Professor Emerita, Asian and Middle Eastern Studies, UNC Chapel Hill

Category: Interviews with artists and authors

The Kimono Tattoo Wins Indie Book Award

Happy news for fans of mystery writer Rebecca Copeland.  Her book The Kimono Tattoo has won the 2022 Independent Press Award in the category of Multi-Cultural Fiction.

Silk unravels. A tattoo is forever.
Layer by layer the truth is revealed.
                         —  The Kimono Tattoo

A fast-paced mystery set in Kyoto, The Kimono Tattoo  follows American translator Ruth Bennett on her risky quest for the truth about a bizarre murder. Ruth’s expertise in kimono history and fluency in Japanese give her the tools.  Her host of friends come to her aid. Readers enjoy traversing Kyoto, too. From ancient temple grounds to convenience stores and hidden tattoo parlors, we’re soon on the beat with Ruth.

Let’s catch up with Rebecca Copeland to get her thoughts on this well-deserved Indie Award.

What is the Independent Press Award?

JB: Congratulations, Rebecca.   What’s the story of this award?

RC:  Thanks, Jan.  The Independent Press Award aims to bring attention to independent publishers across the country and the great variety of books they publish. I’m grateful to my publisher Brother Mockingbird for nominating The Kimono Tattoo.

The Independent Press Award recognizes excellence by category. As you can imagine, they need lots of categories to cover the myriad kinds of books published every year.  There’s action and adventure, horror, historical fiction, advice guides, and many more. The Kimono Tattoo won in “Multicultural-Fiction.”

Experiencing Multicultural Kyoto — Past and Present

Kyoto Trademark: Maiko. Posted to Wikimedia Commons by Bermi Ferrer. Oct. 15, 2010.

A window on how people experience cultural identity…
a sense of home and belonging

JB:  Thinking about The Kimono Tattoo as multicultural gives me a new way to look at your mystery.  One that draws on my own experiences of Kyoto.

I recognized the mystery’s setting and the kinds of characters right away…..well, except for the criminal ones…from my times in Kyoto and the people I met. There’s the lead, Ruth, a bilingual American expat, and her sidekick Maho, who feels more American than Japanese, and the elegant Japanese entrepreneur, Mrs. Shibasaki.  This kind of “expat in Japan” circle felt so familiar to me.

But, in fact, The Kimono Tattoo does more than that. You give us a window on how people experience cultural identity and work to achieve a sense of home and belonging.

Creating complex characters

The Kimono Tattoo, 2021.

RC:  Thanks for that point.  Yes, as I imagined Ruth and the other characters, I inevitably mapped them onto my understandings of Japan society, especially its literary traditions and kimono design world.  And I built some — especially Ruth and Maho — around lives shaped by bilingual and bicultural experiences.  But I also saw each character as unique, as more than the sum of their language, education, and social class.

The Brilliant, Elusive Satoko —  Mastermind of the “Kimono Tattoo”

JB:  Satoko, the elusive mastermind behind the “kimono tattoo,” certainly strikes me as motivated by more than her background and even her family’s commercial involvement with kimono. She’s a brilliant artist. And her creativity ties her to the material and cultural history of kimono, and even ghosts!

Unlined Kimono for a Woman (Hitoe) Motif: Swallows flying over and streams (1910-1920). Khalili Collections. Wikimedia Commons.

RC:  I find Satoko’s trajectory fascinating, too.  Part of the fun of writing The Kimono Tattoo came from doing the research needed to depict that history well and to invent new legends that furthered my own plot and helped build Satoko’s character.

JB:  In that way, The Kimono Tattoo  not only opens our eyes to the multicultural interactions of people in contemporary Kyoto but invites us to consider a multicultural past.  Japanese characters and customs do not emerge as monolithic or uncomplicated.  That is, we learn about customs, dance, fashion, family structures, and even Japanese literature, too.

RC:  Thank you for noticing that.  So many in the States still think of Japan as such a remote and strange place.  I’ve spent my career—as have you—trying to make Japan more approachable, teaching students about Japanese culture while at the same time challenging them to think more deeply about their own cultural practices and biases.  Travel is one way we learn more about ourselves!

A novel slips readers into a new space

I hope that The Kimono Tattoo will carry readers to Kyoto, enticing them to learn more about Japanese culture. At the same time perhaps it will push readers to question their own assumptions and misunderstandings.  I don’t know. It’s a lot to ask!  And I want the novel to also be “entertaining.”  I think that’s what distinguishes the novel from my earlier academic books.  A novel slips readers into a new space without making too many demands, and before they know it, they’re walking around in a different world.

