Originally published in Splice
This is a series of short interviews with media professionals that we’re doing in partnership with Asia Undercovered, a newsletter covering news and trends in Asia that aren’t getting enough attention in U.S. media.
These interviews will allow reporters to share their experiences directly, including what it’s like to cover stories that are often under- or misrepresented in the global media, and what their work means in the broader context of the issues and trends in Asia.
We’re speaking with Hanako Montgomery, an American-Japanese journalist based in Tokyo. She writes about Japanese culture, gender equality, and current affairs for Vice World News. Some of her recent stories include:
- A Japanese School Edited Her Yearbook Photo. She Says It Was Racist
- Japanese Princess Mako’s Marriage Story Isn’t Just About Love. It’s About Freedom
- Covid Scared Her. But It Was Loneliness That Nearly Killed Her
Hanako tells us about working for an American media outlet in Japan, navigating journalism as a bi-racial person and how curiosity drives her to investigate and share with the world the complexities and issues beyond the “weird Japan” narrative in mainstream media.
Can you tell us about how and why you became a journalist?
Hanako: I’ve always been very interested in storytelling and people. When I was in high school, I really wanted to become a screenwriter or a playwright.
But when I came to Japan to study abroad, I had the opportunity to research the sex industry here. So I got my feet wet a little bit and understood what it means to tell a story on the real world as opposed to writing a fictional story.
After this I did an internship with an English newspaper here in Japan, and started to understand what the work looks like day to day. I realized this was something that I enjoy. It was really just about being able to speak to people about things that they’re extremely knowledgeable about, and being able to pick their brains about it and turn it into a story.
You mention growing up in Tokyo and New York, but you primarily write in English about Japan, not in Japanese about the U.S. or other countries. What lead to this?
Part of it was just how the dice rolled, but there are many reasons. I prefer the way I write in English. I can write, read and speak Japanese fluently, but I’ve had more experience in writing essays and journalistic style in English.
Having graduated from an American university, it was easier for me to find a job with an American company. Also, Japanese news organizations are a bit different from American ones. I actually have a few friends who work for Japanese TV, as well as a few teachers at my Japanese school who had worked in that industry. They told me about how it’s quite difficult as a woman to make your way due to sexism and less freedom. That made me a bit wary.
Freedom of the press in Japan, and in the United States, also looks very different. In Japan, we have something called “Kisha kurabu,” where you have to be a part of a coalition of journalists to get first access to certain information. If you are foreign media, you don’t have the same access. In the U.S. we don’t really have this system. So that has been a bit of a challenge.
I see it in my interactions too. When I’m interviewing in Japanese, I’ll be asked more times to see the full article before it gets published. Here I feel like people are more concerned about having something defamatory written about them. I think freedom of speech and freedom of the press isn’t as strong of a value here in Japan, and actually Japan ranks quite low globally on this.
The reason I write about Japan started off as just my own personal curiosity. I always envisioned myself coming back to Japan one day, and that turned into finding work here and telling stories from Japan. I guess I wanted to learn more about Japan’s culture, beyond the sort of two-dimensional understanding I might have had earlier.
What do you think about the “weird/bizarre Japan” reporting that seems to be pervasive in many western media outlets, and more broadly, any thoughts on how Japan is portrayed in global media?
The way Japan is portrayed is often alarmist or clickbait-y. I understand why that kind of media comes about, especially in our current digital climate where it’s all about how much attention you can grab and win. But at the same time, it does perpetuate a stereotype.
I grew up with that in New York, learning how people saw Japan. Often the stereotypes were that Japan is sexually repressed but at the same time very hentai (perverted). It is disappointing to see that these stereotypes still prevail.
Another example is the perception that Japanese people are all about courtesy, and that they don’t want to cause any conflict. But the reality is that the way we communicate is just very different, and conflict is still very much a prevalent thing in Japan.
Positive stereotypes can have a negative impact too. For example if we try to talk about something serious, related to human rights issues for example, people might think of the cute geeky culture and say “Oh, that sort of stuff doesn’t happen in Japan though, it’s a clean and peaceful country, how could anything like that happen?”
I wish there was more space to understand a culture beyond a headline, beyond what is interesting for the first five seconds.
I hope that in 10 or 20 years we might come to a point where we know Fukushima not just for the nuclear disaster, but also for its heritage and history. People can educate themselves beyond media headlines, but I think it’s also the part of the media’s job to present countries beyond stereotypes.
One topic you write about gender issues and women in Japan. In what ways do you think writing about these issues to a global audience can play a role in driving change locally on this issue?
I like to believe that the fact that I’m able to tell these stories on a global scale helps expand the conversation. It can allow people to compare with what is going on in their own nations versus what’s going on in Japan, and vice versa. It’s the same as discussing politics. Often people like to see how other countries are doing, to exchange ideas and learn from what’s happening in other places.
For example, we were talking about the rising number of female suicides in Japan during Covid. Suicide had been decreasing in the past 11 years, so the uptick that we saw in Japan was quite astounding. It shone a light on the experience of women in Japan.
The fact that they had part-time jobs, and they were more financially unstable, on top of the pressures that they felt within their homes to take care of their families.
The story allowed a global audience to understand just how a woman is positioned in Japanese society and these factors might be causing that suicide statistic, rather than just pinning it on the pandemic or women being clinically depressed.
Stories like this can then also link to other global dialogues. For example the woman I interviewed for this story spoke about how she had visited friends in the United States and noticed how differently mental health is discussed there compared to Japan. It led her to thinking about why that might be different, and how we could be implementing a less stigmatized notion of mental health for women in Japan.
You’ve previously mentioned being a fellow hafu (“half” — someone born to one non-ethnic Japanese parent) that this identity can come with various forms of discrimination and challenges but also in some cases access and privilege. Can you tell us about being a hafu journalist in Japan?
Bi-racialism is a topic that I think has so many different shades, no pun intended. For example, growing up in a very white community in New York I felt extremely Asian, and desperately wanted to be white. If I had grown up in Japan, I would probably have had a very different experience. That’s changed now, I’ve learned to accept and appreciate my Japanese heritage, and my curiosity now allows me to work as a journalist in Japan.
In terms of how it shaped my career, it’s been an extreme privilege being able to understand Japanese culture whilst also understanding the American audience, and being able to bridge the two.
It’s been wonderful using my background in this way, and I hope I’m using it well. Being able to speak and read and write Japanese, I do think that it creates a bit more sense of trust with the local audience because there’s no translator in between me, the interviewer, and the interviewee.
Knocking down that wall can create some vulnerability and some intimacy that might not be as easily achieved if there were a translator.
But there are also negative sides to this. I’m thinking back to a story I covered on child pornography, where I would often be described by local readers as an American reporter, someone who was an outsider.
Another example is that because of my own understanding of Japanese culture, I don’t necessarily explain everything about Japan in my first draft. And then my editor will ask me to explain what something means or where it’s coming from for our American audience.