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Aonghas Crowe

As a foreigner living in Japan, reading Aonghas Crowe’s novels can be like receiving an understanding pat on the back. Like many of us, Crowe’s plans to leave Japan and head back home were derailed. Sound familiar? Nineteen years on, his wealth of experience living here as an ex-pat has given him plenty to write about. Set in none other than Fukuoka, his two novels, No. 6 (High Times and Hard Time in Japan) and A Woman’s Nails explore the complexities of a foreigner’s life in Japan. Ranging from failed quests for love with Japanese women, alcohol and substance abuse, the Japanese judicial system, friendships, family, and the daily perplexities of life in this country, you’re sure to relate in some way to the protagonist. In between bouts of writing, Crowe also dabbles in teaching at universities, translating essays by Haruki Murakami, and is currently compiling an atlas of Japanese dialects. Fascinating! In our interview, Crowe details his thoughts on life in Japan and where you can grab a copy of his novels. Keep on reading!

Tell us about your life before Japan.
I was born in Los Angeles and when I was ten my father was transferred to Oregon. At university I majored in Bio-chemistry and was thinking of becoming a medical doctor. I was thinking of transferring to graduate school and doing four years of medical school but the odds that I would be able to pay for it were slim and none. So I decided to look for other avenues. I thought about doing international business at a graduate school in Arizona but they wanted all their students to have international experience first. So, I was in between the two, debating whether or not I should go to medical school or do something else. In the end, I decided to do something else.

Why did you make the move to Japan and what’s kept you here?
I ended up sending my resume to all kinds of companies in different countries; banks in Saudi Arabia, McDonald’s in Germany. I just wanted to leave the States at the time and try something new. The first to reply was a small English school in Kitakyushu. At that time, 19 years ago, Japan was very strong. Not like it is now. It was in the news all the time. Japanese companies were buying up American companies, pretty much the way China is today. I had also lived in Germany as a high school student so I had the European experience but I also wanted to get some Asian experience as well. So, when opportunity knocked I opened the door. I only wanted to be in Japan for two years…so, I guess you can say I got derailed. I had a terrible first year. I had an awful second year. The third year was so so. Then in the fourth year I had an opportunity to return to the States and work. But, by that time, I was enjoying Fukuoka so much. I guess I had settled too and there was still a lot I wanted to continue to learn. So I spent my first year in Kitakyushu. Then when my contract was up, I moved to Fukuoka and I’ve been here ever since 1993, teaching, writing and translating.

You’ve written two novels whilst in Japan. Tell us about those.
My wife has always been poking: “When are you going to finish?”, “Are you done?” This pressure, especially at the beginning, was very helpful. Inertia is important. Once you get moving, then there’s no stopping. I started No. 6 (High Times and Hard Time in Japan) three and half years ago and finished it last summer. I’ve been working on A Woman’s Nails on and off for far longer. With A Woman’s Nails, originally it was just a collection of letters I was writing to friends back home…back in the days with letters, envelopes and quaint little pieces of paper we called ‘stamps’. So I had all these short stories of my experiences with Japanese women, good and bad. I took those letters, and I tried to put them together into some kind of a novel. What kills me though is that Nails is selling much better than No. 6. To me No. 6 is a faster read, has more substance to it and deals with a lot of themes. For example, there are problems with Japan’s judicial system, the issue of drug abuse, the 2006 war between Hezbollah and Israel, friendship, divorce, relationships between men and women, and relationships between family members. Nails is different. Some passages of Nails are much better written but I meant No. 6 to be a page-turner. Nails is about trying to find love and failing. Japanese women will fall really in love with you. Japanese girls watch too many movies and convince themselves that this stuff is true. So it explores the different kinds of relationships between men and women. Anyways, they’re very different books.

Was there anything in particular that inspired you to write the novels?
I’m often inspired by my own experiences. Every once in a while, I’ll be writing something and then I get this inspiration that says, ‘this would be a good story’. So it’s just a matter of getting it down on paper. If you have to think deeply about creating a story, it’s not going to happen. It’s more like bing! You have this idea. Now, how am I going to put this idea into a story?

How much of your stories reflect your own experiences in Japan?
Well, I don’t have that much imagine… so… there’s a lot of truth. There are a lot of composite characters. There are a lot of friends that are in these stories.

Can you share any specific events that are written from firsthand experience?
I don’t want the police knocking on my door…so…I’ve got a lot of shady friends [smiles]. I’ve been here so long that I’ll hear things about the ‘Japanese outcasts’, for example. I hear these stories and these are things that you’re not supposed to talk about, but I’ve heard stories about discrimination. The police included, seem to feel justified against these people, these ‘outcasts’. There is a prejudice against foreigners as well, especially in the judicial system. It is so stacked against the defendant, unless you’re someone like Ichiro Ozawa, the politician. Nobody’s going to put him in jail for 30 days.