The Kimono Tattoo – An Official Book Club Pick for June

Official Selection. The Intl Pulpwood Queen & Timber Guy Book Club, June 2022.

JB:  I see, too, Rebecca, that The Kimono Tattoo has earned yet another honor!  It’s been chosen as the “International Book of the Month” for the month of June by the International Pulpwood Queens and Timberguys Book Club.

RC:   Yes!  I was so excited about that.  The International Pulpwood Queen and Timber Guy Book Club is the largest book club in the world with regular meetings and discussions.  There are over 800 chapters with 20 chapters in foreign countries.

The Club holds an annual convention. This year the convention was virtual with zoom meetings all day long for a week!  My publisher and I were invited to have a conversation about The Kimono Tattoo on one of the afternoons.  The amount of participation and enthusiasm for BOOKS and for reading that this Book Club generates is truly invigorating.  It’s an honor to have The Kimono Tattoo represent the month of June.

JB:  Congratulations again on these honors, Rebecca.  And I can’t wait to read the next of Ruth’s adventures.

Rebecca Copeland

For more on how Rebecca Copeland created The Kimono Tattoo, visit her blog:

For my other interviews with Rebecca, see these past posts:

Dance, Mystery, and Murder in The Kimono Tattoo

Yamamba: In Search of Japan’s Mountain Witch

Jan Bardsley. “The Kimono Tattoo Wins Indie Award.” March 24, 2022.




Marie Kondo Sparks Joy on American TV: Talking with Alisa Freedman

Marie Kondo’s method for sparking joy has made her a global super-star of tidying.
Today, I catch up with my friend and colleague, Japanese studies expert Alisa Freedman to talk about Kondo’s appeal.

In her superb new book, Japan on American TV: Screaming Samurai Join Anime Clubs in the Land of the Lost, Alisa Freedman gives in-depth analysis of Kondo’s media persona in Japan and the U.S.  Let’s begin by meeting this prolific author.

Let’s Meet Author Alisa Freedman

Alisa Freedman

Professor of Japanese Literature, Cultural Studies, and Gender at the University of Oregon, Alisa Freedman is a well-known scholar, translator, and Editor-in-Chief of U.S.-Japan Women’s Journal. She’s given TED Talks, too.


Promoting Active Ways of Watching Television

Japan on American TV draws from a popular course Alisa has taught at University of Oregon. Taking a serious approach to TV in both the U.S. and Japan, she “strives to encourage debate and to promote active and critical… ways of watching television” (9).  In Japan on American TV, she guides us to looking closely. What do you see in the frame? Importantly, Alisa shows how to connect these observations to their broader cultural and historical contexts and shifts in US-Japan relations.

What’s Marie Kondo’s Story in Japan?

JB:  Good afternoon, Alisa, and thanks for sharing your thoughts on Marie Kondo. Reading Japan on American TV has sparked joy for me.

AF:  Thanks, Jan. Great to talk with you today.

JB:  Your writing about Marie Kondo reminds us that she had a career in Japan well before coming to Netflix.  What’s her background?

AF:  Kondo grew up in an affluent section of Tokyo, attending an old, elite Quaker school. Her fascination with tidying goes back to her childhood hobbies of reading homemaking magazines and straightening up almost every space she inhabited at home and school. She even wrote her college thesis in sociology at Tokyo Women’s Christian University on the topic.

Marie Kondo Draws from Many Streams of Thought

A Miko at Shimogamo Shrine, Kyoto. 2008. Wikimedia.

JB:  What ideas shaped her tidying philosophy?

AF:  Two important influences stand out in shaping Kondo’s thought–her interests in psychotherapy and Shinto. As I note in the book, Kondo’s reading in psychotherapy led her to perceive disorganization as a psychological condition. She also realized how ingrained the association between women and cleaning was in world societies.

Kondo’s affinity for Shinto dates to her days as an 18-year-old miko (shrine maiden).  Although Kondo’s incorporation of Shinto is idiosyncratic, she borrows from its values of respect for one’s surroundings, rituals, and cleanliness.

Features of the KonMari Method

JB: What stands out about Kondo’s methods?

How to Greet Your Home
KonMari site. 2022.

