Kotaro Sawaki is one of the most popular nonfiction writers in Japan. He made his name with “Shinya Tokkyu (Midnight Express),” a reportage of a yearlong overland trip through Asia and Europe he took when he was in his mid-20s. Those stories — whose title refers to a euphemism for “prison break” used by foreign inmates of an Istanbul prison — depict in astonishing detail Sawaki’s friendly interactions with locals, his sometimes acrimonious bartering over bus fares, meals and accommodation — and his heart-rending and movingly humorous descriptions of the poor and downtrodden he encountered on his travels.
Sawaki’s three-volume series, the first two of which came out in 1986 — at the height of Japan’s stupendous “bubble economy” — inspired many of his young compatriots to go on the road in search of new horizons, with some taking the very same route as he had, from Hong Kong to London.
Now aged 59, Sawaki has received numerous awards for his nonfiction writings that span subjects as diverse as the biography of a professional baseball player who could not accept that his career was over, to a posthumous account of a marathon runner who, faced with enormous pressures to win at the Olympics, opted to kill himself.
Married with a 23-year-old daughter, Sawaki — who quit his sarariman (salaried office worker) job on day one — says his freewheeling approach to life changed to a more disciplined one when he became a father. Now, he keeps regular hours, working in an office close to his home in Tokyo’s residential Setagaya Ward from 9 to 5 every day. Such self-discipline allows him to write prolifically, with his current output including a serialized novel for a major Japanese daily newspaper and other regular columns in the nation’s media.
A tall, easygoing man who looks a generation younger than he is, Sawaki recently took time out to talk to The Japan Times and regale readers with some of his traveler’s tales.
He also shared valuable insights on intercultural relationships in general, and cast light on his creative process and the challenges of nonfiction writing.
In your best-seller “Shinya Tokkyu (Midnight Express),” you write about your trip alone from Hong Kong to London, on a tight budget and without even a guide book. Why did you do that?
I think there are several “schools” in life. Of course, elementary, junior high and high schools are some of them, but there are others — such as bars. The kashihonya (rental bookstores) in my neighborhood were another school for me. Then there was traveling. When I graduated from university, where I hadn’t studied much, I felt I wanted to study something. You can study at a desk, but you can also say the world is your textbook. In hindsight, I think I wanted to learn something from the world, but back then I wasn’t thinking in those terms. Then, I just wanted to leave, because I was worried that, if I continued writing, I would go on doing that without any problem for another 10 or 20 years. But of course I was only 26, and I thought that 10 or 20 years seemed like forever. I didn’t want to live like that. However, after I came back, I started writing again. It wasn’t like I’d wanted to escape or anything by traveling, but I had wanted to encounter that perfect job, that perfect event, that perfect person — but it didn’t happen.
Were you disappointed?
No. The year I traveled was thrilling. I learned lots of things, including such trivial lessons as how to take a bus in far-flung corners of the world, how to buy a ticket and how to deal with such different people. That, itself, was very thrilling, and I had a lot of fun.
It took you 17 years after your trip to complete your “Midnight Express” series. How did you keep your memories so fresh and your motivation to write about it for so long?
If you think about it, there aren’t so many big events that affect your life. For me, the year when I traveled enormously impacted my life. I subsequently spent a year working as a promoter for a professional boxer named Cassius Naito, about whom I later wrote in “Isshun no Natsu (The Summer of A Fleeting Second).” That year was very big, too.
In my mind, I wanted to write something about the trip, and even though I couldn’t find the right way of doing it, I never abandoned the process of searching for ways to do it. I always knew I would write about it sometime, so even if it had taken me until I passed 60, I would have created something out of it — though the final product might have been completely different.
In the book, you talk about meeting penniless hippy-type travelers who holed up for ages in dirt-cheap dormitory rooms in cheap hotels, and how they looked so hollow and devoid of curiosity about anything — and even lacked the energy to get out of bed. Do you think traveling too long makes people lose interest in life?
These situations — where travelers have their curiosity wiped out — are commonplace. In reality, I’m sure young backpackers who were traveling for much longer than I did would probably share that feeling. When you are traveling, you feel as if you are dangling in the air; you are neither responsible for the country of your origin, nor the country you are in. Your feet are not firmly on any ground, and yet you can continue living like that with little money. However, you have to move on at some point, or you will sink deeper and deeper. Then, if you move, your worn-out, closed mind will be exposed to the wind that comes with the move, and it will crack open your curiosity again. Your curiosity, though, may never recover to the same level as when you started traveling.
