Christopher Johnson


Christopher J. Johnson is a journalist, musician, sports photographer and author of Siamese Dreams (a new life in Thailand), Kobe Blue (set amid Japan's earthquake disaster) and Freedom's Rainbow (a romantic search across Latin America).

Fluent in Japanese, Thai and Spanish, he did hundreds of live TV reports, photos and features from more than 100 countries and 10 wars for CTV, DW, France24, CBC, BBC,, AP, New York Times, Toronto Star, CSM, SCMP and others. He photographed mass graves and disasters; reconstructed massacres in Yugoslavia and East Timor; met suicide bombers in Baghdad; and escaped from terrorists and kidnappers in Afghanistan, Aceh and Mindanao. The lone journalist in Lhasa during the 2008 Tibetan Uprising, he moved images that Reuters listed among their Pictures of the Decade. After covering the 2011 tsunami and nuclear meltdown, his detention at Narita airport and expulsion from Japan inspired investigations into its secretive "Gaijin Gulag" for The Economist, Asia Times, DW and others.

An avid tennis player and guitarist/vocalist, Johnson wrote and recorded more than 30 songs and worked with bands Big Sugar, New Kings and Lemon Bucket Orkestra (Canada/USA), Rockestra and Monks on Fire (Thailand), Emperor (Myanmar), Blankey Jet City and Sherbets (Japan).

Johnson's works are collected at

Johnson is credited with breaking major stories including the errant bombing of civilians in Afghanistan, the rise of female fedayeen suicide bombers in Baghdad, and the Tibetan Uprising in Lhasa, where he moved images that Reuters named among their Pictures of the Decade. He covered the 2011 tsunami and nuclear disaster for CTV, DW, France 24 and many others before being jailed and expelled from Japan on Christmas Eve 2011, resulting in his investigative series about Japan's secretive "Gaijin Gulag" for The Economist, Asia Times, DW and others. [1]

Wikipedia uses his photos of soccer star Lionel Messi; NBA players Kevin Durant, Tony Parker, Andrei Kirilenko, Pau Gasol, Marc Gasol and others; and tennis players Rafael Nadal, Novak Djokovic, Andy Murray, Milos Raonic, Caroline Wozniaki, Agnieszka Radwanska, Vera Zvonareva and others. [2]

He covered conflicts around Thailand in 1988, the Japanese asset bubble 1989-91, the Yugoslav war 1991, the Kobe earthquake, 1995, the Asian financial crisis 1997, conflicts in Aceh and East Timor 1999, the Chinese boom 2000-01, wars in Afghanistan and Iraq 2001-03, the Asian tsunami 2004, the Tibetan uprising 2008, the Burmese cyclone 2008, the global financial crisis 2008, the Battle of Bangkok 2010, the tsunami and nuclear disasters in Japan 2011, the bombing of Kobani, Syria in 2014 and many major music festivals and sporting events.

The Economist, UNHCR, Gulf News, the BBC, the Windsor Star, (Committee for the Protection of Journalists), RSF (Reporters Without Borders), Straight Goods, Debito, Japan Probe and at least 20 sites based in the US, France, Japan, South Korea, China, the Philippines, Thailand and other countries have done stories about Johnson.

Ish Theilheimer, publisher of news magazine Straight Goods, wrote in an article about Johnson in 2002 that Johnson, a colleague of murdered journalist Daniel Pearl, broke the story of Afghan warlords misdirecting US forces on bombing raids, and he also evaded kidnappers in the Philippines. [3] The Washington Post reported that Johnson was the only foreign journalist in Lhasa during the 2008 Tibetan Uprising, and he moved images via Reuters and AP that appeared in TIME, the New York Times, CNN, BBC and other media.

