Yamagata Prefecture in inland Tohoku is my second home in Japan. My wife’s family live there. On a Dec. 8-10 visit, I got to see a side of the area often hidden in the most unlikely of venues.

Every morning during stays at the family home in Yamagata, me and my wife head to the local onsen hot-spring public bath. A long held tradition in many parts of Japan, segregated bathing with others in piping-hot water pumped straight from volcanic streams is a true pleasure. It’s a chance to meditate, endure the heat, and refresh the body and mind.

But on Dec. 10, circumstances dictated me and my wife did not bathe until after lunch. The onsen we entered was the realm of the elderly. A place unknown to most.

I stepped into the bathing room and showered before heading to the bath, in the same steaming hall. The room was relatively empty apart from two men, a cheerfully plump man in his 60s and his father, clearly ravaged by aged-related disease.

As I dipped my legs, hesitantly, into 43C water, and winced before lurching my gut in, the son turned to me.

“It’s bloody hot today isn’t it?” he said in a thick, Tohoku dialect. For an idea of the dialect, think broad Yorkshire.

“Yes,” I replied, concentrating on getting more of myself in the bath without too much shock.

“Where are you from?” There would be no reflection today. I was, like it or not, having a conversation.


“You must be happy. Princess Katherine is having a baby. English people are happy about this.”


“I read. I know. You’re country is a mess. It’s divided. I saw.”

“That’s true. But what can be done?”

“Yes. How long have you been here?”

“10 years.”

“Wow. That’s a while. What do you think of Japan’s politics? Why are you in Yamagata?”

“I’m married to a local.”

Another man enters the room. A rightist.

“Great,” the son says.

“And Japanese politics is a mess,” I continue.

Such a comment speaks volumes in Yamagata. The effects of the 2011 Great East Japan Earthquake in the inland area were not necessarily direct on a large scale, but they were existential.

Everybody in Yamagata felt the sheer power of the earth on that day, even if they were mercifully distant from the sea. Friends were lost and businesses were destroyed, refugees from the devastation first flooded the prefecture’s public halls and later skewed the local property market as they left the coast forever to start new lives.

Markets were destroyed overnight for Yamagata’s small businesses, which lost many loyal customers. An unjustified guilt, as toxic as the chemicals left in the air by destroyed factories and nuclear reactors on the coast, lingered through the prefecture’s towns. Outlooks on life changed, but little else did.

Politicians bickered, money failed to get through to those that needed it and old views came to the surface. Yamagata was a part of Tohoku. And Tohoku was a part of Japan, but different. The city boys cared when they wanted to, but Tohoku was Tohoku. It faced the modern city types in the same way it faced its bitter winters: with resilience, pride and a cynical defiance. The city boys did little for them, and they expected no more.

Politics was a mess.

“Exactly. We don’t know what to do.” This was a lie. The man, and his elderly father, like most across Japan, had already decided how they would vote in the coming election. They just weren’t telling.

“That’s the truth. Nobody knows what to do,” I said. I got out of the bath to cool off, and while under a shower was approached by the rightist.

“Where are you from?” the rightist asked.

“England. I’m married to a local girl. The bath is hot,” I said, hoping for peace.

“Don’t you want to go home?”

“Not really, but we may move somewhere else in Asia. This is where the global economy is centered now.”

“You should go home.”

The first man jumped in. “You are an idiot. Quit the right-wing nonsense.”

The four of us stood, naked, in a standoff.

“He’s ‘menkoi'” the son told me, using local dialect and pointing at the rightist.

In Yamagata, “menkoi” is in many way the equivalent of the rest of the country’s “kawaii,” which means “cute.” But there is a difference. In Yamagata, “menkoi” is used as a term to look down on those less fortunate, the brain-damaged, the disabled, the simply stupid. This type of “cute” person is similar to the kindergarten “winner” that came fifth in a running race.

I took this moment to jump back in the bath while the son argued with his “menkoi” friend about his idiocy. The rightist defended himself quite well.

As the father and son left, the menkoi bather sat down beside me and again demanded I go home. He explained his logic.

“I have read the books. People with different skin don’t mix. You’ve seen the problems in England. You know about what the blacks did to your country, don’t you?”


“They were bad for you. I’ve read it. People don’t mix. Go home.”

I am naked. I am in an onsen. I am listening to this?