Is there any way such travelers can regain their energy?
I think they need external inputs. I met a lot of these young, tired travelers, both Japanese and Western, and some were no longer sure about the purpose of their trips. They couldn’t figure out why they kept traveling when their travel no longer stimulated them.
Do you think there are a lot of people like that?
Oh yes. If people could travel to various places for a few months and come back home, they would be better off. When you keep traveling for two or three years, striking a balance between moving and not moving becomes difficult, and the staying portions gets longer as you lose energy. Among these youngsters, such situations are called “chinbotsu (sinking to the bottom).”
Apparently there are lots of people like that in Bali, for example.
Yes. Comfortable and cheap places to stay in like Bali attract a fair number of people. In the past, Kabul was where the West and the East merged, and because it was a place where drugs were easily available, it was perfect for people looking for a rest.
Backpacking has become very popular among Japanese, but most people still go on sightseeing trips only, often in group tours. What do you think about that?
It depends. Recently, when I took a bus trip from Ho Chi Minh City to Hanoi, a couple of Western backpackers in their 60s were among the passengers. I didn’t get a great impression of them. The couple could not have been poor, but they haggled with the driver over an extremely small amount of money and argued over where they would be seated. Maybe they were especially bad, but I guessed they had traveled like that for a long time.
Then I saw a busload of Japanese tourists who mostly looked like they were also in their 60s. They were from Osaka, from a local shotengai (shopping arcade) or something, and they looked like they were having such a good time. Sure, they had the usual bus guide and an interpreter and they were walking in droves. But if you asked me which group of people — the backpackers or the group tourists — had a “rich” experience, I would say the group travelers. The backpackers didn’t look happy at all. So I can’t say in general if individual backpackers enjoy their traveling any more than group tourists.
How many countries have you been to so far?
If you count short stopovers, I think I’ve been to about 100 countries. I haven’t been to the southern parts of Africa or Antarctica, but apart from that I’ve covered most regions.
Has your traveling style changed over the years?
Not really. My way is not to make any plans in advance and not to carry a guide book — but just to go somewhere and travel from there. That hasn’t changed. A couple of years ago I went to China for the first time, for around 100 days. I had saved my China trip for a long time, until the visa regulations were eased. Until then, tourists could only stay for around two weeks. I went from Hong Kong to Kashgar (a city in the Jinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region of China). That was a backpacking trip also, but the only difference from the trip I took when I was 26 was that I had a credit card. In many ways, I had access to an infinite amount of money. I had a choice of hotels to stay at, but I ended up at very cheap places. Still, the enormous pressure to travel frugally — and the sense of desperation that comes with it — was not there. In a way I could spend whatever amount of money I wanted to, so there were times when I found my stinginess funny.
That made the trip less thrilling for you, I guess.
Yes, it did. Also, China itself turned out to be uninteresting. When I was traveling in the ’70s, I had to take a southward detour around China, because I couldn’t stay there for a long time. So I first went to Southeast Asia, then to India and Afghanistan. But come to think of it, the fact that I didn’t pass through China ended up making the trip so great.
Why was China uninteresting to you?
I think people in China ethnically have very little interest in travelers. If you go to India, Southeast Asia or the Middle East, people are very interested in you. That’s why so many interesting things happen. In the case of China, maybe partly because we (Japanese) blend in so easily with locals (in terms of appearance), the locals show no interest in tourists, and that makes our travel eventless. Plus I found every town in mainland China mediocre and dull. But as I traveled to the Uighur region, people started to change, and the scenery changed and religions changed and the locals were brimming with curiosity about outsiders. That makes your travel so much more appealing.
If you are the type of tourist who’s interested in visiting historical spots, like the grave of Shi Huangdi from the Qin dynasty, your impressions might be different. But I’m basically not interested in such things. Of course, I have this absolute handicap of not speaking Chinese, but in many other countries I got by without speaking the language. In China, though, I think it was harder for me to communicate with people, compared to other places I’ve been to.
Do you think that was partly because of the history between Japan and China?
No, it wasn’t like that. I didn’t feel it was difficult because I was Japanese.
Traveling to so many places, have you picked up any other languages?
No. I’ve communicated with gestures, and if both parties are not native speakers, we can pretty much understand each other with the few words we know. I have mostly visited countries where their first language is not English. In such places, it was easiest to communicate in English.
After you graduated from college, you quit your first job on day one while waiting for a traffic signal on your way to the company’s office in central Tokyo. Why did you want to become a company worker like that in the first place?
