How Kaki Okumura’s Medium essays on health, happiness, and human psychology led to a book

“My goal is to help people live more grounded, connected, and fulfilled lives.”

Harris Sockel
The Medium Blog
Published in
12 min readApr 20

--

Self-portrait by Kaki Okumura

Kaki Okumura is a writer and illustrator whose Medium essays on Japan’s approach to health and wellness have reached over a million readers worldwide.

After growing up in Tokyo and moving to the U.S. post-college, Okumura started using Medium to explore some of the cultural differences she couldn’t help noticing. Her stories cover kuchisabishii (a Japanese term that roughly translates to “lonely mouth,” i.e. boredom eating), ganbaru (the idea of putting your best foot forward), and more concepts aimed toward helping people live mindfully, intentionally, and thoughtfully.

In the process of building a supportive community on Medium — now over 67,000 followers strong — Okumura’s work drew the attention of a book agent and editor. As a result, last month she published her first book based on her Medium stories: Wa — The Art of Balance. I recently met up with Okumura to chat about how she creates community on Medium, her views on health and wellness in America and Japan, and the process of publishing a book. The result of our conversation is below and has been edited for concision and clarity.

Harris Sockel: I’m a longtime reader and fan of your work, and I always learn something new from you. Your insights and advice are so genuinely helpful (plus, the illustrations are beautiful). What brought you to Medium?

Kaki Okumura: One of my college professors introduced me to Medium! I was curious about UX design, so this professor connected me with a UX researcher who was really plugged into that Medium community (there’s so much excellent UX/UI writing here, as I’m sure you know). The researcher became my mentor, and she encouraged me to start reading Medium articles about UX and publishing responses to what I’d learned.

Quickly, I found myself interested in more than just UX articles. I noticed that Medium wasn’t just how-tos or stories about people’s professional expertise — it was a place for people to share ideas and thoughts about their lives.

I was born in the U.S. and moved to Tokyo when I was 12. I lived there until college, when I moved back to the U.S. I’ve been here ever since. When you move between countries like I have, you notice so many small differences: thought patterns, values, idioms, the subtleties of different cultures. Medium felt like an appropriate place to process some of those things.

I was an economics major in college, so I had no background in writing. I needed something that would give me a really easy entry to it, and Medium was exactly that. Typing out my thoughts in the editor was so easy, and so was pressing “Publish.”

HS: What were those first few stories like?

KO: In the beginning, my writing was very all over the place! I’d write about lots of things: design, games, restaurants. And then, I had an article take off — a story about harahachi-bunme, the Japanese idea of moderation and eating until you’re 80% full. It resonated with thousands of people and that motivated me even more. It was a nice signal that, if I kept going, I could build a real following.

And as I went on, I sort of grew into this niche that’s worked out pretty well for me: writing about the intersection between health, wellness, and Japanese culture. My goal is to help people live more grounded, connected, and fulfilled lives.

HS: How did your work on Medium lead to a book? What was that process like?

KO: Well, first, I was really just focused on building my audience on Medium. I definitely wasn’t thinking about writing a book, but a literary agent reached out to me after I’d been publishing for a while. She asked if I might be interested in doing a book, and at the time I basically said: “A book sounds like a lot of work. I’ll pass.”

A few years later, once I became more consistent and grew my audience even further, a book editor reached out to me (totally independent of the agent). By then, I felt ready. I reached back out to the agent, who was happy to work with me. We started working together and pitched a few other publishers but ultimately ended up going with the one who’d originally reached out. From there, I signed the contract, we brainstormed what kind of book it could be — it draws a lot of inspiration from my work on Medium, though it’s a bit more evergreen — and I started writing!

The opportunity never would have presented itself without a platform like Medium giving me the space to showcase my work.

Both my agent and editor found me because Medium was essentially a public portfolio of my writing. They each had lots of samples of my work, so they were able to make an informed decision about the type of book I might be able to write.

HS: Congratulations! It’s so nice to hear how that all worked out.

