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An Interview with Ruth Ozeki

Ruth Ozeki is a renowned author and documentary film director. She has a Japanese mother and an American father, and for many years lived in Japan.

During her time there, she studied Noh drama, flower arrangement, and mask carving, and worked in a bar, as an English professor, and as a television producer. Her novel, My Year of Meats (1999), was influenced by her time in Japanese television.

The novel follows two women, Akiko Ueno, a disheartened Tokyo housewife whose husband is a PR executive for BEEF-EX, a powerful American beef lobby, and Jane Takagi-Little, employed to make the show My American Wife! Sponsored by the American meat export lobby, each episode is meant to demonstrate an American wife cooking a nutritious beef dish to motivate the Japanese to purchase imported meat.

However, Jane has more subtle ideas for the program, wanting to use it to show Japanese people American women with unconventional lifestyles in the hope of motivating them by example.

When I was living in rural Japan, I first encountered the book My Year of Meats when I was teaching English at a vocational high school with segregated classes for boys and girls. The closest bookstore was two hours away, and the only English title available in the local library was The Bridges of Madison County.

I was attempting to use my English classes to introduce a hidden curriculum of gender studies. As I read about Jane’s ambitions and the errors she made, I was able to identify with and find humour in my own experiences.

Yoko Ozeki has unveiled a second novel, All Over Creation, and the preface for Inside and Other Short Fiction: Japanese Women by Japanese Women, which is an anthology of translated stories that Kodansha published last year.

Additionally, she has created two documentary films with one of them being Halving the Bones, which is a biographical movie about her quest to bring her grandmother’s remains back from Japan. She divides her time between Manhattan’s Lower East Side and a secluded island in Desolation Sound – a location that is situated three ferry rides and eight hours away from Vancouver, British Columbia.

— Composed by Malena Watrous

I. It is not permissible to feature lesbian characters in TV shows on Saturday mornings!

I wanted to begin by inquiring about something that has nothing to do with your writing. I heard that you and your spouse, Oliver, breed exotic Chinese chickens. Are they meant to be kept as companions or are they used for culinary purposes?

Yesterday, an unsightly mink infiltrated our downtown coop, and it ruthlessly slaughtered all the chickens. Apparently, these creatures take delight in killing, so every single one of the 15 birds got their necks broken by the intruder.

I’m starting to think that it is part of some kind of karma that these minks are made into coats. While I don’t necessarily advocate the fur industry, I can genuinely say that it couldn’t have happened to a more despicable animal.

BLVR: It’s really tragic to hear about the massacre. Is there no one that survived?

At our uptown coop, a few chickens remain that have been with us since 1997. Unfortunately, most of them have passed the age for laying eggs. Thus, we essentially had a retirement home for chickens that had outlived their egg-producing years.

BLVR inquired about the practicality of the food items, and then asked if the person had partaken in the meal.

On a regular basis, we would consume their eggs, however every once in a while, we had to slaughter and consume one. If you have two adolescent roosters, one of the males has to be removed, because if not, they will continually fight against each other and disrupt the stability. The hens become unhappy, and it prevents them from producing eggs.

BLVR: Would you mind clarifying what an exotic Chinese chicken is for me?

RO: In his travel log, Marco Polo was the first to mention Chinese Silkies. These birds possess a unique appearance, since they are small and covered with down rather than feathers, making them look like little puffs of fluff. In contrast, their musculature is black. When Oliver is required to slaughter a chicken, it is a strange experience since the meat is black.

The breed is helpful for preparing land for farming too; since they can’t fly, Silkies can be placed in an area that needs to be planted, and will scratch and dig the ground, consuming the weeds and various other vegetation, and also fertilizing the ground as they defecate.

BLVR: This appears to be an appropriate time to discuss your novels, which both censure the large-scale food production industry in America and how corporate avarice causes people to tamper with science, often yielding unpleasant outcomes. When you started writing My Year of Meats , how much were you aware of regarding the meat industry?

