Seeking the broader picture

Author who savored more than a taste of Japan


On a flight to Japan, the British writer Lesley Downer was surprised when her seat companion started berating her, mid-conversation. He was upset when he heard that she was writing a book on geisha. Better she write about the real Japan, rather than promote foreign stereotypes, the Japanese businessman told her.

Downer tactfully dropped the subject of geisha, thinking it better not to try to enlighten her seat companion as to her motives. The year was 1999, and Arthur Golden’s best-selling novel “Memoirs of a Geisha” was enjoying worldwide popularity. Regardless of the fanfare, Downer believed there was a geisha story remaining to be told. She wanted to write a nonfiction book that revealed the real world of the cultured artisans of love and pleasure.

Downer was no newcomer to Japan. She had been living here on and off and writing about Japanese culture for nearly 15 years. She first arrived in 1978 as one of the original 22 participants in the Wolfers Scheme, the forerunner to the Japan Exchange and Teaching Programme. She wasn’t particularly interested in Japan at the time, or writing for that matter, but coming to Japan sounded like a good way to make some money to get back to India, where she had traveled after first graduating from Oxford.

Downer had taught English before coming to Japan, and had also studied pottery and Buddhism. She’d just finished a Masters degree at London University in Indian History, Religion and Art. In an Oxford bookstore, she happened upon “The Potters Book,” by Bernard Leach.

“Though India was my passion at the time, I now realize that book planted the seed of Japan in my mind,” Downer says. “It led me to other books on Japan, such as Donald Keene’s ‘Penguin Anthology of Japanese Literature,’ which I read from cover to cover.”

At the time there were not many foreigners living in rural Japan, and when Downer first arrived in Gifu City, where she taught English at local universities for two years, she did not please her Japanese hosts. “I didn’t fit their gaijin stereotype,” Downer recollects. “They expected a proper Englishwoman who preferred a Western apartment with a microwave, bed and furniture. But I wanted to go native: sleeping on a futon and eating tofu, miso and brown rice.”

In Gifu, her interest in Japanese culture began to blossom. Besides pottery, she studied tea ceremony, flower arrangement and Japanese painting. But after two years of a tepid social life, Downer was ready to move on. She bought a round-trip ticket to London, where she spent a few months before landing in India. Nearly a year later, she ended up in Katmandu with a case of hepatitis and an unused plane ticket back to Japan. She was in need of rest, and her friends in Tokyo offered her a place to stay and an extra futon. It would be three years before she left Japan again.

“Life was comfortable in Japan after India,” Downer recollects. “I lived in Kamakura doing Zen, having relationships and hanging out with friends, but I realized one day that I wanted to go home, get a job and settle down.”

While in Japan, Downer was interested in Japanese vegetarian cooking and had collected numerous recipes. She had the idea of writing little stories to accompany the recipes and compiling them in a fun little book. Back in London she sent her manuscript to several publishers, and two wrote back interested in publishing her book. But it was a phone call from an editor at Jonathan Cape publishers that was the call of destiny.

“They told me they weren’t interested in Japanese cooking and didn’t normally do cookbooks,” Downer explains. “But they thought I could write. They offered to publish my cookbook and asked me if I’d like to become a Jonathan Cape writer. I thought, Wow! and that’s how I became a writer.”

Remembering her love of Japanese haiku, she proposed a travelogue book on the haiku poet, Matsuo Basho and his famous walk through Japan. “I was inspired by the feeling of incredible transitoriness in his haiku,” Downer says. “It reminded me very much of Anglo-Saxon poetry.”

When her book, “On the Narrow Road: A Journey into Lost Japan,” came out in 1988, it was shortlisted for the Thomas Cook travel book awards. A BBC Basho documentary followed the success of her book in 1989.

She was back in Japan again in 1991 to film a series on Japanese cooking called “A Taste of Japan,” for the BBC. It was then that she became interested in Yoshiaki Tsutsumi, at the time the world’s richest man. “He was a colorful character and relatively unknown in the West. I saw his family story as a human saga of the past 100 years of Japanese history. It dispelled the stereotype of Japanese all being the same,” says Downer. Her book on the Tsutsumi family was one of the New York Times Books of the Year in 1995.

With her career as a writer firmly established, she moved to New York and began reporting as a journalist for publications such as Fortune, The New York Times Magazine, The Financial Times and The Wall Street Journal.

In 1999, with the overwhelming success of Golden’s book and on the advice of her new agent, Downer considered a nonfiction book on the geisha.

“At first I thought the geisha world would be hard to break into, but with my connections and experience in Japan I was confident I could function in it,” Downer says.

After several months of befriending geisha in Kyoto and Tokyo, and another nine months of writing and research, her book, “Women of the Pleasure Quarters: The Secret History of the Geisha,” was published.

“When I showed it to my host mother back in Gifu, she looked at the cover and then put it down saying, ‘What will foreigners think after reading this book?’ I told her that my book dispels the image of Japanese women as repressed and simpering.

“Geisha are the world’s first liberated women. They showed me a broader picture of who Japanese women are and how strong their spirits can be.”