July, 2017

Our man in Matsumoto: Paul Murphy

Good evening, here is the news from soggy Abiko…

I’ve got a soft spot for journos. That may be a self-centred thing to say seeing as I was a newspaper reporter and sub-editor for 13 years in a previous life, but I’d like to think there is something noble about the daily struggles of the first drafters of truth. On a good day, there can be. Anyway, with that in mind, here are a few links to my latest projects and other stuff worth a click or two.

  1. If you are into Japan, journalism or justice (of course you are, that’s why you subscribe to this newsletter), you will get something of value from my interview with True Crime Japan author  Paul Murphy. It’s long, but really good.
  2.  The Library of Congress has made 2,500 Japanese woodblock prints available to download for free. They are top banana, as they say in the Abiko art world, and immediately had me thinking which ones would make good background art for book covers. Speaking of art, I was moved by this article about a chap who set up a gallery to showcase the art of young Japanese artists who were drafted and subsequently mown down in the Second World War.
  3.  I was chuffed for my Hana Walker series to be listed in Asian YA Books worth checking out. And Hana Walker’s debut, Half Life, received this great reviewon Goodreads by reader Akikana.
  4. This Japan Times article on behind-the-scenes drama on the set of You Only Live Twice was really good. Hopefully the JT’s sale to a corporate PR firm, announced this month, won’t adversely affect their output.
  5. Indie author Thersa Matsuura gives a great interview to Metropolis Magazine about her attraction to Japanese folklore.
  6. Ever fancied teaching English and publishing your own textbook? Here’s a 10-minute video on how I went about writing and publishing my 10th one. Filmed on location from my classroom bunker a couple of days ago.
  7. The English translation of The Great Passage, a story of publishing, Japan and office politics by Shion Miura is reviewed by J.C. Greenway, a fellow book-loving Brit in Japan.
  8. Japan finding that it can’t have its Mario Kart cake and eat it, according to this article in the Wall Street Journal. But the country is enjoying a new dawn in the golden age of amine according to The Guardian. Dawns and dusks often look the same, no matter how you paint them.
  9. I really enjoyed this interview with Mark Schilling, who’s been reviewing Japanese movies for Variety and the Japan Times since the 1980s.
  10. Question of the month: Last month’s question was “.What do you recommend I read to get a handle on modern Japanese history?” Guy Yates suggested Tokyo Underworld: The Fast Times and Hard Life of an American Gangster in Japan by Robert Whiting, which I’ve got (but haven’t read); and Craig Scanlan suggested The Making of Modern Japan by Marius B. Jansen. Craig said, “This is basically the bible of 1600 to present(ish), and biblical in length as well. It’s fairly linear, so if you were perhaps not interested in the early stuff, you could skip it. But no one really lays out the whole damn thing like Jansen did.”

    Thanks deputies.

    Here’s this month’s question that would be a great help to me. I’m back writing my third Hana Walker novel, but I find I’m in two minds about setting. Should I set her adventures primarily in Abiko (as I did in Half Life) or use a neighbourhood of Tokyo as the backdrop (as I diid in Year of the Talking Dog)? The advantage of Abiko is I know it well, but Tokyo, I hate to admit, is a little better known to new readers. What do you think? Where would you like to see Hana galavanting around? Your opinions would be invaluable to me (and Hana) as I’m at the stage where I can easily incorporate big changes to the novel (aka only halfway through the first draft). Just hit reply to this email and I’ll share your (and my reconsidered) thoughts on setting with you next month.

Thanks for reading, have a good rainy season. And if you’ve enjoyed reading any of my stuff, be a sport and leave a review on one of my books on Amazon or Goodreads, or drop me a line on Twitter or Facebook. You can find past issues of this newsletter in the morgue at Letter from Abiko. And if you know anyone who would like this newsletter, feel free to forward ’em a copy.

Next month, I should have an interview in the bag to tell you all about with Alexander O. Smith, the translator of Japanese crime giants Keigo Higashino and Miyuki Miyabe, among others.



