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Interview with Caroline Pover

caroline_pover.jpg Caroline Pover is the writer of the best-selling book Being A Broad in Japan, founder and president of Alexandra Press. Through her various ventures, she has helped build a large and growing network of foreign women in Japan. She is also a regular public speaker and consultant.

She is from the UK, and graduated from Exeter University before spending a year as a primary school teacher. She has been in Japan since August, 1996. She spoke with ELT News editor Mark McBennett in June, 2003.

Alexandra Press provides independent publishing for the international community in Japan.

ELTNEWS
I believe that since you were a kid your dream had always been to be a teacher. But having realised it, you gave up your teaching job to come and look for one in Japan. Why do you think it is that some people are adventurers while others never stray far from home?
Caroline
Yes, most people from my hometown are still there - people very rarely leave Plymouth, actually! I was talking to a friend from Plymouth about this. He was trying to understand why I wouldn't go back and had no desire to go back at all, and I realized that the difference between us was that he was happy and content with what was available there. Some people are happy with what they've got, they're comfortable with the familiar. And for some people, familiarity and routine is something they're not comfortable with. So they deliberately put themselves in surroundings that are unfamiliar and constantly seek out new things. And coming somewhere like Japan, it never becomes completely familiar, I don't think. No matter how fluent you are, or how many years you've been here, there's always things that happen that surprise you, unpredictable things going on. And I think that's why people who come to Japan often stay longer than people who go to other countries.

Of course some people just want to have constant challenges. Others, and I know quite a few, want to escape from something. And there are others who have always felt some kind of pull to Asia. I would be in the first category. I don't like routine. I like every day to be different. I came here for an adventure and I'm still having one. And I love it more now than I ever have done.
ELTNEWS
My first experience of Japan was sailing into Yokohama harbour aboard a Soviet cruise ship on a gorgeous afternoon. Having an image of the place as dirty and polluted, I still remember thinking how clean Yokohama Bay Bridge was as we sailed under it, not knowing that it had just been built. What's your earliest memory of Japan?
Caroline
I arrived early on a Thursday morning. I was supposed to be met by a friend of a friend, who forgot I was coming! So, I called my friend in England and got a contact number and found out that he lived in Ebisu. So I took a bus and got into Ebisu and I spent the entire day, eight hours, sitting outside a phone box near the station. I had a little book, which had a list of English language schools. So I called all the schools while I was waiting. I thought, I might as well get started! I called the schools and arranged interviews for the next day.

I remember sitting there, not understanding a thing, hearing mobile phones go off, watching people go by. I just thought it was really exciting to be just sitting there - I didn't even know if I would have somewhere to sleep that night!
ELTNEWS
So you made a very productive day of it. You were very focused on finding a job, networking and getting job interviews lined up.
Caroline
Yes, well I had hardly any money and I knew I had to get going straight away. There was potentially eight hours worth of networking to be done. I had never thought of myself as a natural networker, but I guess so...
ELTNEWS
I remember when I used to hang on every word by people whose time in Japan was counted in years rather than months. One idea which made sense to me then was that life in Japan goes in three-month cycles, with feelings varying between open-mouthed amazement and home-sickness, or fascination with the culture and paranoia. What cycles did you experience?
Caroline
My first three months, I was completely in love with the place. I couldn't believe I was really here and I'd walk around and look at the big lights - actually I still do that sometimes. I look up and think, "Oh my God, I'm in Tokyo, I can't believe it!"

Then, and this is the classic culture shock cycle, after three months something really changed. Looking back, I know it was culture shock, but I didn't know how to explain it. I just knew I wasn't happy. But I didn't feel that it was Japan. It was my natural reaction to blame Japan, but deep down I knew it was something in me, that I needed to grow, to adjust, to be able to live here.

But after a short time it became a realistic appreciation and joy about the country I was living in. Since then, periods of stress or what have you haven't been Japan-related, and in the last few years especially things have just got better and better.

I'm not quite sure why, but in Tokyo people tend to experience things to further extremes. The good things and the bad things, you feel more here. It might be something to do with the urgent energy of the city. I think a lot of the foreigners here tend to work hard and play hard, which doesn't leave much time for sitting back and relaxing.