RO: Not much. The plan was not to write a book with that title. Instead, I had in mind a book about the television industry, particularly programs made in the US and sent to Japan. From 1988 to 1997, I was involved in a variety of these projects.

The Japanese, living on a set of islands, are eager to learn about what lies beyond their borders, so there was a huge demand for documentaries about foreign countries. One of the first productions I was part of was called See the World by Train.

The idea was to take a two-month ride on Amtrak from New York to L.A., recording a video blog, a visual diary of the journey, focussing on the American landscape and interviewing people related to the railway. I found it fascinating how the Japanese crew perceived America and how Americans saw the crew. This became the source of inspiration for My Year of Meats, which began as a story about a road trip.

In my capacity as a producer, I created an arts show called The New Yorker sponsored by Philip Morris. Because cigarette commercials had been prohibited on U.S. television, more people were becoming health conscious and opting to quit smoking. Philip Morris wanted to make up for the loss of their American customers, so they looked to Japan.

The New Yorker was aired on Fuji TV and it focused on highlighting Japanese celebrities coming to New York and engaging in various activities such as collaborating with musicians, artists, and fashion designers.

A crucial element of the show was “the smoking cut” where a young, attractive New Yorker was shown smoking a Philip Morris cigarette. The sponsor was particular about having a Philip Morris cigarette in the shot, even if it was in a crowded frame in a dark corner of a club.

What evidence did they use to come to their conclusion?

RO: I was not sure, but it was a possibility. We found the process of filming the content most interesting, but the sponsor was only concerned with their smoking cut which we kept forgetting.

By the end of the shoot, everyone was exhausted and the equipment was packed, and then we had to unpack and carry it out to the street where I would give out Marlboros to attractive young people and ask them to smoke for the camera.

This really made me feel awful, as I was trying to quit smoking and I understood the difficulty of it. However, when you are in the television industry, there is not much time for discussing moral issues. The product has to be delivered on time.

This stayed at the back of my mind and it is what I tried to explore in My Year of Meats. I wanted to think about what I had been doing all those years, making questionable ethical choices, and what that meant to me personally.

BLVR: It’s really interesting, especially because I have experienced life and worked in Japan where almost every man was a smoker. At the establishment I worked at, one of the teachers even kept cigarettes behind his ear during class and lit up during the pauses between lessons. Why did you focus your attention on the beef export lobby instead of the big tobacco industry?

RO: Even though I did end up creating a program backed by the beef export group, it wasn’t the same as what we initially proposed. When I was based in a Japanese TV studio, I was in the company of a number of ambitious female colleagues. We were all discouraged with our roles as female professionals in a Japanese workplace, since there were several restrictions on our progress.

In my experience, not much has altered in rural Japan. Through the dozen schools I’ve worked at, all the women were expected to make tea and the heads of administration were all men.

RO: Right, I’m aware of that. This is why we had the notion of creating a travel program about American women that are not usually seen on Japanese TV. In particular, we were interested in making a show about women living in rural areas, in uncommon families, participating in their communities, doing significant work.

That’s the plan we proposed. We called it Mrs. America. We didn’t anticipate it would become a reality. We’d present lengthy lists of different ideas for TV shows, and our office would attempt to link one or two of them with sponsors who would finance the ones that were of interest to them. Hence, when our boss told us that he’d found a sponsor for Mrs. America, I was pleased until he said, “But we’ll have to make a couple of modifications to your suggestion.” It turned out that the sponsor was the American beef export lobby group, and the program would incorporate a “cooking corner.”

BLVR asked, “Are you referring to cooking ko-na?”

RO: Yes, in Japan, every show has a ko-na. The American wives for this particular ko-na had to make a dish with meat. I agreed to the compromise in order to get the show going. Even though it was under the condition of making a meat dish, I still believed that the show was a good idea and that it would feature interesting women.

BLVR: Was this program widely accepted?