Early life and career in journalism

Johnson was born in Winnipeg, Manitoba of Ukrainian, French and Potawatomi descent. He lived across from Detroit, Michigan in Windsor, Ontario from ages 6 to 15, and Medicine Hat, Alberta from ages 16 to 18. His older brother Gordie Johnson is best known as front man for rock band Big Sugar and Austin, Texas-based rock band Grady. His sister Kathy Johnson did malaria research and logistics for Doctors Without Borders/Médecins Sans Frontières, which won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1999.[4] His younger brother Michael Louis Johnson acted in Hollywood films, was a musician with Big Rude Jake and the New Kings, and currently Rambunctious and the Lemon Bucket Orkestra.[5]

While studying journalism for four years at Carleton University in Ottawa, Johnson did freelance work for the Ottawa Citizen and Ottawa Cablevision, and summer jobs as a janitor, factory worker, window-cleaner and treeplanter in northern Canada.[1] After graduating in 1987, he interned as a general assignment reporter for the Windsor Star newspaper. He traveled in Japan and China in 1987, and became a subeditor and reporter in 1988 at The Nation in Bangkok, Thailand working alongside current Nation Managing Editor Tulsathit Taptim; environmental journalists and authors Ann Danaiya Usher and James Fahn[6], and Tom Nagorski, who would become Managing Editor of International News at US network ABC.[7]

In an interview published on, Johnson is quoted as saying his 2012 novel Kobe Blue began to form in 1989 and 1990 when he studied Japanese, taught English and wrote textbooks in the Osaka area of Japan. He then traveled around the world for four years. Backpacking across Africa in 1991, he was strangled and beaten unconscious by a gang and left naked overnight in a park in Nairobi, Kenya with damages to his nose, ribs and vocal chords.[1]

On assignment for the Ottawa Citizen in 1991, Johnson covered the outbreak of war in the Osijek area of the former Yugoslavia, working alongside Slobodan Lekic of the Associated Press and BBC correspondent Misha Glenny, author of The Fall of Yugoslavia. The BBC reported in August 1991 that he and Reuters correspondent Andrej Gustincic, investigating a massacre near Vukovar, were held overnight by Serbian irregulars.[1] Johnson's roommate Christian Wurtenberg,[8] a Swiss freelancer who later joined the First Platoon of International Volunteers, was found dead, reportedly tortured and garroted. In an article about Johnson on Debito, a news site with hundreds of articles since 2006, Johnson claimed that Wurtenburg was his roommate, and that Gustincic, who was on a "death list", saved their lives with his calm demeanor. [9]

British journalist Paul Jenks began investigating Wurtenberg's death and was shot dead as well.[10] In British journalist John Sweeney's 1994 movie Dying for the Truth,[11] the Platoon's leader, former BBC contributor Eduardo Rosza-Flores, denied accusations of murdering Wurtenberg because Wurtenberg was allegedly investigating fascism and gun running.[12] Rosza-Flores was killed by security forces at a hotel in Bolivia in 2009, with Bolivia's president Evo Morales accusing Rosza-Flores of plotting to assassinate him.[10]. Johnson has claimed on websites in Japan that he saw Rosza-Flores wearing a bulls-eye on his vest in Yugoslavia.

Working for Lekic and AP in East Timor in 1999,[13] Johnson joined Australian forces on the HMAS Tobruk, and investigated allegations of massacres at churches in Suai, East Timor.[14][1] In 2001, Johnson had Thanksgiving dinner with Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl in Pakistan a few weeks before his murder.[1] As a freelancer, Johnson reported to CBS News about the escape of al Qaeda fighters from Tora Bora in Afghanistan. In 2002, the Committee for the Protection of Journalists,[15] Gulf News, and Philippine media ABS-CBN and GMA7 TV, reported that Abu Sayyaf fighters based on Basilan island tried to kidnap Johnson and Swedish freelancer Urban Hamid in Zamboanga, the Philippines.[16]

In 2003, Johnson, Hamid, and Johnson's former classmate Mike Blanchfield joined a convoy of journalists who were attacked by Iraqis in the streets of Baghdad.[17] Staying at the Palestine Hotel, they interviewed so-called "female fedayeen" loyalists of Saddam Hussein vowing to kill Americans.[18] Hamid's footage[19] of a US raid on homes in Iraq appeared in Michael Moore's film Fahrenheit 911.

In March 2008, Johnson was taking a two week trip in Tibet when he became the only western reporter[20] to witness the outbreak of protests in Lhasa, Tibet.[21][22] Organizing a team of amateur photographers called the "Yakpackers",[23][1] he edited and moved images of the Lhasa Uprising which Reuters listed among their Pictures of The Decade.[24] Johnson has claimed online that Reuters chief photo editors in London credited the photos to "stringer" to protect the identities of foreigners subject to a Chinese government crackdown in Tibet.