I didn’t consider any other options. I didn’t think about applying to a newspaper or becoming a journalist. I was thinking that I should work in an office and be a proper “salary man.” But of course, I was seriously wondering if I made the right choice, and I hardly slept the night before. As I walked out of Tokyo Station and into the Marunouchi business area, I was walking with hordes of other office workers, and it was raining and everyone was holding an umbrella. Simply put, I felt like not putting my umbrella up. It wasn’t that I didn’t want to walk to my office like everybody else, but I felt I really didn’t want to use my umbrella — and yet I knew I had to, because I was wearing a suit.
Do you still remember your state of mind clearly?
Yes, because I hardly ever use an umbrella. And when I told the company that I wasn’t going to join, I felt that I could live a life in which I didn’t have to use an umbrella if I didn’t want to.
Have any of your works been translated into other languages?
“Midnight Express” has been published in Chinese and Korean. “Yaburezaru Mono Tachi (The Undefeated),” has also been translated into Chinese, and “To (Freezing)” (a nonfiction work about a mountain-climbing couple) is being translated into Korean and English.
I’ve read that you maintain relationships with many potential subjects for your nonfiction stories, but you only write about them when you reach a certain point in your relationship. What are the criteria for reaching that point?
It is hard to explain, but even when I meet interesting people, I usually don’t write about them immediately. I start moving only after I see another element in them, either after spending time with them or after something happens between us.
What kind of specifics are you referring to?
Well, I wrote the story “To,” about the world-famous mountain climbers Mr. and Mrs. Yamanoi, who nearly died climbing a peak in Tibet, got frostbitten, and had to cut off their fingers. When they were hospitalized, which was for a long period, our mutual friend asked me whether I wanted to visit them. So I went there, and they were such great people. The wife had lost all her fingers, and the husband had lost most of his, but they were so nonchalant about it, neither overly cheery or overly depressed. Under such circumstances, how can anybody remain so perfectly calm? I was very impressed by them, and I said, “Let’s have dinner together sometime.”
Then I started hanging out with them. But I wasn’t interested in writing about them. I would occasionally visit them and we talked a lot about boxing, which I had written about and they had read about. Mr. Yamanoi lives in a mountain hut with little money, so I brought some chocolate cake for him, which he loved. We would talk about many things, share a meal, and I would go home.
Then a year or so later, he told me he was thinking about going back to climb Gyachung Kang in the Himalayas, where he had nearly died before. He said he’d left his luggage on the mountain, and he needed to go back and pick it up because it was garbage in nature. I was really interested in the fact that they were going back just so he could pick his stuff up, so I asked if I could go along.
He said, “If you want to.”
I had never climbed a mountain, but after going on a trial hike to Mount Fuji, we discovered I could stand the altitude. But then, at Gyachung Kang, unfortunately we could not locate the bag. Nevertheless, we were happy we’d climbed the mountain.
Then that night, in the tent, I suddenly felt like writing about them — for the first time. So I told them: “Until now this has simply been pleasure. From now on, our time together is work.” Afterward, I started visiting their home once every week for interviews.
You spend a lot of time interviewing people. Do you have a lot of stories that haven’t been published?
Yes, I have a lot of stories that are hanging in the air. There are a lot that I’ve finished interviewing for but haven’t written. Then there are stories that I only have notes for. And there are people I’m just hanging out with (who I may write about in the future).
Does that mean there is no distinction between your public and private life?
Well . . . in the case of the Yamanois, I had always had respect for them, so I couldn’t call them just friends.
You have written a collection of 33 stories about mostly ordinary people, titled “Karera no Ryugi (Their Ways of Life).” Where did you find such a wide variety of subjects to interview?
I wrote the series for a newspaper for over a year. It was tough. There are people I know and have wondered about for a long time. Then there are my high-school friends. And then there are others. But now, if I were to pay enough attention to people around me, I think I could write something similar.
Some people have said that, even though you write about other people’s lives, you have ended up writing about yourself, because the process in which you choose the subject — and how you connect their fact dots into story lines is very subjective. Some people say that nonfiction writers commit a great sin because they present what is very subjective as if it were objective truth, and their works foster stereotypes and fixed images. How do you respond to such a criticism?