“They weren’t bad. They came to support the economy, they brought culture, music, food, brains and good with them. I’ll see you later.” In broken Japanese and naked, explaining the benefits of immigration for contemporary British society is a challenge.

I rinse a final time, stand up and walk off.

Drying myself in the changing room, the son approaches me. We are still naked. “You are special.”

I continue to dry myself and say “thank you.”

“No, no, you are. You understand Japanese. I couldn’t understand English even if I lived there as long as you have lived here.”

I laugh, say thank you and continue to dry myself. “Isn’t he special father?” the man says. His father agrees.

“Thank you.” Nearly dry. “You’d be surprised, people pick up languages when they have to.”

The man comes over, stands in front of me, looks me in the eyes and gives a deep bow. I thank him, after he thanks me, holding my towel close.

“You celebrate New Year in your country? You pray at New Year?”


“We are Christians generally, so we celebrate Christmas,” I reply.

“You go to church?”

“We did. We don’t anymore. We place priority on science.”

“Japan should do that.”

“It has consequences, there is less sense of community, more crime. But it might be better.”

“Do you have yakuza, you know, Japanese mafia?”

“No, we don’t. But there is random violence, and young gangs. It’s … Different. And it might not be better.”

“It’s difficult isn’t it?”


He puts on his clothes and leaves with his father. A couple of minutes later, I am changed and in the onsen lobby. As I am waiting for my wife, the rightist man walks out of the changing room.

“Thank you,” he says, and pauses. “But I have my beliefs. I should speak them.”

With a Dec. 16 election so close, ain’t that the naked truth.


I celebrated a decade in Japan on July 23. I faced the anniversary pretty much indifferent, but thought it worth writing some notes down on what I suppose is quite an important landmark.

I arrived in the country at the age of 21, pretty much still a kid. Through the last decade, the country has probably shaped me more than I would like to admit.

Ten years in, I wonder where the time went, what happened, and why I never left. I have few grudges with the country, though I am not afraid to criticize aspects of Japanese society. Japan functions quite well, even if from time to time there are events that can stun (I’m looking at you TEPCO).

Unlike some foreigners that live here, I have an indifference to anime, the domestic movie industry, gaming, the music scene, and just about every other aspect of the “Cool Japan” project. In other words, I’m a pretty normal foreign Japan resident.

There are few “real Japan” things that thrill me. Beyond the highlights, the traditional architecture does not particularly move me. The history of the place before the Meiji Era is not something I am particularly interested in. The religious traditions – Shinto and Buddhism – have no more appeal to me than Christianity, Islam, Sikhism, Judaism or any other archaic practices. I can find philosophy I like – and dislike – in the old traditions. But the country does not have a religious hold on me.

So why am I here? Why do I stay? And more importantly, why do I want to continue living here?

The truth is, I don’t know the answer to those questions.

I have good friends in the country and I would miss them if I left. But I could always come back to visit. And I miss my friends that live elsewhere in the world.

I’m happily married, but my wife would happily leave. I have a healthy social life, but I always have had a healthy social life.

Is it work? In a way, perhaps yes. Over my time in the country, I’ve managed to build a career that certainly feels like it is on an upward trajectory: My pay continues to improve, and my responsibilities too.

This underlines a conundrum about the country, or at least my perception of it. My Japan is a place that does not conform to the things said about it. That might be where its appeal lies.

Data shows us Japan is declining, but my experiences don’t. Perhaps it is because I live in the capital, Tokyo, but my experiences in the job market are also those of my friends. We all have better working conditions now than we did earlier in life. The financial crisis and the Great East Japan Earthquake brought some pain to our wallets, but in general the economic and professional lives of those that surround me seem to have improved.

In a way, looking for an answer to this questions brought about by this prosperity in the face of decline keeps me in the country. If the country is declining, why do I find few signs of it? Yes, there are dilapidated hotels, abandoned villages and numerous other signs of economic change, but do they constitute decline? Perhaps I see things the wrong way, but they don’t for me. Nothing I see seems unique to Japan, it’s the same sort of decline I see in other countries.

And there are reasons I am happy here. Many aspects of the culture attract me.

