Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Culture Shock: Japan Discovery Challenge

A new Web TV reality show starts on Sunday, December 16 at It's called Culture Shock: Japan Discovery Challenge and has Japanese and American high school students teaming up in groups (two Japanese and two Americans)and competing to produce short films about Japan. Each team has a bilingual leader and from the trailer that you can watch on the site I could garner that the typical communication and cultural problems arise with people from two disparate cultures have to work together who don't know each others' language. Looks like it's going to be quite an interesting show and already there are snippets you can watch that have some great location shots of Akihabara, Asakusa, and Shibuya, which are districts in Tokyo. Twenty-four segments will be shown weekly from December 16 through February 17. By the way, "bukatsu" means extra-curricular activity and many Japanese school children are often saddled with bukatsu as well as "juku" (study schools outside of regular school). Taihen desu ne (that's tough!).

Sunday, December 9, 2007

Karaoke Kichigai (Crazy for Karaoke)

Karaoke (singing popular songs to pre-recorded backing tracks) was invented in Japan. It means “empty orchestra” and is pronounced as kah-rah-okay, not karey-okie, as has been adopted in the United States.

I first discovered karaoke in Japantown (Nihonmachi) in San Francisco in the late 1970s. I was a frustrated vocalist who had performed for peanuts (and less) in a number of bands. And I was also a rabid Japanophile who couldn’t get enough of studying Nihongo (the Japanese language). So I jumped at the chance to be able to learn Japanese pop songs (J-pop) and perform them without the need for backup musicians who were often either too messed up to play or plain just didn’t even show up for a gig. Singing in Japanese was easier than speaking it, and it was fun to pretend to be fluent for the duration of a song. I honed my skills at karaoke bars in Japantown and even briefly worked at one as a singing bar hostess. Soon I was performing in Japanese karaoke recitals and contests, usually the lone female Caucasian in the group, and racked up a few trophies and prizes.

At that time I was singing songs by the pop idols of the day—Akina Nakamori and Seiko Matsuda. I also tried my hand at learning enka, a more traditional type of singing and did songs by Masako Mori and Sayuri Ishikawa. When I moved to Tokyo I appeared on a wacky television show that was a karaoke contest for foreigners (gaijin) (see picture). I even had my own backup dancers, way before Gwen Stefani and her Harajuku Girls.

I continued singing in Japanese and when I returned to California I eventually even got my own home laser-disc karaoke set. But laser discs fell out of favor and died along with eight-tracks, Betamax, and the Apple Newton. Now there were “karaoke boxes,” establishments that supplied small rooms rented by the hour where you could sing your heart out, choosing from thousands of songs; there was no need to buy your own.

In 2002 I auditioned for NHK TV’s “Nodo Jiman” (“Brag Your Throat”) program when it came to San Francisco. I was one of the twelve finalists and performed Teresa Teng’s “Kuu-koo” (“Airport”), broadcast live by satellite all over the world from Bill Graham Auditorium.

Now, promoting my debut novel, MIDORI BY MOONLIGHT, I am still singing in Japanese. My heroine in the book, Midori Saito, ends up working at a karaoke lounge in Japantown and we want to give readers the opportunity to hear some Japanese music. So at some of my book events my husband, Manabu “Stokemaster” Tokunaga backs me up on electronic keyboard and I perform “Shura no Hana,” a Japanese song made popular in the Quentin Tarantino film, “Kill Bill,” and sung by Mieko Kaji, as well as other Japanese favorites.


Wednesday, November 28, 2007


Every writer knows that a good query letter is crucial in getting a manuscript read by an agent, which is the first step in getting an offer for representation. This is the query I sent for MIDORI BY MOONLIGHT. This letter elicited a lot of requests from agents for the full manuscript and eventually I did sign with an agent who ended up getting me a two-book deal with St. Martin’s. In brackets are my explanatory comments of why I constructed it the way I did.

Dear Agent:

I am currently seeking representation for Midori By Moonlight, a novel starring the Japanese Bridget Jones.

[This opening sentence is short and sweet and to the point. By using the Bridget Jones reference it gives the agent an idea of what kind of book this is.]

Thirty-year-old Midori Saito’s dreams are all about to come true. A strong independent streak has always made her feel like a stranger in a strange land in her native Japan, but now she’s embarking on a new life in San Francisco. She’s about to marry Kevin, the perfect American man—six feet tall, with curly hair the color of marmalade. Unlike a Japanese guy who’d demand she be a housewife, Kevin doesn’t mind if Midori follows her dream of becoming a master pastry chef. Her life is turning out as exquisitely as a Caramelized Apple Tart with Crème Fraiche, until Kevin dumps her at their engagement party in favor of his blonde, ex-fiancée, whom Midori never even knew existed.

Now Midori is not only on her own—with just a smattering of fractured English in her repertoire—she’s entered the U.S. on a fiancée visa that will expire in sixty days. Unable to face the humiliation of telling her parents she’s been dumped, and not wanting to give up on her American dream, Midori realizes she’s “up the creek without a saddle.” Her only hope is new acquaintance Shinji, 30, who long ago escaped Japan after a family tragedy, is a successful San Francisco graphic artist and amateur moon gazer, and who lets her share his apartment as a platonic roommate.

Soon Midori finds herself working at an under-the-table hostess job at an unsavory Japanese karaoke bar, making (and eating) way too many desserts, meeting a charming and handsome chef with his own restaurant who may be too good to be true, and trying to uncover the secret behind a mysterious bar hostess who looks strangely familiar. But Midori’s willing to endure almost anything to hang on to her American dream, and she just might find that the love she’s been searching for far and wide is a whole lot closer than she thinks.

[This was my take on a “blurb” that would appear on the back of a book. It’s a bit long for that and the style is slightly different, but I wanted to cover all the salient plot points without going into a full-blown synopsis. I made various food references to give the flavor of the book. Looking at the back of the book or by clicking on the Books section on the Web site you can see how this description was changed and shortened on the published book.]

I am the author of two children’s non-fiction books published by KidHaven Press (Famous People: Christina Aguilera and Wonders of the World: Niagara Falls), have had short stories published in several literary journals, and currently work as a freelance writer and editor. I attended the Squaw Valley Writers' Conference in 2001 and 2002, and my self-published novel, No Kidding was a winner in the Writer's Digest 2002 Best Self-Published Book Awards in the Mainstream/Literary Fiction category.

[Sometimes it is advised to only offer relevant publishing history, e.g. other fiction. By including my non-fiction books, I felt I was showing an agent that I had real-world publishing experience, even though these books are not novels. I included a reference to the Squaw Valley Writers’ Conference because it is a well-known conference and one where you need to submit a writing sample in order to get accepted, otherwise I would not have included conferences I attended. I mentioned NO KIDDING, my self-published book, because it won an award. However, it’s not necessary to have any other writing credits—don’t worry if you don’t have any.]

I am Caucasian-American—my Japanese last name comes by way of my husband who was born and raised in Osaka. I have lived in Japan and traveled there many times, the first time as a winner in a songwriting contest sponsored by Japan Victor Records. I also speak conversational Japanese and have placed in a number of Japanese singing contests and performed on TV in Japan.

[It is often advised not to give any personal information in a query letter. This personal information, I felt, was relevant to the subject-matter of my book and showed that I had a background in the Japanese language and culture.]

Thank you for your consideration.
---Wendy Nelson Tokunaga