While Johnson was reporting in Thailand for France 24 TV in May 2010,[25] his colleague Nelson Rand survived being shot three times during the Red Shirt Rebellion in Bangkok, which claimed the lives of journalists Hiro Muramoto from Japan and Fabio Polenghi of Italy.[26] With French journalists Cyril Payen and Regis Desconclois, Johnson wrote and narrated the English version of the documentary "The Battle of Bangkok" for France 24 TV.[27]

Based in Tokyo since 2005, Johnson ran out of the shower and watched the magnitude 9.0 earthquake shake his Japanese-style home for about 4 minutes on March 11, 2011.[28] He later made 10 trips to the tsunami and nuclear disaster zones, reporting for CTV, DW-TV, France 24, the Washington Times, the Toronto Star, the Japan Times and others.[1] Kesenai, an organization based in Romania, exhibited his photos across Europe to raise money for tsunami victims.[29]

In January of 2012, The Economist's Banyan blog ran Johnson's detailed personal account of being detained and expelled from Japan on Christmas Eve.[30][31] As reported by Economist staff writer Kenneth Cukier (using the initials K.N.C), Johnson claimed that immigration officials at Narita airport falsified his testimony and jailed him for 24 hours in a windowless cell without proper access to phone calls or legal assistance. The Economist reported that Johnson received assistance from the Canadian embassy in Tokyo. In an article about Johnson, American-born author Debito Arudou wrote that Japanese authorities put Johnson in a "gaijin tank" under the airport, which Johnson called part of a "gulag" of detention centers for foreigners across Japan. [9]

Award-winning writer and Boing Boing co-editor Cory Doctorow wrote that Johnson also claimed that he witnessed guards demand bribes from an American detainee, and he accused airlines of coercing him to buy an overpriced one-way ticket to Canada against his will. [32]. The airline later publicly apologized to Johnson on The airline reportedly claimed that they were also a victim of a "third party" accused of rights violations and extorting money from passengers detained at Narita International Airport.[33]

The Economist article, "Gulag for Gaijin", generated more than 700 comments on The Economist's site, and thousands more on several Japan-based blogs.[34] Although The Economist and others reported that the allegations matched Amnesty International's report in 2002, a Tokyo District Court ruling, and accounts of other detainees, critics in Japan accused Johnson of exaggerations.[35] YouTube and Google later blocked or banned videos and links to allegedly defamatory material, while other bloggers removed material voluntarily. Search results on Google and Youtube in Canada, Japan, the UK and other countries show that content has been removed, and more than 50 articles were written about Johnson.

Johnson spent 10 weeks in limbo in Canada, unsure if he could ever return to his home in Japan. With assistance from Paris-based Reporters Without Borders, the Washington Times, and a lobby group in Tokyo, the Japanese government allowed Johnson to return to Japan in March 2012 on a journalism visa, his fifth work permit for Japan.[36] He has continued to report about alleged injustices in Japan, including the death of a Ghanaian in custody at Narita airport and a Nepali wrongfully jailed 15 years for murder.

Johnson has worked as a journalist for the Washington Times, New York Times, TIME, Christian Science Monitor, AP, APTN, Reuters, Alternet, Toronto Star, Globe and Mail, National Post, Vancouver Sun, Ottawa Citizen, Windsor Star, The Australian, South China Morning Post, Asia Times, Bangkok Post, The Nation, Japan Times, Daily Yomiuri, The Sunday Herald, The Scotsman, Die Welt, CNNGO,, BBC TV, BBC Radio, CTV Canada, CBC Canada, DW-TV Berlin, France 24, MSNBC, Comcast, CBS, NPR and others.[1]

Music and acting

Chris Johnson is credited for songwriting on "Where I Stand"[37] and "Round-and-Around"[38] on Big Sugar's album "Heated", and for backing vocals on the album "Heated"[39] and the 2012 single "Eliminate Ya!".[40] Big Sugar has more than 500,000 album sales in Canada.

