Keiko Tsuyama Is Breaking the Odds as a Japanese Journalist Covering the United States

Japanese journalist Keiko Tsuyama in New York City. Photo used with permission.

Japanese journalist Keiko Tsuyama in New York City. Photo used with permission.

Reporter Keiko Tsuyama has carved out a respected career as Japan's window into America. Originally from Japan, where typically less than 3 percent of managerial positions in the business world are held by women and just 15 percent of full-time journalists are women, she is noteworthy indeed: Tsuyama was Japan's first woman to work as a business writer for Kyodo, the country's largest newswire

And in Japan, a country where relatively few people speak a foreign language, Tsuyama's fluency in English and French helps her provide unique insights about the world outside Japan. A past contributor to the Wall Street Journal Japan, Tsuyama now is a regular contributor to AERA, one of Japan's most widely read weekly magazines.

I spoke with Tsuyama, who is based in New York, about her career, her home country and the one time she interviewed Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg.

Nevin Thompson (NT): Please tell us about yourself.

Keiko Tsuyama (KT): I am a journalist, writer, author, and photographer, and am the City of Nagasaki’s Peace Correspondent. I live in New York City, and so I write what Japanese readers want to know about the United States.

My focus is on human interest stories, technology, and the media scene.

NT: You’re from Japan originally. How did you end up being a freelancer based in New York City?

KT: I used to work for Kyodo News. It’s Japan’s largest newswire with about 900 reporters. From 2003 to 2006 I was Kyodo’s news correspondent in New York.

In fact, I didn’t want to be sent to New York at all in 2003 – it was right after President Bush launched his war in Iraq. But once I landed in New York City I really loved being there.

NT: You eventually left your career at Kyodo to work as a freelancer. Why?

KT: I stayed on in New York City as a freelancer because I had some story ideas that I really wanted to write about. As a staff reporter, there are always deadlines to meet with little time to write feature stories.

Although I did write a lot of feature stories while I was with Kyodo in New York, there were always had more stories I wanted to write.

So, in 2006 when Kyodo reassigned me to Tokyo and it was time to leave New York City, I decided to stay on and keep exploring story ideas.

NT: Was it easy to break into freelancing full time?

KT: I didn’t know any editors in Japan, and as a matter of fact the first assignment I got was from Newsday in New York. It was an English-language piece about the Iraq War. It was my debut as a freelancer.

Little by little through my network I was introduced to Japanese editors and radio show directors (I am often asked to appear as a radio commentator), and then AERA.

NT: What’s AERA?

KT: AERA is the Japanese equivalent of New York Times Magazine. It’s a weekly glossy that is published by Asahi, one of Japan’s largest news organizations.

NT: Receiving assignments from AERA must have boosted your transition to freelancing.

KT: All the editors want someone who can use their professional experience and training to write a “real story.”

AERA told me, “You’re great, because your stories never need to be corrected in terms of company names and figures.”

NT: What's a notable assignment so far during your career as a freelancer?

KT: I interviewed Mark Zuckerberg a couple of years ago. It was out of the blue – it was in the lead-up to Facebook going public, and Zuckerberg was doing events aimed at investors. Facebook wanted to provide one exclusive interview for Japan, and AERA got it.

NT: What was it like to interview him?

KT: He speaks really fast. I really enjoyed it, but he’s really different than my regular interviewees. I would ask a question, and then Zuckerberg would want to know why I had asked the question, the context and rationale behind it.

He would then look at me carefully as though there was an insect on my nose while he considered his answer. And then would start speaking really fast.

However, whatever Zuckerberg talked about, he made clear points. I could see he brain was running really fast, and I could tell by the words he selected that he was quite intelligent, and was a good choice for leading Facebook.

 NT: You’re also the City of Nagasaki’s Peace Correspondent. Are you from Nagasaki?

KT: No, I’m from Tokyo. However I started my career with Kyodo in 1988 as a crime reporter in Fukuoka and Nagasaki (neighboring cities on the island of Kyushu), and I kept in touch with the people I met there.

More recently, I have worked as volunteer translator for hibakusha (the surviving victims of the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki) who visiting New York City for events.

So that’s how I came to be appointed as Nagasaki's Peace Correspondent. As part of my role, I contribute to eliminating nuclear weapons, and I speak overseas for the people of Nagasaki.

NT: What is a developing story in Japan at the moment that the rest of the world should keep an eye on?

KT: The decision to construct a US military base in Henoko and Oura Bay in Okinawa Prefecture. If this sort of project were planned for the East Coast or the West Coast of the United States, it would never be tolerated by Americans. Why Henoko?

The decision to construct a US military base on Henoko will cause a lot of environmental destruction. People here in the US are more conscious of the environment.

However, this project is happening in Okinawa, far from the US, and I want people to know, and so I am creating a video in English that will be uploaded to YouTube.

NT: Who are some Japanese journalists who might be of interest to Global Voices readers?

KT: Tanaka Ryusaku (@tanakaryusaku), Ugaya Hiro (@hirougaya), and Iwakami Yasumi (@iwakamiyasumi) are all doing interesting work at the moment. If you can read Japanese, check them out! Otherwise, hopefully GV will translate some of their posts!

In New York City on September 20, Tsuyama will be moderating a discussion with filmmaker Soda Kazuhiro about the film “The Gift from Beate“, which explores how performing arts presenter Beate Sirota Gordon influenced Japan's postwar “Peace Constitution”. Online, Tsuyama can be found at @keikoworld


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