AF:  Kondo’s purification rituals and observance of rites of passage are grounded in Shinto.  But her tidying method is premised on “Mindfulness” (derived from popular interpretations of Zen). She also draws on common sense and modes of Japanese cleaning (including those taught in Japanese elementary schools).

KonMari Core Ideas

Her method is a multistep process of assessing emotional attachment to objects, showing gratitude for what you have, and letting go of what no longer helps you.

Start by Sorting

According to Kondo, sorting belongings into categories and then choosing to keep only what “sparks joy” teaches us how to properly own things and to more comfortably inhabit our living spaces.

JB: Some have the impression Kondo is a minimalist.  We find spoofs of her ideal place as completely empty. What do you think?

AF: She does not advocate “minimalism,” owning as few belongings as possible. Instead, she wants people to own things more intentionally. In fact, Kondo operates expensive online stores that sell a lot of knickknacks that might need to someday be tidied and disposed of when they no longer spark joy.

Winning Fame in Japan

JB:  How did Kondo’s tidying career take off in Japan?

AF:  In 2009, she started her own professional organizing business. She won first prize by writing about her tidying method for a contest sponsored by a self-help book publisher. That launched her career as an author.

In 2010, this led to the publication in Japanese, and later English, of The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up.  A global best-seller, it has been translated into around forty languages.

JB:  I remember seeing the book everywhere in the 2010s! I’d meet people young and old who were folding their clothes in the KonMari style. I tried out some of the tips, too.

Marie Kondo as Yamato Nadeshiko

Dianthus Superbus. Stan Shebs. Wikimedia Commons. 2005.

JB: You describe Marie Kondo as enacting “Yamato nadeshiko”, an “ideal Japanese woman.”  What does that mean?

AF: “Yamato” is an ancient term for Japan. “Nadeshiko,” a pink carnation, denotes a “gentlewoman.”

Yamato nadeshiko are devoted to the success of their families, their school team, or their workplace. They are demure but plucky, modest but strong.

Yamato nadeshiko on Japanese TV often wear tasteful but simple clothing–usually skirts, dresses, or kimono. They have long dark hair with bangs and natural makeup.  An approachable Yamato nadeshiko, Kondo chooses soothing colors. She often wears white cardigans. The cardigan suggests a kind of feminine professional note, and white conveys cleanliness.

Whether intentionally or not, Kondo engages the Yamato nadeshiko trope in her Netflix series.  We see this not only in her appearance, but also in how she comports herself, interacts with American families, and incorporates elements of Japanese culture.

The American Aspects of Kondo’s TV Persona

JB: In what ways does Kondo incorporate American custom into her Netflix persona?

AF:  Interesting question.  In her Netflix series, she emphasizes her Japanese origins, speaking Japanese almost exclusively. But she smiles toothy grins, shows personal pride, and enjoys family displays of affection–all would read Americanized to a Japanese audience.

Reactions in Japan to Kondo’s Fame Abroad

Abe Books online.

JB: What was the reaction in Japan to Kondo’s global fame?

AF:  Her appearances in Japan increased after her American success. Kondo’s business model provides a new transnational spin on the long-held belief that celebrity in the US is a road to success in Japan. Her Netflix series has been the most effective medium for mainstreaming her brand. For example, the popularity of the series drove traffic to Kondo’s other media, like her books, websites, stores, and KonMari Consultants training program.

The World of Professional Organizing

AF:  Kondo is not the world’s first “professional organizer.” That is, a consultant offering guidance on how to organize things and declutter spaces.  But she is the first to encourage global discussion and debate. Kondo has promoted international awareness of the job and has associated it with idealized Japanese women. Kondo uses her own original term “tidying consultant” perhaps to distinguish herself from other professionals in her field and to promote her distinct brand.

The number of professional organizers has increased in Japan and elsewhere, especially among women. This is thanks, in part, to the founding of organizations that foster community and provide information, resources, and certification programs.

Criticism of Kondo’s Method 

Some of these professional tidying organizations have offered the most profound critiques of Kondo’s method, even while expressing appreciation for the positive attention she has drawn to their profession. For example, JALO (Japan Association of Life Organizers, founded in 2008 to promote tidying as a way to learn life skills), has questioned the originality of Kondo’s method. Other groups have criticized the method’s rigidity and why tidying should only be accomplished in the order that Kondo proposes. Some Netflix viewers in the US and Japan took offense at things Kondo told her TV clients to get rid of, like books and mementos.