June, 2017

Michael Pronko at large


I want to thank all members of the Sherriff posse (that means you) for recommending books and movies and just generally keeping me up to date with things I should know, but don’t. Anything I learn, I’ll share with you. A gold star goes to Deputy Nancy Crudts, who recommended Michael Pronko as a person of interest to this newsletter. I made contact with him and came back with a 2,000-word interrogation. It was a lot of fun to do, and I learnt a lot. You might too…

  1. And here it is, my interview with Michael Pronko, Tokyo essayist, American culture professor, and now novelist –– he only went and published his first crime novel on Wednesday. Read all about it and my review of his book, The Last Train.
  2. Fancy a trip round Jimbocho, Tokyo’s booktown? Spend two minutes with me on YouTube as I scout bookstores for good reads.
  3. How many of these nine “must read” books on Japanese history have you read? I’ve read zero, I hate to admit, although I might have Embracing Defeat on a shelf somewhere.
  4.  Speaking of ancient history, I completely missed the Ghost in the Shell movie phenomenon/flop of last month (year? Who can remember?) but Peter Tasker said it was good, and James Hadfield said it was bad. (I may be Trumping down their positions a bit).
  5. If you want to know what on earth is going on with Japanese politics, may I recommend blogger and politics professor Michael Cucek. He doesn’t blog much anymore, but he’s active on Twitter, and he’s still as sharp as ever.
  6. The Economist has discovered shochu. I’m on a shochu diet… there is no punchline to this, it’s just a lot lower in calories than beer, wine or whiskey.
  7. Why Japanese babies are upending the world of linguistics, according to Amanda Alvarez. It’s not that Japanese is particularly exceptional, just that English is not that universal.
  8. Photographer Martin Bailey conducts a great video interview with Lee Chapman, the best street photographer-blogger in Tokyo that I know of.
  9. This true tale of Australian convict pirates making it al the way to Japan in 1830 is great, made all the greater by being proven by an amateur historian.
  10.  Question of the month: What do you recommend I read to get a handle on modern Japanese history? I’ve read Alex Kerr’s Dogs and Demons and Mizuki Shigeru’s excellent Showa manga series, but what else should I be reading to help me understand recent Japanese history? As ever, email me your picks, I’ll share any recommendations with all next month. Which reminds me, last month’s question was “What Japanese movies or directors do you recommend I watch?” And once again, I was deluged with great suggestions from subscribers that I’ll share with you here. The picks and comments are from you all, not me, I knew next to nothing about Japanese cinema until you told me. Thank you…

    From Linda Lombardi:
    Animated: Tokyo Godfathers.  A trio of homeless people in Tokyo spend the Christmas season saving an abandoned baby. Much better than that sounds… Not sure that if you like this one you will want to watch all of the late Satoshi Kon’s other movies as they are rather different in my opinion, but he’s someone everyone should know about.
    Live-action, but more unreleastic than the animated suggestion: Thermae Romae. A fantasy about baths in Japan and ancient Rome, need I say more?

    From Maria Godebska
    Koreeda Hirokazu is a most excellent director. You may remember a movie he made a few years back that did well internaitonally – better than in Japan I imagine, due to the story – called Daremo Shiranai. His films, even if drama, often have a documentary-like feel – He makes films which are either focussed on everyday life in its normalcy, ups and downs; and fantasy (allegorical I guess).
    The first film by him that I saw is called “After Life” in English, and either Wandaafuru Raifu or Byuutifurur Raifu in Japanese, I forget which. It is, for me, a remarkable low-budget film, and I love it dearly. But honestly, anything by him is great. The most recent ones by him that I saw were “Our Little Sister”, or “Umimachi Diary”, and “I Wish” / Kiseki. “Like Father Like Son”/Soshite chichi ni naru got a lot of press because of the content, I haven’t seen it but am sure it is great!

    From Rochelle Kopp
    Tasogare Seibei (I think English title is Twilight Samurai).
    Anything by Ozu, Late Spring and Early Fall particularly good.
    Anything by Kurosawa, besides the usual suspects, try High and Low.
    Minbo no Onna
    Untama Giru
    Not quite as highbrow as the ones above but I liked Bakayaro a lot.
    Another director I quite like is Miike Takashi, and though he dabbles in horror and dark drama, a comedy he did, called The Happiness of the Katakuris / Katakurike no kofuku was a giggle.

    From Guy Yates:
    Baburu e go!! Taimu mashin wa doramu-shiki
    Suna no utsuwa
    Kon Ichikawa’s kagi
    The Always sanchome series are fun to watch too
    Tokyo biyori
    Anything by Ozu.
    Anything by Juzo Itami though one that sometimes slips by is Daibyonin

Have a good June, all. Hope you get something of value from this newsletter. And if you have enjoyed reading any of my stuff, be a sport and tell a pal, leave a review on one of my books on Amazon or Goodreads or drop me a line on Twitter or Facebook. If you want to read any back issues of this newsletter, they all eventually find their way to the morgue, otherwise known as Letter from Abiko.