Before arriving in Japan, I had worked supporting challenging adults with learning difficulties. My job, at an NPO, was to devise schedules, teaching strategies and communication patterns for clients with extreme cases of conditions such as autism and epilepsy. I left having learned a lot. At the age of 21 decided I would try to write a book (forgive my immaturity on this next bit) that tackled learning disabilities and modern mental health issues in a Dostoevskian manner. A couple of months into my time in Japan, I borrowed “A Personal Matter” by Nobel laureate Kenzaburo Oe from the library. The book tackles learning disabilities and modern mental health issues in a modern manner.

I was hooked. Over the course of the next few years I tackled the works of the great (or simply popular) modern Japanese authors – people such as Junichiro Tanizaki, Natsume Soseki, Osamu Dazai, Ryu Murakami and Kobo Abe. The authors suggested a different Japan, one that I had never imagined existed. I asked friends from the country whether they liked the authors I was reading and got a wide array of answers. Beyond the surface, I found a level of political and cultural awareness among friends and acquaintances that made the “Japan is passive” mantra seem wrong.

Of course, today, we all see the mask of passivity eroding. While many have tried to pin the protests in light of the Fukushima nuclear disaster on leftist elements, a lack of understanding of the nation’s needs or simple idiocy, it is clear there is something at work in Japan that we rarely see. People are angry, and not just the professional protesters and leftist old guard. Salarymen, old ladies, young families and prominent celebrities of a conservative creed are beginning to voice their concerns. Japan’s passivity does not withstand simple probing.

Before arriving in the country, the only literary figure I had ever heard of was Yukio Mishima, the man who chopped his head off to protest something or other. How, I wondered as I read the books I borrowed from the library, had Mishima achieved popular recognition, while many of his peers were largely ignored? I have come to believe, through my experiences here, that it is because of the enduring image of Japan as a wacky country.

As many in the foreign community will know, one of the most popular gripes with Western media in this country is that Japan is presented as wacky. There is a truth to that perception, but the wackiness has to be sought out. Living here, the country feels no more or less wacky than anywhere else. I grew up near Barnsley in South Yorkshire, and I’m sure there are more odd stories per capita in that town than there are in Tokyo.

When I see Tokyo wacky though, and the easiest place to find it is Tokyo’s Yoyogi Park on the weekend, it makes me smile. It makes me want to stay here. But it isn’t really Japan, when all is said and done.

What I believe really defines the country really I do not know. The relationships I have, the drinks I enjoy, the travelling and the constant learning are all rewarding, and at least in part shape my idea of Japan. But none of these things add up to the whole.

I still do not understand large swathes of the country’s cultural, political and economic landscape. I may be getting there though.

I know that I do not see this country through the rose-tinted glasses that some do. But equally, I do not buy many of the argument’s about the nation’s decline. And I’d hope I have not fallen into the trap of bitterness about life here.

But I still see the country with some form of bias. I’d like understand what my bias is better.

I suppose that’s why I stay here.

After almost three years, this week will be my last as a freelancer. From next Monday, I will be heading into an office to work full-time for the foreseeable future.

With this in mind, I thought I’d set up a blog and make the first piece thoughts on freelancing, and why I am leaving this style of work.

The first thing to say is that freelancing isn’t really a valid definition of what I have done over the years. Freelancing, as a job, doesn’t really exist. The freelancer is essentially a contracted worker.

The word has romantic connotations. Freelancers supposedly get to write what they want, pursue investigative stories for a long time, and have the independence to work as and when they please. While all three of the above advantages do, to some degree, exist for freelancers, the reality is a little different.

Freelancers are only paid for what they produce, and receive no rights in terms of health, pension, holidays and the like. Regaining these rights in exchange for losing the odd sleep-in is really the main reason I’ll be heading back into an office.

In terms of day to day life, freelancing is really about balancing the projects you want to do against the work you have to do. Over the years, I’ve written a few stories I’m quite proud of, but on a daily basis, I earned my keep by editing and writing copy on restaurants, metals, economy and other subjects not particularly close to my heart. Rather than reading like a work such as Tokyo Vice, a memoir of my time freelancing would be closer to the diary of a bean counter.

The subject I found myself writing on most of the time essentially paid my (relatively low) wage, and extra work added additional cash to pay for holidays, nights out and the like. However, the problem was that the “extra” work was more interesting, and often ended up taking more time than my more regular gigs.

This inability of mine to manage time properly often led to pile-ups of work, and thus, an end to free time.

And then came the March 11 earthquake. The combination of the lack of interest in stories on anything else from many media organizations, and the difficulty of getting information needed for economy-related pieces on the earthquake and the increasing strength of the yen combined to make freelancing a struggle.

