: Its scale, its multi-layered past, the level of sophistication and subtlety in crafts and arts, its solid base in Shinto and Buddhist traditions that permeate the city and contribute so much to defining its identity. Knowing that this is where many of the essential elements of Japanese culture evolved and blossomed, and have survived — I still find it hard to believe that Kyoto was the US’s first nuclear bombing target, and remain deeply thankful that it was spared.

There’s a different sense of cultural continuity here, in contrast to the cities that were fire-bombed during WW II. And even an endearing naivety, as I see it now, in how it has attempted to modernize. Of course we KJers found developments like Kyoto’s in-your-face post-modern train station building shockingly absurd at first, but now it’s getting easier to see the changes as just additional layers — probably we become more Buddhist in outlook, more accepting of change, as we get older here.

apologies copyThis is a big question, but can you tell the simple version of how Kyoto Journal came about?

KR: In the mid-80s a writers’ group was meeting every month at John’s house, and we realized we had a range of interests and talents that could be combined in a magazine — and that Kyoto in all its aspects was an endless source of inspiration. We were amazingly lucky in being introduced to Shokei Harada, of Heian Bunka Center, which was the publishing wing of the Kampo Harada school of calligraphy. He became our publisher, and supported KJ from 1986, for 75 issues until his retirement in 2010. So in 2011 we began the legal process to become a registered NPO, and started the transition to digital publication.

JE: Also, back in the beginning, because of its culture, we felt that Kyoto deserved an English magazine…

asymmetry1 copyTwenty six years and running is impressive. What has kept KJ going? What sets it apart?

JE: Volunteerism! KJ would not exist without all the people who have supported us as contributors and staff over all these years. Our biggest and most important distinguishing feature is that no one, including the core editors, gets paid. Despite that, or perhaps in some ways because of that, we have attracted a very dedicated network of very generous and talented writers, artists, photographers, contributing editors and interns locally, within Asia, and beyond.

People share what they feel strongly about, not just what they can get paid for, and we do our very best to give their work first-class editing and design treatment, and to place it in appropriate context. We find many established writers enjoy the opportunity to work with us, and at the same time, we make a point of mentoring new, often previously unpublished writers to help them develop their talents. Artists’ and photographers’ work is also a vital element, and we are delighted to provide exposure.

KR: KJ doesn’t follow mainstream media trends or “breaking” stories, or commission articles on specific topics – we more simply aim to reflect the diverse interests and concerns of our contributors. Interviews and profiles are an important part of KJ, also translations, local “encounters,” and poetry, fiction and reviews, though we don’t think of KJ as specifically a literary publication.

We seek to explore; we don’t have an agenda, though we may favor material with a constructive viewpoint over negative criticism. We have also been exceptionally lucky in having the freedom to cover a wide variety of themes (often in special double-issue “bookzines”) without having to chase advertising or being confined to a certain predictable niche. That also made it possible for us to concentrate on developing our content and design. Our diversity had one drawback – bookstores never knew where to place KJ on their magazine racks.

masks copyJohn, on June 28 of this year, you were honored by Japan’s Cultural Affairs Agency for the magazine’s significant contribution to dissemination of Japanese culture. Can you tell us a little about the award and the feeling you had when you learned that you would be receiving it?

JE: It’s their Commissioner’s Award, made every four years. This time it went to 12 people in total, including myself, and two of our contributors, artist Sarah Brayer and photographer Everett Brown. At first, I thought that there were other groups and individuals in Japan much more deserving of such an honor than KJ, and then I thought about all of the day-to-day work we have done and all of the creative contributions we have received over the years, and I thought, “Yes! It is nice to be recognized!”  This honor is really shared with everyone who has been part of this somewhat unorthodox enterprise during the past 26 years.

KR: This award came at a very good time for us, just as we are getting back on track now with our regular publishing schedule — we just released our 77th issue, which runs over 200 pages. It’s a big confidence boost to know that KJ is valued for what it is and does. We were likewise hugely encouraged in the past by being shortlisted for nine years consecutively in the Utne Reader’s Alternative Press Awards, in categories including Local/Regional Coverage, Writing Excellence, Design, General Excellence, Cultural/Social Coverage, and Best Essays — and winning that award in 1998 for Art and Design Excellence.

zen1 copyYou have some amazing contributors. How have you managed to develop such great relationships – all of them volunteer – and who are some of the more notable writers/photographers/artists who have helped make KJ what it is today?

KR: The fact that it is a non-profit, volunteer production definitely helps. People know that our heart is in it, and perhaps feel that they are part of something bigger than the sum of its parts. We have been honored by submissions of original pieces by many noted writers, including Pico Iyer, Gary Snyder, Nanao Sakaki, Vandana Shiva, Donald Richie, Barry Lopez, Satish Kumar, Buddhist essayist David Loy, the Tale of Genji translator Royall Tyler and Pillow Book translator Meredith McKinney — to name just a few — and a host of lesser-known but no less interesting and thought-provoking talents.

