Kokoro Media’s Editor Talks About Her Process And More
Amélie Geeraert is a trilingual French expat in Japan and editor-in-chief of Kokoro Media, a site focusing on the heart of Japanese culture and the aspects that are often hidden from view.
We wanted to know…
What is it like as an editor of a media company in Japan?
What makes Kokoro Media different from other “Japanese culture” sites?
How does one choose which stories to pursue and publish?
And many more questions…
Geeraert’s answers are thoughtful and nuanced. To be honest, it’s not every day that we get to interview someone with so much candor and willingness to reveal their professional process.
If you’re a writer, editor, or simply interested in media or publishing in Japan, this is an interview that will put that spark back in your heart.
Can you tell us a little about yourself? Your personal background, what brought you to Japan, and what led you to your current profession?
AMÉLIE GEERAERT: I am French and I have been living in Japan for about 10 years. Like most French kids born in the ‘80s, I grew up watching Japanese animation on television, so Japanese popular culture felt very natural. As a teenager, I read manga and played Japanese video games, and the cultural elements and differences I noticed in them started to make me interested in the country’s culture. I started reading books about Japan and eventually started learning Japanese too, as a personal interest. When I was a student, I got an opportunity to go to Japan for a year on an exchange program, and that is when I got to visit Japan and experience its daily life for the first time. I really fell in love with the country and promised myself I would be back someday. After working in France for a few years, I came back to Japan with a working holiday visa, and a series of opportunities allowed me to stay here until now.
Career-wise, I used to teach French to foreign students as well as French writing to French students. I have always liked to write as a hobby; I mostly wrote fiction though. While on working holiday, since I was impressed by the quality of the local service, I decided to work in the service industry and see things from the other side, if I may say so. So, I worked in several service industries that needed my language skills. I learned Japanese-style customer service and proper keigo on the field, which was both a tough and useful experience. Finally, when I thought it was time to move on to do other things, I applied to be a writer at Tadaima Japan, which was Kokoro Media’s older version. That is how I got started working at my current company, combrains. With time, I gradually became in charge of the Tadaima Japan website, and when we decided to renew it and completely change its identity in 2020, I officially became its chief editor.
Tell us about Kokoro Media. What’s the idea behind the site, and what can people expect from it? What makes your site different from other sites that talk about Japan and Japanese culture?
GEERAERT: As I mentioned, Kokoro Media comes from a much older website, Tadaima Japan. Tadaima Japan was mostly focusing on Japanese culture and tourist places. With time though, we integrated elements that were foreseeing Kokoro Media, such as language learning tips, daily life information, and a few interviews too.
In 2020, when the pandemic happened, the management agreed that it was a perfect time to renew the website, which was something my colleague, Anthony Griffin, had been hinting at for some time. Sharing tourism content did not seem relevant anymore, and we wanted our website to have a clear identity, and to provide a different experience from the many Japan-related websites that already existed online. We also wanted it to be enjoyable as a reading material whether you wanted to visit Japan or not.
When I asked myself what made Japan so fascinating, what was the essence that many people felt drawn to, I realized it was not only its culture but its people too. Several of my friends came to visit Japan and I noticed that their best memories, the ones that they liked to tell others, were often not only about places but about the people they interacted with during their trip. They loved to talk about the people who helped them on the way and the colorful characters they met here and there. That was one of the reasons that made me want to focus on the human aspect of Japan, and to introduce our readers to interesting or inspiring individuals—Japanese nationals and foreign residents alike.
We do our best to interview people with diverse profiles, genders, origins, ages, and professions. Although they all have a different point of view on Japan, our interviewees’ talks often echoes with other interviewees’ talks, and I believe that Japan’s essence—or kokoro, as we call it—is hidden somewhere in how all these ways of seeing the country and its culture relate to each other. Since we interview diverse people, I believe that any reader will find something that will resonate with them too.
Another way we focus on the human side on our website is through our writers. Since the Tadaima Japan era, readers have been requesting that we share our honest points of view and personal experiences. We do it under many forms: columns in which we give personal advice or opinions, and “Unfiltered Talk” in which several members have an open discussion about their life experiences in Japan. At the same time, we offer different articles that give insight about Japanese culture, values, language learning, and business tips.
Our ideal is to provide interviews and articles that can inspire our readers and make them think, “Maybe I could try to do this,” or “I had never considered this that way.” It would be wonderful if after reading one of our articles, our readers become slightly different persons. That is because I, myself, feel changed after each interview.
I understand that you are the editor-in-chief over there. What does that entail? Describe a day in your life!
