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  • Writer's pictureKomaba Times



Illustrations by YASHA LAI


Polyphony Student Journal is the first student-run literary platform at Okayama University’s liberal arts program, Discovery Program for Global Learners (GDP). Polyphony's editorial team comprises of the following members:

Genki Hase | Assistant Editor-in-Chief Kayla Guevara | Layout Editor and Instagram Manager Mattie Balagat | Editor-in-Chief Nguyen Manh Quoc Trung (Trung) | General Editor Olaedo Ibegwam Chigaemezu (Chige) | General Editor

The Komaba Times is an English-language magazine at The University of Tokyo, which aims to give students a space to freely express their voices, opinions and experiences. The Komaba Times' editorial team comprises of the following members:

Charisia Ong | General Editor Vedant Agrawal | General Editor and Social Media Manager Yasha Lai | Design Editor (Graphics) Zefan Sramek | Design Editor (Layout)


What is it like working for an English-language publication in a Japanese university during the pandemic?

Genki It’s difficult to reach out to potential readers. Before, for Polyphony, we placed the issue in a place called “D Lounge”, where students gather, talk, do their assignments and eat lunch together. We placed the issue in there so we can see people picking up the issues, which made it easy to imagine who the potential readers are and what they are thinking; it got me motivated. It also allowed us to reach out to more potential readers, unlike now.

Zefan I guess it’s interesting to think about how some of these programmes like the Discovery Program, or like the PEAK Program at Todai – on the one hand, they’re trying to internationalise the university, but on the other hand, you create this enclave within the university community that ends up being totally separate. But I don’t know how you can navigate that, because the language issue itself is already a big question. Since you can’t expect people from all over the world to necessarily already know how to speak Japanese, I suppose.

Charisia Yet, I feel like there is an unsaid expectation that people who choose to come to Japanese universities are somehow interested in Japanese culture and therefore learning the Japanese language. So there’s this expectation that you will just assimilate and make whatever efforts necessary to assimilate. And that is something that you come to feel; no one really tells you but you realise that there is the weight of this expectation placed on you without even being told.

Mattie I think I can relate to the expectation of assimilation – on one hand, we’re here, I don’t know, to be the diversity token, but then you don’t know if they want your unique identity or want you to assimilate more. I guess we’re caught in this liminality, to use that term.

What role do you see yourself playing in your publication? What is the role of the publication?

Yasha In thinking about the role of an English language publication... I guess the very cynical answer is that it’s for the university’s PR, to show that, hey, there are international students that can speak English. I know one of the ways The Komaba Times is distributed is because Todai brings them overseas, but I guess the issue is that it’s not fully representative of the student body, right? Because I think ultimately the people who create these... As an editorial team, we are quite small. But in a less cynical way, I guess for students, it’s for them to also know that there’s an international student community, and to know what people are thinking about and what it’s like to be a student at Todai. And just to know that there are people out there who are also sharing the international experience.

Zefan Yeah, that’s true. I think, if nothing else, it sort of serves as a record of our existence, so to speak.

Mattie I think Polyphony is also distributed in the same way when there are fairs abroad. I remember our advisor reserving copies for that purpose? On the role of our publication, I also had this idea coming into the team, similar to the idea of a record of our existence, to give students a platform for their voices or opinions to be heard and ensure that each issue is representative of the student body. But I think my challenge with that is... I wonder if it’s actually needed or if it is, is it the culture to actually have that kind of student representation? So it feels like it’s breaking into new ground sometimes.

Yasha Yeah, I guess there are other channels right for student voices, but maybe what makes our publications more interesting is the kind of work that goes into it, like the creative work. I was looking at your last issue and I really like the poems and insights. So I found that very interesting. Not just students voicing their opinions, but doing it in different, creative ways like art pieces, photographs, or poems and prose too.

Charisia On this point... It is a bit sad that our legitimacy is based on the work of a few. I mean, the legitimacy of international students and our existence and the way we are viewed hinges upon just 40 pages of text or drawings or photographs or graphics...