And a lot of people spend a lot of time by themselves, sitting for two hours every day on the train. That's a lot of time by yourself, with your own thoughts. And without the distractions of TV and friends they've known for years, it's difficult for some people to adjust.
ELTNEWS
Was the Being A Broad magazine born out of a sense of philanthropy or was it always going to be a business? Do you think you would have done something similar if you'd stayed in the UK?
Caroline
The magazine was never supposed to be a business, but it had to become one. Actually, it had been going for about six months before I realized that I needed to sort all that out. Everything that I do comes from a sense of wanting to improve, somehow, the lives of others, or doing something that seems to be really needed. As I've got older, I've realized that these are the kinds of things that drive me, and for them to succeed - or even exist - they have to be a business.

So I've had to learn that whole side of things. When people call me an entrepreneur, I usually say I'm an accidental entrepreneur, because it was just what I had to do to achieve the things I wanted to do.

In the UK? Well, I've always been doing one thing or another, even from primary school. I was head girl in secondary school so it kind of gave me the chance to do some good things. Ours and a rival school were known for always fighting. I happened to do one of my A levels at the other school, so I'd organize these events where we'd all get on.

And at (Exeter) University I was the RAG officer (student union charity fund-raising - ed.), so I was always organizing one thing or another, mostly with an element of fun but always with the purpose being some kind of community...helping people improve some situation. We started the Safe Sex Ball in my first year and that's now the biggest fund raiser on World Aids Day in the whole of the UK. So, yeah, I suppose I would be doing something that I thought was needed, of use to other people.
ELTNEWS
I've read that publishing the magazine eventually put you into considerable debt. What do you think went wrong? If you were to do it over again, do you think the magazine could work? I'm assuming that you don't have plans to re-launch it...
Caroline
No, though I'm constantly asked to do it again! What went wrong? Well, I didn't have the relevant experience, and because I wasn't intending on it being a business, I didn't have the capital. I was also working in a full time job so it was very challenging. It was an editorially-driven magazine, and magazines anywhere - not just Tokyo - that have that kind of focus all have challenges, and a lot of them fail. I wasn't prepared to compromise the content for advertisers. Whereas now, I might be a little more flexible with those things...though not when it comes to compromising the nature of the magazine!

I don't know...it probably would work now. With the name and how well known it is now, maybe it would. I get a lot of offers to do it again. But publishing a magazine is really hard work. You have to commit to having it published every month. While I'm completely, 100% committed to Japan, I think one of the reasons that I love it is that I feel that I have got the choice to be here. Running a magazine, with all the staff and writers that you need working on it...I'm a very hands-on person and I like to interact with the staff at all levels, and I find that very rewarding, but to do that would mean I'd have to commit to being here all the time.

And I have so many other things that I want to do right now that throwing a monthly magazine into the mix again would be, at this point, not possible. Maybe sometime in the future I might be persuaded...
ELTNEWS
They say that it's more difficult in Japan than in the West for an entrepreneur to recover from a business failure. But you bounced back from what must have been a very disheartening experience.
Caroline
Well, first of all, foreign entrepreneurs here don't get money from the Japanese banks. It tends to be foreign investors, maybe a few Japanese. And a lot of entrepreneurs anyway fund everything themselves when they start up. And, you know, any entrepreneur's probably got five failed businesses behind him or her.
ELTNEWS
Has your story encouraged other female entrepreneurs in Japan?
Caroline
One of the things that I do is to give speeches and workshops with the two main themes being making the most of your life in Japan and the general Being A Broad story, from when I arrived here to the third business, Go Girls. Telling those stories, I'm told, is very encouraging. I do one-to-one consulting also, and after one of those the woman went off and set up her own business. But generally I think the story encourages foreign women to be positive about their experiences in Japan, to look at things in a positive way. It encourages them to look to other women for support. I don't know how many female entrepreneurs I've inspired, but I hope...I think there's been a few.



The Best-Selling Being A Broad in Japan


Being a Broad in Japan is a book that no woman should be without. Full of stories, profiles, web sites, and all the essential information you need to make the most of your life in Japan.

