One person you want to meet for a coffee in Tokyo: Stephen Mansfield. The British author and photojournalist has written 10 books (14, including collaborative work) and produced over 2,000 published articles for newspapers, magazines and journals since 1992.
Among his many awe-inspiring experiences is an exclusive interview with the world famous political prisoner Aung San Suu Kyi at her home in Burma.
Mansfield’s expertise spans a varied terrain of subjects, including Japanese gardens, Laotian hill tribes and the cultural and literary history of Tokyo. Yet, it is one particular thing — his lifetime of travels — that lies at the root of his professional productivity and accomplishments to date.
Mansfield started his world explorations earlier than most. “As a child growing up in England I was always desperate to leave. I went on a school cruise when I was 12 years old — to Africa,” he explains. “Three weeks on a ship, stopping at docks — there was no turning back after that really.”
Mansfield was able to realize his travel ambitions three years later, as a teenage hitchhiker. “When I was 15, I hitchhiked to Yugoslavia from London and went through France, Belgium, Germany, Italy, and Switzerland — with a very small children’s tent on my back.
“Every summer holiday I’d go hitchhiking for five weeks through Europe. I’d come back completely tanned, bronzed and thin. The teacher would say, ‘What did you do?’ and I’d say ‘Oh, I hitchhiked to Yugoslavia.’ “
In his early 20s, after time spent studying English literature, Mansfield headed down to Spain where he taught English and found time for another surprising venture: “I had loads of free time. I played music in a professional rock band at that time as a bass player. It was a free ticket for travel and that made me crave freedom.”
After returning to London from Spain, Mansfield worked for two years at the European Social Fund based in London, allocating government education funds to Britain and Europe. Mansfield had mixed feelings about this, which he credits to his time spent as a musician. “I got this very stuffy government job. Ultimately, I got quite bored with it . . . I was a higher executive officer. It was a good job, it was well paid . . . but it was like my whole life was mapped out . . . Somehow I just revolted against that.”
During this period of professional discontent in the late ’80s, one occurrence would alter the course of his life. A friend invited Mansfield, who was in his late 20s and “not particularly interested in photography,” to an exhibition featuring the world-famous French photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson.
“It just blew my mind really. I’d seen photos before, but I’d never seen 200 monochrome images collected together, framed, in a gallery. The next day, I went and bought a Pentax camera.”
Mansfield began integrating photography into his life immediately. “Because I w as living in the center of London I was able to go to exhibitions on my lunch break. So, every week I would go to three or four.”
Soon he found encouragement in winning prizes, getting work published and eventually having his own exhibition in London. Accordingly, the subject matter for the show focused on one of Mansfield’s worldly adventures.
“I had an exhibition of photos from a trip I made to Egypt. There is a place called the City of the Dead — which is a huge cemetery. There were 2 million people living (there) with the dead. If you go past there at night, there are lights on inside the tombs. It was a weird ghoulish kind of place but it was full of life, and it made it wonderful.”
At this point Mansfield was finally ready to plunge into his new career. “I stopped working in my day job and worked for a magazine called The Middle East in England. I went to Beirut and Lebanon to photograph the civil war there and that was really my apprenticeship to real-life photography . . . very suddenly,” he says with a laugh.
“Some years later I came to Japan as a teacher — with the idea of launching a parallel career in photojournalism.”
Mansfield found things were not always smooth in a new country, making a transition from photographer to photojournalist, which required he provide written content to accompany his photos. He remembers when a magazine editor rejected one of his first submissions, a travel piece on Bali. “I was really crushed. I didn’t write anything for a year. It was so stupid really, a childish reaction . . . So I was more methodical and studied magazines.
“I think 1992 was the key year for me, because I got something published in Japan for the first time.”
Far from struggling now, it is clear that Mansfield’s success can be attributed to the spirit of adventure that dates from his childhood. “There was always a sense of moving forward somewhere different, of limitless horizons. There’s nothing like it really, apart from playing in a rock group in front of an audience.”
Some standout moments, which he deems “transformational experiences,” include a trip from Khartoum in Sudan to Cairo, Egypt, when Mansfield camped with a group of camel dealers for 36 days across the desert.
He remembers, “(The dealers) were very dark, wearing these nice blue-and-cream costumes and carrying whips and long daggers — quite romantic actually, like everyone’s image of the desert.
“They said, ‘You can come with us. But if you get ill, we’re not stopping.’ ”
Last year, Mansfield went to another desert, the Taklimakan, where he did 10,000 km in 18 days of nonstop travel. This trip had a deeper objective. “I wanted to see it before it changed too much, because things in China change so rapidly. “I read a couple of weeks ago that the Chinese government is thinking of bulldozing the old city of Kashgar and putting up apartments.”
Mansfield is philosophical when pondering such changes in the world. “Everything changes, doesn’t it?” Yet it is clear he has some feelings regarding the issue: “The problem is that people can’t leave places alone. There is this tendency to try and improve places but often it is not improvement.”
On the relation between his work and this issue, Mansfield asserts, “Travel writing generates tourism and tourism generates problems, so you’re always trying to address who you hope are discerning responsible people, but you never know.
“There is a direct link between what you read and what you want to do . . . and I’m not sure if that’s a good thing.” Here Mansfield draws from personal experience, having been one of the writers covering Laos in the early ’90s.
“When I first went (to Laos), it was splendid. All the food was organic . . . they didn’t use any chemicals at all. And then as it got more tourism, more businesses coming in, more outside interest and investment, people were telling the farmers, ‘You have to use chemicals. One crop a year is not enough. You can make two crops, or even three crops a year.’ So that kind of thing happens very quickly — in under 10 years.”
Nevertheless, Mansfield is careful, steering clear of any doomsday-type thinking. “I am trying to be more optimistic and move on and not be depressed by the changes I see around me.
“Part of it, the whole sense of being overwhelmed with the state of the world is the media. . . . Things are getting worse but also the dimension seems much bigger. (Information) is accessible all the time; it’s flowing over us constantly.”
Yet, Mansfield’s optimism lies in this heightened level of global communication when it comes to such issues as environmental problems. “We haven’t really had an opportunity to work together as a planet before. We’ve always been this side against this side, this cause against this cause.
“So there is some hope . . . in linking up and working together to overcome the problems.”
Mansfield also applies his buoyant outlook to his everyday life in Japan, which he shares with his wife and two teenage children. “I always think about what Donald Richie wrote in one of his essays: ‘I wake up every morning and I think, what am I going to learn today? What new thing am I going to learn today?’ “
Mansfield read and learned from over 200 books while researching his latest book, “Tokyo: A Cultural and Literary History” (2009) in which he tries to “bring out the individualism of Japanese people.”
“People tend to see Japan in mono-terms — as a monolithic culture and people, but that’s nonsense. There are so many different opinions here, and different behaviors.”
Stephen Mansfield will speak on Sunday, July 26 at Good Day Books in Tokyo’s Ebisu. Mansfield will speak on the topic “Tokyo: City of the Imagination.” For more information see www.gooddaybooks.com or call (03) 5421-0957.