Interview with Dale Furutani

by Claire E. White

The first Asian American to win a major mystery award and the first writer invited to address The Library of Congress twice in one year, author Dale Furutani has trod a fascinating path to both corporate and artistic success. A third generation Japanese American, or Sansei, he was born in Hilo, Hawaii, on December 1, 1946. Dale's mother was at Pearl Harbor during the infamous attack on December 7, 1941. She was at a church camp over the harbor, and could see the attack unfold below her. During the war she worked for the American Red Cross in Honolulu. When he was five, Dale was adopted by John Flanagan, and moved to California. There he met with racial prejudice for the first time, as he was virtually the only Asian in his school. He graduated from California State University, Long Beach, where he received a degree in Creative Writing, and UCLA, where he received an MBA in Marketing and Information Systems. He worked his way through undergraduate school writing articles and serving as a contributing editor for various magazines.
Photograph of Dale Furutani
For 19 years, Dale owned a small consulting company specializing in the automotive industry which counted corporate giants ranging from Nissan to Xerox as its clients. He has also served as President of a software company and Parts Marketing Manager for Yamaha motorcycles. Currently he is Director of Information Technology for Nissan Motor Corp. in the U.S.A. His love of writing never flagged, and in 1993 he started writing book-length fiction. His first novel, Death in Little Tokyo was published by St. Martin's Press to stellar reviews. It was nominated for an Agatha award and won a Macavity and Anthony award as Best First Mystery Novel. His second Ken Tanaka mystery novel The Toyotomi Blades was published in 1997. He has also had three non-fiction books and over 250 articles published. He has won prizes for his poetry and had a one-act play produced while he was in college. Married for almost 30 years he, his wife Sharon, and their unruly Labrador Retriever, Darby, live in Los Angeles, California. We spoke with Dale about his two careers, writing and the prejudice still faced by Asian Americans in America today.

Moving to California from Hawaii at the age of 5 must have been quite a shock for you. What kind of prejudice did you meet with in your new school?

I was adopted, so although my mother was Japanese, we didn't live in the Japanese American community. For a period, I was virtually the only Asian in my school. This was the early fifties, so the war wasn't that far away, and some kids thought I was personally responsible for Pearl Harbor. As a result, after school I got into a fight almost every day. It didn't stop until I learned to win some of the fights. It taught me that prejudice has nothing to do with reason and justice. Today I try to avoid conflict and tell myself not to be so combative, but the plain fact is that unpleasant people get their way by being unpleasant, and at a certain point you just have to stand up and say "enough."

Some people refer to Asian Americans as "The Silent Minority" because, although they make up a substantial percentage of America's minority population, prejudice against this group receives little, if any, media coverage. How prevalent is such prejudice today? In your opinion, why don't we hear more about prejudice against Asian-Americans?

"I think too many writers don't look at themselves and the world they exist in when they write. Everyone is interesting if they're looked at properly."
In Los Angeles, where I live, the Asian American population is now larger than the African American population. In 1995, Asian Americans suffered the largest increase in violent hate crimes in L.A., and in 1996 they had the second largest increase (swapping places with Gays and Lesbians for this dubious distinction). Although Asian Americans are over-represented in many professions, when you look at the management of these fields, you see that Asian Americans are drastically under-represented. There are many other examples of prejudice that can be cited, but the bottom line is that Asian Americans suffer the same kind of prejudice as others in our country. Asian culture has a stoic element to it. In Japanese, we say "Shikata Ga Nai," which basically means, "It can't be helped." This reflects a view of life that says you have to deal with life as you find it. In the Japanese American community there is a remarkable resiliency and belief in America, so there is very little of the kind of rancor and rage that garners media headlines. I think the silence from the Asian American community is changing, however, as more third, fourth and fifth generation Asian Americans get tired of being treated as emigrants to our own country. I just hope we continue to generate positive responses to the problems of prejudice, and not despair.

What was the inspiration for Ken Tanaka and Death in Little Tokyo?

I wanted to write the most entertaining mystery novel I could, and I wanted to do it with a distinctive Asian American voice. Death in Little Tokyo grew from my interest in writing about how the past affects the present. The "camp generation" in the Japanese American community is passing, and I wanted to do my small bit to preserve some of the stories I had been told. I'm actually only half Japanese, and Ken Tanaka originally started as a "happa," too. As I wrote, it struck me that most of the Asian American detectives I read didn't have the right "aji" (taste)-- they didn't resonate with me and I couldn't identify with them. Because of this, I changed Ken to a full Japanese American, so I could deal with a sub-culture, instead of a sub-culture of a sub-culture! I think too many writers don't look at themselves and the world they exist in when they write. Everyone is interesting if they're looked at properly. In mysteries, some people seem to write what others are writing, or they indulge in outlandish characters chosen just for their gimmick value. "Write what you know" is hardly original advice, but it amazes me how many writers decide to ignore it.

