Interviewed & written by Isao Tokuhashi
Mail to: firstname.lastname@example.org
Tokyo Correspondent for the Associated Press
(Born in Japan and educated mainly in the US)
Today’s interviewee is very, very experienced journalist. Ms. Yuri Kageyama is a Tokyo correspondent for the AP, the Associated Press, a world-famous news agency. Also she has grown up in a bicultural environment, Japan and the US. She’s been transmitting what’s happening in Japan to rest of the world for a long time. She is a person whom we respect, and she might be a competitor for us… who knows?
*Interview in Kichijoji
*Photos by Mari Sakamoto
“You’re not an assistant. You’re a reporter.”
I have been with the AP for about 15 years now. I started out as a local hire in the Tokyo Bureau. I sent resumes to several news organizations; then I took the test. I got interviewed and I got hired at the AP. Before that, I was with the Japan Times, an English newspaper in Japan, for five years and I wanted to get another job. That’s why I applied and I got a job here.
I write only in English because I was educated in the English language. I did apply to the English Asahi, another English newspaper in Japan, and the Washington Post. I got hired by all of them. But I took the AP job because I thought it was a better opportunity.
Washington Post is a very good newspaper but I would be only an assistant to the correspondent that comes from abroad. I think the Asahi is also a fantastic news organization but I would be working in the English language portion of the Asahi. So I thought working for the AP would be better than working at the English section of the Asahi.
They told me that if I work for the AP, you’re the reporter just like anybody else. You’re not an assistant. You’re not an interpreter. If you get hired at the New York Times or the Washington Post, then you just help the real reporters that come from the US. But here, you do all the reporting, you do all the stories. I think I made the right choice.
Japan has a lot of important news
I want to be a writer and I write in the English language because I was educated in English, in English-speaking schools. So I think I chose the AP because as a wire service, they needed reporters who have the cultural background and language background that I have. That would make me more desirable for that news organization. If I work for a regular newspaper in America, it would be fun but my Japanese language skills and my knowledge of Japan would not be much useful to them. If I work for a newspaper in Idaho, how many times are you are going to speak Japanese or use your knowledge about Japan?
Whereas if you work for the AP, they have a huge bureau – I mean the relative standard – more than 10 reporters. They need the news about Japan and it’s the good avenue for me. And I was lucky because when I applied for the job, that was when Japan had the important news in the international news environment. I think China and india will be future focuses for international news. But at that time there was a lot of Japan bashing and a lot of fear of Japan taking over the world. I mean I thought from the beginning that Japan would always be an important news place. I think Japan has a lot of important news.
What I try to do when I write news articles is because I write for the international audiences. I think about how I can get their attention and how I can make a topic that is easy to understand for them.
For example, recently I did a story about how Japanese people are starting to eat fattening food or high-calorie food. If you try to do that story, American or other readers would find it easier if you choose something they understand. So I chose Krispy Kreme, which is an American doughnuts chain.
It just opened a store and there were huge lines in front of that store. That’s something that an American reader understands. You tell them Krispy Kreme at the top, that would illustrate what you want to tell them. And then you can put in the comment about people who you talked to, food experts, marketing experts and of course, Krispy Kreme people, too. And try to explore why this is happening or why Japanese people are becoming Americanized.
“What is it that I’m trying to tell these people?”
I guess that’s pretty basic for reporting. But I think it’s even more important because you’re trying to tell them about something that they’re not familiar with. So the story has to be accessible to Mr/Mrs. Jones in Idaho or wherever. And it’s a good challenge because it always makes you face your story and ask yourself, “What is it that I’m trying to tell these people?”.
Also the problem is… A lot of scoops that you may have or a lot of really interesting stories that you may have are not gonna be understandable to the international audiences. So it is a kind of challenge.
If you look at everything hard enough, there’s a way to make it international. I think even a domestic company like Daiso (Japanese one-dollar shop) would probably have some American angle. You look in there and there are some american products there or maybe they hired American marketing professionals. There’s a way to do a story in some way. That’s the fun part. Because then your story becomes unique.
Tokyo Bureau of the Associated Press *Taken by Isao Tokuhashi
“My lack of English skills is the biggest obstacle”
I went to the United States for the first time when I was 6 with my parents. My father was an engineer and he really liked the U.S. His English wasn’t that good but he studied. He liked working in the US so every opportunity he got to get out of Japan. I think it was unusual for his generation. But he was doing engineering and America offered him more opportunities as an engineer. That’s why he liked it.
He wanted me to have the same opportunities. He wanted me to be an engineer. And he thought that his lack of English skills was the biggest obstacle that he had. He didn’t like that so he didn’t want me to have those obstacles. So he chose to educate me in the English language. Because he thought if you have a command of English, it’s true, you have a lot more freedom to talk with more people because it’s almost like the global language.
So he sent me to the Washington D.C. area and I went to a public elementary school there. And when I came back to Japan, he chose to put me in an international school. And then, when I was in high school, we went to live in Alabama and I went to a public school there. Then we came back and he put me in an international school in Tokyo.
