manami okazaki
riarumi talks to Manami Okazaki, renowned and accomplished author of several books on Japanese culture. Manami tells us about her various international experiences, university life, her thoughts and reflections on gender equality in Japan, and the value of “sorry”.

Who is the real me?

My name is Manami Okazaki. I’m a beach lover, tea lover, dog lover, scuba lover, traveler and happy person. I’m also a book lover and lover of printed matter.

Could you tell us a little bit about your work as a freelance author and journalist?

I have written many books on Japanese culture and am most known for my work with subcultures, photographers, fashion and artisans. I am currently putting together a book on contemporary kimono culture in Japan.

What are your most memorable experiences as a journalist?

There are so many! Writing a story on anarchists in Greece and heading to the remote island of Gavdos, going by boat down the Chao Phrayah river and interviewing HIV positive patients housed in a Buddhist temple, exploring surf culture in Puerto Escondido, camping at a Muay Thai center in Bangkok, attending Paris fashion week shows, going on a ride with street drifters in the hills of Nara, temple hopping around Koyasan, riding a scooter around Berlin to look at modernist architecture … the list is long! Rather than the topic though, it’s more about certain key people we meet along the way which makes a job memorable.

What can you tell us about your upcoming books?

For my book on contemporary kimono culture, I am profiling designers, makers, artisans, festivals, events, and so on. I also have another book called Paper World that will come after that.  I will look at the ways paper is being celebrated all over the world via designers, artists, lantern makers, festivals and so on. Despite the world becoming increasingly digitized, there are an increasing number of people who appreciate and love the tangible qualities of paper.

Your work as a journalist has taken you all over the world. Do you have any particular favorite places?

Despite having traveled prolifically overseas on assignments, I found going around Tohoku’s hot spring villages for my book on kokeshi dolls the most memorable. The people were so wonderful, and the folklore, rituals, festivals and customs of Tohoku are very unique and beautiful.

The magazine stories are a lot of fun, but  book projects are always more fulfilling as you are spending many months – years on a topic and develop an intimacy with the subject that you can’t really achieve in a two-week overseas assignment.

In terms of holidays, my place of choice is Vienna, or Palau.

Kokeshi: From Tohoku With Love, a charity book for Tohoku.

What were some of the biggest mistakes you made starting your career?

Hiring the wrong people, paying amateurs up front because I thought they were “cool” people, “fixing” shoots (probably the worst gig in the world), taking on too much work … Again, the list is long. It took me a really long time to know what I wanted to do as well, so I wasted a lot of my youth partying and doing nothing.

You studied a Bachelor of Engineering (BEng) degree at Tokai University. How was the university experience for you? 

The professors were great. I appreciate that I had the opportunity to study there, and it was a beautiful campus. Engineering wasn’t for me, but I still learned a lot, and I really appreciate having that background.

You also studied a Journalism MA at Columbia University, New York. What was that like?

As for the positive memories, I really enjoyed the external courses as we could enroll in classes outside of the school of journalism. I was studying Tibetan art and culture, under Robbie Barnett, as well as architecture under Lynn Breslin. That was really an incredible experience. They are both wonderful professors and I feel so honored to have studied under people like them.

Columbia has exquisite libraries — not only the contents, but the atmosphere and architecture. It was blissful just being in those serene spaces.

As for negative experiences, I would cite the fact that one of my professors couldn’t seem to distinguish between myself and the other Japanese student in my class. There were only 13 students in total, and we would have a seminar 6 hours a week, so I found this quite incredible! He would address my papers to the other student, and would constantly refer to me by the wrong race or simply as an “Asian American” (which I am not).  I don’t really mind if I’m meeting someone for the first time, but after 6 months of weekly 6 hour meetings, it is really quite ridiculous. It made me feel sorry for “American Asians” actually, and what a tough time they must have with people like him.

On the flip side, there is much more solidarity and friendships between Asians of all backgrounds in the US, which is really nice.

Kicks Japan, a book on Japanese street culture via the sneaker industry.

Do you feel there is a gender equality imbalance in Japan?

I get asked this a lot, and in wider Japan, yes, but in the media industry, not really. I am not particularly conscious of gender issues to be honest, and don’t see myself as a “female journalist,” but I do cover a lot of things like female-orientated subcultures and fashion.

You see as many bylines by females as by men, so I think as far as industries go, it is one of the better ones. It is a great job for women, but the females who are attracted to journalism and photojournalism tend to have quite strong personalities in any case. The female editors and photojournalists I know are very tough. I really respect them. I can’t speak for everyone, but the guys I know who work as writers or journalists are pretty mellow, supportive people.

With this  industry, you work closely with a small number people, or in a team, so if you have a problem with someone, (regardless of whether they are male or female) you can always change who you work with. In general, the people with a lot of work have social skills and talent, so work opportunities tend to gravitate towards them, and people who are known for being rude or incompetent don’t get work. It is a reputation-based industry so if someone is busy or not busy, it is usually for a reason.

The only real gender-based issues I have seen tend to actually come from other girls! There can be a lot of jealousy and a lot of people don’t realize how much you need to work, or that results don’t materialize out of nothing.

I think it is also a social media problem where girls only post their best moments and show the very glamorous side of working one’s butt off. For healthy girls, they can get inspired, while others get envious of these kinds of lifestyles. I have seen in a few cases it can cause mental depression, false rumor mongering, and issues like female-on-female stalking. I’ve seen it so many times with creative girls around me who, despite being extremely busy, have to also deal with these troubled girls too often to think they are just random cases.

What advice would you like to share with other young women who are at the very start of their careers, or are yet to begin?

If you are blessed to have people help you while working on a project, cherish these people!

Know when you are in the wrong and be able to say sorry; your ego isn’t that important. Don’t work with people who never apologize, it is way too much trouble. Especially when you work in this field, it is inevitable you enter a different culture and make mistakes and gaffes. Being able to say sorry is really important, rather than trying to assert your authority in someone else’s backyard — it achieves nothing except to make everyone feel awful. Almost all cultures understand “sorry,” and “thank you” and the feeling behind it.

Unless you are a staff writer, the only way to work in this industry is to have long term projects that will become your brand or niche. There are too many excellent bloggers and amateur or semi-pro photographers around, so if you aren’t known for something, it’s hard to survive.

Do you have any other comments you’d like to add?

In particular for my books “Kicks Japan”, and  “Kawaii, Japan’s Culture of Cute”,  I interviewed so many cool, talented, exceptional females in the creative industry, I really find them awe-inspiring. They are really celebrating their femininity and channeling that energy into something creative. Good luck with the site and thanks for having me!

Kawaii: Japan’s Culture of Cute