RO: It became widely popular after its first year as Mrs. America. It was then rebranded as Shimizu Michiko no O-uchi Haiken, which means “Shimizu Michiko”–a well-known celebrity in Japan at the time–“investigating other women’s dwellings.” We created a series of “home invasions” by filming American women in their environment, while the actress Shimizu Michiko and her guests watched, analyzed, and reacted to the clips from a studio in Tokyo. A group of us from New York, consisting of artists and feminists, were constantly attempting to make the program more intriguing by incorporating different people and women.

BLVR: For example, the interracial, vegetarian lesbian couple that is presented in My Year of Meats. Could you confirm that you actually made a show about vegetarians that was funded by the beef industry?

RO: It is evident that My Year of Meats is an exaggerated rendition of what we actually did; though, not that exaggerated, since we did feature a vegetarian family of lesbians on the program.

Did you experience the same amount of trouble as the character you portrayed?

RO: After the producer had watched the tape, I received a call. He was clearly angry, telling me that something like this couldn’t be aired at the timeslot it was in, as it contained lesbian content. Surprisingly, something positive came out of it. A Japanese director was debating whether to air the program or not, and one of the crewmembers, who wasn’t particularly progressive or gay-friendly, spoke up in its favor. He was adamant that the family on the show was strong and their story was good, and that they shouldn’t be afraid to show it. His words convinced the director to air it, and the ratings were incredibly high.

BLVR: I’m in awe. It’s easy to understand why certain cultural clashes depicted in your book have been inspired by real-life scenarios.

RO: I was determined to compose about the difficulty of maintaining corporate sponsorship in spite of personal or artistic integrity, as the Philip Morris situation had been bothering me for a long time. I also wanted the book to be a satire, and I deemed that tobacco was not an appropriate topic for humor. Thus, I decided to focus on meat, as it had more comedic potential, and I enjoyed the wordplay with the term “cattle”.

BLVR: Is it livestock that is meant?

The words chattel, cattle, and capitalism all stem from the Latin word caput, which means “head”. This is because historically, a man’s wealth was evaluated by the number of heads of slaves, women, and livestock he owned. Interestingly, the terms “stock” and “livestock” have the same root, and there was even supposedly a slaughterhouse on Wall Street. I was intrigued by this metaphorical and etymological connection.

II. “FULL OF EXCITEMENT, EVEN A SIMPLE PEA PROVIDES DRAMA.

BLVR: After My Year of Meats, you changed the subject of your fiction to potatoes. In All Over Creation, the story is about a collection of eco-warriors who are determined to bring to light the practices of large-scale farming.

One of the objectives is to reveal the implications of genetically modified potatoes, which have pesticide encoded in the DNA. This is certainly alarming, however, it does not produce the same degree of terror as the cow’s head crashing into Jane Takagi-Little at the abattoir. Did you regret having to move on from the subject of meat?

RO: Examining the potato’s past, there is far more than meets the eye: famine, mystery, conquistadors. Vegetables have a lot of tension, even the pea. What gives a novel its spark is strife, and food is full of disputes.

Every pea or potato has a considerable amount of narration. People are quite passionate about this. My background is in horror films, so the idea of Jane rewinding the slaughtered cow and watching the blood pour from its neck and get reabsorbed, that all comes from somewhere. But I wanted to leave the violence behind in All Over Creation.

BLVR: I heard you used to craft props for B-grade horror flicks. What made you decide to get into that?

Returning to New York from Japan in 1986 after completing a Masters in Noh drama, I found that nobody cared. In need of a job, I turned to my peers in the film industry. This was before I began any Japanese television work. At that time, there was no way to get into the business without taking an entry-level job in porn. Low-budget horror was gaining popularity due to a vibrant home video market and many porn workers were transitioning to this industry.

BLVR inquired if the individual began with pornography prior to transitioning to something else.