How much of you is in Ken Tanaka?

Every character has a piece of the author, even the villains. Ken is much nicer than I am and, I think, more naĆ­ve. Like me, he constantly makes mistakes, but he seems to be better at learning from his mistakes than I am. He's also braver (or dumber) than me. If I ever came across a real murder, I'd leave it to the police to solve!

You have been writing for most of your life. What made you decide to take the plunge and write a novel?

Ray Bradbury said the first million words don't count for much, and I believe that. Most of my first million was non-fiction, including three published books. Since I was a Creative Writing major in college, I also wrote many short stories and poems, but never a novel. I'm a friend of mystery writer Michael Nava. We'd get together to discuss mysteries periodically, and a couple of years ago I told him I was going to write another non-fiction book. He said, "Why don't you write a mystery?" That seemed like an interesting notion, and the result was Death in Little Tokyo.

How did you find the time to write two novels while being Director of Information Technology for Nissan Motor Corp.?

It's hard, and getting increasingly harder as time passes and more demands are put on me from my writing career. Still, I believe that if you want something, you work for it. I've been lucky in my writing career, but I really admire the writers who stick at it even if they don't get their first, second or even third novel published! That shows courage, determination and a voice that will be heard, no matter how much work is involved.

In The Toyotomi Blades, Ken visits his homeland and discovers what it is like to be a minority in a land where he looks like the natives, but doesn't speak the language. Have you visited Japan? What was your experience like as a third-generation Japanese-American (a "Sansei") visiting Japan for the first time?

The theme of Toyotomi Blades is the difference between culture and race. Ken is racially Japanese, but culturally he's American. Placing him in Japan for the first time was the ideal way to discuss this. I've been to Japan approximately 15 times (I've actually lost count). For the Toyotomi Blades, I had to dip back into my memory to recall the things I found novel and strange the first time I visited. Ken's experiences mirror my experiences (minus a few bodies, of course!).

In The Toyotomi Blades there is a scene where Ken visits the head of a Yakuza crime family. How did you go about creating that scene? Is the Yakuza really that prominent in Japan?

Yakuza in Japan will actually wear lapel pins identifying which gang they belong to. At "onsen" (hot springs) you can occasionally see someone with the distinctive tattoos that cover a Yakuza's body. I think things are changing now, but, despite their criminal activities, the Yakuza move about in Japanese society instead of hiding in the shadows. The outside of the Yakuza office described in The Toyotomi Blades is an actual Yakuza office in Tokyo. The details of the Yakuza head's office I invented. My devotion to research doesn't extend to getting this close to the Yakuza!

What has the reaction been to your books from other Japanese-Americans? From any Japanese readers?

The Japanese American press has been super, giving me numerous front-page stories. Institutions like the Japanese American National Museum, the Wing Luke Asian Museum and the U. S. Library of Congress have held events for me. Since one of my goals was to present an authentic Asian American voice, this kind of support has been as important to me as my acceptance by the mystery community. The Japanese translation of Death in Little Tokyo is not out yet, so I don't know what the general reaction will be. A Japanese who read the English version sent me a new, hand carved "hanko" (name stamp) as a gift, so I guess at least one Japanese national liked it!

In Death in Little Tokyo you talk about the differences in attitude between the second and third generation Japanese-Americans. Can you give us an example of this difference in attitudes?

Cover of Death in Little Tokyo
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for ordering information.
The Nisei (second generation) is usually the camp generation, and their attitudes were shaped by the camp experience. For years, no one talked about it, because they thought it was shameful. The third (Sansei) and fourth (Yonsei) generation are much more vocal and inclined to take risks. Japanese American society is in a constant process of cultural negotiation because we are Americans who don't want to forget our roots. In this we're no different than a lot of American sub-cultures, but how this is playing out in the community is interesting to watch. Death in Little Tokyo has a scene that I call the modern tea ceremony, which illustrates the cultural negotiation we do. Out of respect to the Nisei, we want to know the proper cultural protocol to follow, even if we Sanseis don't do this among ourselves. Right now, over half the Japanese Americans don't marry people of Japanese heritage, so in some ways they're in danger of disappearing as a distinct group in a few generations. I don't think that's bad, by the way. As a happa myself, I know having multiple cultures can sometimes be an advantage.

