The Kokoro Files shines a light on the connection that everyday people have with Japan. For some, the connection inspires them to write and that’s definitely the case for Brian Ashcraft. The author of several Japan related books, which includes Japanese Tattoos, Ashcraft is dedicated to his craft.
In this interview, Ashcraft describes what makes irezumi so beautiful and how he started his writing journey.
Thanks for taking the time to chat Brian. I really enjoyed reading your book on Japanese tattoos and the long history of irezumi. What inspired you to write the book and what was involved in the research process?
I majored in art history in university, so I’ve always been passionate about art. Even when I was in grade school, I was doing reports on famous artists like Van Gogh, dressing up him for the class, and even bandaging my head with a spot of fake blood at my ear for added effect.
Living in Japan, I’ve obviously been drawn to the country’s artist tradition. Nobody had really done a Japanese tattoo book like this, so I pitched it to Tuttle, and they said they were interested. I had met Hori Benny before, and I felt like we really hit it off. I wanted to do the book with him because I felt like we had a similar worldview on many things, so I was delighted with he agreed to be involved.
The research process was extremely involved. I read hundreds upon hundreds of books on all sorts of aspects of Japanese culture–from religion and nature to kimono patterns and even tableware designs. The book isn’t only about tattoos, but the entire visual culture of the country. Researching that, as you can imagine, was involved. Then, there was all the tattoo things I needed to study. Hori Benny and I talked nearly everyday about tattoos. Then, I visited a whole bunch of tattoo shops and talked to tattooers. I saw many, many people get tattoos and spoke to them as well. It was an intense and enjoyable process.
One of the most interesting aspects of Japanese Tattoos is how it breaks the stereotype of only yakuza and criminals choosing to get tattoos in Japan. What are some of the most interesting tattoo stories you heard while writing the book?
I really enjoyed meeting all sorts of different people who either were getting tattoos or had tattoos. They were doing it for themselves. Tattoos in Japan are generally very private. So I felt privileged to talk to people about their tattoos, because perhaps, it was something they didn’t talk about with their friends or co-workers.
Another part of the book I found to be interesting was the interview with Horiyoshi III. Had you worked with him prior to writing Japanese Tattoos or was it a case of reaching out to him during the research stage?
Hori Benny and I went to his Yokohama studio one chilly morning. We were told that we could interview him, but that the interview was living going to be pretty short. We ended up staying with him for the entire day, watching him tattoo multiple clients.
He looks like an incredibly intimidating character, and his career and art must certainly are, but he was incredibly generous with his time. We talked to him about all sorts of stuff, and he repeatedly said that we needed to study tattoo very deeply as to not make the kinds of mistakes he sees foreigners typically make with Japanese tattooing. Because of that experience, I felt motivated to work even harder.
In addition to Japanese Tattoos, you’ve also written a new book about Japanese whisky. What kinds of whisky is featured in the book and where are some of your favourite places to drink in Japan?
Oh, I love drinking at lots of different bars in Osaka and Tokyo. It’s really hard to pick one place, but if I were it would be One-shot Bar Keith, which is featured on the cover of the book. It’s a Japanese whisky specialty bar, which is actually somewhat rare in Japan!
The prices are fair, the selection is great, and it’s a very comfortable place.
Why do you think Japanese whisky has become so popular in the west?
The easiest explanation is that Japanese whisky is excellent. But there are some other factors, such as the fact that Japanese whisky had been ignored by people outside Japan for a long time.
Because of that, I think that created the sensation of “discovering” Japanese whisky. Keep in mind, though, that English-language writers had been saying good things about Japanese whisky since the late 1950s!
Who are some of the authors who have inspired you throughout your career?
I’ve always looked to Donald Richie’s career and admired how he had a main expertise (movies), but wrote books about a whole bunch of Japanese topics.
I think everything in Japanese culture is, in a way, connected, so I have a huge amount of respect for that willingness to tackle different subject matters in Japan. It’s a way to better understand the country, I think.
You also have a successful journalistic background through the likes of writing for Kotaku and The Japan Times. How did you start writing for Kotaku?
Iwas a Contributing Editor for Wired Magazine at that time, which was 2005. Another Contributing Editor recommended me to Gawker Media, the company that then owned Kotaku.
I interviewed and got the job. However, writing for Kotaku in 2005 was very different than from today! We didn’t have that many readers, so doing things like setting up interviews at the Tokyo Game Show was very, very difficult.
Outside of writing about Japan, what other parts of the culture are you passionate about?
I enjoy cooking Japanese food a lot and traveling. I’m into cars, and I love driving around the Japanese countryside!
Where are some of the places you’d recommend travelling to in Japan that are off the beaten path?
I love going to the Sea of Japan’s coast in Kyoto Prefecture–or to be honest, anywhere off the Sea of Japan. For people who are visiting Japan, I highly recommend renting a car and getting out of the cities. There are some beautiful roads and lovely little small towns to see.
What kind of advice would you offer to any writer who’d like to build their career around developing content on Japan?
Definitely do it! Writing about Japan or creating YouTube videos is an excellent way to learn more about the country. It makes you think more about things you see in your daily life, so I definitely recommend it.
What kind of Japan-related projects can we expect from you in the future?
I’m currently finishing up another booze book, and then will be working on another book after that. Then, no doubt, more books after that!
Brian Ashcraft is a writer based in Japan. He is the Senior Contributing Editor for video game site Kotaku. He has authored five books, including Japanese Whisky, Japanese Tattoos and Arcade Mania. Previously, Ashcraft was a Contributing Editor at Wired Magazine, where he has covered topics ranging from digital filmmaking and liquor chemistry to Japanese politics and robotics. His work has also appeared in Popular Science, The Guardian, The Japan Times, and design journal Metropolis Magazine as well as publications in the United Kingdom, Portugal, Italy and South Africa.