British writer, historian and journalist Lesley Downer has been visiting Japan and writing about it for nearly 35 years — beginning in 1978, when she was part of the first-ever intake of the English Teaching Recruitment Program, which evolved into the famous JET (Japan Exchange and Teaching Program) scheme.
Since then, she has presented a popular BBC series on Japanese cookery, as well as making a documentary titled “Journey to a Lost Japan” for Britain’s Channel 4 TV and New York-based WNET, and one in Japanese on NHK TV, titled “Journey of the Heart” — each about her journey in the footsteps of a trek made by haiku poet Matsuo Basho (1644-94) that inspired his 1689 masterpiece, “The Narrow Road to the Deep North.” She is the author of three novels, two biographies, a nonfiction account of geisha life, and a travelogue. Her most recent book is the newly published “Across a Bridge of Dreams,” an engrossing historical romance set in conflict-ridden 1860s Japan.
For this interview, she welcomes me to her home in North London, where her affection for all things Japanese is evident from the many artworks and mementos on display. The top floor is an airy, book-strewn study, while modestly tucked onto shelves on the landing are copies of her books in translation. On the floor below is another study, that of her American husband, Arthur I. Miller, the author of “Einstein Picasso” who, Downer says, “writes on the crossover between art and science.”
Downer — who at 50-something is as petite as her part-Chinese ancestry might suggest, although presently blonde — settles into her writing chair. For more than an hour she speaks fluently about her lifelong fascination with Japan; why the Japanese don’t like it when Westerners talk about geisha; and how she’s a “Tokugawa partisan” who thinks Japan’s own version of its history is “rubbish’.”
Your mother was Chinese, your father a Canadian-born professor of Chinese — so what drew you to Japan?
People always ask this question! I read Bernard Leach’s “A Potter’s Book”  — that was the germ, as I was doing pottery at the time. And I was also exploring Japanese food and was very interested in Buddhism. So there was miso, there was tofu, there was pottery, there was Zen — lots of things that appealed to me all in one place.
And Japan was somewhere I could go and get a job and make a living. It was the very first year of what became the JET scheme, and 22 of us were chosen. It was pioneer stuff — that was 1978.
Where were you sent?
Gifu Prefecture — and Gifu in 1978 was a bit of shock. In the interview I’d said I’d wanted to go to the countryside, because I was in that sort of mode — sheep, cows, green fields.
Gifu did not have sheep or cows or green fields. It was October; it was brown. To be honest, it was tough. There were no other gaijin (foreigners). After three months, someone asked me, “Wouldn’t you like to meet the other gaijin?” and I was: “What, there are others?” There were two.
There were no teachers of Japanese back then — why should there be, when there were no gaijin to teach? So I taught myself out of books.
People were incredibly kind. I’d get these phone calls in the morning, and I wouldn’t follow fully what was said, but I’d understand: “Be ready at 9 o’clock.” So I knew there’d be a massive lunch, or cormorant fishing, or sword-making, paper-making or the spring festival.
So you were in Japan before the 1980s, the beginning of Japanese economic ascendancy. Do you feel you saw traditional, historic Japan?
Well, Gifu is famously old-fashioned, but all of Japan was old-fashioned, then. I’ve lived through it. I noticed in the ’80s that Japan kind of got finished. I went home to Britain one summer holiday and even in the two months I was away Gifu changed massively, buildings were going up. So Japan became modern, and after a while, it got that when I came back here [to the UK] it would look totally Dickensian.
The ’80s were completely mad; completely fun. That was when everyone had pots of money. In the early ’80s, I was in Kamakura doing Zen. I won a cooking competition run by [sauce-maker] Kikkoman, using soy sauce in recipes. I won a return ticket for two to anywhere in Japan, so I used them myself, twice. I went to Hokkaido and stayed there for ages, then I went to Okinawa.
So that was the beginning of the ’80s. Then I worked in London for TBS [Tokyo Broadcasting System] for a few years, but I started to think about the Basho journey [retracing "The Narrow Road to the Deep North"] and how it would make a good book.
At that time, travel writing was still largely men doing “Great Journeys,” and you were one of the first to write a different, personal kind of travelogue.
Yes, I suppose so. I began in Yamagata Prefecture [in Tohoku], went up to Matsushima [on the coast of Miyagi Prefecture], and realized that the road Basho took was now a motorway, or a shinkansen railway route.