Johnson, who first met Japanese rock icon Asai Kenichi of Blankey Jet City in 1994, translated lyrics from Japanese to English for Asai's Tokyo-based rock band The Sherbets on their albums "Miracle" and "God" with BMG Japan,[41] and Johnson wrote the official English-language bio on the band's site[42]

Johnson has performed or recorded with bands including Monks on Fire and Rockestra[43][44] in Thailand, Zaw Win Htut and Emperor in Myanmar, Audax and Crystal Butterfly in China, and Globalite and CJ in Asia in Japan.[45]
Johnson performed a speaking role in Thai as "the richest man in Thailand" on the Thai TV series Amnaat.[45] He has spoken in Japanese on a number of Japanese TV and radio programs, and did several voice acting roles for NHK TV programs, including the voice of anime director Hayao Miyazaki.[45]


Bangkok Books released Johnson's novel Siamese Dreams in 2007.

A blurb describing the novel on the publisher's website says: "Ready to change the world, youth in Asia take new names, learn languages, and experiment with sex, drugs and lifestyles -- from spectacular poverty to salacious stardom. Set amid economic booms and epic disasters, Johnson's work is rich with emotion, wit and insights into relations across cultures and sexes. If you like Hemingway, Kerouac and Theroux, or want to know more about the new generation rising around the world, read this book."[46] released a Kindle edition in January, 2012. released a Kindle edition of Kobe Blue in October, 2012. released an online edition of Freedom's Rainbow in April, 2017.

1.^ a b c d e f g h i "Christopher Johnson".
3.^ "Straight Goods: Canadian and Swedish Correspondents Escape Philippines Kidnap Attempt". Business Wire. February 19, 2002.
4.^ "Rendezvous Dive Adventure".
5.^ "Artist Michael Louis Johnson". CBC Music.
6.^ A Land on Fire
7.^ Ford, David (August 23, 2012). "Tom Nagorski Leaving ABC News". ABC News.
8.^ "Chris the Swiss". Dschoint Ventschr Filmproduktion.
9.^ a b "Chris Johnson on his 2011 experiences in the "Narita Airport Gaijin Gulag", a complement to Amnesty's 2002 expose (Amended)". January 12, 2012.
10.^ a b "Bolivia: The Bizarre Life and Death of a Failed Assassin". Time. April 21, 2009.,8599,1892945,00.html#ixzz28BOtmojD.
12.^ "Travels With My Camera: Dying For The Truth (1994)". Balkan Scrapbook. July 25, 1994.
13.^ Johnson, Christopher; Spencer, Geoff (October 15, 1999). "Peacekeepers probe killing in East Timor". Times Union (Albany).
14.^ Johnson, Christopher (October 15, 1999). "Peacekeepers search alleged massacre sites". Laredo Morning Times: p. 10A.
15.^ "Philippines: Journalists warned of kidnap threat". Committee to Protect Journalists. February 12, 2002.
16.^ "Attacks on the Press 2002: Philippines". Committee to Protect Journalists.
17.^ Johnson, Christopher (April 16, 2003). "In Baghdad, the taste of freedom is spiced with anarchy". Straight Goods.
18.^ Johnson, Chris (May 1, 2003). "Female Fedayeen". AlterNet.
20.^ Drew, Jill (March 27, 2008). "Eyewitnesses Recount Terrifying Day in Tibet". The Washington Post.
21.^ Johnson, Christopher (March 14, 2008). "Tibet unrest deepens, with violence and rioting". The Christian Science Monitor.
22.^ Johnson, Christopher (March 17, 2008). "Tibet a no-go zone as tourists hole up in hotels". The Seattle Times.
23.^ "High anxiety". South China Morning Post. April 6, 2008.
24.^ "Slideshow: Pictures of the decade". Reuters.
25.^ Johnson, Christopher (May 24, 2010). "Bangkok back to business after protests". France 24.
26.^ Johnson, Christopher (July 16, 2010). "Bangkok's stupid war". The Foreign Correspondent's Club of Japan.
27.^ "The battle of Bangkok". July 14, 2010.
28.^ Johnson, Christopher. "A letter from Tokyo". The Nation.
29.^ "Clujul mai aproape de Japonia" (in Romanian).
30.^ "Japan's immigration control: Gulag for gaijin". The Economist. January 18, 2012.
31.^ Johnson, Christopher (April 5, 2012). "Inside the Gaijin Dungeon at Narita Airport in Japan". Globalite Magazine.
32.^ Doctorow, Cory (January 22, 2012). "Foreign journalist claims corruption, brutality, death threats from Japanese airport officials". Boing Boing.
33.^ Johnson, Christopher (February 4, 2012). "Nightmare at Narita". Asia Times Online.
34.^ Johnson, Christopher (April 2, 2012). "A Mental Meltdown in an NHK World". Globalite Magazine.
35.^ "A brief note on CJ and the Japan-side expat twitterverse". Hoofin. April 16, 2012.
36.^ Johnson, Christopher (February 14, 2012). "Gotcha Bureaucracy and a Freelancer's Visa Status". Globalite Magazine.
37.^ "Big Sugar Where I Stand lyrics".
38.^ "Big Sugar Round & Round lyrics".
39.^ "Big Sugar - Heated MP3 Download". CD Universe.
40.^ "Eliminate Ya!". Big Sugar blog.
41.^ "Sherbets blog".
42.^ Johnson, Christopher. "Asai Kenichi (浅井健一)". Anusaya.
43.^ ""Love You, Thailand" Music Video by Rang Rockestra (and other touching mv for PAD)".
45.^ a b c "CJ". Myspace.
46.^ "Siamese Dreams". Bangkok Books.
47.^ "Siamese Dreams [Kindle Edition"].