RO: I was given the opportunity to have my first job working for a director who desired to make a transition from gay male porn to more mainstream horror, beginning with the film called Mutant Hunt. I was hired as a storyboard artist since I was experienced in drawing and had published illustrations from Japan.

However, as production came closer, the producer realized that there was no art director, so they looked at me and asked me to take on that role.

This was my first time on set, so I was thankful when they hired an intern who had recently graduated from SVA and had previous experience on film sets. It quickly became evident that my intern knew much more than I did, so we collaborated and later started our own props-design company. We created blow-out walls, exploding heads, detached hands, and something called the “orgasmatron”.

BLVR: It appears that a vast majority of films coming out of Japan and Korea are horror movies and a multitude of recent American horror films are re-creations of Japanese successes. Personally, I like the horror genre and yet I’m left wondering why this craving for intense violence is increasing both in Asia and the United States.

In Japan, violence has been a common occurrence in manga, comic books, and tabloids. While I enjoy the campy elements, I do not particularly appreciate the violent depictions of women.

It is rather peculiar to me that Japan, with its significantly lower crime rate than the U.S., is the source of such a great amount of violent graphic entertainment, and so many people take pleasure in reading it.

In Japan, violent crime is not as common, but the need to fit in and conform to society is exceptionally strong. It could be argued that these social pressures are the reason why people become so frustrated and angry.

III. WHAT REALLY EXCITES ME IS THE INTERSECTION OF CULTURES, GENETICS, AND NATURAL ENVIRONMENTS.

I am curious to know what the Japanese thought of My Year of Meats when it was translated into their language. Did the humorous gaffes between different cultures translate well?

RO: An amusing anecdote I recall is when my book was released in Japan. I was in frequent contact with the translator and would answer her questions regarding the slang I’d used. Then, in 2000 I finally got to meet her for lunch at a posh hotel. It felt like something out of Lost in Translation.

I thanked her for her hard work on my book, to which she replied it was a great read. I noted how tough it must have been to translate the slang, to which she responded that she had a strong slang dictionary. When I pointed out the humour must have been tricky too, she stared at me blankly and said, “What humour?” That’s when I realised my book had been truly lost in translation.

BLVR: It’s difficult for me to visualize the novel without the comedic elements. After all, it is a satire. I’m curious to know how she would have handled the translation. Does humor have to be limited to a particular culture or language?

RO: Japanese humor usually involves puns, physical comedy, and slapstick. My Year of Meats is not a laugh-out-loud book, but rather relies on irony. This type of wit is contingent on an implicit understanding of certain cultural norms. A significant part of what makes irony amusing is the idea that some things only need to be implied for the joke to work. Without a shared cultural knowledge, irony does not translate.

BLVR: One of my bosses in Japan was quite amusing. His wit was often illustrated in what he didn’t say. For example, if he wanted to imply that someone was failing in their duties, he would say something like, “He is so preoccupied.

He has many hobbies. He is a real family man.” Yet what he was actually implying was that the person was never around the workplace. It took some time for me to comprehend what he meant, as I had to become familiar with the Japanese culture and job environment. Without this knowledge, I would have taken his words literally.

When composing the book, I had a Western audience in mind. Had I been targeting a Japanese readership, the tone would have been varied. When speaking Japanese, I am a different individual. I can be humorous in Japanese, yet the form of comedy would not be the same.

BLVR: With the character of Ueno, nicknamed “John Wayno,” who acts abusively towards his wife and tyrannically towards his producer Jane, in an attempt to keep her from filming “undesirable” wives, did you worry about how Japanese readers would perceive him? He is undeniably funny, but not particularly sympathetic, and his wife’s repression is stark. Did you expect any negative reactions from the Japanese audience?

RO: I was nervous that I would get negative reactions from my Japanese friends, who I had worked with in television, regarding the portrayal of John Ueno.

Surprisingly, they reacted by saying, “Oh my God, is that so and so?” The novel wasn’t overwhelmingly popular in Japan, but it was highly praised by critics. Coincidentally, the release of My Year of Meats coincided with a scandal concerning the NHK channel’s fabrication of fake documentaries, which made the media coverage of my book largely focus on that aspect.