Next month, I’ll post an interview I’m looking forward to doing with True Crime Japan author Paul Murphy.

Thanks for reading,



May, 2017

House on the Hill, Kounoyama.

I was taken aback by how many good author recommendations I got in response to last month’s question (“What Japanese or Japan-based authors would you recommend I read?”) Some of the authors I’ve heard of (and even read!) but most I hadn’t, so I really appreciate the picks, and I think you will too, so here they are, taking pride of place at no. 1 on this month’s link list.

  1. Need a good Japan author to read? Here’s what newsletter readers recommended:
    Alan Booth – non-fiction
    Osamu Dazai – anything
    Shusaku Endo – anything
    Tetsuya Honda – The Silent Dead
    Hisashi Inoue – Tokyo Seven Roses (featuring a fantastically nefarious postwar American plot to remove kanji from the Japanese language)
    Pico Iyer – non-fiction
    Yasunari Kawabata – anything, but start with The Sound of the Mountain
    Hiromi Kawakami – The Briefcase
    Alex Kerr – non-fiction
    Natsuo Kirino – Out 
    Mariko Koike – The Graveyard Apartment
    Seicho Matsumoto – Quiet Place
    Kanae Minato – Confessions
    Miyuki Miyabe – (“Crime novels with a social streak”) Reason, R.P.G, All She Was Worth
    Paul Murphy True Crime Japan (“non-fiction and not a Japanese author, but I found it fascinating to see how different Japan’s approach to justice is from the west.”)
    Fuminori Nakamura – The Kingdom
    Michael Pronko – (“He does some wonderful short essays.”) Beauty and Chaos, Tokyo’s Mystery Deepens and Motions and Moments.
    Donald Richie – non-fiction
    Kazuki Sakuraba – Red Girls
    Akimitsu Takagi  – Tattoo Murder Case
    Hideo Yokoyama  – SixFour
    Shuichi Yoshida – Villain
  2. I thought an antidote to fake news and instant irrelevance that is the age we live in is a depository of knowledge, a news morgue, a memory library, or more accurately, a blog featuring past issues of this newsletter. Behold: Letter from Abiko, guaranteed to be at least a few months out of date, and therefore free from the inanities of the instant. Time is the best editor, after all.
  3. Everything I know about Hoksai is because of this BBC podcast.
  4. Here’s this month’s freebie: Chairman Mouse, a 5,000-word essay I wrote in 2013 comparing North Korea and Tokyo Disneyland. It’s free now.
  5. I don’t know much about anime. But Matt Alt does and he wrote this great piece about Your Name for the New Yorker.
  6. Walk with me as I stumble to work through the cherry blossoms in my latest This Abikan Life video.
  7. Phil Brasor is consistently the best columnist at the Japan TimesHere’s his blog and a link to a great article he wrote on the stereotypes of Japan that Japanese are eager to promote.
  8. This is the twitter feed of a chap who does fantastic miniaturama calendar photos for every day of the year.
  9.  If you happen to find yourself in Tokyo this month, may I heartily recommend visiting the National Museum of Western Art in Ueno Park, as I did yesterday (to mark my 20th wedding anniversary). For a mere ¥430 you can see some fantastic turn of the century oil paintings and sketches from the artists’ colony at Skagen, Denmark. Get a taste of the pics from my Instagram post here, or sample the full wholesome nuttiness that is Skagen Museums from their twitter feed here. The Tokyo exhibition closes May 28th and moves on to  Hekinan City Tatsukichi Fujii Museum of Contemporary Art in Aichi Prefecture in June and July.
  10. Question of the week. Thanks again for the wonderful author recommendations. Now, what Japanese movies or directors do you recommend I watch? I’ve seen and enjoyed Tampopo. know of Kurosawa, Tokyo Story, and the Tora-san series. But there are so many others I’m just ignorant of. Email me your picks and I’ll post them next month to all the subscribers.

Thanks for reading, have a good month. And if you have enjoyed reading any of my stuff, be a sport and share this newsletter with a pal, leave a review on one of my books or drop me a line on Twitter or Facebook.