GEERAERT: First, I need to tell you that running Kokoro Media is not my only task at combrains. combrains is a company that mainly does rural revitalization, which means we offer all kinds of support and consulting for rural areas of Japan that need help. As a foreign resident, I am usually involved with projects that need to understand the foreign market better, regarding travel, for example.
So, no two days are the same depending on what I am working on, and I sometimes must prioritize other projects over the website. However, what I try to do daily is to check our website and social media stats—the articles that do well are not always the ones that we expect to! We also have a policy of interacting with our readers as much as possible, so I check all comments on the website and social media too.
I also try to spend some time in my day observing the hot topics that people interested in Japan or living in Japan are talking about. Chances are the questions they are asking themselves or the troubles they encounter may be a seed for an article that could prove useful to our readers. Social media is also a good place to find interesting individuals who would be open to voicing their thoughts publicly.
Finally, of course, I do a lot of research and writing!
As an editor of a media site, and of Kokoro Media in particular, what do you look for when choosing stories or going after stories that get published?
GEERAERT: Although Kokoro Media is a website and not my personal blog, there is something very personal in the way I choose stories. If something or someone looks inspiring, moving, or fun to me, then chances are my readers will feel the same. My main focus is to make our readers not just learn new information but also feel something.
If you had to pick your favorite 3 articles that you’ve worked on since becoming editor-in-chief of Kokoro Media, which ones would they be and why?
GEERAERT: That is a very tough question, they are all my babies! [laughs]
All the interviews I did are very inspiring in different kinds of ways, and I would like to recommend them all. However, last July, I interviewed a father and son who run a 270-year-old brewery. Although they use traditional techniques and make their sake by hand, they also innovate sake in ways that are not always well perceived in such a traditional field. I think it is very symbolic of the state of Japan nowadays: some people are trying hard to stay relevant during the current times without losing sight of what makes traditions great, while others are a bit too stuck in the past.
Speaking of which, lately, I wrote an article about the Japanese generation Z and it was well received. Japan is often considered a country where the ways of thinking change very slowly, but it seems that young Japanese people crave change. That intrigued me a lot and I turned my personal observation and all the information I could find about that topic into an article.
Also, since I have always liked intercultural communication and cultural concepts, I try to write columns about them from time to time. I wrote an article about “meiwaku” or “annoyance,” which I believe is fun to read and can help in understanding Japanese people’s priorities better.
What’s one thing you thought you knew about directing a media company or about running a media site that you now understand differently?
GEERAERT: Monetizing an online platform is hard! [laughs] It takes a lot of time, and you need to be inventive. Actually, I am currently in the middle of making plans to help Kokoro Media grow better and faster. Knowing about these challenges is one thing, but experiencing it is another. I understand better why so many traditional media are struggling.
What’s the most helpful piece of editing or writing advice ever given to you or heard?
GEERAERT: One of my favorite authors, Ray Bradbury, gave a lot of very useful advice about writing. One of his main ideas is that to become a good writer, you must write a lot, and you must read a lot. You cannot just do one of the two.
Bradbury advised to write every day: “So at the end of each day, you’ve done your work and you lie there and you think, well, I’ll be damned, I did this today. It doesn’t matter how good it is, or how bad—you did it.” He also advised to find joy in writing, to write about what you love, and to use your experience or what touches you.
He also advised to read one short story, one poem, and one essay every day. He insisted on the fact one should read essays about various fields and compare them. I believe the merits of doing this are beyond measure. Not only do you get a lot of knowledge, but it also broadens your horizons, it can give you a lot of new ideas and it helps you refine your own style. Although it is not always easy for me to do that every day, I do my best to read a lot about everything.
Bradbury also had great advice about accepting to write bad stuff and accepting to make mistakes. That is very important because I have noticed writers are often very critical of their own works—that is certainly my case.
What is one thing that might surprise people about you, your career, or your current role?
GEERAERT: I am usually calm and quiet, so people are very surprised when they hear I practice Thai boxing! [laughs] I have even done a few amateur fights.
Any reading recommendations that you’d like to share—either about your profession or Japan, or anything that you’ve read recently that you’ve loved and want to recommend?
I think she is becoming increasingly popular outside of Japan too, but I highly recommend the works of writer Mieko Kawakami. I have been reading some of her novels and short stories in their original versions, but the available English translations look awesome. Her stories deal with many of Japan’s societal problems, such as poverty or bullying in schools, but her characters are so alive, and her writing is so dynamic and full of wit. I promise you it is very moving and entertaining. “Breasts and Eggs” would be a good place to start.
Any exciting developments within Kokoro Media that you are working on? Or that we should keep our eyes peeled for?
GEERAERT: As I mentioned earlier, I am in the middle of planning to help the website grow. Things such as affiliate programs are in the works, but I cannot tell too much for now.