What has been the most surprising effect on your life that occurred as a result of writing Death in Little Tokyo and The Toyotomi Blades?

I've now become a semi-public figure. I didn't know what most authors looked like, so it never occurred to me that people would know what I look like. I've been stopped in an airport, waiting in line for the theater and at a few other public places by people who want to know if I'm Dale Furutani. I like people, but, like most authors, I'm basically an introvert. I haven't worked through this yet, but it's a strange combination of being pleased people are starting to recognize my work combined with surprise that people are starting to recognize me.

What is the greatest challenge in writing a series character?

Keeping the character fresh. If people read all the books in the series, they don't want you to repeat yourself. You have to keep showing new facets of the character which are still consistent with his or her basic nature.

What's next for Ken Tanaka?

In book three, a 420-pound sumo wrestler walks into a small locked room at UCLA and disappears a few minutes before a bout. Gary Apia, the Hawaiian sumo wrestler Ken met in The Toyotomi Blades, becomes a suspect in what might be a case of foul play. Gary asks Ken for help. Also in this book, Ken's first wife, who is not Japanese, shows up asking for Ken's help. She causes all sorts of problems between Ken and his girlfriend, Mariko. Finally, to add to his woes, a Los Angeles street gang decides for some reason that it wants to take Ken out, and expresses that desire with an Uzi! The working title is Blood on the Pacific Rim.

I understand that you are also under contract to William Morrow for a second mystery series, featuring a masterless samurai as the detective in 1603 Japan. What was the inspiration for this new series?

On a trip to Japan I arranged to have tea served to me in a farmhouse built in 1650. I was sitting in the farmhouse with my eyes watering because smoke from the hibachi filled the room and blackened the thatched roof, smelling the earthy odor of rice bales stored in the loft, and feeling floorboards worn to a silky smoothness by centuries of bare feet crossing them. It occurred to me that most of the historical fiction about ancient Japan dealt with the nobility, and not too much was written about the common people, like the ones who lived in this farmhouse. As a "ronin" (literally "wave man," meaning someone cast adrift without a master), my protagonist comes in contact with the peasants, merchants and entertainers which formed the common classes of ancient Japan. This is actually a mystery trilogy, with each book a stand-alone mystery and a larger mystery solved with information in all three books. It's very different from the Ken Tanaka series and I'm curious to see how much crossover I'll have amongst readers. The first book in this new series is done. The title will be Death at the Crossroads.

How have you approached the massive research this project will entail?

My intention is to create something entertaining, but I wanted to be as accurate as possible. I've gathered well over 100 books for research, and I just returned from Japan where I did more research. I found a marvelous little museum in Fukugawa where you can walk through a replica of Edo (ancient Tokyo). You can stroll the streets, wander into houses, and see everyday life as it was lived. As with the ancient farmhouse, this type of experiential research is what I find most useful.

What is the most difficult aspect of writing this series?

The amount of work involved. I had no concept about how much research was involved in this type of historical novel, and may not have sold it as a trilogy if I had!

When will the series debut?

Summer of 1998.

I wanted to talk a little bit about the Internet. How much do you use the Internet for research?

For research, very little. It's been a communications vehicle for me and also a general knowledge vehicle in terms of learning what's going on in the industry and what the trends are and things like that. For actual research, I have found particular sites which are very interesting and helpful but the majority of my research is done by actually going to sites and walking the streets and talking to people.

How useful is it having a webpage for your book?

I think that's been very useful that's been helpful in terms of keeping people up to date in terms of where my career is going and in the last year it's had a lot of twists and turns and a lot of exciting things happening, and I can't think of another way of keeping track of it except through a webpage. I know that a lot of authors have hardcopy newsletters but that is very time-consuming and expensive. I think a webpage is something that just about every author should have.

Do you think they are useful for promotion?

Yes I do, but not to the audience that I am primarily interested in. I am interested in finding people who have not heard of me or my work. The website I have is very useful for people who have already found me and have taken an interest in my work. So, it's good in terms of maintaining a readership base and keeping them up to date in terms of what you are doing, what new books are coming out and where you're signing and things like that. But I'm not sure how many people right now just sort of stumble across it on the Web. I am on a couple of webrings, such as the Japan ring. So if people are interested in Japan, they could stumble across the site.