KO: Thank you! Yeah, I feel really grateful to Medium because, you know, I was an economics major. I don’t work in publishing or writing… so without this platform I really don’t know how I would’ve gotten a book deal. Not that writing a book was one of my life goals, exactly, but the opportunity never would have presented itself without a platform like Medium giving me the space to showcase my work.

HS: How would you describe your views on health and wellness?

KO: A lot of the “health” writing I do is, in a weird way, more about human psychology. It’s about core questions like: Why do we run out of motivation? Why do I self-sabotage sometimes? I’m trying to understand our habits and how they form. I wouldn’t say having poor health is always your fault, but it’s always your responsibility to look after. And I think that’s a really difficult truth to swallow at times.

Fundamentally, I believe tending to your own health is just about having self-compassion. It’s about meeting yourself where you’re at.

Kaki Okumura

HS: Yeah. I remember in this essay you wrote a few years ago, you quote personal trainer Jillian Michaels: “If you get a flat tire you don’t get out of the car and slash the other three tires. You patch the tire and get back on the road.” And I feel like that approach runs through a lot of your stories.

KO: Yes! And that’s something I work on all the time, too.

I often refer back to the importance of having a curious, almost childlike mindset. Life is not about doing everything perfectly. It’s more like a playground: You try something, you don’t like it or you mess up, so you move on.

People take themselves really seriously and, you know, health is serious too, but taking a playful approach is easier than feeling burdened by your mistakes.

HS: I think a lot of that sense of “pressure on yourself” (or at least some of it) can be traced back to American culture. It’s connected to this individualistic idea of needing to be your best. Even if you try not to compare yourself to other people, you want to, sort of, extract as much from yourself as possible —

KO: Oh my god, I love the way you phrased that: “extract the most out of myself.” [laughs]

HS: Yeah, it’s weird!

KO: It’s a funny visual, but I think it’s true. And in the U.S., competition is so embedded in culture, so there’s a lot of pride in how people bootstrap. And I won’t say those are wrong values to hold! I think they’re actually really important, and they’re what make America unique.

By contrast, Japan is an island that has, historically, faced numerous natural disasters. It’s a tougher environment to live in, more geographically vulnerable. In Japanese culture, we have this ingrained recognition that some things are just out of your control… and you just have to make the most of your situation. Whatever happens won’t be your fault, but it will be your responsibility. It’s more than self-compassion; it’s about taking responsibility even when things go wrong that totally were not your fault.

HS: That’s a really useful mindset — “It won’t be your fault, but it will be your responsibility.” Good advice, too. What made you want to include illustrations in your stories? Is that a skill you’ve always had?

Kaki Okumura

KO: I’ve been drawing in watercolors as far back as I can remember, so that wasn’t new. There are things you can convey through illustrations that you can’t necessarily convey through words.

I draw a lot of my inspiration from Japanese animation and Studio Ghibli (they’re the studio behind My Neighbor Totoro and Spirited Away). Their films are very poetic, with lots of nature illustrations. Before I started writing, I thought about how those films make me feel and realized I wanted my readers to feel similarly about my own work.

When I started out, I’d write and see the story in my head — but then, when I read my writing, that vision wasn’t translating onto the page. That’s when I started incorporating watercolors. I think they add something I can’t add through language.

HS: What’s your relationship with your readers? Any particularly memorable responses you’ve received from them?

KO: My readers are a huge source of my motivation. When I was first starting out, I told myself: If I can help one person, that’s all that matters. A hundred people can read it and they can all hate it, but if one person out of those 100 likes it, that’s worth it to me.

I think my readers are more oriented to a slower life. They want to appreciate their lives right now, instead of racing toward self-optimization. And they come from around the world: I have readers in France, South America, Japan, the U.S., and lots of other countries, too.

When I was first starting out, I told myself: If I can help one person, that’s all that matters.

A while back, I started doing this thing where, for a small fee, readers can purchase a letter from me. I ask them to write a little bit about themselves before they buy it, just to explain how they found me. Then, I write a letter back to them. Some of those letter exchanges have turned into longer-term relationships, and we’ve almost become pen pals.