Online Memes Spoof the KonMari Method

50 Hilarious Reactions.
Mindaugas Balčiauskas.
Bored Panda.

AF:  Online memes have parodied people throwing away mean bosses and others who do not “spark joy.” Or, giving up on tidying due to distractions or difficulties.

To the best of my knowledge, Kondo has not extensively responded to criticisms, modified, or updated her methods.  These decisions might lead to her brand falling out of popularity. Kondo seems to learn little from her clients and, thanks to their adoration, remains convinced that her method of tidying is the only right one.

In her media, Kondo does not try to diagnose or treat mental health disorders like compulsive shopping or hoarding. Instead, tidying is shown to cure all. Perhaps unintentionally, Kondo promotes the belief that Japanese women prioritize homemaking and mothering, even as they balance careers and other aspects of their lives. I think many people in Japan view Kondo as an aspirational and Americanized celebrity and entrepreneur, rather than as representing all Japanese housekeepers.

Alisa Freedman’s Tips for Watching Marie Kondo on TV 

JB:  I know there’s so much more on Marie Kondo in Japan on American TV.  But what three tips would you give to readers for watching Kondo’s Netflix series?  What should we look for?

AF:  You ask wonderful questions!  Here are three tips–and one bonus tip.

Tip 1: Please think about how Kondo came to be on Netflix.
Doing so, reveals how American TV curates Japanese culture for international audiences while promoting ideas of US dominance.

For example, it is a little known fact that the Netflix series is based on a 2-episode Japanese NHK World TV series, Tidy Up with KonMari! (May 6 and 7, 2016), in which Kondo helps two female New Yorkers tidy their homes and thereby make room for new chapters in their personal lives. American TV producers also proposed making Kondo’s method the basis of a sitcom (2015) and a scripted program (2016).

Instead, producers combined a Japanese-made documentary for American audiences with conventions of American unscripted, highly-edited “makeover” reality programs. Taking this approach saved money (for example, on scriptwriting and acting) and created an appealing series that seemed both familiar and unique. The series was then dubbed and subtitled in world languages, including Japanese. Kondo has been the only celebrity to become a household name in the US by speaking Japanese on American television. Reflexively, her tidying method, promoted as representing mystical, Mindful, and minimalistic Japanese culture, has globalized in Asia and elsewhere in English.

Tip 2: Please watch how Kondo talks, gestures, and is positioned on screen.
All of this is intentional and shows how Kondo mobilizes stereotypes of Japan and Japanese women. For example, in each episode, Kondo arrives as a tranquil, foreign presence to heal American families suffering from domestic conflicts due to their inability to keep their homes in order.

She is filmed as if she is a mystical presence from a different, better, mysterious world. She speaks Japanese, with the exception of a few simple sentences like “I love mess,” and works through her interpreter, Iida Marie. While Kondo often sits on the floor while consulting and tidying, her American clients sit on chairs; this gives the unintended impression of people looking down at her. The families laugh when she cannot reach high places and make remarks about her size (under five feet).

Her cute gestures make her seem more accessible and less intimidating. Use of lighting and background music add to her calming presence. Kondo’s rituals, steeped in Shinto and Mindfulness, are both important components of her method. They also make great TV visuals for highlighting Kondo’s carefully constructed blends of cuteness and authority, “Japaneseness” and transnationalism. I will leave it up to you to find more examples of contrasts between Kondo and the Americans she mentors on Netflix.

Tip 3: I have learned how to be a better communicator and teacher by watching Kondo. Kondo attracts people because she seems likeable and is personable. On Netflix, she seems like a strict but enthusiastic teacher, reveling in her students’ successes. One reason the TV families follow her advice is because she is gentle and approachable, soft-spoken and patient, never yelling or scolding. Kondo is a carefully constructed yamato nadeshiko for American television and differs from reality stars who yell (Gordon Ramsey), seem aloof (Martha Stewart), or seem too peppy.

Bonus Tip: Kondo’s method takes practice and time.
Throughout the Netflix series, Kondo admits that she is not perfect: some things are out of place in her home; sometimes her children do not listen to her. Although it seems like Kondo’s TV families are making rapid progress, the show in reality is highly edited. Tidying piles make great visuals. Before and after shots encourage positive emotional reactions. To Kondo, the process of tidying is as important as the end result. That is why, she mentors clients rather than doing the tidying for them.

JB:  Thanks, Alisa, for these insights on how to watch Marie Kondo on American TV.

