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Saturday, May 30, 2009
Writer answers ceaseless call for stimulation
Tabloid niche helped fill international need
By ULARA NAKAGAWA
Special to The Japan Times
Mark Schreiber was the first foreign writer in Japan to cover the wildly popular phenomenon of capsule hotels.
The American-born author, journalist, translator and longtime Japan resident spent a night back in 1980 at the first of Japan's such hotels — The Capsule Inn in Osaka. Finding his stay at the in-and-out convenience spot, "very uncomfortable" with his 189-cm bulk crammed into the tiny compartment-style room/sleeping space, Schreiber concluded: "It fits the bill — for short-statured males on a tight travel budget."
Luckily, the experience was worthwhile. The international media jumped on his original story, which was first published in 1981 in the Tokyo Weekender. It was then picked up by Newsweek, and the Wall Street Journal did its own feature quoting Schreiber.
Schreiber, 61, has a unique ability to spot a niche topic, then experience it firsthand or research it extensively. That, combined with his better-than-native comprehension of written Japanese, has allowed him to stand on the front lines for three decades making some of the best of Japanese media accessible to English-speaking audiences.
Says the writer of his motivations, "You can expose yourself to things that scream to be written about. Somebody should write something. And sometimes nobody did so I guess that I had to."
This kind of motivation, which Schreiber aptly calls writer's "tenacity," has produced written work covering a range of subjects in a vast number of publications based in Japan and around the world. His prolific career to date is evident in the piles of books, newspapers and magazines bearing his name and writings collected in his suburban Tokyo office.
Schreiber's career roots in media were formed at a young age. As a child, his father's work with the U.S. Army took Schreiber to a number of countries, including Germany. There, at the age of 10, he had his first job in newspaper sales. "I sold the Stars and Stripes, I didn't deliver it. I got up at 4:30 a.m. every morning and picked up 120 newspapers at the dropoff point. It was still dark . . . and I'd go around to the barracks and sell the papers for five cents each to the soldiers. So, my beginning in journalism was selling newspapers — before school, every morning for about an hour and a half."
Schreiber stayed on course throughout his high school and college years. "Since I already knew I wanted to be a writer, I spent a lot of time . . . at a typewriter. I've been writing for a long, long time. I knew what I was going to be doing and I set my life in that direction."
It was when he came with his family to live in Okinawa at the age of 17, that his career aspirations truly began to take shape. Schreiber entered International Christian University as a sophomore for two years as a transfer student. Partway through, the school was shut down due to student demonstrations, but his experiences during those years proved invaluable.
"When I was at ICU, almost every weekend I would head out to the boondocks and travel. I was all over Japan." Schreiber explains that he was able to afford this on a student budget due to the economic situation at the time: "The yen was 360 to the dollar so a ryokan with dinner and breakfast cost ¥1,000. That's $2.80."
Schreiber went back to the U.S. and completed his undergraduate degree. He was then accepted into a graduate program to study the Chinese language in Taiwan. Upon completion, he returned to Japan to take a job at the 1970 World Expo. Following this stint he worked in the corporate sector as a self-professed "salaryman" for a decade. Schreiber recalls these times with fondness.
"In those days it was still too early for foreigners to come and work in Japanese companies. Part was the language barrier, part was the salaries were not very good, and so for a variety of reasons, even when foreigners came they were given menial jobs. The thing that made me extremely lucky is I was given responsibility, I was treated just like anyone else."
It was partly due to Schreiber's experience as a regular Joe in Japan that he became the top foreign expert in shukanshi, the Japanese weekly tabloids. He explains how the tabloids in Japan are a cornerstone of Japanese work life, as he looks back at his experience with his former Japanese employer: "(They) made some factories and offices in Europe and overseas. They would make a box of gifts of ika surume (dried cuttlefish), sembei (rice crackers), and stuff like that. They were going to send this to their employees abroad, and always put in a bunch of shukanshi.
"So, along with the crackers and the sake, they put in the magazines. This is what Japanese read when they were outside of Japan and wanted to keep up with what was going on in the country."
Schreiber explains how he became an avid tabloid consumer and expert. "This country has great magazine journalism and I began realizing this. I was tall. I would be riding the train to work in the morning, hanging onto the strap and I could see from 360 degrees down around me, and everybody had their nose in a tabloid. I could read over their shoulders, so I was picking this stuff up, even without buying it.
"I started eating lunch in coffee shops where they would put out free magazines and if I were by myself I would grab a magazine, look at it, and think, this is great," he remembers.
"Japan has an old, well-developed magazine culture. . . . It goes back to the 1880s. They are very good at what they do. They are a niche product. They know that they can't get stuff out faster than the newspapers. So they have to present information in a different way, provide entertainment for the strap hangers on the train, or people who are looking for something. But the fact of the matter is that newspapers are pretty boring. So you have a nation of people who love to read and they're looking for stimulating content."
Schreiber has written columns introducing the best of the shukanshi for many publications, including The Japan Times, and has co-written and edited several books on the same topic. Although he has now moved on to other professional ventures, he still takes pleasure in keeping up with the best of the weeklies in his personal time.
In recent years, new challenges have led Schreiber to pursue fresh endeavors. In 1997, Schreiber was suddenly struck down by an undiagnosed illness that left him in a coma for four days and in the hospital for a month. Interspersed between that dark period, he wrote two books chronicling crime in Japan, "Shocking Crimes of Postwar Japan" (1996) and "The Dark Side: Infamous Japanese Crimes and Criminals" (2001).
During this time Schreiber also began to reflect more on life. "I guess it's a sign of getting old. You start thinking about the past because you realize how much the world has changed from your own childhood and then you realize that before you existed, before your own childhood, there was still a world and people in it. They haven't changed that much," he says reflectively.
"We all have to be from somewhere and do something . . . I think that I found myself and what I wanted to do with the rest of my life at the age of 17 when I arrived in Japan. I was fascinated by this place. I had the desire to be a writer and I knew that to be a writer, you have to have things to write about, and there's no lack of topics in Japan."
Currently, Schreiber continues to apply his optimism and tenacity to his work in writing and publishing, while consolidating the many items collected over the years in his work space. He has various projects sitting on the horizon.
His outlook remains steady: "I want to stick to the principle — stimulating people through interesting stories."
Mark Schreiber will speak on Sunday, June 28 at Good Day Books in Tokyo's Ebisu. Schreiber will speak on North Asia contemporary mystery novels. See www.gooddaybooks.com for more information or call (03) 5421-0957.