Dutch banker turned writer finds a home and inspiration in Japan

by Stephen Mansfield

Special To The Japan Times

The first taxi driver really didn’t have a clue, going as far as to suggest that the address given him was a fabrication. The second driver, with the aid of a car navigation device, had more luck in finding the Fukuoka apartment of Dutch writer Hans Brinckmann.

“You should have mentioned the name Sadaharu Oh,” Brinckmann advised, referring to the baseball legend and onetime manager of the Fukuoka Softbank Hawks. “He lived here at one time and most of the cabbies know that.”

A successful banker for the greater part of his life, Brinckmann claims to have always wanted to be a writer but met early opposition from his stepfather, a pragmatist who, like many a parent, could not imagine a living being made from writing. “He thought it was a very bad idea. That communism was expanding; Western Europe might become overrun. That it was best to get out of the Netherlands.”

In retrospect such anxieties seem fanciful, but in 1950 many political observers paid them serious heed. After attending an elite school in Holland for one year, an institute where students were groomed for banking jobs, Brinckmann sailed on the Dutch liner Oranje for Singapore, where he spent four months at the Nationale Handelsbank.

At the age of 18, Brinckmann was abruptly conscious of the volatile geopolitics of the day. China had only just concluded its revolution. In Vietnam, the Viet Minh were proving tougher adversaries than the French colonists or watchful American policymakers had imagined. Indonesia, formerly known as the Dutch East Indies, had only just declared independence; Singapore remained part of the British-run Malay Peninsula. He recalls hearing the sound of bombs exploding across the straits dividing Singapore from the mainland as an indigenous people struggled for their freedom against another oppressive foreign master.

From Singapore, he flew on a DC-6 propeller plane to Hong Kong, where he saw tens of thousands of refugees pouring into the colony after the takeover of mainland China by the communists. The flight on to Tokyo carefully avoided Korean air space as fighting on the peninsula had broken out just a few months earlier.

Five years into the U.S.-led Occupation, Japan was already a fledgling democracy with a work ethic that would help to pull it out of penury. Japan may have been doing a little better, but it was not immediately evident. When Brinckmann arrived at the wooden terminal at Haneda airport in 1950, large parts of the city, bombed into near oblivion during the closing months of the war, looked more like a charnel house than a national capital.

In his memoir and self-reckoning, “The Magatama Doodle,” Brinckmann recalls the road from the airport being riven with huge potholes, bomb craters crudely filled in with rubble: “Most of the houses and shops along the route,” he wrote, “looked like shacks, and there were unpainted wooden poles carrying thick strands of telephone and electric cables wherever you looked.”

His first posting was to the Kobe branch of the Nationale Handelsbank. Japanese banks were still prohibited from engaging in business overseas, so the handful of foreign establishments like Brinckmann’s were used as intermediaries.

In his free time he studied Japanese, cinematography and Zen, of which he would later write: “It appealed to me because of its unequivocal emphasis on direct experience rather than scriptures, and its scant regard for emotional attachment to material objects.” There was, perhaps, a double irony in this interest. As Japan increasingly detached itself from the way of Zen, Brinckmann, a Western financier, was starting to trod along its path.

Living in Kobe, Brinckmann entered into an o-miai, or arranged marriage, a highly unusual practice for a foreigner. Through the ministrations of a friend, a meeting was set up at a Japanese inn near the Kamo River in Kyoto. The member of a once affluent family, whose reduced circumstances were a result of the war and its aftermath, Brinckmann’s future wife was an English-speaking student of Japanese literature with an open, global disposition. The couple married in 1959.

While working in Kobe and Osaka, he began to write in earnest, albeit in his free time. Although he would not have his first book published until 2005, he began to write articles and poetry, drawing from his experiences of living in Japan. Writing articles on Japanese cultural themes for magazines in Holland, he also found time to collaborate with a team of editors on the creation of a literary magazine.

After Brinckmann moved to Tokyo, he was able to witness fierce opposition to the Japan-U.S. security treaty, the erosion of labor relations and political agitation culminating in violent street demonstrations. This forms the background to “Washo!,” a documentary about Japan’s unresolved tensions and grievances, the clash between new and old orders, that he made with his friend Ysbrand Rogge.

When the time came for him to write books, he was able to draw on a great deal of personal experience.

The subtitle of “The Magatama Doodle” — “One Man’s Affair with Japan, 1950-2004″ — hints at its content, which is largely autobiographical, a very personal depiction of his experience in the field of finance, the social customs and rituals involved in working in Japan, and his analysis of the inner workings of the country and its people.

He would develop this theme in the 2008 work, “Showa Japan,” whose subtitle is also revealing: “The Post-War Golden Age and Its Troubled Legacy.” The book examines both the achievements and the negative aspects of a period of rapid, and sometimes ill-considered, development in this country.

Loath to confine himself to non-fiction, Brinckmann’s collection of short stories published in 2011, “The Tomb in the Kyoto Hills,” is a fine example of encounter fiction, the stories tracing the transforming effects on characters living in a different culture. The content of an anthology of his poetry, published in the same year and titled “The Undying Day,” reflects the experiences of an itinerant life and includes recent pieces, but also a poem composed in 1961.