And we find that if we send sample copies to people like Noam Chomsky, Peter Matthiessen, or Pavan Sukhdev, they are happy to allow us to reprint extracts from their works.

What are some of the more noteworthy stories or special issues you’ve published over the years, of which you’re particularly proud — a good solid starter list for those new to KJ?

JE: I am probably most proud of our 50th issue on Transience and our last print issue, KJ 75, on biodiversity — we handed out some 800 copies for free to international delegates who had come to Nagoya for the UN COP-10 Conference on the Preservation of Biodiversity in 2010. It has an excellent section on Japanese satoyama (the border zone where flat arable land meets mountain foothills). And our two interview issues of Kyoto people, numbers 16 and 70, gave unique insights into our “home town.”

KR: Our special issues do provide a good window on what we do. Last year we published Fresh Currents, a 168-page analysis of what went wrong in Japan’s nuclear power industry, and the present potential for Japan to switch to fully sustainable energy sources. We don’t limit our scope to Kyoto or Japan — we are interested in what we loosely term “insights from Asia.”

meta copyKJ 74 was focused on the Silk Roads, connecting with Nara’s 1400th anniversary. KJ 72 dealt with Japan’s anti-war constitutional Article 9, and why it is still important. KJ 69 was a guest-edited and designed special on tea; 64 was our popular Gender in Asia issue; KJ 60 was focused entirely on Korea; KJ 46 was our Media in Asia issue. I particularly enjoyed putting together KJ 37, Inaka, on the Japanese countryside, and 24, on Sacred Mountains of Asia.

You’ve recently made the transition to the all-digital publishing mode. What was it like and what have you lost/gained in the process?

JE: We have gained a bigger audience that has a shorter attention span, and lost paper, which appeals to people with a longer attention span. We had a very good working relationship with our printer that enabled us to really fine-tune our print issues. But now we have a great opportunity to start over, and we are consciously not trying to replicate the old paradigm in this new medium. However, we have limited resources and time and find it difficult to design for all of the different species of platforms and devices. We are keeping it simple until we figure this out. But it is hard to keep up…

masks copyKR: We’re eager to find ways of incorporating audio and video into the digital publication, and we are using our newly redesigned website to do more immediate local stories, plus we have a new online gallery, our “Tokonoma,” on our top page. We are looking for people who could help us with website design and technical advice.

While KJ was in transition our Multimedia editor, Lucinda Cowing, built up a huge ongoing following on Facebook, maintaining a focus on the kind of pan-Asian stories that we and our readers are especially interested in. It’s a vastly different media landscape from our early days of literally cutting and pasting up typeset on production sheets.

With the ease of publishing on the rise today, do you think this increases or diminishes the relevance of independent media, both in Asia and the wider world? Further, what advice would you give to aspiring self-publishers of independent media in Asia today?

JE: Independent media is now more relevant than ever, as an antidote to the stereotypes often presented in regular mass media. What’s important is depth of coverage, quality of writing, and an ability to see the bigger picture. We see an important role for publications that are not too tightly specialized, that widen readers’ horizons and help show the inter-relatedness of different social or cultural phenomena, rather than narrowing down to focus only on specific issues or areas of interest.

KR: It’s hard to give advice when everyone’s situation is different. You need a business model — even publishing digitally incurs ongoing expenditure that has to be covered somehow — but quality of content is absolutely essential. Our new digital

KJ is still dependent on subscriptions (4,000 yen for four issues), which we think of not so much as sales, but as KJ community support, a kind of crowd-sourcing that enables us to keep on publishing, exploring aspects of Asia that don’t show up in mainstream media — and providing a forum for people with material that’s worth sharing, who might not otherwise reach an audience. We are deeply grateful to people who do support us in this way, by subscribing.

COVER73Are there any other big plans for KJ‘s future that you can mention or at least hint about? For that matter, what are some of the hot topics/issues in Asia today that you plan to give special focus to going forward?

JE: Our next issue will include a big feature section on pilgrimage in Asia, past and present. There’s a rather out-of-the-ordinary Food issue on the back-burner, and we have another long-term project underway, gathering in-depth interviews with long-term expats from a variety of countries and backgrounds who have made Japan their home.

We are looking for honest self-reflection on what this experience has meant to those who have created a life here. What have been the challenges, life-changing experiences, regrets, insights… We welcome both interviewers and interviewees to participate in this project.

Additional information, including a sampler of KJ 77, and a free sample issue (KJ 73), is available on KJ’s website.
See also, KJ on Facebook
Contact: [email protected]