AF:  Happy to talk with you, Jan.  Thanks for your interest.

More to Learn from Japan on American TV 

It was fun talking with Alisa Freedman about Marie Kondo. There’s much more to learn from Japan on American TV.  Alisa gives first-rate analysis of episodes of The Flintstones, The Simpsons, South Park, and King of the Hill, and even Sesame Street’s Big Bird’s adventure in Japan. We also learn about Japan in Saturday Night Live skits. Alisa includes a Watch List so readers can locate the episodes to watch on their own. She encourages us to draw our own conclusions before reading her analysis.

You can hear Alisa Freedman discuss Japan on American TV online, too:

Listen to  Alisa Freedman’s podcast with Tony Vega on Japan Kyo:

Alisa Freedman participates with other Japan scholars in AAS Digital Dialogues: Japan on American TV.  Online at:


Balčiauskas, Mindaugas. “50 Hilarious ReactionsTo Marie Kondo That Will Bring You Joy.”  2019.

Freedman, Alisa.  Japan on American TV: Screaming Samurai Join Anime Clubs in the Land of the LostAsia Shorts, Number 11.  Association for Asia Studies, 2021.

Tidying Up with Marie Kondo, Netflix, 2019.

Jan Bardsley. “Marie Kondo Sparks Joy on American TV,”, January 24, 2022.




Yamamba: In Search of Japan’s Mountain Witch

Yamamba, Japan’s legendary mountain witch, always fascinates.  She springs to life across cryptic tales, dazzling art, and the majestic Noh theater. I remember how my students enjoyed discussing the yamamba in Japanese literature and theater classes. Was she a cautionary tale?  A sign of feminist bravura? How did the meanings of her persona shift with the various tales and performances?

Luckily, a new book co-edited by Rebecca Copeland and Linda C. Ehrlich guides us through these issues and more.  

Yamamba: In Search of the Mountain Witch (Stonebridge Press, 2021) takes a fresh, innovative approach.  There’s poetry, artwork, short fiction, and interviews with Japanese women who perform Yamamba roles.  Japanese literary and folklore scholar Noriko Reider offers an excellent cultural history of the mountain witch to set the stage.

Eager to find out more, I caught up with Copeland (RC) and Ehrlich (LCE) for a yamamba conversation.  You can also hear this amazing duo interviewed by Amy Chavez on the Books on Asia podcast.

Who is the yamamba?

This images shows an old hag in the mountains, created in Japan around 1737.

Yama-uba (the mountain hag) from Hyakkai-Zukan. Circa1737. Wikimedia Commons.

JB:  Some readers may be learning about the yamamba for the first time.  How would you introduce her?

RC:  Typically, the yamamba is a mysterious old woman. She lives in the mountains beyond the normalcy of human habitation.  She can be fearsome and destructive. But she can also be gentle and supportive.  In a way, she is a representation of the awesomeness of nature itself.

JB:  An intriguing character for sure.   And, as your book shows, she cannot be easily defined or contained.

LCE: True. The yamamba transcends standard definitions of freedom and, conversely, of control. Noriko Mizuta refers to her as “gender-transcendent.” It’s impossible to separate the yamamba’s spirit from the vastness of mountains.

Freeing the Old Woman from Social Constraints

JB:  How does the yamamba challenge views of older women even today?

Hokusai’s yamamba. Wikimedia Commons.

LCE: Good question.  Too often, we see the older woman either ignored or feared. This occurs especially in cultures where a multigenerational family is no longer the norm. Various representations of the yamamba put the older woman front and center, and they explore her potential.

RC: I absolutely agree. The old woman gets pushed to the periphery. Society expects her to fade silently into the background. The yamamba may be exiled in the mountains. But she does not relinquish her power.  If anything, she uses her role as a social outcaste to mock those who would shun her. Their fear of her only accrues to her power.

At Ease with Aging: To Be Old, Wild, and Free

Yamamba Series. North Carolina. 2021. Rebecca Copeland.

JB:  Speaking of fear, I notice that Japanese art featuring the yamamba tends to show aging as ferocious and frightening. Can we read these images from a feminist perspective?

RC: The yamamba shows how embracing age can be liberating.

During the pandemic lockdown, I think a lot of older women began to discover their latent strength. And we felt freer in our appearance, too. We stopped dyeing our hair and worrying about our clothes.  As we spent more and more time in our dark zoom caves, we began to rely increasingly on the power of our own voices.

