Apr 10

JQ Magazine: JQ&A with Chin Music Press Owner Bruce Rutledge

"JETs have a special bond, somewhat like people who go to the same university, and I think returning JETs can exploit that connection to open a few doors. JETs and MEFs are in all sorts of powerful positions these days at multinationals, news agencies, nonprofits, and government jobs. Use that network!" (Courtesy of Bruce Rutledge)

“JETs have a special bond, somewhat like people who go to the same university, and I think returning JETs can exploit that connection to open a few doors. JETs and MEFs are in all sorts of powerful positions these days at multinationals, news agencies, nonprofits, and government jobs. Use that network!” (Courtesy of Bruce Rutledge)


By Julio Perez Jr. (Kyoto-shi, 2011-13) for JQ magazine. A bibliophile, writer, translator, and graduate from Columbia University, Julio is currently working at Ishikawa Prefecture’s New York office while seeking opportunities with publications in New York. Follow his enthusiasm for Japan, literature, and comic books on his blog and Twitter @brittlejules.

After spending a few years in Chiba doing teaching and promotional work that would be all too familiar to JET ALTs and CIRs, Bruce Rutledge went on to work as an editor and writer in Japan for over 15 years. Today, he is the owner of Chin Music Press, a publishing company in Seattle with strong ties to Japan.

In this exclusive interview, Rutledge discusses his time as a Monbusho English Fellow (MEF), which was in some ways a precursor to the JET Program, and shares some of his experiences in a variety of media positions in Japan along with the origin and direction of Chin Music Press.

Since most of our readers are JET alumni, they’re probably already wondering about your connection to JET. Would you mind telling us a bit about the Monbusho English Fellowship you participated in? Why were you drawn to that program? Where in Japan were you placed, and how would you describe your activities as a Monbusho English Fellow? Also, how would you connect MEF with JET and compare it to what JET eventually became?

I was an MEF from 1985 to 1987 in Funabashi, Chiba, I think my job was sort of a combination of a CIR and a teaching assistant. I spent every Monday in the city hall doing PR work for Funabashi, whose slogan was “We More Sports.” I talked to them about this thing called a verb and how their slogan needed one, but my intervention was too late. Tuesday through Friday, I would teach in the schools. I taught a whole year at one high school and spent the rest of the time rotating from middle school to middle school with an occasional elementary school visit thrown in. It was a memorable period of my life. I loved my time there.

Are there any special anecdotes you would like to share from your time in Japan?

Perhaps the time a neighborhood kid of five or six broke into my apartment by climbing through an open window. The little burglar left his shoes on the windowsill. It was just the sort of juxtaposition I love about Japan.

When you finished with MEF, what was your next job? At that time, what direction did you see your life taking, and how did the your path end up differing?

After MEF life, I moved about 15 stops down the Sobu Line to Suidobashi and took a job with Universal News Japan. I was an editor and had planned to have a career in journalism. That plan worked out for nearly 15 years, until the Internet changed everything and I started longing to work in a longer form.

You seem to have had many media-related positions, mostly involving Japan or Asia. How would you describe the kind of work you did post-MEF? During those times, were you living primarily in Japan or somewhere else? How did that impact your performance in those jobs?

I lived in Japan for 15+ years. I never lived in another Asian country. I was a Louis L’Amour of white-collar jobs, doing a little bit of everything. I even did a 15-minute shortwave radio newscast from the bowels of NHK headquarters that aired at 2 a.m. Japan time. We would sleep in bunk beds from 2:30 to 5:00, then do another broadcast at around 5:30. That was the weirdest job I had.

For JET returnees who are deep into their job search for the next step in their career, do you have any advice for them on entering media, journalism, publishing or related fields? Are there ways that you think the unique experience of teaching English in Japan can be marketed as something attractive on a resume or in an interview?

The media is in such a state of flux that it’s hard to say. Americans who haven’t traveled often have a hard time caring about other parts of the world. It can be frustrating trying to talk about your time in Japan if the listener doesn’t really care. That said, JETs have a special bond, somewhat like people who go to the same university, and I think returning JETs can exploit that connection to open a few doors. JETs and MEFs are in all sorts of powerful positions these days at multinationals, news agencies, nonprofits, and government jobs. Use that network! I’ve hired former JETs to be designers, publicists, editors, and translators myself.

Changing topics to discuss your company, how would you describe Chin Music Press to someone who is hearing about it for the first time?

