Ken Rodgers

Kyoto Journal is a non-profit magazine focused on “society, beliefs, traditions and new developments through a lens of Asian experience.” The magazine has contributors share Asian insights in the form of special features and interviews as well as creative writing and reviews and more. The name Kyoto Journal is a physical location, as well as “a place of deep spiritual and cultural heritage, and has been the measure of such things here in Japan for more than a millennium…Essentially, Kyoto Journal is a community that transcends place, while respecting and celebrating regional and local identity.”

Interview with Ken Rodgers, Managing Editor of Kyoto Journal
Conducted by Julia Raffel Susquehanna ’16

How did you get involved with Kyoto Journal? What made you want to become a part of the Kyoto Journal team? How did the journal start?

I actually had the privilege of helping to found KJ, back in 1985. An active writers’ group of mostly expats had formed here in Kyoto, meeting at the photographer/editor John Einarsen’s house. We soon realized that in our diversity of interests, we had the basis of a magazine.

All of us had been living here in Japan long enough to have realized that most mainstream Western media presentations at that time lacked a nuanced appreciation of the cultural richness and depth that we saw around us. Reportage was generally Tokyo-centric, and either absurdly sensationalized or heavily exoticized. (This hasn’t changed all that much, by the way…) We wanted to create an independent alternative to this superficial coverage, to better reflect aspects of the Japan that we were learning about — avoiding the academic esoterica of publications at the other end of the scale, and the narrow confines of primarily “literary” content. We were interested in providing a channel for first-hand material, including critical but culturally-sensitive social commentary, without any over-generalizations about “the Japanese.” KJ remains exploratory; our intention is to bring together material that is of value in encouraging greater intercultural awareness and appreciation.

John had previously edited a local zine called Kaleidoscope; some us had contributed. We decided to create a foundation of some kind, though we had no business plan. Somehow we were incredibly fortunate in finding a willing sponsor, Shokei Harada of the Heian Bunka Center, the textbook wing of a Japan-wide calligraphy school. He supported KJ as a quarterly print publication for a total of 75 issues, from 1986 through 2010 – a wonderful publisher who let us take the magazine in any direction we wanted. I can’t imagine that happening these days.

We decided from the start that the magazine would be non-profit and all-volunteer; no payroll. That became a key aspect — and I am sure it allowed KJ to be much more productive and creative than it ever could have been if we had made it conform to a more business-oriented model. (That all-volunteer aspect extends to our contributors as well; they receive a one-year complimentary subscription, together with our deepest appreciation for sharing their writing or artwork).

Steve Suloway was KJ’s managing editor from 1986 through 1993. By the time he left Japan, I was ready to take on that role. I had already been writing, copyediting and proofreading for KJ since our first issue, and I had worked for a while in film editing in Australia (16mm B&W, news and current affairs, for the national ABC TV channel). Not surprisingly, cinematic considerations such as pacing and pausing, excising excess, jump cutting, maintaining focus and continuity etc also apply when editing text.

In fact, for more than 30 years in Japan now, in addition to my university international office job, I have been a professional proofreader/rewriter of almost every kind of material produced by Japanese translators. That’s like having a free 24/7 pass to a fully-equipped mental gym — or working in a kind of syntactic bodyshop, doing major realignments, makeovers, and a whole lot of buffing and polishing. It’s a great way of keeping in shape as an editor, or writer, and also gaining insights into what’s going on here behind the scenes.

What are some challenges you face, being the managing editor of Kyoto Journal

There are two aspects here, the organizational side and working directly with contributors to help draw out the best in submissions. I don’t see my role as so much dealing with ‘challenges’ — this may sound like a cliché, but it’s much more about opportunities, as we get to bring things into existence that would not otherwise have taken shape. Our special bookzine issues reflect this. We have gone into depth on a very wide range of themes including Word, Sacred Mountains of Asia, Street, Media in Asia, Heartwork, Gender in Asia, the Silk Roads, Tea, Korea, Kyoto Lives, and even Biodiversity. We learn so much from doing these issues, in some cases working with guest editors.

Contributors provide us with fascinating insights into Asia – or material that has potential in that direction, in which case we work with them on development. Many well-established writers have contributed to KJ, but we also see an important role for the magazine in providing mentoring and publishing opportunities for less experienced writers.

Over the years, KJ has attracted a great team of colleagues. John Einarsen, as founding editor, and art director/designer, really holds the whole enterprise together. We have very capable associate editors (Susan Pavloska and Lucinda Cowing) and talented contributing editors, including those responsible for key featured areas – In Translation, Heartwork, Fiction, Poetry, Media, and Reviews. We are deeply grateful for their support, keeping the magazine on track. Likewise, our contributors, who give us their best, and without whom the magazine simply would not exist.

The trade-off with keeping KJ all-volunteer is that we all have day jobs, and work on KJ in between our other commitments, in our “free time.” Sometimes I envy people like Frank Stewart and Pat Matsueda, who have the luxury of salaried positions to work full-time magic on Manoa (UHP) – one of my favorite publications.