One woman calls it "My encyclopedia, my translator, my phone book, my best friend!"

Tell me more!
ELTNEWS
With the Being A Broad book, did you handle things beyond research and writing, such as design, layout and advertising?
Caroline
I did everything. I had a couple of people who wrote sections in it, and I had an illustrator, and obviously a proofreader. And a couple of people helped me with advertising sales, too. But everything else I did myself, the layout, the design...I had to teach myself how to do it. I spent a whole month on the first version and it was all wrong, so I had to do it over again.
ELTNEWS
Which part did you enjoy most?
Caroline
Doing the interviews with foreign women. Reading those was just so amazing on so many levels. These women trusted me with, in some cases, very intimate details of their lives here. When I said once that some of them made me laugh and some made me cry, it was absolutely true. It's hard to call that enjoyable, but it was a very important and moving part of making the book.

I enjoyed when the books were delivered. They were delivered on the hottest day in July to my apartment. A big truck arrived, and the guy said "Where's the warehouse?" When we told him it was in the apartment, he was stunned. So my best friend and I carried in all these books. It took two and a half hours on the hottest day you can possibly imagine. And I hadn't planned where we were going to put all these books; I had no idea how much space they would take up. So I made a sofa in the lounge of these boxes of 3,000 books. It was huge. My friend had bought me a bottle of sweet champagne - which I love - and I polished it off and fell asleep on this sofa of books.

And when it was the No.1 bestseller in Tower Books, that was great. We knocked Harry Potter off the top...it was amazing! And the book launch party was an amazing thing as well. About 250 people turned up for that. And of course, the really enjoyable part is when women write and say things like "It's really helped my life here."
ELTNEWS
What kind of lessons did you learn from self-publishing the book? I've heard plenty of horror stories about the distribution business, for example.
Caroline
Well, apparently publishing in Japan is considered to be the most closed industry in the world. And I didn't know that! The main reason is that there are a few distribution companies who basically rule everything. So you go to a bookstore and - in the west, individual bookstore managers will say "Yes, we'll stock your book." - here they say, "You have to see this person or that person." And in the end, you have to go through the big distributors. So it completely prevents anyone from doing self-publishing. It's just not done here. So, I had all these books, and I was going to use the company that distributed the magazine, but they had stopped doing book and magazine distribution at that time.

I remembered that I had met Keith Cahoon, the manager of Tower Records for all of Asia and he had told me "If there's ever anything I can do for you, let me know." So here I was three years later, calling him up. I asked him if I could get the book in Tower Records and he said "Yeah, okay!" and the books were in the stores within a week. They were absolutely brilliant to deal with, amazing. And the first lot sold very, very quickly. The Tower staff were amazed because they didn't know me and they hadn't expected it to sell like it did. And when it became their No.1 bestseller, the other bookstores said "Oh actually, we would like to stock your book." So I then was able to deal directly with all the bookstores, which I still do. And that's how I broke into the system here. And any other books that I publish can go straight away into those stores, and I can assist other people to get their foot in the door, too. I think I probably would have managed it somehow, but really I owe a lot to Keith.
ELTNEWS
What's the most satisfying feedback you've had from readers of the book?
Caroline
I get funny e-mails from guys sometimes! I remeber one guy wrote and said "I want to thank you. It's made me understand what my wife is going through. And I hope it's okay that I read it..." (laughs) I'm glad that men read it, too, that they enjoy it and learn something from it. Women are not dealing with their lives here on their own. We have to have friends, partners, colleagues who have some idea of the challenges we're dealing with here and can be sympathetic about it.

The e-mails from the women...one woman wrote and said the book had saved her marriage. Or another woman came up to me after I gave a speech and said she was so excited to meet me and that the book had saved her life here. And that's great because that was the entire purpose of it. If it helps women live a more positive life here and leave Japan feeling good about the place, then that's a great thing.