April, 2017

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I’m relieved to see the back of March, an uncomfortably dramatic month that saw my youngest undergo a (successful) hospital operation and my eldest through sheer bloodymindedness pass her retakes to get accepted into a good state high school, saving her old man a small fortune in private school fees. Phew. Roll on April…

  1. Inspired by the success of last month’s free book offer (54 folk downloaded my Children of the Tsunami) I’ve been scouring my catalogue for something else to offer readers. For the next five days only, you can download Hana Walker and the Shogi Champion to read for free from any Amazon store including here from Amazon.com, Amazon.co.jp and Amazon.co.uk. It’s a short mystery story aimed at Japanese junior high schoolers learning English, so it might not be your cup of tea, but I’m learning a lot writing stories using only the most basic vocab and grammar, and thought you might get a kick out of it too. Did I mention it’s free? For a limited time only? Yadda, yadda, yadda?
  2. If you’re after something a bit meatier to get your teeth into, let me recommend Thersa Matsuura’s Carp-Faced Boy and Other Stories. It’s darkly humorous, deliciously Japanese and really well-written. My review of it is here.
  3. Before Atsugiri Jason, before Our Man in Abiko, even before Charisma Man, there was Happy Bob. Read this Japan Times article about the nasty, brutish and short life of the icon. It’s fantastic. And make sure you click on the cartoons to see some gems, including Happy Bob’s obituary.
  4. I’m listening to an audio book for the first time, Bruce Springsteen’s autobiography, Born To Run, which brought to mind Keith Richards in his library. See? Libraries are not just for pensioners to stay out of the rain in. Er…
  5. In this video I attempt to prove how everything is connected: three chord blues, three act novels and teaching English. It’s all made of the same stuff.
  6. You want to see the All Blacks literally tackling Japanese stereotypes on the streets of Shibuya don’t you? (I don’t think that’s what they are doing, they’re just flogging insurance — ed.)
  7. I’m glad to learn that there are still people alive right now making a living like this Tokyo master book restorer.
  8. But it’s a crying shame Dr Seuss is no longer with us.I loved that Cat in the Hatwas written using only the words American elementary school kids were supposed to know how to spell. His approach is what inspired me to write the Hana Walker short stories for Japanese learners of English. She only uses grammar and vocabulary that junior high kids are supposed to know (but probably don’t). And the way Dr Suess generously inspired his fans is a role model I’ll emulate should I ever experience even a modicum (that means a little bit) of the good doctor’s success.
  9. Reviews are the lifeblood of indie author marketing, and here’s one I was delighted to receive recently for Year of the Talking Dog. If you read and enjoy any author’s books, please leave a review. It’s how we get new readers.
  10. I thought I’d try doing a question of the month. Here’s my first: What Japanese or Japan-based authors would you recommend I read? I’m trying to expand my reading beyond the usual suspects of Keigo Higashino and Haruki Murakami. Reply by email, and I’ll share any finds next month with newsletter subscribers.

Thanks for reading, have a good Hanami cherry blossom beer guzzling, if that’s your thing. otherwise I’ll be searching between the sofa cushions to find something else to offer for you free next month.


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March, 2017

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Hello, I thought you might be interested that I’m making one of my books free  for a limited time.

To mark the sixth anniversary of the earthquake, tsunami and nuclear meltdown that devastated northern Japan and rattled us here in Abiko too, I’m again this year giving away my book Children of the Tsunami for free over the next five days. (The links are at the bottom of this post).

Back in 2011, I thought the disaster would herald a new age. Perhaps we would figure out a way to live without nuclear power, institutionalised political corruption and the mass media… but it didn’t happen quite as I’d naively hoped. The nuke plants are back on line, the same party that was in power in 1950s Japan is still in power today and social media has become as manipulative and manipulated as TV ever was.

But all is not lost. It’s still possible to get a few hits of real news between the corporate cracks. Around this time in 2015 I was fortunate to spend time visiting survivors of the tsunami in Ishinomaki, Rikuzentakata and Kesennuma and I wrote up and sketched what I saw. The result is Children of the Tsunami, which is available to download for free from all Amazon sites including Amazon.comAmazon.co.jpAmazon.co.uk right now for the next five days. Enjoy. You can read the book on any Kindle device for free or download a free Kindle app from Amazon and read it for free on any brand of smartphone or tablet.

I hope you enjoy the book, and spare a thought for the dead and even more, for the survivors who we can all still help. That starts by giving them a little of our attention.