One of my readers, a grandmother in her sixties or seventies, wrote to me because she struggled with flexibility and her knees hurt. She said, “I read one of your pieces on the Japanese method of stretching, and it seems interesting so I’ll try it and let you know how it goes.” We kept going back and forth after that — we talked about flexibility, but also just life, too. Sometimes, months would pass between our letters, but we’d always get around to responding to each other.

Recently, she emailed to tell me a story about playing on the floor with her grandchildren. She shared how nice that was for her, and how she was able to do that after reading my work. It’s really wild (and gratifying!) to think that my writing can have that type of positive influence on someone’s life.

HS: Back to the book, you’re a verified author on Medium now! You have the blue “book author” badge, and your book is featured on your profile. Any feedback on the badge? What are your thoughts on having your book integrated into your profile?

KO: The badge, to me, seems like a nice way to show that you’ve really thought through the ideas you’re writing about — you’re not just taking whatever happens to be on your mind and putting it on the internet. And the “Featured book” feature is another way to show your best work, your cleanest and most polished pieces.

When I write online, I’m thinking very short-term. I know that what I write will exist for around a month, and after that it’s almost archived unless it happens to do super well. (The lifecycle of a post on the internet is pretty short — just by nature of how the internet works.) But books, on the other hand, are evergreen. When I wrote my book, I was thinking: If someone reads this 5, 10, or 20 years from now, will it still make sense? Will it still apply? It’s nice that my articles on Medium can help lead people to my more evergreen work.

And if you’re new to my work and don’t know where to start, you can start with my book. It’s right there.

Kaki Okumura

HS: Any writers on Medium you’d like to shout out? Anyone particularly inspiring to you?

KO: Oh, yes! There are so many, but I’ll just name a few. Honestly, I really love the writing community here. There are so many writers on Medium who I respect.

Niklas Göke is one of my favorite writers. We’ve spoken a few times and keep in touch. (We did a nice book exchange recently.) Nik is a very genuine person, and it translates through his writing — we share similar values when it comes to what it means to live a “good life,” I think, and he’s helped show me that I don’t need to be clickbait-y to resonate with lots of people.

There’s also Michael Thompson. He’s such an honest writer as well, and I love how he takes a lot of inspiration from his family. Not all of his pieces follow a “formula” — sometimes it feels like he’s just writing his thoughts out, but it flows very naturally.

And Ria Tagulinao — she is such a pocketful of sunshine! I always leave our interactions feeling more motivated and confident. If you’re looking for positivity/optimism (but the realistic, relatable kind), read her writing. (We also met up in-person recently.)

Lastly, there’s John P. Weiss. I just love his tone, and his illustrations. Before I had any audience, I reached out to ask if he had any advice for beginners. He sent back a long list of tools and resources for everything from generating headlines to checking your work — it was so helpful, and we’re still in touch! Those relationships keep me going.

On Medium, you’re not siloed in your own blog or publication, and that’s probably the best thing about it. Every story you write can find a new audience, it can draw new people in — even if you’re a total beginner with zero connections like me. I’ve seen that happen firsthand and felt how powerful it can be.

HS: What have you learned from your journey on Medium thus far? Any words of wisdom for writers just getting started?

KO: Just write! It sounds so basic, but I think as writers, we’ll often work on a piece, feel really great about it, post it… and if it doesn’t get the kind of attention we were hoping for, we’ll get discouraged. But when it comes to writing, done is better than perfect. I wrote for 5 to 10 months consistently before any of my pieces received real responses from real people. And the one that did wasn’t even something I’d thought very carefully about! It was just something I found interesting and wrote about, like everything else I’d written. (At the time, I actually screenshotted the comments and shared them with my sister, partially to spread the good news and also to help myself stay motivated.) You just have to keep building that muscle.

I also recommend reaching out to other writers. That’s been so valuable for me. If you’re not really sure where to start (with anything, not just writing), simply ask someone how they began. Even if they don’t give you great advice, you’ll have someone rooting for you — and that’s usually enough to help you get started. Finding success on Medium, or in any pursuit, is not about being exceptional. It’s just about being consistent.

Read more from Kaki Okumura and learn about her new book, “Wa: The Art of Balance,” on her Medium profile page.

Previously in this series:

Who should we interview next? Let us know in the responses.

--

--