Mattie Suddenly, it feels like a really big responsibility. Although it really is, I think it’s our responsibility as a publication to recognise that we’re a student publication of our universities and programmes.

What drives or inspires our work and our creativity?

Mattie Personal ego. Because I like to say I’m a writer, so I have to write.

Chige I think for me, it’s basically to keep in touch with the creative side of myself. I used to write so much when I was in high school and junior high. So I see Polyphony as a channel to keep up with my creative side. I really don’t want to lose touch with my creative side, as it’s one of the things that make me who I am.

Zefan Well, for me, I guess there’s a lot of personal reasons, like having something to express that’s hard to express in other ways. I think one of the motivations for me working on a project like this is also being able to connect with other people; when you’re collaborating, you’re always going to end up coming up with ideas that you never would have thought about on your own. I think that’s always a really interesting way to grow as an individual.

Trung My reason to write is quite simple. I just want to share my thoughts with the world. I think a lot and sometimes to make sense of my thinking, I just write them down into paragraphs, or passages. On the Polyphony website, many of my posts are movie reviews, because when I watch a movie and have a lot to think about, I don’t know what to do with my thoughts so I just write them down and store them away somewhere. So in a way, Polyphony kind of fulfills this purpose for me – to serve as a platform for expressing myself in a way that I know there will be readers and people who are interested.

Genki I think, for me, there are two things that drive my motivation. One is the reason I’m now interested in cultural anthropology – I read one article in a book, and then I entirely changed my interest from computer science to this field. So that small piece of work, well, not small for me, changed my entire life and worldview. I don’t think I’m confident enough to say that I can change people’s worldviews, but perhaps I can first bring some small shocks to people, to let them realise that this exists and that people who think in this way exist. So I want to create this “shock” that I experienced, for others. My second motivation is, the thoughts and opinions I have now are only of the contemporary Me, so I think it’s important to keep a record of my thoughts as a publication.

Kayla I create to keep myself sane, and also to challenge myself, and these kind of go against each other. But I really want to also keep in touch with my creative side, because if I focus too much on academics, I tend to get really stressed. So the reason why I create is also to have that avenue to exercise my right brain, just to make sure that there’s something else other than school that I can do. And another thing is to challenge myself because I only got into this kind of design and creating visual stuff this year. I really enjoy it so I want to push myself a little further to see what other fields I can go into and what other skills or talents I can utilise as I grow older.

If you had 48 hours in a day only you what, what else would you create? What else would you write about?

Charisia Ever since my daughter was born, I’ve been keeping a daily kind of record of her growth, what she does, the new things that she learns and the developments that she makes every day. But sometimes, I mean, I just tell myself that even if I write one sentence, it’s better than writing nothing. But if I had 48 hours a day, I’d want to write her a letter every day of her life, because I think that when she grows up and she’s able to read all of this, I hope that it will have a profound impact on her. I’m not doing it because I don’t have the time. But it’s something that I would like to do because I think that when people especially close to us write to us and create works for us, those are the things that make the most impact on us. Sometimes you’re just so tired of writing that even one sentence seems so difficult. And I guess the days will just pass – I mean, for me, it’s like, okay, today, I’m going to skip my one sentence and another day comes and again, I skip my one sentence. And before I know it, it’s been a year, and then two years and then five.

Mattie Have you guys heard of the commonplace notebook? I think I read an article about it, where artists and writers have this little book which they just carry with them everyday and everywhere. And if they have sudden ideas or things they want to record, they just write it down in this one notebook. I’ve had something like that for like, more than two years now. And it’s actually a really good practice to have as a creative. Because, for example, when I finally get down and say, okay, I can actually write for myself now, I can just go back to my notebook. And then pick up the pieces of the random ideas and fragments of writing that I have, and then piece them together. For someone who forgets a lot of things, this is really helpful. I also put stamps and stuff like that; stickers also, things I just doodle... It’s something I recommend.