The yamamba reminds us that it’s okay to be old and wild and free.

After all, people get out of your way when you’re tearing down a mountainside, white hair splayed about you, mouth agape.

Yamamba as Feminist:  “The Smile of a Mountain Witch”

LCE: A feminist approach comes across most strongly in Ōba Minako’s story, “Smile of a Mountain Witch.”  It was a stroke of good luck to get permission to include the full English translation by Noriko Mizuta in our volume.  Actually, it was this story that drew Rebecca and me, separately, to this topic.

Yamamba Series. North Carolina. 2021. Rebecca Copeland.

RC: Ōba’s story is a bold reimagining, and reclaiming, of the yamamba myth in modern times. She brilliantly captures the yamamba’s poignant mix of nurturing, inner strength and isolation. And the story intimates that the witch’s social position and her mind-reading ability may link modern mothers and daughters.

JB:  An evocative story. I also enjoy the new stories, poetry, and artwork that you include.

RC:  Linda and I wanted to show multiplicity of the yamamba.  She enchants, terrifies, and at times, even comforts.  Including creative responses in different formats helped us accomplish this.

The Yamamba Inspires Creative Responses

LCE:  Right.  We tried hard to incorporate a variety of writing styles and tones, and a wide range of approaches to the yamamba. We wanted to include contributions from practicing artists as well as scholar-artists.

A picture of the Noh character Yamamba. 1898. Japan.

Yamauba. 1898. Rijksmuseum.
Wikimedia Commons.

LCE:  We explored Yamamba through classical theatre, experimental theatre, the visual arts, literature—in her awe-inspiring aspects and in her grotesque aspects. Several of the contributors brought the yamamba story up to contemporary times.

RC:  For example, David Holloway’s enigmatic short story captures her horrific side.  On the other hand, my story, set in the North Carolina mountains, plays on this fear but also draws on Yamamba’s maternal nature and wisdom.

“Yamamba Shrine Box”

This image shows what a shrine box featuring the yamamba looks like; combines legendary and pop cultural characters.

“Yamamba Shrine Box.”  Dr. Laura Miller.
Ei’ichi Shibusawa-Seigo Arai Endowed Professor in Japanese Studies and Professor of History, University of Missouri St. Louis. 2021.

RC:  Laura Miller’s essay about her creation of the retablo, which she terms a shrine box, gives yet a different picture.  She emphasizes the yamamba’s playfulness and irreverence. She also introduces those naughty ganguro girls with their dark tans, silver hair and yamamba swagger.



Yamamba Poetry and Performance

Utagawa Kuniyoshi  Wikimedia.

JB:  I like the way poetry in the volume pushes the reader to imagine the character’s motivations. We sense her grandeur. Linda’s lyrical poem, along with the imagistic poems by Noriko Mizuta convey the awesomeness of the yamamba and her association with nature.

JB:   I also liked your book’s inclusion of women who bring the yamamba to life on stage.  There’s Ann Sherif’s interview with Noh actors Uzawa Hisa and Uzawa Hikaru and Rebecca’s interview with avant-garde choreographer Yokoshi Yasuko.  You explore the yamamba from many angles.

Seeking the Yamamba

LCE: We entitle our introduction to the book “Beyond Place, Before Time—Why We Seek the Yamamba.” And indeed the sense of “seeking” is present on every page. In that sense, our book offers the excitement of exploration of an elusive figure. We’re not trying to “capture” the yamamba (an impossible task) but rather to celebrate her.

JB:  That sense of “seeking” certainly does come through in every contribution. You make it clear that the yamamba cannot be captured, but she can be contemplated, celebrated, performed, and even emulated.

Congratulations on your innovative book, Rebecca and Linda.  You’re bringing yamamba power to new readers across the world.

We would like to thank Katie Stephens, PhD student in Japanese literature at Washington University, who participated in a live conversation with Rebecca Copeland about Yamamba hosted by University of Missouri, St. Louis. The April 2021 event was sponsored by the Ei’ichi Shibusawa-Seigo Arai Endowed Professorship in Japanese Studies and UMSL Global. Katie’s enthusiasm for the book has inspired further conversations.

Jan Bardsley, “Yamamba: In Search of Japan’s Mountain Witch.” janbardsley.  July 29, 2021.

Dance in The Kimono Tattoo: An Interview with Rebecca Copeland

The Kimono Tattoo, 2021.

