Writing about Japan

If you want to write about Japan to any degree beyond the superficial, you’ll have to be able to read Japanese. No if’s, and’s, or but’s. The amount of information about Japan available in Japanese is a mountain compared to an ant hill in other languages.

Foreign correspondents working in Japan often use English sources of information. Or they use a translator. Such people will never be able to get the true or whole story. If you are a foreign newspaper or magazine who need a correspondent in Japan, make sure he/she can read Japanese. And if you are a foreign newspaper or magazine who has a correspondent in Japan who cannot read Japanese, be aware that you are missing out on a lot of information.

I remember Mike Wallace of the 60 Minutes TV program once came to Tokyo to exclaim that a melon costs $100. He did not point out (or did not know) that melons we normally buy cost much less, and that premium-grade fruits like $100 melons are not the norm. It’s like going to Italy and seeing the price of a Lamborghini and reporting that cars in Italy cost $300,000.

A person who cannot read Japanese and has not lived in Japan for at least five years is really not qualified to write/report about Japan. I’m reminded of this each time I update my Web site with new pictures and articles about Japan.

There’s just no way I could build this site I’m building without being able to read Japanese. Most of the information I feed to my site is based on Japanese sources. It might be a pamphlet distributed at a festival explaining about all the people appearing in the parade, a brochure given by a temple, a book about local Japanese history, an explanatory sign at a shrine, or an official Web site explaining the significance of a lakeside monument. All in Japanese, and hardly found in English. If there’s information in English, it is most often very superficial or a poor translation.

I’m a pack rat and collect a lot of paper things. I keep all the tickets and brochures I receive or obtain whenever and wherever I travel in the world. I also go to the local tourist offices of all the prefectures, cities, and towns I visit in Japan to pick up pamphlets. It’s usually the first thing I do before exploring that place. Tokyo also has prefectural tourist offices clustered in one building (in Yurakucho) where you can pick up brochures and see samples of local souvenirs and delicacies from all over Japan.

I have all my Japan travel pamphlets organized in folders on a large bookshelf. I have one folder for each prefecture (47 of them) and separate folders for the larger cities and favorite subjects such as sumo and geisha. Whenever I need to write a photo caption or article about Japan, I can quickly find the respective brochure in my files. Of course, I also check appropriate Web sites as well. But all the information is in Japanese. Fortunately, I can read Japanese. (I will never get tired of bragging about my ability to read Japanese.)

I also have a bookshelf of maps of all the prefectures and major cities. As well as books about specific regions and places in Japan. Again all in Japanese. The information presented here at PHOTOGUIDE.JP is backed up by the best sources of information you can find in Japan.

I read in Japanese and then I write in native English. I don’t have a Japanese wife or employee who reads and translates the Japanese text for me. I read the information directly. If I don’t understand something, I try to look it up directly. This is how it works at PHOTOGUIDE.JP. It is really a project for me to learn more about Japan. And it gives me great pleasure to share what I’ve learned with others, and to offer information and pictures found nowhere else online. In effect, to go beyond the superficial level.

Of course I do have sources in English about Japan, but they are very secondary. There was one book called “Japan: The New Official Guide” edited by the Japan National Tourist Organization. It’s in English and during my first years in Japan when I was still allergic to Japanese newspapers, this book was my travel bible. It’s quite comprehensive, but when I look at it now, it really looks like a bare-bones guide compared to the wealth of information available in Japanese. But certainly the book (not revised since 1991) can satisfy the passing tourist who just needs to know the basics during a short whirlwind trip.

My big dilemma now is sifting through all my Japanese information and picking out the most essential and most interesting information to be presented in English, focusing on information not widely available in English. You know, there are still many interesting things and places in Japan left undiscovered by all the English guide books and Web sites out there. I want to concentrate on those off-the-beaten-path places. I really wish I could translate everything into English. But this is simply impossible. I will try to go as far as I can for as long as I can. Wish me luck.

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