Web Exclusives: Alumni Spotlight

Posted October 23, 2002:

Traveling Japan
Rick Kennedy '57 makes Tokyo his pearl

Tokyo is Rick Kennedy '57's Paris. He has lived there for a total of 25 years, with a few breaks in between. Kennedy savors the city's cafes, pocket parks, bookstores, bars, and markets. And he likes to share his discoveries.

In newspaper columns, a Web site, and several travel books, including "Little Adventures in Tokyo: 39 Thrills for the Urban Explorer" and "Tokyo Q 2001-2002: Annual Guide to the City" (both published by Stone Bridge), Kennedy has keenly observed the peculiar delights of one of the world's largest and most chaotic cities.

"I dig the city," Kennedy says, explaining his literary avocation. "It seemed a natural thing to write about it and was an excuse to explore."

Kennedy, who originally came to Japan with the Dutch import/export agency and now writes and edits for a number of organizations, loves the city's unzoned jumble, where rice paddies and sky scrapers can coexist. And like a true Tokyoite, he's able to admire "a particularly complex tangle of wires, cables, and junction boxes" attached to telephone poles, as well as a putting green on the grounds of an ancient temple, and the blinding neon signs that signal a pachinko (pinball) parlor.

For an interview last winter, Kennedy jauntily entered the Imperial Hotel wearing a Princeton cap. He is a busy man, working six days a week, 16 hours a day. He's currently employed as a writer/editor for Sumitomo Bank, Sony Research Center, a trading firm, and NHK: the Japan Broadcasting Corporation — for which he edits the evening news.

Kennedy's editor at Stone Bridge, Peter Goodman, appreciates the way the writer's mix of Japanese propriety and "European courtly charm" informs his writing. "I think Rick is one of these guys who feels most at home in the city; he likes the noise, the bustle, the people, the variety of experiences you can get. I think in some ways he imagines he's living in Paris, but he's actually in Tokyo."

Tokyo is more interesting than Paris, says Kennedy, who is married to Mikie Yaginuma, an English teacher, and has two grown children. And yet, he can tell you where to find a "terrific pain du compagne and terrific espresso."

In equally urbane tones, he writes about the ritual of Kohdo, in which competitors sniff and identify untold incense scents; the Yokohama waterfront; the sport of "skiing inside"; and dinner cruises on the Sumida River.

And here is Kennedy on the city's infatuation with Western popular culture: "Young Tokyo's vision of the West is colored like a cheap religious oleograph, shot through with tongue-in-cheek romantics, and awash with camp."

Originally from Concord, Massachusetts, Kennedy admits that he has become somewhat detached from that same popular culture: "I don't get all the references in the New Yorker anymore," he says. That's the price you pay. It's worth it, I think."

By Stephanie Shapiro

Stephanie Shapiro is a writer for the Baltimore Sun.