But inland wasn’t motorway, it was a road. I saw a little path leading off and followed it, and it went down though a glade of trees into an obscure valley. It was exquisite, very cut off. There was one shop, a little supermarket, and I asked the lady who ran it, “Is there somewhere to stay round here?” and she said, “Stay? But there’s nothing here.” She put me in touch with the village headman, who asked the same thing; they all did: “Why do you want to stay here? You’re crazy.”
Was it the Basho book and TV programs that established you as an expert on Japan?
Well, I taught Japanese cookery when I came back from Japan, and did a cookery series, and I think it was those that got me entrenched. And then I wrote “The Brothers: The Hidden World of Japan’s Richest Family,” which was published in 1994.
Tell me more about the Tsutsumi brothers who you wrote about in that book — why did you become interested in that business dynasty?
At the end of the ’80s, the Tsutsumis were huge. Yoshiaki Tsutsumi — the son of Yasujiro Tsutsumi and his favorite mistress — was the richest man in the world according to Forbes magazine’s listing for six of the seven years 1987 to ’93, and there was this sibling rivalry between him and his half-brother, Seiji — the son of Yasujiro and his second wife. It was just a great story that needed telling.
But I thought it was also a great way of exploring how people saw Japan and “the Japanese.”
Seiji Tsutsumi was a poet and an ex-communist who owned [the department store group] Parco, and he bought the Intercontinental hotel to spite his brother — then went bankrupt. He was a Westernized man. But Yoshiaki Tsutsumi owned the Seibu Lions baseball team and was a very traditional chap.
I saw Yoshiaki once, surrounded by the top guys of the Diet. They were all bowing very low and he was just nodding. It was totally obvious who held the strings.
How did geisha become the next chapter in your career?
I went to Miyagawacho, which is one of the five hanamachi (lit. “flower town”) geisha districts in Kyoto, and because it’s a lower-ranking district the geisha there weren’t quite so snooty as the ones in Gion. But still I would wonder how on Earth I was going to meet geisha. You’d see them walking up and down, but I wasn’t just going to nobble one on the street.
I went to the same coffee shop every day and there’d be other women in there, wearing blouses and skirts, not much make-up. I’d been there quite some time when I got talking to the lady at the counter and she said, “They’re all geisha, why don’t you interview them?” And I was like — “Oh!” Suddenly everything flowed.
Tokyo was much easier, and I met a lot of women there who are still my friends. I remember phoning one very famous geisha. I thought, “I shouldn’t be doing this, you don’t just phone geisha.” But she simply said, “Let’s have lunch,” so I met this gorgeous woman in a restaurant in the Tokyu department store in Ginza.
We met up again, and then she said, “Well, you’ll want to see me doing my job.” I said, “Yes, that would be nice,” and she took her mobile and called one of her customers and said, “Do you fancy having a party?” So by this point I knew exactly what geisha are, and what they do.
But then I went down to [the hot-spring coastal resort of] Atami in Shizuoka Prefecture, where they are perhaps a little more like one imagines. It’s a bit darker. They were awfully nice, but at the very end of the evening, this middle-aged geisha just said to me, “Oh, your hotel is off up there” and waved me away and then disappeared with a customer.
Do you ever feel frustrated that Western interest in Japan still fixates on these time-honored figures: geisha and samurai?
What I discovered about geisha was that, while it’s a stereotype — and some Japanese people told me off for writing about them — when you meet them, they’re incredibly impressive, and have been very powerful in Japan. So you can look below the surface.
My second novel, “The Courtesan and the Samurai,” is about the Battle of Hakodate in Hokkaido [fought December 1868-June '69 between the Tokugawa Shogunate and the forces of the newly formed Imperial government under the Meiji Emperor]. So I prepared two talks to give around that book. One was about the battle, and the other was a crowd-pleaser, about geisha and courtesans.
So I got in touch with SOAS [the University of London's School of Oriental and African Studies], which is a serious place, and said, “You might like my talk on the Battle of Hakodate.”
Then some months went by, and I emailed again and said, “I could also talk about geisha and courtesans” — and the answer came straight back: “Yes !”
Geisha are woven through your novels, as well. When and why did you make that move to fiction?