BLVR: At the conclusion of both of your books, characters reveal the misdeeds of powerful companies by disseminating their message through the media. In films in which individuals take on powerful businesses, the media is often utilized for its effectiveness in bringing the truth to light.

It can be gratifying to observe the bad guys get exposed on the news. Yet, it looks as if when this transpires in reality—like it has done often recently—people are angry, but not much changes. As someone who has created documentary films, been involved in television, and is a writer of stories with a documentary flavor, do you believe that disclosing the truth to the public has any effect?

RO: I do believe that there are consequences to Seymour Hersh’s investigative reporting, though these effects may not be immediate or obvious. It is often frustrating to witness these slow and subtle changes over time, which can make it feel like nothing is happening at all. It is hard to tell if this type of work will be enough to save us, but it is likely the most effective tool we currently have. My books focus on media and representation, with food issues being a secondary topic that I am allowed to write about.

Both of your books display female protagonists of Japanese heritage; your documentary Halving the Bones concentrates on different halves, and you have a story in Norton’s anthology of intermixed elements, Mixed.

RO: Hybridity is a pivotal motif in All Over Creation. It was necessary to have a character that embodied the combination of races to emphasize the idea of genetic engineering. Similarly, the protagonist of My Year of Meats is a racial hybrid, allowing her to foster a media hybrid.

The Japanese influence in My American Wife! created a cultural amalgam and the protagonist is a reflection of this as she is both culturally and racially blended. My own mixed cultural background has been the source of my inspiration in writing about these topics, such as the merging of cultures, genetics, and ecosystems.

BLVR: When I read the transcript of your talk at the Buddhist center, “The Art of Letting Go,” I was profoundly affected. You connected the death of your mother, your Zen practice, and your writing as a way of letting go. This resonated with me, although I have also considered writing as a way of preserving memories.

RO: Both of these ideas are accurate. As a hoarder, like most authors, I first thought of writing as a way to preserve the things that would otherwise be forgotten. I gather up my experiences and emotions and store them in stories. On the other hand, what is gratifying is that, once you have given them a context, you can let them go. This is something I learned while making films.

As an only child of two only children without any children of my own, I had a lot of belongings, including my grandmother’s bones. I filmed them as a way to let them go, which is a tactic specialist organisers often use – take a picture and get rid of the object.

I still find this principle to be true in writing. I don’t need to keep memories and insights about Japanese television as I have already explored them. My Year of Meats came from a feeling of having made some questionable moral choices. I wanted to explore this guilt and then move on.

BLVR: It’s really remarkable how your fictional works can be perceived as political, almost like a documentary, and usually people don’t respond well when the piece has a clear moral lesson. Nonetheless, I never feel like I’m being lectured to when I read your books. I think this is due to the fact that you delve into ethical issues further than just questioning the integrity of the meat industry, for instance.

In All Over Creation, I was exploring the concept of aging parents and death. At this point in my life, my father had recently died and I was caring for my mother who suffered from Alzheimer’s. My father was a linguist and one of his areas of focus was on endangered languages; when he passed away, he left behind a great amount of knowledge that had not been able to be collected and shared with the world. This became a metaphor for Lloyd’s seeds in the novel, and his worry about how they would be preserved and passed on. Every story I write is driven by a personal question rather than a need to educate the reader.

Did exploring the ethical decisions you made through writing fiction help you to release your feelings?

RO: Without a doubt. I also gained insight into topics that I was passionate about but knew very little about before I began these books. An additional lesson I learned from making films–having an assignment gives you a great excuse to call people or look into something that you would normally be too lax to do.

I was captivated by the disputes revolving around genetically modified food, but the science is extremely intricate and I’m a total novice in terms of comprehending what happens there. I acquired the knowledge necessary to write the book, but the most crucial elements I learnt while writing.

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