The Kimono Tattoo, a fast-paced mystery set in Kyoto, follows American translator Ruth Bennett on her dangerous quest for the truth. Ruth’s expertise in kimono history and fluency in Japanese give her the tools. Her intrepid friends take risks to help. Amid the chaos, Ruth’s practice of Nihon buyō (Japanese dance) steadies her.

As we explored in our last blog, The Kimono Tattoo gives insight into the practice of Nihon buyō by its teachers and students.


Meet Rebecca Copeland

Today’s blog features a special treat. We get to catch up with the author, Rebecca Copeland.    Renown for her expertise in modern Japanese women’s literature, Rebecca has studied dance in Japan, too.  Our interview explores how her experiences learning Nihon buyō shaped the dance scenes in The Kimono Tattoo.

You can also hear Rebecca’s podcast on The Kimono Tattoo. It’s on the popular channel, Japan Station: A Podcast About Japan by

The fun of taking first steps in Nihon buyō

JB:  Great to talk with you today, Rebecca.  Let’s start with your first experiences of Japanese dance.

In your blog post on dance, you recount taking your first steps in dance in 1976 at age nineteen. You describe the fun of staying “for tea, sweets, and gossip” after the lesson.  Much later, rather like Ruth, you took Nihon buyō lessons as an adult in Kyoto.  But what were those first lessons like?

RC:  Thanks, Jan.  I first began studying Japanese dance when I was a college student in Japan. A young woman about my age offered to teach dance to the foreigners where she lived in Fukuoka.  At the time I did not know how extraordinary this was.  I’ve since learned how difficult it is to acquire the credentials and more importantly the permission to teach a traditional art.  But since this young woman was only providing foreigners with a form of “art appreciation,” her sensei thought it would be okay. After all, no one expected any of us to pursue dance seriously.

What stands out about these early dance lessons? What did you learn?

RC:  For me, it was much more than “art appreciation,” and even much more than dance.  I learned basic forms of etiquette.  I learned different ways to understand grace and elegance. I learned how to dress myself in a kimono and how to fold and store the kimono after use.

Even though my sensei knew I would never excel at the form, she still pursued her teaching with serious intention.  She was proud of her art.  It meant so much to her.  Clearly, it wasn’t just a hobby or a weekend exercise. It was a way of life. Her investment in her art touched me deeply. This experience, along with others I had that year in Fukuoka, influenced me to continue my study of Japan.

Now I see why Ruth Bennett knows so much about kimono. What about your later dance lessons as an adult?

In the mid-2000s, I lived for a year in Kyoto. I taught at what was then the Kyoto Center for Japanese Studies (a consortium of American universities). The students in my program were given the opportunity to study Japanese dance, but none of them did.  I asked the organizers if I could.

The class was offered by Nishikawa Senrei Sensei, of the Nishikawa School of Dance.  All the other students in the class were about the age I was when I first began studying dance in Fukuoka.

We began our studies with the same dance I had learned when I was 19, “Sakura, sakura.”  But because in Fukuoka I had trained in the Hanayagi-style, the movements were different.

That must have been frustrating. Like Ruth Bennett, you had to start all over again.

Yes, I do remember feeling very frustrated at first.  I knew I should know this.  But everything was new to me, and I felt so disoriented.

Actually, it had been that way from the start.  As soon as I arrived in Kyoto, I felt dislocated.  I was used to Tokyo. After that year in Fukuoka, my next visits to Japan had all been in Tokyo.  I had lived there off and on for close to ten years.  Kyoto was so different.  I found it hard to get around as I was unfamiliar with the bus system (in Tokyo I almost always took trains.)  Everything was different.

On top of that, I was in a class with quick young women who immediately picked up the dance movements.  I was always the one lagging behind.  But Senrei Sensei was very kind to me.    After class I would often linger and talk with her about literature.  That’s when I learned that sensei also choreographed new, original dances.  She performed one that year based on the French sculptor Camille Claudel.  Another dance of hers retold the famous Meiji-era story of Mori Ogai’s “Dancing Girl” (Maihime).

Senrei Sensei was incredibly talented. She invested her time teaching foreigners out of a spirit of generosity and passion, not unlike that of my first dance teacher.

Senrei Sensei must have been quite a talented artist in her own right.

Senrei Sensei

Absolutely. Senrei Sensei managed her own studio, curated her own recitals, choreographed her own dances, and traveled the world.  She was grounded in traditional Japanese arts and amazingly independent and fierce. Jonah Salz published a wonderful essay about Senrei Sensei in Kyoto Journal.