If you enjoy the book and think others might enjoy it, feel free to send one of the links above to friends or family over the next five days.

Many thanks for reading,


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February, 2017

Is it still February? Here are a few links to my latest projects and other stuff worth a click or two this month.

  1. I just finished and published my third Hana Walker short story for Japanese teens learning English. If you need work on conjugating those pesky first and third person simple present verb endings, or if you want to see Hana’s take on the rise of Trump, you can read Hana Walker and the New President here for free.
  2. And all three short stories are available as actual books here.
  3. I’ve come round to the view that the constant satirising of Trump is actually counterproductive, giving fair-minded folk the erroneous impression that laughing at him is a form of checking his power, when in fact it’s doing little more than relieving our stress (and urgency to actually do something about his policies) and humanising his regime’s inhumanity. Foreign Policy agrees with me.
  4. I’m only about two-thirds of the way through Robert McKee’s Story: Style, Structure, Substance, and the Principles of Screenwriting but I can already tell it’s worth a read if you write or want to write any kind of fiction and need to grasp narrative structure.
  5. Ever wanted to make a secret bookcase door? Here’s how you can. Secret passageway not included.
  6. This month’s best discovery was Thersa Matsuura’s Podcast Uncanny Japan. Her latest episode is about the three evil worms that live inside all of us, according to Japanese folklore.
  7. These watercolours by a Polish chap of old Tokyo Storefronts are pretty nifty. Remind me of pencil drawings in Tokyo on Foot by a French chap. About time an English chap released sketches of Abiko, eh readers? It’s on the to-do list.
  8. Got 12 minutes free? Here’s my short story that explains how Cladio Ranieri’s Leicester City won the Premiership last year. It was all to do with a magic Japanese worm, as it happens. Shame on LCFC for sacking him 10 months later. The worm will turn again.
  9. Here’s a lovely video of Tokyo by Englishman Joseph Tame who is sweating in the Tokyo marathon right now as I type this waiting for the kettle to boil for my instant cafe latte.
  10. If you’ve ever harboured the dream of self-publishing your own book, but have no idea how to begin, I made my longest video ever (21 minutes!) for This Abikan Life explaining the production process.

Right, The kettle’s boiled. Thanks for reading, have a good spring. And if you have enjoyed any of my stuff, be a sport and leave a comment on YouTube, Goodreads or Amazon or drop me a line on Twitter or Facebook.


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January, 2017

Here are a few links to my latest projects and other stuff worth a click or two.

  1. I got frustrated with a lesson in my daughter’s English textbook and thought I could write a better short story for Japanese teens learning English. You can read the story here for free. What do you think? I’m working on the next two stories now. They are in the same universe as the Hana Walker novels for adults.
  2. One of Ray Bradbury’s many pieces of excellent advice in Zen in the Art of Writing is to write a short story a week, because after a year, at least one of them is bound to be OK, right? I’m working on it, Mr Bradbury.
  3. Ever got lost in love? Of course you have. Me too, so I thought I’d try and figure out The Romantic Novel by deconstructing Pride and Prejudice, as you do. I painted a picture of fair Elizabeth, too. The things I do for love, sigh.
  4. Malice by Keigo Higashino is the best Japanese whodunnit I’ve read this winter. Not hard as the only other one I read was The Tokyo Zodiac Murders, review here.
  5. Nice write-up here in the Japan Times of Infinity Books, which is said to be the last remaining second-hand bookshop devoted to English books in Tokyo. I bought a book from them a decade ago about teaching English in Japan. This year, I plan to publish one on the same subject.
  6. My first video of 2017 is here in which I pontificate about public vs private edu-macation in Japan.
  7. You should probably befriend British freelance journo Richard Smart on Facebook here. His weekly roundups of stuff he’s read are really good.
  8. Do you live in an RV? Or do you want to listen to a podcast interview from one with sci-fi writer/futurist David Brin? Of course you do.
  9. Magdalena Osumi, a staff writer at the Japan Times, likes to sketch. Here’s her Michelle Obama.
  10. Remember that chap who wandered around the NY subway with fake book covers? He’s done it again, only with Trump-themed titles. Laugh while it’s all still a joke, I say.

Thanks for reading, have a good 2017. And if you have enjoyed reading any of my stuff, be a sport and leave a review or drop me a line on Twitter or Facebook.

All the best,

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