Eager to experience new working and living environments, Brinckmann left Japan in 1974 after having inhabited 14 houses and one apartment during his time here. The subsequent years would see him making a living as a bank executive in such places as Chicago, New York, London, Amsterdam and Curacao off the coast of Venezuela.

In common with many expatriates who have lived in Japan, he found himself drawn back, returning in 2003 to settle permanently. As he wrote in his memoir, “Despite three decades of wanderings through four continents, I have never been able to let go of Japan.”

Brinckmann’s apartment is in an upmarket residential district of Fukuoka that was once home to a number of samurai estates. Many of the retaining walls of these homes are still visible along the quarter’s slopes and narrow lanes.

“The apartments were built at the height of the bubble economy, so all the building materials are of the highest quality,” he confides. The receptionist’s office at the entrance, well-designed light wells and marble finishing attest to the structure’s superiority. Contrary to expectations, his home is full, not of a lifetime’s clutter, but a collection of carefully retained objects of personal value. The overriding impression is of order.

When you travel extensively in Japan, it is easy to form the impression that the country is a collection of cultural fiefdoms rather than a unified entity. How was Brinckmann settling into life in Fukuoka, after relocating to the city this spring?

“All things considered, very well. I miss some friends in Tokyo, contacts there, and the Foreign Correspondents’ Club of Japan, which I’m still a member of, but Fukuoka is a fine city: a good size, a long history. I live in a green area, but near all the facilities.”

A city with a decent number of cultural venues, he has been invited to participate in the annual Bookuoka publishing event. Like anyone with a product, even a literary one, you need to take your wares to the public. In the last year alone, Brinckmann has conducted readings from his work in London, Tokyo and the Netherlands. He will make another presentation at the Japan Writers Conference in Okinawa in November.

A writer of fiction and non-fiction, Brinckmann is also a published poet. There are only a relatively small number of writers anywhere who have managed to cross genres. How did he cope with the respective differences? “The idea always takes precedence, not the genre. Fiction can serve to express ideas perfectly suited to certain non-fiction content. The two converge just as much as they diverge.”

Before the interview began, Brinckmann had just come back from a checkup at the doctor’s, with all vital signs, to his surprise, better than the last visit. If he has been spared the outward ravages of advancing age, he has also withstood its inner corrosions.

When asked to explain the source of his good health and mental agility, his ability to withstand the rigors of intercontinental travel, an undertaking he enjoys for both pleasure and as an opportunity to promote his work, he responds: “By keeping physically and mentally active. My natural tendency is to keep an interest in things. I stay in touch with Europe, especially London and Holland. I was in New York last October. I let my body dictate its eating times, rather than sticking to a prescribed schedule.”

The same seems to apply to his writing: “I’m not organized in my work. I tend to follow my moods and inclinations, which means I don’t have a typical working day.”

Brinckmann appears to be content to work away at his writing without neglecting the pleasures of life. Rather than dwell on the morbid ponderables of old age and infirmity, he prefers to work hard and play hard, to keep his head down and his spirits up.

He talked enthusiastically of a new novel, due out next year from a publisher in Hawaii. Asked what books are on his reading list at the moment, the logic of his reply chills the blood, but makes perfect, pragmatic sense: “I read less and write more, because my time is limited.”

Brinckmann cites the philosophical essays of Michel de Montaigne among his literary influences. When questioned about his readership, or more precisely, what he would like his audience to be, he fires back, “One that is as diversified as my work.” A student of human behavior in cultural and fictional contexts, Brinckmann embodies the idea of memory invigorated with age and wisdom.

When the interview is over, there is the hint of a bow along with Brinckmann’s wave of farewell, a formality acquired during his long years in Japan perhaps, one consonant with the ingrained courtesies, the faintly patrician manner and bearing of this literary Dutch gentleman who now makes Fukuoka his home.

Hans Brinckmann is the author of several books of fiction and non-fiction. For more information on his work and forthcoming appearances, see his website at www.habri.co.uk.

  • 田辺先生

    I see no mention of his wife after teh wedding in 1959…. I hope she is still well, and they are together?

    • hans brinckmann

      In response to your comment, for which I thank you: my wife and I were together for 48 years, until she passed away six years ago. We had a rich and varied life covering many countries, including over twenty years in Japan.
      Hans

  • John

    Very interesting article, but I had the same thought concerning his Japanese wife and her well being. I married out of my culture and always found difficulty in expressing personal ideas and/or the creative aspect of my personality. This is seemed to be in conflict during our 25 year relationship prior to my divorce. However today I pursue all my interests free of guilt or esthetic compromise and maintain good health. Hans offers good advice to our post war generation on keeping young at heart and mind as your body will definitely prosper on this interesting final journey.

    • hans brinckmann

      In response to your comment, for which I thank you: my wife and I were together for 48 years, until she passed away six years ago. We had a rich and varied life covering many countries, including over twenty years in Japan. The issues you alluded to posed no serious problem for me in expressing my creative ideas over the years.