And really, this is a girlfriend's book. There are parts of it which are very honest and incredibly direct, the kind of stuff you discuss with your girlfriends. That was intentional, but now there are these handful of blokes around Japan who know some very intimate secrets!
ELTNEWS
The Go Girls web site was perhaps a natural extension of the things you had achieved previously. How has it been different from writing and publishing a magazine and book?
Caroline
Well, of course I've been running the Being A Broad web site for a long time. The Go Girls site is different in terms of the people behind it, not so much the work but what my role is in Go Girls. With Alexandra Press and Being A Broad, for a long time I did all of it myself. And now I have a manager for Being A Broad and some staff starting soon for Alexandra Press, though it's still very much my responsibility. But with Go Girls, I have two business partners, there's two other women who are directors of the company, one of whom is the vice-president. And we have around 50 or 60 staff, not all full-time mind you. But the organization behind the scenes is very different from the other two.

And I'm coming to Go Girls with a whole load of business experience, so certain things are easier for me second time around. Also the Go Girls staff are almost all Japanese, and this is the first time for me to be working with such a huge group of Japanese people. Coming in at the beginning as the president, I wasn't sure what my role was. I was so used to doing all the day to day stuff, but I realized that with Go Girls, that would have left no room for doing the "inspirational, visionary" stuff, or for working with, encouraging and supporting the staff. I've learnt how to be more hands-off, and I enjoy that, too.

And sharing responsibility, that's been a very interesting thing for me to do, and I like it! Not so much delegating - I think the primary school teaching background helped with that. It's more the not feeling that I have to decide everything, that I have support. And so I feel that I can take more risks, because I know that I've got "backup."
ELTNEWS
How's your Japanese? What's it like running a company which, as you say, is almost entirely Japanese in terms of communication, getting your ideas across?
Caroline
I don't think there's ever been a problem. My Japanese is very basic but that hasn't been a major hurdle at all. I think that people who want to work at Go Girls have a certain kind of personality and it's the personalities that match. And I've always believed that the desire to communicate is more important, more powerful than just language ability. There's a sense of people sharing the same kind of vision of what we want to do with Go Girls and that's more important than being able to explain in perfect, grammatical Japanese what you're trying to get across. And we manage fine. There haven't been any challenges within the company that have been down to communication issues or language barriers.
ELTNEWS
Apart from getting their hands on a copy of your book, what advice would you offer to a Western woman about to come over to Japan? For example, there will be several thousand arriving soon on the JET Program.
Caroline
Keep an open mind. Try to resist the tendency to blame Japan for negative feelings, though be prepared to have them. Always remember that it's your choice to be here. You might be coming on the JET Program, you might have contracts to fulfill, but when it really comes down to it, it's our choice to be here. Contracts can be broken.

And don't be afraid to ask for help when you need it. The discussion board on the Being A Broad site is - especially for women on the JET Program who might be out in the countryside - it's said to be a kind of a lifeline. There are women living all over Japan who've been here all different lengths of time, who are happy to help. Everyone's going through the same things and people really are willing to help.
ELTNEWS
What other book would you recommend that someone, man or woman, should read before they arrive in Japan?
Caroline
If you're coming to the Tokyo or Yokohama area and you like going to bars and stuff, I'd recommend our Pub Crawler book. It's a really funny read. Even if you're just coming for a weekend visit to Tokyo, I'd say get a copy of that beforehand.
ELTNEWS
Relationships. You've described this as an area that troubles a lot of Western women in Japan. Has the situation got better since you first arrived? Personally I think Western woman-Japanese man couples are more common than they used to be. But I don't get out much...
Caroline
I think you do see more couples, but I think that's natural because there are more single Western women coming to Japan. I think it has got better. I don't know whether it's just my personal experience, but I seem to meet more foreign men who are interested in having relationships with Western women, either as friends or in relationships. When I first came here, I didn't know many foreign men who were interested in even becoming friends, but now I know a lot who prefer to date someone from their own kind of background or culture.

I think it depends where you go and, as with anything, I think it depends on how positive you are about meeting new people. I think it can still be a challenge here for Western women, especially if they don't, you know, find Japanese men attractive.