While things had picked up in recent months, the lack of financial security between the earthquake and autumn proved stressful. Supplementary work also proved problematic because of the strength of the yen. While the dollar weakening by ¥1 or ¥2 is insignificant for a single contract, over the course of a six-month period it can cost tens of thousands of yen.

Between August 2009 and February 2012, the dollar’s value went from around ¥95 to ¥80. With it, every $1,000 earned lost ¥15,000. Stories generally pay between $200 and $800.

But beyond money and the lack of rights, there’s a lot to be said for freelancing. The learning curve one takes when going freelance is more dramatic and enjoyable than anything I’ve ever experienced.

Here’s, basically, what I learned:

1) The editor is generally right: Writers generally hope to specialize in creating between 600 and 1,200 words of content for a page that fits into an overall narrative they are trying to present. But the truth is, editors generally don’t care about this narrative. Take a writer who, for example, is trying argue that actors are exploited by studios through a series of interviews that are published by multiple outlets. Here’s the dilemma: One publication believes corporations give actors a great deal, but wants to use the writer. What is the writer to do? The answer is pretty simple. Compromise or walk away, because the editor is constructing a narrative made of many more stories than any given writer can tell. Why would an editor care that corporations’ treatment of actors angers a single freelancer. If you want to tell your story, and not contribute to an organization’s larger narrative, start a blog.

2) Social media helps: Without Twitter and Facebook, my time as a freelancer would have been very different. It may have been better in many ways – it would certainly be easier to present a “trend” from Japan that had been extensively written about elsewhere as an original story, for example. But beyond the short cuts lost, it’s a constant source of news and a way to construct your own story about subjects you are interested in. If you can find a way to do this, your efforts will be recognized, work will come your way, and perhaps more importantly, you’ll make friends that share similar interests and help you develop.

3) Neither online nor print: Print is not going to die anytime soon, and online is not going to take off in a way that brings in big money. Essentially, it’s an economics thing. For one, ad departments have a more difficult time justifying paying big money for online promotion than they do spreads in magazines or newspapers. With print, there’s the balance sheet: Newspapers are often expected to make losses, so they are a great place to hide bad results from other divisions of a parent company. Print publications are also often a source of vanity for their wealthy owners, meaning they aren’t likely to disappear in the near future. And online, the reality is that companies want to push the idea of unprofitability. Why would a site tell it’s freelancers finances were going great? It would only mean they needed to pay them more. In other words, in both worlds, there are grim prospects of super paychecks, so there’s little reason to turn down any work on grounds of prestige or preferring to be a specific type of journalist. 

4) Dull work isn’t dull: Anything a freelancer does deals in information. If information looks dull, you are looking at it through the wrong eyes, and probably missing a story. The first “tedious” story I could find on my feed while writing this involved Chinese rapeseed production. It sounds dull, but check why you should care and you probably will. It turns out rapeseed is essential for oils and grains we consume every day, that China is increasing output for its population, and that this will likely impact prices elsewhere. So here we have a story: “China stats show food prices to avoid sharp rise globally.” Nice news in a depressing world.

5) Fun work isn’t fun: Anything a freelancer wants to do probably involves their own attempt at creating a narrative (see point 1) that is unique and connected to their passions. That narrative will likely clash with the ideas the editor has, for one, but worse, will likely turn out difficult to argue. Writers gravitate to stories that have been told many times before, and often hope to tell the story in a new way. If that’s what you are looking to do, get ready for a lot of research. It isn’t easy to prove that what everybody thinks is white is black.

6) Money can’t be everything: I’ve learned over the last year that photographers want cash for their pictures every time they are published. They should. And writers should always be paid for their words too. But the reality is, both photographers and writers do a huge amount of legwork that is unrecognized. Pitching, finding stories, maintaining contacts, developing an online presence, researching, and handling invoices are just a few of the unpaid actives a freelance journalist has to do to stay afloat. Add all these into your end paycheck and think about money and you will quit on the spot. In terms of hours put in, freelancing is as difficult as it gets.

The reason for this blog is that if money isn’t an issue, then perhaps, paradoxically, I will be able to write the stories I always wanted to. Hopefully, this is the place I will write without the worry of constraints.

Hopefully over the next few weeks I’ll get some more time to set this blog up as more than something that I update once or twice before I ditch it. Hopefully.