In Death in Little Tokyo the grandmother character that Ken goes to visit for information, Mrs. Okada, is given much respect. How different is the Japanese culture from the American culture in how they treat their elderly?

"We as Americans have a very youth-driven culture and we have a culture where we don't respect the life experiences that you gain over the years. We don't put a real value on that. And the net result is that we end up in a culture where old people are disposable."
Oh I think it's night and day. It's the elderly and elderly women have tremendous moral authority in Japanese culture. There is an emotional tie because Japanese children are very close to both their mothers and their grandmothers when the grow up. And in a traditional Japanese household, the grandmother would be in the house. That's changing now. So the child caring roles in the traditional Japanese household were split between the grandmother and the mother. And as a result as Japanese grow up their viewpoint of the elderly - because they've grown up with the elderly -- I think is quite different than the traditional American viewpoint. So, in that book, Mrs. Okada does have this tremendous authority. Not only over her own grandson, but over Ken Tanaka who is anxious to make sure that he is respecting her cultural traditions and the things that she expects from someone who understands Japanese culture. And I already mentioned what I call "the modern tea ceremony"; that's what's motivating him to follow in that tradition, because he's very concerned that he's doing the right thing for her just as she admonishes her own grandson to do the right thing.

I loved that scene - it was great. So, you think that Americans in general don't treat their elderly with as much respect?

Yes, and I'm not the only one who does.

Well, it's a terrible thing.

Yes, if we're lucky, we will all get old - I'm getting there rapidly! We as Americans have a very youth-driven culture and we have a culture where we don't respect the life experiences that you gain over the years. We don't put a real value on that. And the net result is that we end up in a culture where old people are disposable. We don't want to see them, we don't want to hear them, we want to ship them off to colonies in Arizona and forget about them. And we are poorer as a culture as a result because what the younger people in the society end up doing is making the same kinds of silly mistakes. You see that over and over again in our culture in various ways, shapes and forms.

Let's talk about the romance between Mariko and Ken in The Toyotomi Blades. Was it difficult to integrate into the mystery plot?

Cover of Toyotomi Blades
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for ordering information.
No, not really. When I conceived Ken, I wanted to make him as well-rounded a character as possible. His relationships with other people, including either a wife or significant other was an integral part of his character. I thought a long time about what kind of romantic relationship to give him: whether to make him married, make him younger and single, what exactly was going on there in terms of that dynamic. What I wanted was someone that he not only found as a companion but also in some respects a role model. And I say that explicitly in the books. Mariko is taking off on a new life because of a bout with alcoholism and in some ways it's a very adventurous new life - she wants to be an actress and Ken, because he was raised in a traditional Japanese American way, is risk-adverse. So, what he needs in one shape or form is someone to show him that it is ok to take risks it is ok to stick your neck out to try something new, even if it is a little crazy or dangerous. And that is one of Mariko's roles in the book. In the third book I talk about interracial marriage. There are a lot of problems between Ken and Mariko and Ken's first wife. By the way, when I thought about making Ken married, I thought about having him married to a non-Japanese, because over half of all Japanese don't marry other Japanese. In fact, places like the Japanese American national museum are having trouble contacting people of Japanese ancestry because their names could be Schwartz - or in my case, Flanagan, instead of Furutani.

I'm sure that's somewhat upsetting to the older generation.

You know, it used to be, but now it is not. When I grew up, it was a huge controversy and a huge issue and in fact I had a very difficult time being accepted into the Japanese community because I was a "happa". But now, virtually every Japanese grandmother has either a grandson or granddaughter who is at least a happa. So it has sort have become a non-issue.

Well, I am very glad to hear that. Do you have any tips for mystery authors about submitting their work for awards? Don't the publishers automatically submit an author's work for them?

No -- the Edgar is the only major award where you have to submit and the rules for the Edgar are on Bookwire. And it clearly states that work has to be submitted to be considered. And it's usually submitted by the publisher, but it can be submitted by the author. So the thing to do for the Edgar is to read those submission rules very carefully. The other awards, The Macavity, The Anthony and the Agatha, at least the three that I was nominated for are nominated by readers and that's actually something that I am really proud of because it means that the readership for my work was growing to an extent where enough people like it that I could receive a nomination like that. The net result is that there really isn't much that an author can do to influence the award process. They certainly can make sure that their work is submitted for the Edgar but for the other awards, it's really in the hands of the readers.

Dale, thank you for coming!

Thanks for inviting me to participate!

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