My experience at the 2018 Japan Writers Conference

Last weekend (October 13-14), I attended the 2018 Japan Writers Conference, which was held at the Otaru University of Commerce in Otaru, Hokkaido. Below is a summary of my experience at the event.

The reason

I decided to attend this annual event because writing is a passion of mine, and a craft I am trying to hone. I am at this point a fledgling, part-time writer with only a single published piece to my name (a short essay in a zine that was published this past summer), but I aspire to write professionally at the highest levels, and I figured there was no better way to learn the keys to success than listening to those that already do. So, as soon as this year’s event was announced, I had my sights set on heading up north this fall.

The location

The choice of Otaru as this year’s location was serendipitous to me on a personal level. For certain sentimental reasons, I had for several years wanted to visit this picturesque port town, but had not yet had the chance to. It was in fact one of three cities in Japan that I had shortlisted as domestic bucket list destinations, and the other two had been crossed off earlier this year (Nagasaki and Zushi), leaving me only an Otaru trip away from completing the trifecta. The host city of this conference changes annually, and there are according to one source some 683 cities in Japan, so it really was a fortuitous coincidence that my first attendance at this conference was in the very town I had most wanted to visit.

Hokkaido is known for its long, harsh winters, but the event thankfully took place during a mild patch of weather preceding the winter, with the temperatures hovering in the teens (Celsius). All four days I was in town were mostly sunny, and the chill in the air was palpable but not biting.

On arrival

Once my cab dropped me off at the campus gate after negotiating the mother of all steep hills, I was greeted first by a swarm of yukimushi (“snow bugs”, an endemic species in Hokkaido that has a distinctive fluffy white rear and whose ephemeral appearance heralds the imminent arrival of the snowy season each fall), then at the door of the classroom building where the conference was held by the event organizer, who happened to be heading out and warmly welcomed me to the conference.

The presentations

The presentations varied in content (with topics ranging from finding writing buddies to news reporting in Japan) and approach (some more interactive than others), but were all highly informative and captivating. Being an inexperienced writer, this conference was a rare and valuable opportunity to learn about what it takes to make it in this business from some of the very best. The presentations were well worth the long trip, and my only regret is that I was not able to attend more of them.

The community

I also took advantage of the opportunity to approach and pick the brains of some of the speakers at the event. It was easy to get a little starstruck being around the big names and well-published authors—I might have been the greenest writer in attendance, and technically speaking a non-native writer at that (my dominant language has long been English, but I always respect the true definition of a native speaker)—but everyone I talked to was kind enough to talk to me and answer my questions, and was very supportive. Their cordiality put me at ease, and it was also refreshing to be able to introduce myself and my international background without being judged or feeling alienated. The typical Japanese response to my self-introduction is some variation of “sugoi” or “It’s like you’re from another world” with the person staring at me like I have three heads (I know they probably don’t mean any harm, but the stress of constantly being branded “not one of us” can be hard on the psyche), but at this event I received no such treatment, and I felt welcomed by the speakers and other attendees I talked to, even getting to exchange contact information with them. I may not be at their level of course, but they made me feel like I was part of the community, and that’s all I could ask for.

My takeaway

I returned to my home in Yokohama emotionally rejuvenated and infused with various new writing tips, which in itself made the trip worthwhile. But, most of all I enjoyed the company of fellow English-language writers. The writers at this conference hailed from many different places and genres, but we all shared a common interest in writing, and it was heartening and inspiring to be in the presence of like-minded individuals. It also felt good being back in a multinational, English-speaking environment, which is what I grew up in and where I can feel most at home. As a bit of a lone wolf with a cultural identity crisis, that sense of belonging can often be elusive, and it meant a lot to me to find and be a small part of a group that I can feel comfortable in, if only for a weekend. No matter the level of success I manage to achieve as a writer, I will remember this event as a weekend in which I gained not only the knowledge I had been seeking, but so much more.

All in all, I’m happy to have attended this event, and I’m thankful to everyone who made my experience as enjoyable as it was. If any of you are reading this, I would like to thank the conference organizer for putting together this wonderful event, the presenters for imparting their invaluable knowledge, and everyone I got to talk to for their time. Thanks also for reading this post, and I hope to see you all again next year!