Ken is an Okinawan-born (1973) writer living in Tokyo. We met during the shooting of a TV show called Great Gear, one of his recurring works. Something grabbed my attention when he was taking notes and writing; he had the manners of a clever but humble person. The way he dressed was casual yet stylish, and with his long hair and round glasses, I thought, this guy has a story to tell.
On a break, while we are walking around town filming with my good friend Martin Holtkamp, I had the chance to give him my card. It turned out that he could speak a bit of Spanish, and it was one of those moments when you establish a thin, yet instant connection with someone. We packed up and promised to catch up soon.
Coffee and Cigarettes
A few emails later, I visited his home near Tokyo Tower, where he lives with his wife Noriko and their cat, Tora, which is named after Torahiko Terada, a Japanese physicist. Tora also means tiger in Japanese. A spacious and bright living room serve them as both office and living space. His partner is also an editor, and they make the perfect couple one would say! With a library full of dozens of books, you can easily tell that they really enjoy reading. Tora guards the house and makes sure nothing escapes his watch.
Ken shows me his working desk, right next to the kitchen, where he can smoke his treasured cigarettes. He tells me he can’t quit smoking, even though his mother-in-law offered him a million yen if he did. His desk seems to be full of things that have meaning, and I stop and analyze each one carefully. A family portrait, a pack of hi-lite cigarettes, some keys, coins, and a big pile of business cards. He lights a hi-lite and prepares a coffee for me, and we sit. He is quite humble and takes his time, but I start learning about his life.
Early years, University, Marriage (1973-2004）
He was born in Okinawa one year after the end of the US occupation due to his father’s job as a civil servant, though his parents were from Hokkaido and Shizuoka. He spent the rest of his childhood in Tsukuba (Ibaraki) until graduating from high school. He then went to study economics at Yokohama National University. When I ask him why he chose economics, he just said it was a family matter more than anything else. Going to university was simply a must. He spent a couple months in the US where he learned English so well that he still hasn’t forgotten (He also spent time in New Zealand). At 24, in 1998, he graduated with a thesis on immigration getting the highest marks of his graduating class. Here, things began to change and Ken started to slowly discover his passion for writing, especially about the topic of immigration, a recurrent theme throughout his career. By age 25, he had gotten a job a small production company, gotten married, and had a son. However, there aren’t many more details from this period in his life.
The change (2004)
At age 31, he couldn’t bear his life anymore and decided to change it all. He got divorced, quit his job, and ran away from everything on a trip to Mexico. Looking back now, Ken is not sure what was going through his mind at that point and thinks he was a bit crazy, only thinking of himself. It wasn’t a party at all. Ken tells me he spent months inside his apartment barely talking to people. He was still digesting what to do with his life. By then, I start seeing a pattern, and Ken’s life begins to remind me of a character in one of Haruki Murakami’s novels. Like Tengo in 1Q84, he would spend days and nights, stuck inside, waiting for a phone call. After a few months, he decided to continue his adventure of self-discovery by returning to the place where he was born, Naha, Okinawa.
A new beginning (2005-onwards)
He moved to Osaka and started working as a motorbike messenger for a delivery company. Bukowski-inspired perhaps? Ken’s life is definitely one of a writer! He then wrote a novel about his experiences during this time, which got nominated for Kodansha’s Shinjin Bungaku Prize for best newcomer in 2007, a prize that Murakami himself won in 1980. Unfortunately, it wasn’t selected.
Back in Tokyo for the first time in 3 years, he was working as an editor for a website. He then met Noriko. A couple years later, he finally became a freelance writer. Fast forward to 2012, he married Noriko, interestingly he legally took her last name, although kept his maiden name as his pen name. The same year, two important events happened in Ken’s life. While his dad was walking the dog, he found a newly born Tora. Someone had abandoned him near the road. (Tora is now 6kg and a very happy-looking cat). Next, the family of a young doctor who died in WWII in Okinawa commissioned him to write a novel about his life, and so he started a long journey that took 2 years to complete. The title is roughly translated as “A drop of blood and water”. In 2014, his first novel was finally published. That year, Ken started his writer role at Great Gear for NHK World. As a freelancer, Ken has written for magazines and even published a guidebook with his wife about places that appear in some of Murakami’s books.
Currently, Ken is working hard on the release of his next book, focused on the lives of foreign immigrants working all over Japan. It’s planned to be released in April.
Some of his books, as author or co-author:
Also published on Medium.