Smashwords Interview

How is your third novel Freedom's Rainbow different from Siamese Dreams and Kobe Blue?
It's quicker and sharper with more emphasis on plot and pay-off at the end. The story develops over a couple of months rather than decades. If Siamese Dreams and Kobe Blue are odes to growing up in Asia, this new novel Freedom's Rainbow is the escape from that. Siamese Dreams and Kobe Blue are based around epic disasters in history. Freedom's Rainbow follows the adventures of two young lovers searching from Asia to the Americas for the "Mysterious Independent Girl". They are stuck together day and night, dealing with sun-stroke, mountain sickness and shamans, as well as their own dreams and fears.
Your writing is often based on travel adventures but it's really about something else. This one seems light and goofy sometimes then takes on more serious themes about communication, trust and abuse in relationships.
Travel writing doesn't have to be about travel only. Travelers are going through the same life changes and conflicts as other people. They often feel light and free but there's also serious life stuff brewing below the surface. This story allows me to explore issues of communication and secrecy, truth and deceit, abuse and healing not only in Japan but between couples everywhere. They are seeking a better life through the impermanence of travel but also the permanence of love and trust.
Read more of this interview.

Where to find Christopher Johnson online


Freedom's Rainbow
Price: $5.00 USD. Words: 95,370. Language: English. Published: April 18, 2017. Categories: Fiction » Adventure » Travel, Fiction » Thriller & suspense » General
No internet. No GPS. Just two strangers searching around the world for freedom and the "mysterious independent girl". An adventure novel by Christopher Johnson, author of Siamese Dreams and Kobe Blue.
Kobe Blue --- Danger in the Land of Safety
Price: $5.00 USD. Words: 93,510. Language: English. Published: April 2, 2013. Categories: Fiction » Adventure » Travel, Fiction » Romance » Erotic
Easy money. Sexual freedom. Thousands of foreigners seek a Japanese Utopia in a booming economy with ancient wisdom and a high-tech future. But as the Bubble bursts, they discover troubling insights about themselves, their secretive lovers, and a nation built on the most dangerous ground in the world.
Siamese Dreams
Price: $5.00 USD. Words: 107,930. Language: English. Published: March 25, 2013. Categories: Fiction » Adventure » Travel, Fiction » Cultural & ethnic themes » Asian American
Two high school buddies escape America and begin a new life of fun and freedom in Thailand. They take new names, learn Thai, and experiment with sex, drugs and radical lifestyles -- from spectacular poverty to salacious stardom -- until a tsunami rolls ashore. Set amid the Asian economic boom, Siamese Dreams is rich with insights into relations across cultures and sexes.

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