But you know, really the biggest challenge facing Western women here is isolation, professional and personal. Leaving the professional aspect aside, it can be quite difficult to meet other Western women to replace the network of girlfriends they had back home. And it's surprising how much we rely on our girlfriends to get us through everything.

For women who are in relationships when they come here - and not all but in many cases, they come here because of their partner's job - the work ethic in Japan is quite different from what perhaps they grew up with. Husband, Dad being home at five thirty for dinner hardly exists here. In a lot of those cases, the women were career women before coming here. And now suddenly they find themselves - even though they made the decision to come here - their identity is defined by their role as a wife or mother. And that in itself can be a real challenge to deal with and can put stresses on the relationship, too.

And for single Western women, especially around about thirty or in their early thirties, it often happens that they feel they won't find a life partner here, and they decide they want to be somewhere where that possibilty does exist. It's that they feel the element of choice is removed. Whereas in your own country, you might be this age and single, say 31 as I am, but you feel that it's your choice to be single. A lot of these women are financially independent, have good jobs, nice apartments, good friends. They feel that they want to share this with a partner, but that they can't meet one here. I think it's a shame, really.
ELTNEWS
How do you think you've changed during your time in Japan?
Caroline
I think I "grew up" in Japan. One of my university friends came here, and he commented that I wasn't the kind of angry young woman that he had know twelve years before. Which was interesting to me because I didn't think of myself in that way. I think it's a fairly natural thing for strong women in their late teens or early twenties, and they're not sure where to put this very positive energy, or how to deal with the things they see wrong with the world. I found it amusing that he thought I had been this angry young woman, but he said that I wasn't now.
ELTNEWS
So he thought you'd mellowed...
Caroline
In some ways, I guess I have mellowed and I'm much more open-minded, having lived here. And another friend, who saw me when I was on TV in the UK, said "The confidence you have now...you've really grown. I can't believe you're being interviewed on TV and in magazines. You have a quiet confidence that you didn't used to have." And I guess they'd be able to see it more than me.

I've learned to listen more to people. Maybe that's something that just comes naturally with growing older. I don't think my friends would call me calm, but in my work life I'm much calmer now.
ELTNEWS
What's a typical day for you?
Caroline
I never have a typical day actually. Every day is completely different for me. The time I get up depends on the time I went to bed the night before. And that could be anything from 11 o'clock at night to 8 o'clock in the morning! I usually check e-mail straight away as soon as I get up. I'm obsessive about replying to e-mails straight away, otherwise they just pile up. I might have a meeting with the Go Girls staff, or I might do some work relevant to the new book Japan On Foot (You're Too Big For My Futon) that I'm publishing. I try and have working lunches and dinners, it just saves time. I'm going to eat at some point during the day, so I might as well have a meeting at the same time.
ELTNEWS
Do you try and keep some time aside where you can switch off?
Caroline
No, it's not possible for me, I can't switch off. I'm very bad at doing that. I never feel I don't want to think about work...Actually, that's not true. The only time I don't want to think about work is when it's three in the morning in my favorite bar and somebody will recognize me and come up and start asking me about my book or what I'm doing. It is nice, but usually if it's three in the morning and I'm having a drink...I don't think there's many people that want to talk about work in that situation.
ELTNEWS
Do you miss teaching?
Caroline
I taught in a primary school before I came to Japan, and then I taught for three and a half years here, six months at Kanda Gaigo Gakuin and three years at a high school. And no, I don't miss it. I loved it, but the primary school teaching was such hard work - I don't want to work that hard again!
ELTNEWS
Harder than running three web sites and a publishing business?!
Caroline
Yeah, it really is! People think that primary school teaching is an easy job that fits in with a family and all that sort of thing. It's not! You're exhausted and ready to have a breakdown by the time the holidays come! It's incredibly hard work. But what I miss about it, and about the high school teaching here, is working with so many people with so much energy, who are so keen to learn new things. And helping them learn new things and find out who they are, that was the thing that really appealed to me about it.

And I have that in what I do now. Not that they're all kids, but that we're all learning stuff together, moving forward. And in my daily life, now I can decide what I wear, where and with whom and what time I work. And as I said before, I love it more now than I ever have done.



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