By Carolyn Nardiello
Friday, August 31, 2007
Keiko Tsuyama was the first woman to work in the business department of Kyodo, Japan's largest newswire, then became the first to work in North America. Today, she's settled in New York as a freelancer and covers the culture gap.
NEW YORK (WOMENSENEWS)--After only a few days in the Big Apple, Keiko Tsuyama was already jay-walking. When the Japanese business reporter set foot in New York City for the first time in 2003, it was clear she knew how to set a fast pace and break a few rules. She belonged here.
"I'm just an easygoing person," insisted the award-winning author of three technology books in an interview from the Manhattan apartment she shares with two cats, Rosalie and Taro.
Ten years earlier, Tsuyama became the first female reporter to join 70 male colleagues on the financial beat at Kyodo News, Japan's largest wire service. At the time, most women there were lifestyle reporters. Seven years later, there were still only nine female reporters out of 100 on the crime beat.
Tsuyama used the fact that she was a woman to her advantage. Sitting in the front row at press conferences, ministers and officials remembered her face. She could track their every move once she befriended their secretaries. Her strategy paid off.
"She stayed on covering technology for two years longer than most business reporters," said former colleague Makoto Taniguchi through a translator. "Some thought that because she was female she got special treatment, but it was her skills as a reporter."
Upon arriving in New York, Tsuyama, who is at ease in English and French, broke down another barrier by becoming the first female correspondent at Kyodo to be posted to a bureau in North America.
In a country where women are constitutionally banned from ascending the throne and comprise just 12 percent of the parliament, Tsuyama is breaking down barriers and shattering stereotypes. Now in the United States, she is bridging a divide between two cultures.
"I don't know if I know anybody with as much guts as Keiko," said Freek Staps, a New York-based Dutch reporter who met the Japanese writer at a Las Vegas consumer electronics show in 2005.
Staps recalled how, at a Sony press conference, none of the other 100-plus Asian reporters approached the executive leading it, except Tsuyama.
"I didn't think Asian journalists would be as venturesome," said Staps, echoing a common stereotype. "Keiko showed me that there was another way."
Tsuyama covered hard-hitting news such as the Martha Stewart trial (whose brand was on Japanese supermarket shelves) and minute-by-minute ups and downs of market news and foreign exchanges. Every year she was sent to the consumer electronics show in Las Vegas.
Audiences in Japan craved the New York-based business news she covered, which at times had a more human angle. A feature she wrote on Glen Volkman, who ate one of the first hamburgers sold 50 years ago at McDonald's, made all the next day's papers in Japan. Tsuyama wrote business features on an African American painter imitating Japanese art, Hello Kitty's 30th anniversary party at Rockefeller Center and dog shows in New York. They were stories no one else was writing and that she came up with, she says, because she's female.
In October 2006, Tsuyama did the unthinkable: She quit her job. Her three-and-a-half-year New York stint ended, and during the plane ride back home the 43-year-old had a brainstorm. Her announcement that she intended to leave the wire service after 18 years would be unexpected when her bosses took for granted that employees fulfill their unspoken, unwritten, life-long contracts.
"I thought I should tell them, 'Well I'm getting married' or 'I have a boyfriend back in New York' or something like that," she said.
But she didn't. Once Tsuyama arrived in Tokyo, it took two months for her supervisors to understand her decision to leave. She wanted to tell readers in Japan about New York, which she couldn't do working for the fast-paced, deadline-driven news service she joined in 1988.
Her experiences at Kyodo were good ones, she says, and her editors were like "brothers," but a friend of hers suggested there were other reasons she left.
"If the Japanese government and companies don't make an effort to treat equally and support women to continue working, independent and efficient women like Keiko will go overseas more," said Kaoru Shiraki, an industry colleague. "Keiko is a successful model for working women."
Had Tsuyama joined Kyodo News before Japan's government passed the Equal Employment Opportunity Law in 1986, she may not have been so successful. Women with bachelor's degrees were discouraged from certain occupations and held back from promotions. Critics said legal restrictions allowed companies to keep women in traditional positions such as serving tea to guests or as secretaries.
Tsuyama, who throws back her head and lets out a roar when she laughs instead of demurely covering her mouth, says she wants to write about the differences between her country and the United States and reach a broad range of audiences such as the elderly and children as a freelancer.
The different people, different ways of thinking and the different history attract her to New York, she said. Stories about the tipping system, yellow cabs and the subway are interesting to readers back home. "These things that I didn't know about really inspired me."
"I was eating a cheeseburger and she had just never had one before, so I said 'have a bite,'" recalled Toni Christopher, a bartender at the Black Sheep, an Irish pub that Tsuyama frequents. "I think what I love about Keiko is that she's just not judgmental. She just always wants to learn."
Tsuyama also says she wants to write about Wall Street and strip clubs, because "salarymen" (white collar workers) in Japan wouldn't let their bosses on to such a business expense. "In Japan you hide that bill," she said.
In only six months, she's hooked up with a few gigs. There's the monthly radio talk show, Japan's largest, with Tokyo Broadcast System, for which she wakes up at dawn. Then she contributes hard news stories on such things as the iPhone to Japan-based weekly tabloids. Assignments for places such as the magazine Ronza, where she interviewed environmental activist Lester Brown, are trickling in too. Tsuyama also went to Lebanon to cover a United Nations landmine effort and is at work writing and illustrating a children's book. In June the writer reached her first goal when her income surpassed her rent; now she hopes to surpass her monthly full-time reporter's salary.
Ironically, her first piece as a freelance journalist in New York was for U.S. readers about Japanese culture. Written in English and published in Newsday, a large New York daily, a January op-ed explained the debate over changing Article 9 of the Japanese constitution, which renounces war.
Tsuyama felt writing in English was difficult at first but reaching out to a diverse body of readers was satisfying.
"It's true that I feel uneasy after leaving Kyodo," she said, "but I think I'm lucky."
Carolyn Nardiello is a freelance writer living in New York. Previously she worked at Kyodo News from 2001-2005.
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