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Looking for the Lost

Book Review

Looking for the Lost

Journeys Through a Vanishing Japan

By Alan Booth

Have you ever wanted to go roaming along the icy shores of Aomori Bay in the north of Japan? Or explore the windswept plains of the middle of Japan? Or hike in the hilly countryside of the southern island of Kyūshū during a typhoon? Neither have I. So I am glad that there are others who are willing and even eager to do it and write in detail all about it.

Alan Booth is one of those people. He went to Japan in 1970 intending to stay for a year to study Noh theater and ended up living there as a writer of articles and books for the rest of his life. In the course of seeking material for his work, he traveled far and wide throughout the country. The Roads to Sata, published in 1986, is said to be his masterpiece. That work depicts his journey from Hokkaidō in the north of Japan to the tip of Kyūshū in the south. Looking for the Lost is his final work, published after his death in 1993.


The cover of the book shows the threatening clouds over the hillside near Aomori Bay (or perhaps they are glowering over Mount Enodake in Miyazaki Prefecture in Kyūshū) and the gasshō-zukuri houses (“built like hands placed together in prayer”: so that the heavy snowfall in the area slides off easily) of Toyama Prefecture. Booth made special trips to three different parts of Japan for specific reasons, but the real purpose was to examine all of the esoteric aspects of the country that make Japan unique.

In the first part he travels to the Tsugaru Peninsula in Aomori to retrace the steps of Dazai Osamu, who wrote a book entitled Return to Tsugaru that depicts his trip there during the final year of the Second World War. Booth quotes Dazai’s descriptions of the region from that era and notes how things have changed over the years. He starts out on his quest from Aomori and walks to the tip of the peninsula and then down the other side, the one that faces the Sea of Japan. Naturally, along the way he stops to eat and drink and talk, meeting a wide range of people. He stays at hotels and ryokan (Japanese style inns), hot spring resorts and minshuku (Japanese style bed and breakfast residences). He also hikes inland and throughout the peninsula. At every stop along the way he recounts tales from Japanese history, nuggets of Japanese pop culture or the nature of Japan and the Japanese people.

The second part of the book shows Booth following in the footsteps of Saigō Takamori in Miyazaki Prefecture in Kyūshū. Saigō is one of the great and tragic figures in the history of Japan. He has assumed mythic status in Kyūshū and especially Kagoshima Prefecture where he was born. Booth writes about all of the statues of Saigō that he comes upon and the plaques and monuments dedicated to him in the area.

The 1868 Meiji Restoration, which restored the Japanese emperor to power and brought Japan into the modern era as a part of the international community, was engineered by a handful of revolutionaries that included Saigō. In time he was disillusioned by how things turned out and retreated to his hometown. That led to a confrontation with the government and Saigō’s eventual death. While retracing his steps, Booth explains the whole story and talks about Saigō to ordinary Japanese people that he meets along the way.

What is strange to me is that not a word is written about Saigō’s great love of go. Here is a Japanese print used for the back cover of Go World No. 17 that depicts Saigō playing go (in the red box on the left the characters reading “Saigō Takamori” can be seen):


Booth also writes about Oda Nobunaga in passing without mention of his playing go (and in fact being a great patron of the first Honinbō, Sansa), but overlooking Saigō’s love of the game while detailing seemingly every other piece of minutia of the man’s life is strange. One of the famous pieces of go lore tells about Saigō playing go as the government forces moved in. All that Booth writes is that Saigō and his troops “played the biwa, danced Satsuma sword dances, and composed poems.”

But this is a minor quibble. Here is a passage from the first part of the book that will give a better feeling for Booth’s sensibility. He is writing about the north of Japan and the social values there.

Television is a useful indicator of a region, not so much in the programs, which all over Japan are an unvarying blend of game show, song contest, variety (or “wide”) show, “home drama,” samurai drama, police drama, and baseball, but in the content of advertisements. Granted, you can sit at home in Tokyo and see commercials for mechanical rice plantersan item not likely to figure high on the shopping lists of most urban consumers—but these are commercials of the “corporate image” type, aimed only at cementing a manufacturer’s standing on the stock market. By contrast, advertisements for rice planters in the rural areas demonstrate practical virtues. Thus, on Tokyo T.V., an actor well-known for his appearances as a gang boss climbs out of the cab of a rice planter, lips tightly pursed, and thumps the chassis with the palm of his hand to show potential investors that, if a gang boss actually did this, the planter would not fall to bits. In Tsugaru, on the other hand, the mechanical rice planter is the center of a tableau vivant involving three excited young ladies in latex body stockings who turn their backs to us and bend over towards the machinery so that the camera can close in on their tight shiny bottoms. It is difficult to say how this image might affect the climate of investment at the Tokyo stock exchange, but on rural rice farmers its effect is electric.

Booth originally went to Japan to study Noh theater after having staged several works in translation as a college student. But he was disappointed in the stultified version that he found in the national performances and had to say this in the chapter entitled Pickled Culture:

The performers of the principal roles—the shite—whom I went to see at the Kanze Kaikan were mostly men in their sixties and seventies playing teenagers or young unmarried women. Verisimilitude is of no importance in the Noh, and the most respected of these performers, some of them officially designated by the government as Living National Treasures, more nearly resembled Dying National Treasures.

Booth continues in this way with a devastating critique of the establishment supported Noh theater which is priceless. Anyone with the slightest interest in this aspect of Japanese culture should read it. His comments are spot on and frequently hilarious, as are many other parts of the book.

What puzzles me, though, is that Booth makes no mention of “Takigi Noh.” These are more spontaneous performances of Noh plays held outdoors. (“Takigi” refers to firewood that burns in braziers that surround the stage for lighting and atmosphere.) Many people in Japan feel the same way as Booth did about the “authorized” versions of Noh staged in the national theater and seek a more genuine experience. How could Booth fail to come across them? Or if he did, why didn’t he critique it the same way? Whether he liked it or not.

There are other lapses like this in the book. Booth talks about chatting with old people in Aomori and having trouble understanding what they were saying because of their dialect (zūzū-ben) and the same thing in Kagoshima. (Japanese people themselves say that Kagoshima dialect is more difficult than understanding English!) So it is obvious that his command of Japanese was impressive. But he still makes some silly mistakes. I suppose they are too trivial to mention. They will certainly not detract from the enjoyment of the book that the average reader will surely find.

Looking for the Lost is an impressive guide to Japanese culture and history and the back roads of the country. I was glad to be along for the trip.

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