I first met Kotaku editor Brian Ashcraft at a high-floor Osaka cafe overlooking the whirring jumble of Umeda Station. In that single vista out the window there could have been a hundred things I didn’t understand, from the neon storefront kanji to the intricate patterns of pedestrians. It’s something you get used to in Japan: knowing that you know nothing. That is also what makes Ashcraft such an invaluable journalist. He is an American with 15 years in Japan, and a deep patience for researching and then explaining his adopted country to outsiders. His new book, Japanese Tattoos: History * Culture * Design is a continuation of that work, an accessible yet deep taxonomy of the ancient art and the people who practice it. I caught up with him by Skype recently to talk Koopa Troopas, Sailor Jerry, and whether or not the kanji on my shoulder qualifies as a stupid white guy tattoo.
Nathan Thornburgh: Tell me about your job at Kotaku [Gawker’s gaming blog, now owned by Univision]. I think that’s what brought you to doing
a book on Japanese tattooing.
Brian Ashcraft: Right, so I’m the senior contributing editor there. I’ve been with Kotaku since 2005, which in internet time is maybe about 1000 years. It’s been great, I handle a lot of the Japan-centric content because that’s where I’ve lived since 2001. I’m fortunate to work for a site like Kotaku. It’s a site that if I didn’t write for it I would read it.
Nathan: And after Gawker.com shut down Kotaku is still going strong?
Brian: Yeah, as you know, Univision purchased us and everything seems to be kind of continuing as normal. I think everyone seems pleased with Univision. We’ve been trying to do the best work that we can, so we’ll just keep doing that.
Nathan: Not worrying too much about the headlines, just putting your head down.
Brian: It’s like anything, everybody does the best work they can and they hope people will look at that. I think that for Kotaku, at least, that’s always been the attitude.
This country makes all the stuff you like
Nathan: Did the cosmos of interests that defines Kotaku drive you to Japan? Or did you realize when you got there that there was this entire world of gaming and nerdiness and kind of awesomeness in Japan?
Brian: I’ll give you the CliffsNotes version. As a kid, I was always interested in Japanese culture. There was a foreign exchange student from Japan who came to my grade school and I went over to his house once and it blew my mind that he had Famicom, the Japanese version of the NES, and it looked different from my console, and the games were all in Japanese, so that blew my mind as well, the cartridges were shaped differently but it was still Nintendo and it still had Mario on in, so that kind of thing, as a young kid, growing up in the 80s I think a lot of kids probably felt this way, that Japan seemed like a very interesting place. There was a kind of an instant fascination: “This country makes all the stuff you like.”
Nathan: And where was this you were growing up?
Brian: I grew up in Texas, in Dallas. But during the late 90s, I was interning at Quentin Tarantino’s distribution company, Rolling Thunder Pictures, and my boss Jerry Martinez was trying to buy the rights to some Yakuza movies and some monster movies and he went to Japan and he came back and he said, “It’s the greatest place I’ve ever been to.” So I thought when I graduate from college, I should go to Japan and see what it’s like. That turned into 15 years.
Nathan: That is how life happens.
Brian: Right, right, right. I was here for a few years and I started getting kind of small writing jobs from Wired, and then I became a contributing editor there. When I was in junior high school I had dreams of becoming a writer. I thought, “You can stay home all day, and they’ll pay you money to stay home and write stuff.” And that became possible. Then [Wired contributing editor] Brendan Koerner said there was this company called Gawker Media looking for writers for their video game site. I liked video games and Japanese geek culture, so I was interviewed via phone by Lockhart Steele. And that turned into Gawker.
Tattoo by Naoki. Photo courtesy of Brian Ashcraft.
Nathan: So basically you found the opportunity to fulfill middle school dreams.
Brian: Pretty much. it was like, “What I can do to enable me to stay home all day?” I’m sure you feel the same way, I get an immense amount of pleasure from writing. I enjoy the act of writing very, very much.
Nathan: You are a masochist.
Brian: I like it. I think it’s a lot of fun.
Nathan: So you are essentially living this dual existence, right? You’re an American but you’ve obviously been in Japan forever, you have a Japanese family, your kids are going to school in Japan. It seems like a lot of your professional life is explaining Japan back to Americans. Does that get more difficult the deeper you get?
Brian: The best way to explain it is kind of like video game design. The way they introduce different enemies in Super Mario World 1.1: one Goomba comes at you, then you get a Koopa, or a Koopa Troopa will come at you and it’s done in this very logical fashion. Same with explaining Japan. If you give people the proper context I think you can explain anything. The other thing that really helps, is if you realize it’s a different culture, but it’s not like people are walking around with hamburgers on their feet and eating shoes, people have the same boring kind of conversations they have everywhere else.
Nathan: But you’ve got to work your way up to the culture.
Brian: I think so. This year, I feel like I know more about Japan than I did last year, and last year, I knew more than the previous year, so every year it becomes this experience that just grows and grows and grows. When I go and read Japan writers who lived here, somebody like Donald Ritchie who lived here for forever, there’s this wealth of experience. It’s just putting in the time and showing up and being there, a lot of it’s that.
Nathan: Was this your first deep dive into a subsection of Japanese culture?
Brian: No, the first book I did was about arcades. As I started it, you start making these connections about urban planning. Like “wait a minute. Arcades are often near train stations.” You start noticing bigger picture things, so even if you’re just writing about arcades, you’re talking about larger cultural trends.
For tattoos, the thing for me was always, “Why does this society not respect people who get tattoos or tattoo artists, and what does it all mean?” It ended up being the most exhausting, intensive, research I’ve ever done for anything. It ends up being this really, really broad subject matter and one of the first interviews I did, we talked to Horiyoshi III and he’s like, the most famous tattooer in Japan, and something he said that really kind of resonated was “You’ll find, in a funny way, that tattooing is connected to everything.” And he was right.