Personally, I especially enjoy working on individual submissions. As an editor, you give feedback and suggestions that depend on your ability to read the piece deeply and contemplatively, maybe even to catch between the lines something further that the writer may have had in mind, how an idea that is hinted at might be expanded… Also of course, you look for anything that doesn’t need to be there, how they might achieve better economy of expression, or more effective flow. One challenge in working with a writer lies in accurately sensing their concerns and giving feedback in diplomatic way. Feedback has to be even-handed – it’s important to point out what you like about a piece, before suggesting changes. Building trust is vital. I try to give clearly reasoned and constructive advice, keeping in mind benefit to both the writer and the reader, and I receive very positive responses.

How has Kyoto Journal changed, if at all, since you have been working there?

It began as a fairly locally-oriented production, with a local events section – it was primarily Kyoto-centric. Now, KJ is essentially pan-Asian – what we publish is restricted only to having an Asian connection, so our territory extends from East Asia about as far as Istanbul! The reason we have kept the name “Kyoto Journal” is that we see the entity of Kyoto itself (the city) as a cultural cross-roads, and an exemplar of an amazingly evolved, sophisticated and deep-rooted living culture –that’s our context. Only Kyoto and Nara, Japan’s two main former imperial capitals, were spared bombing in WWII, due to their historical significance, which saved not only the physical environment but so many intangibles of the city’s heritage dating back through so many generations. Now, we are circling back to draw on these rich local Kyoto resources again for online interviews.

In practical terms, our magazine layout process has evolved from low-tech cut and paste (art knife and CFC-laden spray-adhesive) to fully digital, using In Design, and now Aquafadas. We moved from plain black & white to duotone to full color; we have developed our website as a platform providing access to a huge collection of KJ material including web specials that don’t appear in the magazine – and as Facebook editor, Lucinda has built up our “likes” to total over 100,000. (She started with KJ as an intern, while on university exchange from SOAS in London, came back after graduating, and is now also coordinating new incoming interns).

The look of KJ changed significantly on moving from vertical printed A4 page format to our present horizontal onscreen layout in digital format (perfect for iPads). Our article design has never been based on standard templates: each article is approached on its own terms. That’s important to us, as a way of better expressing individual voices.

We have also expanded into book publishing; former associate editor Stewart Wachs is now taking care of our Heian-kyo Media (HKM) offshoot. So far we have put out a big print edition of Fresh Currents, our post-Fukushima investigation on how Japan went nuclear, and how it could feasibly implement a safe and sustainable energy policy; The Forest Within the Gate, a collection of transcendent poetry by Edith Schiffert, a long-time Kyoto resident, combined with a fine set of black & white photos of Kyoto by John Einarsen; and A Rocket Made of Ice, a haunting account of volunteer work in Cambodia, by Gail Gutradt.

What does it take to make it into Kyoto Journal?

Beyond our advice to contributors on the KJ website, here’s how Stewart answered this question in a talk we gave for SWET (Society of Writers, Editors and Translators) in Tokyo a few years back:

“For us, the most important aspects for a piece to be published are that one, it is sincere. And two, after reading it we feel our perspective has been somehow enlarged or illuminated; our world is a bit wider than it was before. And of course, we value well-crafted writing. Another important consideration is that articles need to have a long shelf life since KJ is a quarterly…”

So we look for value that goes beyond style or technical skill. Genuineness, a commitment to engagement with society and culture. Writing from the heart. And of course a connection with Asia (preferably first-hand). A contributor has to have something they (and we) believe is worth sharing with smart critical readers. We are particularly conscious of suitability of style – we have a general readership in mind, so we aim for intelligent writing that is neither over-academic nor “dumbed down.”

Personally, I appreciate writing that speaks to and engages with its audience. Together with KJ, we also started a monthly free open-mike, the “Kyoto Connection.” It began with poetry and music, soon extending to include dance, comedy, storytelling, you name it – bringing out all kinds of talent and encouraging collaborations within the Kyoto community. As MC there for nearly fifteen years, I realized how beneficial it is for writers (including poets) to present their work to a live audience, to understand the dynamics of presentation, and develop effective stage-presence. Successful communication through writing has elements of stagecraft and vocal techniques. It’s by no means simply a dialog with a laptop.

Is it a struggle to find the right pieces for each issue? How do you decide what to include and what to reject?

Again, we’re talking about finding potentialities and opportunities. Editing a magazine is like curating an art show, bringing a variety of unique elements into play (and dialog) with each other. The juxtapositions have always interested me, how individual pieces build something greater than the sum of the parts. Of course we actively pre-plan our special issues, inviting and invoking suitable material, but some non-themed issues too seem to find their own agenda. This can start out serendipitously with a few pieces that seem to connect in some way, forming a nucleus that the magazine begins to crystalize around. Then we assist that process by looking for what else might fit, and very often other submissions appear, sometimes quite miraculously, that add further dimensions. The challenge there is to see what is taking shape and help it along.