Writing poetry in San Francisco
Even though I spent a lot of my years in Tokyo, I went to an international school where I got educated in the English language and so it was a lot easier for me to apply to US universities. So I went to Bryn Mawr College first and I transferred to Cornell University. I majored in an interdisciplinary field of sociology, anthropology and social psychology. Then I got my master’s at UC Berkley in sociology.
I didn’t stay for my doctorate and I was writing as a freelance writer. Actually I wanted to be a fiction writer and poet. I have a lot of poetry and short fictions published in literary magazines. I liked to write stories even when I was in elementary school.
I spent 10 years in San Francisco Bay Area doing writing poetry. I was being like a poet, fiction writer and I did performances with musicians. So I had a good, great time.
Then I was doing some freelance writing for Japanese-American newspapers and Chinese-American newspapers, too. Some local papers. And I was also getting published in literary magazines.
“How do you get income and how do you write?”
But there was really not that much money. So when I wanted to have a family, when I had my child and I got married, I started thinking then, “How do you get income and how do you write?”. And when you do sociology, a lot of sociology is like journalism. Because you have to go out to the field and you’re observing how people live and write about it. It’s almost journalism. So when I needed a job like 8-5 job that pays a salary, not just freelancing, I got my job at the Japan Times. That’s when I started. That’s only because I needed money.
If I was able to make money as a poet, I would’ve preferred that because I think you can do a lot more in poetry than you can in an news article. I mean, this is probably something I shouldn’t be saying as a reporter, but I think the things you do in poetry, even though nobody reads it, it’s higher level.
So every time I have an opportunity to be poetic in my news articles, I try to do that. I think that’s more important in terms of what you’re communicating about what’s happening with people. Most of the time, there’s not much space for poetry in a news article.
I wanted to get a job at an English paper in Japan to use my Japanese skills
The good thing about news articles is that so many more people read them than they do poems. So the potential of whom you can reach is just awesome. You could reach so many more people, especially the AP. Millions of people read AP articles. In the beginning, just because I wanted a job. So I got the Japan Times and I went to the AP. These days I am really grateful for the AP because it does reach millions of people. It’s a great opportunity and they give you a byline, it says “By Yuri Kageyama”. It’s cool, I think.
But in the beginning, I just wanted money and I wanted to write. That’s why I went to the Japan Times first because I thought it’d be easier for me to get a job that uses my English skills in Japan than the other way around. How would I get a job at the San Francisco Chronicle by using my Japanese skills? I didn’t even try but I thought it would be easier for me to get a job the other way around, at an English paper in Japan. So I worked at the Japan Times.
I wasn’t quite whole as a human-being
I’ve experienced a bicultural environment in the US. and Japan. A good point is that I have the special skills in language and cultural background. It helped me to get the jobs.
However, the bad part is when I was growing up, I did feel marginal like I was not accepted by Japanese society and by mainstream American society. There was a long period when I felt inadequate and maybe felt an inferiority complex. I wasn’t quite whole as a Japanese or as an American, or as a human-being.
When I look back, I think it’s a great experience to have diversity in your life. I’m not that worried about it anymore but it used to be a big issue. Who am I? I wished that my father didn’t send me to an English-speaking school. Then I could’ve probably gone to a regular Japanese school and never would have known all the other things. And he didn’t know that it’s OK then he couldn’t be happy.
Now, these days I think of it as having been a privilege and that’s why I would like to give the same experience to my son. When I made that choice, I think I actually came to terms with why my father did what he did.
Also I appreciate why he did what he did, which used to tell me that you don’t do what’s good for just Japan, you do what’s good for the world. What’s good for the world will be good for Japan. So he did have the vision of thinking more than just about Japan.
I’m writing because I want to know more about myself
Even though news is supposed to be objective, which means that it doesn’t matter who writes the news, that’s not really true. Because a reporter makes a big difference. How sensitive the reporter is or how well-researched reporter is… makes a difference to the story. We know about Japan. We’re sensitive to things about Japan. So we’re something special’s offer to be at Bloomberg, Reuters, or the New York Times, whatever. I think we should be proud of that and take advantage of that.
News is changing rapidly. We’re adapting to the online age. So in some ways news has to be a lot more faster and also news has to be more specialized. So the advice is that it’s not good enough to just be a good reporter and know a few languages. That’s not good enough. You have to have a specialty.
Work on your basic reporting, as many languages as you can and cultural sensitivity but also develop your specialty. Things go and news goes online. There’s gonna be a lot of opportunities to reach niche readers. So if you create the way you shape your news, there’s a lot more potential. The hurdle is getting lower. It feels like the hurdle is getting higher, but in fact, the hurdle is getting lower. If you like manga, that’s an answer. That could be your specialty. Or even pop culture, or fashion, sports, technology… whatever.
I’m writing because I want to know more about myself and the world around me and do the right thing. That’s one of good things about being a journalist. You are not really hurting that many people and your stories can give information that may help people make the right decisions.
What is Tokyo is to you and what is America to you?
Both Japanese and American culture is something that I feel it’s my own. Tokyo is me and America is me. A part of me, myself.