We make beautiful, engaging, and affordable books with a special focus on Northeast Asia.

When and why did you create Chin Music Press? What parts of your previous experience did you feel was most helpful and essential for taking that step? Is there any meaning behind the name?

I formed the company in 2002, but we didn’t publish our first book until 2004. I think my many media jobs helped me feel confident that I could run a publishing company. But more than anything, it was a mixture of naivety and stubbornness that got me into this business.

“Chin music” is an old phrase that I first heard as a child during baseball games. It refers to a high and tight pitch that brushes the batter back. When I researched the phrase later in life, I found it had myriad meanings through the ages, including being a synonym for eloquence, gossip, and the Bronx cheer. I liked all its meanings and also liked how the phrase shows how words evolve. My marketing staff probably wants to kill me for giving the press a name that sounds like a Chinese music shop.

Between that time and now, how has the company and the content published grown or changed in unexpected ways? I understand you opened a retail store for Chin Music Press recently; could you tell us about that development as well?

Since we began, the most unexpected thing that’s happened to the press is that we now have an imprint called Broken Levee Books that has nothing to do with Asia. It came about because of one book we did after Hurricane Katrina called Do You Know What It Means to Miss New Orleans? Through that book, we made deep connections with the literary and artistic communities of New Orleans. Those connections continue to grow and blossom in unexpected ways.

We moved into Pike Place Market in Seattle last summer, and now have our own store. It’s been a dream of mine to have a publishing house and bookstore side by side, and we’ve finally realized that dream.

Japan is an exciting topic that has only grown in popularity with the “Cool Japan” concept becoming very prominent. Have you noticed any trends in what kind of Japan-related material is popular among American readers? Is there any noticeable difference in the reception of fictional works that are translated into English from Japanese when compared with Japan-related fiction written originally in English? How do those compare with non-fiction books that deal with particular aspects of Japan, and which topics seem to garner the most attention?

It’s hard to say which topics are most popular. Non-fiction tends to be easier to sell than fiction, and original English fiction tends to be easier than fiction in translation. But books take on lives of their own, and it’s very hard to predict what will sell best. We try to keep our focus on which manuscripts grab us, rather than searching for something that will sell well. If the work grabs us, we’re confident that it will grab others as well.

Here at JQ magazine, we’ve already covered some of the translation work done by Zack Davisson (Nara-ken, 2001-04; Osaka-shi, 2004-06) and also his forthcoming book Yurei: The Japanese Ghost published by Chin Music Press. Are there any other JET alumni working at or writing for Chin Music Press that you would like to introduce to us?

In the past, JET alumni such as Jessica Sattell (Fukuoka-ken, 2007-08) (publicist) and Josh Powell (Saitama-ken, 2005-07) (book designer) have worked with us and had a strong influence on the press. Our staff doesn’t have a JET alum at the moment, but we’d be happy to rectify that if the right person comes along.

What do you see in the future of Chin Music Press? If we were to correspond again in three to five years, what things would you hope to have developed or changed about Chin Music Press?

I hope to have more titles published from China and Korea while continuing to publish top-notch Japan titles. I hope we earn a reputation for making some of the most beautiful, affordable books in the world. I hope we’re still surviving in this competitive and very difficult industry.

How can we find out more about Chin Music Press and its content? What’s the best way to keep informed about new books coming out and your work as well?

Subscribe to our monthly newsletter and check out our blog from time to time. Follow us on Facebook and Twitter. We keep up a pretty steady conversation with our readers. Come to a reading or a literary event. If you’re in Seattle, stop by our store.

Scenario: You are stranded on a deserted island with all of the resources you require to live, except that you can have only one book and a lifetime supply of only one flavor of ice cream. What book, and what flavor, and why?

Pale Fire by Vladimir Nabokov and coffee ice cream. I could read Pale Fire over and over and always come away with something new, and if I can’t have coffee, I’ll settle for coffee ice cream.

Bonus round: Sorry, you have to ditch either that book or the lifetime supply of ice cream. Which doesn’t make the cut?

Easy: The ice cream. I’ll live on literature alone.

Any final things you’d like to add about yourself, Chin Music Press, or any messages you’d like to share with our readers?

Thanks for the interview and thanks to all the JET alumni who pitch in and make this network important and vital.

Visit Chin Music Press online at www.chinmusicpress.com, or in Seattle at 1501 Pike Place #329. For more JQ magazine interviews, click here.

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