Let’s say there are stars in the sky. Stars are the same to everyone in terms of their position or their altitude. But then we humans create constellations. It’s the same with nonfiction. Nonfiction writers cannot create stars, but we can connect stars and create pictures. Whether we create the Little Dipper or the Scorpion, it depends. If a viewer says, no, this can’t possibly look like the Scorpion, it means the fiction failed to resonate. But if the viewer is convinced, it means the fiction has power. It could be argued that nonfiction is fiction after all. But there is a definitive difference between fiction and nonfiction: nonfiction writers cannot create the subjects. I think it’s only natural that the way you connect the dots is subjective.
You tried your hand at fiction in “Chi-no-aji (Taste of Blood),” which is about a teenage son killing his father. Why did you write fiction?
I guess I felt like creating stars.
You have also written a nonfiction story, “Mumei (The Unknown),” which was about your relationship with your father in his last days. Did you want to express something about father-son relationships?
“Chi-no-aji” and “Mumei” are like a set; I couldn’t have written either story without the other. To me, my father was probably the most interesting person I’ve ever met. He was mysterious — intelligent, but incompetent.
Why did the lead character in “Chi-no-aji” kill his dad?
I guess I was always in a position to protect my father, even from the time I was a child. And I guess I wanted to give myself a different role for once, in the world of fiction.
You have a regular column in the daily Asahi Shimbun newspaper, where you write about films. In one of those columns, you wrote that for the first time in a long time you found one movie repulsive — and that was Sofia Coppola’s “Lost in Translation.”
What was interesting was that I got a letter from a French reader after my story was published. The letter was written in Japanese. The reader said, “I usually agree with your views, but (here) I think you are overreacting. That movie convincingly depicted the sense of alienation a foreigner would feel in any big city, and the fact that alienation makes strangers feel connected to each other.”
But I disagree. I think for a traveler to feel they are not able to connect with locals — that’s not unusual! If you don’t like to feel that way, you should learn the local language and make yourself understood. If you don’t learn the language, it’s only natural that your travel will have moments when you will not be able to make yourself understood.
The basic message of the movie “Lost in Translation,” in my view, is that it is not the lead characters’ lack of communication skills — but the idiocy of the host country [Japan] — that makes them feel alienated. I feel that movie showed the most offensive way to depict a foreign country. It is childish for them to try to attribute such a sense of isolation and loneliness to outside forces, not to themselves.
In your newspaper column, you went on to say how that movie might symbolize recent U.S. actions in the Middle East . . .
Well, regarding that part, actually, I might have gone overboard, because I was so angry about the film. In general, I’ve encountered many many good aspects of Americans while traveling. But when there’s some trouble, they seem to think they should take absolutely no blame for it, and that the other party is completely responsible. They often get angry (at people in the host country), saying, “Why can’t you understand my English?”
But in my view, why can’t they understand that their misunder- standing stems from their own inability to understand the local language?
Do you think a lot of foreign films misrepresent Japan?
That’s nothing to make a fuss about. I don’t think it’s possible for foreigners to understand countries other than their own exactly as the locals do. Misunderstanding and misrepresentation of cultures is only natural, and that’s fine. But that movie (“Lost in Translation”) tried to depict just how communication is lost in translation. So, they should have gone deeper than they did. I wish I had the opportunity to tell this to Sofia Coppola. (Laughs)
Who are your favorite overseas writers?
I graduated from the economics department in college, but I liked Albert Camus so much that I wrote about his essays in my graduation paper. I think I was influenced by him as a writer. And I like the short stories of Raymond Carver.
What is your biggest ambition?
Hmm . . . When I was a student, my school textbooks used to feature short stories by Ryunosuke Akutagawa or Osamu Dazai, and they were very thought-provoking. I would like to write a story like that, though not necessarily for children. I would like to study how to write a story like that in the next several years.
You have traveled so much, but you still live in Tokyo. Why is that?
Because I’ve lived in Tokyo for so long, I know a lot of “faces” of Tokyo. In most places, I know only dots, and maybe a few lines at most. But because I know Tokyo as faces, it gives me a strong sense of security. Of course I would like to go to another city and stay there long enough so I would know the city as faces.
So where would you choose to live?
Next year, for work-related reasons, I might stay in Kyoto for a year or so. I don’t know if that’s long enough, but I’m looking forward to it. I was also talking with a Japanese friend who lives in New York. She often goes out at night and is often away from home, so when I call her I often end up talking with her American husband, who is a musician. He says, “Your English is terrible. Why don’t you come here and stay here for a while? I’ll correct your English. In return, I know you like to cook, so if you cook for us, I’ll let you stay.” It’s an attractive option — staying in New York and getting English lessons every day . . . so I’m thinking about it. (Laughs)