Most writers, probably, would like to do fiction — they just would. But I’m not naturally a confident person, I had to think of it as an exercise, a learning curve. Now, looking back, I can see I’ve written a trilogy. It wasn’t intended like that, but the first one is set in the 1860s, the buildup to the Meiji Restoration. I refuse to call it the Meiji Restoration, actually.
What do you think it should be called?
It was a civil war. I talk about the Japanese Civil War, which happened at the same time as the American Civil War, and it was a war among clans. [In the late 1860s, the Choshu-Satsuma Alliance of militarized clans from present-day Yamaguchi and Kagoshima prefectures, respectively, battled the shogun's supporters, including the northern Aizu clan, leading to the re-establishment of Imperial rule under Emperor Meiji in 1868. A decade later, the Satsuma rose up against the government, by then headed by the Choshu, and were suppressed.]
The winners rewrote history incredibly — the “war” part of it has been written out, as though it was a bloodless revolution. It doesn’t take much research to show that it wasn’t.
The war is very much foregrounded in your novels, although they’re ostensibly love stories.
In the world of marketing, they are regarded as women’s fiction, but I don’t know if they really are. I think men would like to read them, too !
You’re writing romances about a culture that doesn’t have a concept of romantic love.
But they do know about being driven by passion — it runs all through kabuki. There’s lots and lots of what we can recognize as love. Japan’s sensibility can be very intense, very passionate, and I think there are other societies, too, where your personal yearnings are something that are going to lead you into trouble and are therefore not romanticized.
Could there ever have been a Nobu, the Aizu hero of “Across a Bridge of Dreams”?
I found a fantastic book about Aizu [present-day western Fukushima Prefecture in Tohoku], by Shiba Goro, and that inspired me very much. I took a lot of the emotion from his story.
It’s a period when things were changing so fast: the streets of Kyoto running with blood, your friends dying, total chaos. In a situation like that, normal constraints would fall aside.
So what’s the next book?
There’s someone I was thinking of writing about, but probably won’t — Oyama Sutematsu. She was one of the five girls sent to America in 1871. She was from Aizu, and went to America for 10 years, to [the elite, then-women-only university] Vassar College [in Poughkeepsie, New York].
She had a handsome lover, but didn’t marry him — she married Gen. Iwao Oyama, who had led the assault on Aizu Castle in 1868. That sent her soaring up society and she became queen of the Rokumeikan [the palatial central Tokyo hall, completed in 1883, that was used to showcase Japanese modernization to foreign dignitaries].
I’d love to read that ! But if not Sutematsu, then who else?
I may go back to the Women’s Palace, because in “The Last Concubine” the heroine leaves the Women’s Palace [the Ooku, or Great Interior, which was the harem of Edo Castle where the ruling shogun's concubines lived] quite quickly and I think there are a lot of stories in that. There are a lot of things I’ve read now that I hadn’t read when I was writing that novel. And I also think I can now do things I couldn’t do before.
One thing I would like to say to The Japan Times is that my books — “On The Narrow Road,” that came out in Japanese; “The Brothers” went into Japanese. And then “Geisha” did not go into Japanese because I think the Japanese have a problem with geisha, and with Westerners going on about geisha.
But “Sadayakko” [Downer's biography of celebrated geisha Madame Sadayakko, the inspiration for Madam Butterfly] did. People keep asking me about it, and I still give talks on it. But my novels have not gone into Japanese.
So the Japanese market is enthusiastic for history, but not for novels?
The agent there said that she couldn’t see a market for fiction about Japan by a Westerner, messing about with Japanese history. And my books do diverge from that official history — the one about the bloodless revolution and how the Choshu-Satsuma clans were modernizers while the Tokugawa shoguns were terribly old-fashioned. I think that’s all a load of rubbish — it’s propaganda.
Have you visited Japan recently?
I went by myself for three weeks in March and it was great. But when I come back, I always find people saying to me, “Oh, it’s a difficult time for Japan.” I go: “No, it’s fine.” And they say, “It can’t be. What about the downturn, the earthquake … ” And I go, “No, no it really is fine. Japan is doing nicely.”
It’s not crazy like it was in the ’80s, and people are concerned about another big quake, but nobody’s whinging about the economy and it still seems very prosperous — more so than here, for sure!