There’s a good example in our next issue, that we are working on right now – we received a superb profile of Luke Powell, a photographer who spent many years documenting Afghanistan in more peaceful times, as part of the fabled overland route… This was written by Gail Gutradt — the back-story is that we had featured one of her first-ever pieces of writing back in KJ 68, “The Things We’ve Gone Through Together,” an account of her experience volunteering at a temple in Cambodia that takes care of HIV-positive orphans. We encouraged her to keep writing, and she eventually came back with a whole book that we published through HKM (A Rocket Made of Ice, as previously mentioned); it was quickly snapped up by Alfred Knopf, and was released by them last summer, showing up almost immediately as a Best Book of the Month on Amazon, and as an Oprah recommendation… quite a success story! Anyway, wanting to remain active as a writer, Gail came through with this very interesting profile, with a collaborative addition by Steve Shucart, who knew Luke in Afghanistan all those years ago. (The photos that go with this piece are superb). Naturally enough, Luke misses the welcoming, peaceful country that he knew and loved, pre-war; due to the political turbulence he hasn’t gone back to Afghanistan since 2003. Thinking about that, I recalled hearing about an Australian artist, George Gittoes, who has spent much of his life working in the world’s most horrific conflict zones, and is now living in Afghanistan, specifically Taliban-dominated Jalalabad – where Osama bin Laden reputedly planned 9/11 – making movies in Pashtun with local actors including women, training young people in media arts, and representing inclusive cultural values in one of the most extreme locations you could imagine. So I got in touch with him, and did an email interview that provides a present-day counterpoint to Luke’s story. Other stories connected with photography came in, and others on cultural concerns. Eventually, on writing the introduction to this issue, I saw that it mostly comprised stories about people’s dedication and commitment to a diversity of long-term projects. We also interviewed the French and Japanese co-directors of Kyotographie, an enormously exciting big new annual photographic festival here using iconic Kyoto venues.

Is Kyoto Journal read by international readers? How many people does it reach?

We want KJ to reach people with an interest in Japan and Asia, so of course we have an audience in Japan, but I’d say most of our readership is overseas. Our subscriber base dwindled when we had to spend over a year getting legal Japanese NPO status after Shohei retired and was unable to continue sponsoring publication. That was when we reluctantly made the decision to go fully digital. KJ 81, to be released in early December, will be our sixth digital issue. We are still fine-tuning format, but we see this as another great evolutionary opportunity for KJ to explore new possibilities, especially in interactivity. (For KJ 79, on Pilgrimage, Jerome Boulbes produced our first short animation, which is still posted on our home page). We are working at present on revitalizing our readership. One perennial problem has been that we are all primarily working on content – we have never had a real business manager or focused business strategy. That’s part of what makes KJ unique (or a well-kept secret), I guess.

How do you raise money in order to keep Kyoto Journal in publication?

For the most part, we are currently dependent on subscriptions, a centuries-old crowd-funding model, for our running expenses. (Our subs are very reasonable though – for one year, 4 issues, about $35 at the current exchange rate, via Paypal). A local landscape artist and KJ contributor, Brian Williams, was extraordinarily generous in producing an etching edition that mostly financed Fresh Currents. For The Forest Within The Gate, we ran a successful Indiegogo funding campaign. We are working towards getting the magazine onto online sites such as Newsstand and Amazon that will enable us to reach new readers and hopefully increase our subscription base. This requires greater levels of complexity in formatting, but we’re getting there. We do need to work more on fundraising, especially for our next publishing projects.

Are there any future plans in place for Kyoto Journal?

We want to keep on providing thought-provoking and unexpected perspectives from Kyoto, Japan, and Asia. At present we are working behind the scenes to revamp our website (again), to make it easier to post current-interest stories and interviews, and to make it more active. We would like to make our occasional guest talks and readings here in Kyoto into a regular event series, too.

Content-wise, we have a special themed issue coming up on Food, guest-edited by local foodie/aficionado John Ashburne – which should be quite an unusual addition to the field. On the book side, we have a long-term project under way interviewing a diverse selection of expats who’ve all spent several decades or more in Japan – a kind of alternative recent history of Japan through their eyes. And I’m presently working with another founding member of the KJ team, our ‘Rambler-at-large,’ Robert Brady, editing a book on his experience of country living in Japan, titled The Great Elsewhere. I don’t know of anything else out there quite like it.

Lately, with the original team growing older, we’re happy to see a new generation getting involved and bringing their skills and interests to the magazine. Dreux Richard, for example, is doing a great job bringing in fresh material as our In Translation editor. Jen Teeter, as Heartwork editor, draws on her background of commitment to continuity of ethnic culture, especially that of the present-day Ainu. Recently, we have been receiving many inquiries about internships. We are eager to hear from self-motivated people with online media skills, and of course an interest in learning about the cultural side of Kyoto and Japan. Some Japanese language is helpful. More details here.

KJ has come a long way, and with ongoing support from contributors and volunteer staff I look forward to seeing it continue to evolve in ways we never could have envisaged when we started out.

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