I have an irrational fear of falling into a Japanese toilet—not an everyday worry, but one that poses itself as I pack for a weeklong research trip to a small town in Japan. I had knee surgery a few years ago and my squat technique is not what it used to be. My friend Reiko tells me it’s highly unlikely. I don’t tell her that I am the Queen of Unlikely. I tell her she’s right, and prepare for the worst. Aside from a fear of squat toilets, this sort of travel is a luxury for me—I often do my research trips at my desk via books, Google maps and the internet. In this way, I’ve been able to successfully write Alaska, 1800s Germany, and 1940s Texas. But I have also been to each of those place before—long before I had the idea to set a book there—and having a visceral experience of the place helped me add sensual layers to my writing.
But this trip is different. I am writing about a corner of history that has a rather one-sided view here in the United States—World War II Japan.
As Churchill said, history is written by the victors. In this case, the victor only writes in English. But the story I’m telling is Japanese. So, what do you do when you need research in another language, in another place? You pack your bags, and go.
My first step was to cull English language books for information. It was the bibliographies of these books that confirmed the juiciest stuff was only published in Japan in Japanese. I contacted the authors of these books to see if they had any materials I could borrow, or suggestions for research. Fortunately, two out of the three responded. One author I met in person, which made a great difference. Dan King (The Last Zero Fighter) spoke at an airfield a two hour drive from my house about his time spent interviewing the last of the WWII Japanese pilots in their own language. He was kind enough to respond to my follow up email with an introduction to the curator of a museum in Japan—my number one reason for making the trip!—and a list of other sites to visit. From Dan and the other author, I learned new sources of information and realized a trip was in order. I began researching tours of the region, and quickly learned that the average tour was out of my budget and impractical—a glorious two-week tour of the entire country, with only a half-day visit to the region in which my story is set. At last, I settled on cobbling together a more focused trip.
I don’t speak Japanese, so I enrolled in an affordable online class to learn the basics for travel. Still, it was pretty clear I would need a translator. For this, I researched organizations that offer translation services in Japan. I also contacted the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators in Tokyo for assistance. (Unfortunately, I never heard back from them!) Ultimately, I was lucky to come across a company called Tours By Locals, which will help you find a local tour guide in many countries around the world. That led me to Reiko Y., who agreed to meet me in at my hotel, and spend three days with me as I visited the small town where my book takes place. She was surprised to learn I am a “real writer!” and launched herself into researching my topic so we can have a more informed trip. She also decided to bring her car so we may travel around the area a bit more freely. She even helped me book my hotel room at the non-English speaking inn where part of the story takes place. And all for less money than a package tour would have cost.
Now, as I scramble to make packing lists, notify my credit card company, and deal with Wi-Fi access (apparently there is limited free Wi-Fi in Japan), I must also make a final review of my research questions. This is a one-time trip, so each day counts. So, how do I know what questions to ask? Well, first I wrote the book! A sloppy first draft, plot holes and all, so that I know what is missing and can target my research more effectively.
I’m excited to visit the location—I plan on taking the temperature of the place quite literally, although, I’ll be visiting about a month and a half later than when the events in the book take place. I want to know how the town smells, feels, tastes, sounds. All of this will go into the story, as will the hard-to-find personal and historical information gleaned from the places we visit.
Who knows how this will turn out? There is a fear, of course, that I will return home and kick myself for not asking one more question, or hunting down one more source. But if my fear of squat toilets has taught me anything, it’s that I can only do my best. And, if that’s still not enough, then I guess I’m lucky I’m a novelist. I can make the rest up!