In your opinion, what is one of the unique, positive experiences and what’s one struggle that foreigners living in Japan may face?
There is a lot of unthinking behavior in Japan. The education system doesn’t require critical thinking. During the ‘lost decades’, the ‘lost’ twenty years, the economy didn’t grow. Unemployment was high. People struggled. A lot of things that the Japanese thought were uniquely Japan, such as lifelong employment, all of these things, started to crumble in the 1990s. Not much has changed since I came to Japan. The people who are at the bottom rungs of society here are worse off than they were 20 years ago. Unemployment for high school graduates is increasing, one third of the country are casual workers. And yet, the LDP has been in power for most of the time. Now the Democratic Party is in power but they’ll probably lose the next election. So we’ll go back to the LDP which is going to allow these problems to fester and people are so passive here, again, because of the education, that there aren’t revolutions. There aren’t people demonstrating like in Egypt and Tunisia and so on. I can’t understand it. Only one year of Obama, and you have nut jobs demonstrating and saying that they need a revolution in America. Only after one year. Twenty years in Japan and still nobody is moving. I have been here for 19 years, and there are still a lot of things that make me shake my head and ask, “Why?”

As for a positive experience, I’ve been married twice, and the idea of family here to me is really quite nice. Once you’re family, people will go out of their way to do things for you, to help you. I’ve been so impressed by this. I’m the 11th child of 13, and in my family, we’re all very friendly but everybody is their own little island. Nobody really goes out their way to help each other. But now, I’ve experienced two families, two samples so to speak, and they’ve really been there for me when I wasn’t for them. So much so, I almost feel like an asshole. That has been very positive. I’ve heard a lot of negative experiences with Japanese families, but there’s give and take. My experience has been very, very positive. My Japanese family is closer to me than my American family.

Tell me one unique thing you love about Fukuoka.
I’ve lived in Daimyo since 1997. The bartenders, restaurateurs are all very friendly. It feels like a real neighborhood. It’s a fun place. The place underneath my apartment in the 70s and 80s used to be a ‘No pants’ coffee shop. [Insert imagination here]. That, and the food in Fukuoka is excellent and cheap!

What are you reading right now and which authors have influenced your writing career?
Kurt Vonnegut’s latest collection of short stories, Look at the Birdie. He takes dark subjects and makes them funny. It’s black humor. He takes history and makes it interesting. It’s not dry. He’s been called “a gateway drug to other authors”. Gabriel García Márquez is another one of my favorites. He writes in Spanish, of course. I’m reading his Memoria de la mis putas tristes (Memories of My Melancholy Whores). And, I’m also reading David Sedaris’s When You are Engulfed in Flames. He’s hilarious! I tend to read half a dozen books at once.

What are some of your favorite books and why?
Breakfast of Champions by Kurt Vonnegut. Just read it! It’s very American. Love in the Time of Cholera by Garcia Marquez. The short stories of Sedaris. The Catcher in the Rye by Salinger. You read his books and you want to be Holden Caulfield’s friend. Anything by Philip Roth. Alex Kerr’s books on Japan are highly recommended.

What are your other interests or hobbies apart from writing?
I’m currently translating essays by Haruki Murakami on my homepage ( I started six weeks ago. I’m like a bird picking the bugs off the big rhinoceros. I’m also into photography, traveling and studying linguistics. I’ve been working on An Atlas of Japanese Dialects too which is also on my homepage. It stemmed from a curiosity I had when I was teaching at university and my students were from places all over Japan. What’s interesting is that in other languages, you might have slang changing from place to place, but in Japan, the grammar changes. Some of these bens (dialects) are dying which is sad. I guess you could call me an etymologer.

What’s in store for the future?
I’d like to find an agent this year. I want to eventually dial down the teaching and focus on the writing. My son is only nine months old but I’d like him to have some experience in other countries.

Do you want to move back to America?
I do want my son to go to an American university but as for living there permanently … Geez, there are the guns, rednecks, Republicans, the food is terrible and the people lead spiritually and physically unhealthy lives. Maybe, France or Germany. We’re leaning towards Europe.


Visit Aonghas Crowe’s homepage at

Check out his books on Amazon, soon to be available on iBooks.
Follow Aonghas Crowe on Twitter: @AonghasCrowe



Hometown: Portland, Oregon
In Japan: 19 years
Identity: Freelance writer, Blogger and Translator
Interview and Text: by Veronica Ku

Originally published in Fukuoka Now magazine (fn147, Mar. 2011)

Fukuoka City
Published: Mar 1, 2011 / Last Updated: Jun 13, 2017

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