She was a strict teacher.  A sharp glance from her would be enough to make me wilt with embarrassment and regret.  But she was also patient and understanding.  I would be so honored to share The Kimono Tattoo with her, but she tragically died several years ago.

Such rich experiences! How did these help you craft the dance scenes in The Kimono Tattoo?

Admittedly, the dance teacher is loosely modeled on Senrei Sensei. She taught me so much about Kyoto and kimono.  She also taught me about art and about finding the source of art in yourself.

As I noted, I wasn’t very quick to pick up the steps and I often felt like a drag on the class. As we prepared for our recital, I was amazed by how smooth the young women in the class were.  They had no problem remembering all the steps.

Later, after one class when we were putting away our kimono, one of the students told me that they watched videos of earlier performances. They received them from previous students.  Aha! I could certainly use that help. I wanted to see those videos and practice at home with them, too.

Rebecca Copeland dancing Shizuka Gozen.

When I mentioned borrowing a video to Sensei,  she grew visibly irritated.  “Art is not about perfecting form!” she snapped.  “It’s not just about memorizing.  You have to feel it in your heart.”  Then and there, she forbade all of us from studying the videos.  She told me to listen to the music at home.  “Feel the music,” she said as she thumped my breast.  “Feel it here.”  So, I tried that.  I was never as smooth as the other students, but Sensei complimented me for having the right spirit. I think Ruth and her sensei share a similar relationship. Ruth isn’t perfect but she is keen to appreciate the spirit of the dance.

Looking back on these dance lessons, what did you take away from the Sensei’s guidance?

Strangely, I think her lessons helped me in other aspects of my life as well. I stopped worrying so much about making mistakes and getting facts wrong in my own lectures and classes.  My classes became better as a result.  And, perhaps it is this awareness of following the heart, trusting the heart, that gave me the courage to try my hand at a novel.

Do you have more in store for these characters?

Rebecca, I enjoyed the lively cast of characters in The Kimono Tattoo. My favorite is Ruth’s pal Maho, who wears a Mohawk.  And, of course, one gets attached to Ruth Bennett, who can’t pull away from signs of danger.  What’s next for them?

Thanks, Jan.  You know, it took so long to complete The Kimono Tattoo–almost ten years.  I started it in 2012, and I could only work on it during the summers.  That means that I have lived with Ruth and Maho for a long time.  They continue to visit me, especially when I return to Japan.  Ruth will walk alongside me and make comments.  I don’t think I’ve seen the last of her.

Will the next mystery take place in Kyoto, too?

Sarasa Nishijin Cafe. Posted to Matcha, 2016.

Yes. A few years ago I started another Ruth Bennett story.  This one is set in the Nishijin area of Kyoto. It features the sumptuous brocade for which Kyoto is famous.

Fragment of Noh theater robe produced in Nishijin district. . Freer Gallery. Wikimedia Commons.





Nishijin brocades are exquisite.  But like so many works of art that rely on human labor, the people who enjoy the brocades and the people who labor to produce them live very different kinds of lives.  In earlier times weavers often lived subsistence lives and were exploited for their labor.  This kind of dichotomy, the bright side versus the darker underside, as in The Kimono Tattoo, fascinates me.  I want to see what happens when Ruth spends time with this art form.  Sadly, people will die.  And Ruth will find herself once more in the thick of things.

After this novel I would like to send Ruth on the road.  She’ll spend time in Fukuoka and perhaps Nagasaki exploring the traditional arts there and trying to stay out of trouble.  Nagasaki is a particularly interesting city with its different layers of cultural histories: Japanese, Chinese, Dutch, British, American, and more.

Thanks to Rebecca Copeland

Following Ruth Bennett to Kyushu will be an adventure for sure. And I look forward to learning more about Nishijin in her next Kyoto mystery.

Thanks for sharing your experiences with Japanese dance and photos, Rebecca. This gives me renewed appreciation for the evocative dance scenes in The Kimono Tattoo and Ruth’s brilliant sensei.

I highly recommend The Kimono Tattoo.   “Silks unravels. A tattoo is forever. Layer by layer the truth is revealed.”  And you can stay up all night watching the layers fall away.

Jan Bardsley, “Dance in The Kimono Tattoo: Interview with Author Rebecca Copeland.” janbardsley.  June 3, 2021.

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