By Jonathan Vankin
Memories of a Mercenary Journalist
at the World’s Largest Newspaper
“Ink, Sweat, Cigarettes and Air Conditioning”
I am not accustomed to a necktie clutching at my trachea, especially in humidity like the Tokyo humidity. Nor is a charcoal pinstripe suit specifically my style. But Japan, they tell me, is a formal country and I’m wearing this – this costume — because I’ve got to impress the people within this building that looms before me. Inside this monolith awaits a job that would pay me more than twice my highest wage as a newspaper reporter in 10 years on the alternative-weekly circuit back home in the States.
The date is May 15, 1993. A Saturday.
I stand gathering my courage, such as it is, on the steps of the Yomiuri Shimbun building, headquarters of the world’s largest-circulation daily newspaper, in the center of Tokyo’s financial district known as Otemachi (which I am told, translates literally as “Big Hands Town”). The blaring neon of Ginza, the Blade Runner video screens of Shinjuku, the erotic throb of Shibuya, the Westernized decadence of Roppongi — forget it.
Otemachi is sedate by day, abandoned by night. Even on a Saturday.
The Nikkei Stock Exchange sits just around the corner. The Bank of Japan, a few blocks away. Directly across the street sits KDD Kaikan, corporate home of Japan’s long-distance telephone giant, its roof raked with antennae and satellite dishes. A short stroll to the east lie vast, imposing, moat-ringed palace grounds — home to the Emperor of Japan.
Yomiuri Shimbun headquarters is 11 stories of dark steel and glass, devoid of charisma, automatic doors sliding silently onto a marbled lobby. The building oozes solemnity like the Yomiuri newspaper itself. The Yomiuri is Japan’s 10-million circulation gray lady, the largest-circ daily in the world — the voice of the Japanese establishment.
The job I hoped to acquire, or actually, talk my way into, was not with the actual Yomiuri Shimbun newspaper. I don’t speak a lick of Japanese. I was headed for an interview at the eiji shimbun — English-language newspaper, that is — known as The Daily Yomiuri. Each of Japan’s three major national dailies circa 1993 publishes an English-language paper each day as well. Why they do this is not entirely clear. The English papers are reliable financial losers. Presumably it has something to do with prestige.
Their motives are not important to me now. What is important is that there was some problem with my rewriting test.
Translated copy from the parent paper makes up the bulk of The Daily Yomiuri. Because the translators are all Japanese, rendering stories into a language not their own, the main job of the foreign staff is to rewrite those translations into something like readable English-language newspaper journalism.
As I am about to find out, rewriting at the Daily Yomiuri is not a simple matter of craftsmanship. It is a delicate political procedure.
The Yomiuri building’s facade of gravitas is just that: a facade. Inside, formerly white walls are streaked with soot. Ceiling lights blink unpredictably. Ribbons of cigarette smoke waft from beneath closed doors.
A chemical scent hangs throughout the building, an insidious blend of Mild Seven cigarettes, ink, sweat and decrepit air conditioning. The Daily Yomiuri offices are on the fourth floor. I’ve been inside the building only twice before and its labyrinthine corridors and multiple staircases confused me. This time, I took the route I had taken before — from the third floor, through the cafeteria and up the stairs.
The elevator on the third floor opens next to the “dormitory.” Late-shift workers from the basement printing-plant snooze on bunked cots, snoring. When they wake up, they throw on yokota (bathrobes) and parade down the hall to the sento (bath) to wash up — usually with Mild Sevens smoldering between their lips. Then they brush their teeth, cough and spit into sinks that line a stretch of the hallway.
The sink-stretch leads straight to the cafeteria where after you run a gauntlet of near-naked, smoking, snoring, spitting middle-aged men who reek of printer’s ink, you dine. A mere 280 yen buys a plate of curry: a thick brown gravy loaded with stinging spices and scraps of gray pork slopped over a thick wad of sticky white rice. The curry is somewhat more edible than it looks. Somewhat. But it’s got to be the cheapest meal in Tokyo.
JONATHAN VANKIN is a writer and editor of various things that need writing and editing. His work has received sundry awards and honors, while his books have been translated into nearly 20 languages. Including Japanese.
In 2010, he published The World’s Greatest Conspiracies, the fifth installment in his Greatest Conspiracies franchise (co-written with John Whalen). He has written comics for DC, Vertigo, Image and IDW. Also, screenplays, TV and theatre. As a Senior Editor at DC/Vertigo Comics from 2004 to 2010, he was responsible for numerous series (e.g. Swamp Thing, Hellblazer, The Exterminators) and graphic novels (including The Quitter by Harvey Pekar and TRIP CITY’s “own” Dean Haspiel).
Among his several newspaper gigs, he spent time at The Daily Yomiuri in Tokyo, Japan which if nothing else led to his TRIP CITY debut, “Please Don’t Change the Facts.” His experience in Tokyo was also the inspiration for the “day” part of his his Vertigo graphic novel, Tokyo Days, Bangkok Nights.
His journalism has appeared in The New York Times Magazine, Wired, Salon, L.A. Weekly and numerous other publications.
He taught creative writing to incarcerated youth in the Los Angeles area as part of the Spoken Interludes Next program, which he counts as perhaps the most memorable experience of his career.
Vankin currently resides somewhere in New York City with his beautiful partner, the dynamic singer/actress Kirsten Holly Smith and his two also very dynamic feline companions, Fenway and Nomar.
Cartoonist and illustrator SIMON GANE lives and works in Bristol, England. His first published comics appeared in punk fanzines in the early 1990′s. Recent projects include: the graphic novels Paris (with Andi Watson), Dark Rain: New Orleans Story (with Mat Johnson), Northlanders (with Brian Wood) and Godzilla Legends: Rodan (with Jonathan Vankin).