Charisia Actually Zefan, I have a question for you about music making... For musicians, when some motif comes to their head, do they kind of just write it down, because it seems you might just forget if you let it go? So how do you, I don’t know, keep a record of the inspiration that you get?

Zefan It’s more like... feelings or images, or like, places or words. So I also have a notebook where I’ll just jot random stuff like that down, if it gives me some sort of feeling. My music-making process itself is very improvisational. Maybe then, those feelings or thoughts or whatever, can just sort of serve as a backdrop to that process, when it comes down to actually making music. But I guess, to tie that in with what we’re discussing about time or doing things regularly, I do find that it’s important to actually put in the effort to do something. Because this process is less recordable. I can’t necessarily exactly write down the feeling that I have at the time in a musical way; if I don’t actually make any music; there’s no record of those feelings necessarily.

What are your hopes and aspirations for the upcoming publication?

Zefan One thing I want to be able to do is create a very cohesive design language for the publication that is both interesting but also readable, since this will be the first time I’d be doing something that’s not just a personal project where I can do absolutely anything I want.

Yasha I guess it’s similar for me. For the design, I really want it to be something that I like and something that I would pick up from a shelf and buy, and not a random magazine that you get for free and you throw away after a while. I hope it’s something people might want to keep, and even use for reference for inspiration. I also want to push myself with regards to experimenting with different styles, like layouts, which isn’t something that I’ve done a lot. And also illustrating in different styles and thinking about other people’s pieces and what kind of drawings or illustrations fit them.

Mattie Kayla and I had the same idea, like, how can we make this into something people want to get and keep?

Genki Many of the articles in the current issue or the previous issue have been written by members of the editorial team. So I want to try to publish someone who is yet to be a part of this; someone who hasn’t presented their opinion. There are so many people with interesting opinions, but they’re not expressing it because of the many hurdles they might face. So I want to break that hurdle.

Mattie I want to allow students, whether in the GDP or not, to own Polyphony. And when I say “own Polyphony”, it means thinking about it as a space where people can express themselves or relate to the things that are published on this platform, or share it, or be part of it. One thing we tried to do was to have a creative writing workshop. Personally, it’s something I really want to do, not just to write, but to encourage people to use writing as a medium of expression. But I feel like it was too advanced. There’s still a lot of steps to be taken before a creative writing workshop is successful and we’ll try again in another format.

Chige Aside from wanting them to take ownership of Polyphony as a platform, it’s also our responsibility to establish Polyphony as something that will have longevity. I feel like it’s our responsibility to market it or establish it as something that we hope to continue in the future, and make it so that people will take us seriously.

Charisia I would like to create a Komaba Times that serves as a natural form of recruitment for the next editorial team – when they read it, they want to be part of it. I guess it’s related to the ownership point that Mattie made as well. But yeah, I hope that reading our version of The Komaba Times will inspire others to want to take that baton and run with it for the next year.

Vedant One way to do that is also making people see themselves in the issue. Once you can resonate with it, or really feel yourself there, you’re going to be motivated to take over for the next term. And I think one more important thing in this is learning on the go. At least for me, personally, it’s a very different project from what I’m generally involved in. So I think it’s about experiencing something new.

Kayla Mattie and I talked about how it’s kind of difficult to get creative pieces, art works and visual elements. And I want to help make Polyphony a space where that’s very much welcome. I think that sometimes people are just shy to put out their work because their work has a lot of emotion in it. I want to help make a kind of space where expressing emotion and being vulnerable through art is fine.

Trung For me, I guess, I want Polyphony to be a bridge between culture and students, especially the Japanese students and international students. Right now, we have predominantly international students, but I have some Japanese friends in the GDP – I remember especially, some said that although they are more interested in Japanese content, they are more motivated to read English content if it’s written by international students in the GDP. So, in a way there is a gap between April-entry and October-entry students; they don’t really interact with each other that much so I hope that Polyphony can be a space for them to interact, read each other’s work, and bridge the gap between the English-speaking and Japanese-speaking cultures.


Find out more about Polyphony here:




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