Connecting at the Japan Writers Conference
by Melissa Uchiyama, Tokyo, Japan
Writing in Japan can sometimes be a lonely number. We don’t have the big-name conferences comparable to those in New York, San Francisco or Minneapolis. Some writers fly to other Asian countries to take part in large, writerly meetings of the minds. Perhaps being an English writer in a non-English speaking country can be a bit lonely. Perhaps this is the case for any writer, until one discovers and taps into a dynamic group such as SCBWI. Yes, perhaps the writerly-life itself calls for breaks from our notebooks and computers to connect with others and enjoy the encouraging camaraderie that a writing society or conference brings.
SCBWI offers community. There are connections, and it is good to want that. I just attended my first Japan Writers Conference in Kobe, about an hour and a half west of Tokyo by bullet train. As the train doors opened, I caught a whole glimpse of Suma's sea, a blue respite from Tokyo's concrete. My people were there, all of us awaiting words and ideas in Suma's billowing air.
Approximately seventy writers attended. Over fifty presenters led discussions, spoke on panels and helped to illuminate some aspect of writing and publishing. The conference took place on a hilltop of green at Kobe Women's University's Suma campus.
Suzanne Kamata, a longtime SCBWI member and author of oodles of multigenre works, hosted our own SCBWI meet-up over lunch the first day. A small group of us shared our backgrounds and aspirations—a comic artist and head of Big Ugly Robot publisher, a professional illustrator, and a cookbook editor who endeavors to write a middle-grade fantasy, to name a few, besides Suzanne and her own writing and publishing prowess. Three attendees are current SCBWI members, and I think the rest of the group's interest was surely piqued.
Also pertaining to writers and illustrators of children and YA literature, this year’s Japan Writers Conference included a panel of published comic writers and artists. This panel was especially witty and engaging and drew a large number of attendees, reminding me of the power of well-crafted comics and graphic novels. This was the first graphic/comic presence in the JWC.
Adam Pasion, author, artist, and publisher at Big Ugly Robot , connected with his colleagues on their panel and with us in our chairs. He shared with me his intention of writing and drawing for younger readers. “Regarding my work, when I wrote it, I didn't have YA in mind, but my Crawdads book was heavily inspired by my favorite YA author, Mariko Tamaki. Especially the comic book she did with her cousin, Jillian Tamaki, called This One Summer.”
Adam went on to say, “I highly recommend that book if you haven't read it. It's some of the most compelling YA out there and a huge inspiration for me.”
Connecting at such an event, reading new genres and discovering voices are all powerful ways we become newly inspired.
Japan’s writers and illustrators are spread out over the country; yet, by the noticeable enthusiasm among writers and artists sharing work and ideas, I believe we’re all eager to support one another’s vision and craft. The relationships will continue to flourish. After all, we are people who use words and art to connect.
The conference, though entirely free to attend, does require energy and resources to travel there and stay in a hotel. In other words, the commitment is not free. Hey, sometimes we need to invest in our craft. In my opinion, doing so only reinforces the choices we have made to be writers and our identities as such. While you're there, put in work. Practice and connect. There will always be rewards.
Thanks to the relationships made at this year’s Japan Writers Conference and in our small SCBWI chat over lunch, I have some clear-cut goals. I have new friends to email, drafts to forward and a manuscript of poems to submit. For certain, I know I’ll point the way to SCBWI’s interactive events, and I plan on featuring interviews on our SCBWI Japan blog with many of these established and up-and-coming authors, translators, and illustrators in Japan.
Cheers to all the new children's and YA work that will be created or wrapped-up by this time next year. See you back at the conference. The setting will be different, but we shall connect again.
Melissa Uchiyama is a writer and teacher living in northern Tokyo. She is a transplant from southern Florida. Almost eight years later, she still can't get excited about winter. Melissa maintains her blog, writes creative non-fiction, poetry, and has appeared in Literary Mama, Kveller, and within Mothering Through the Darkness, an anthology by HerStories Press.