The Roads to Sata

Long walks through Japan have become something of a tradition. Alan Booth (1946-1993) made a journey, entirely on foot, over the approximately 2000 miles or 3000 km between the northernmost tip of Japan, Cape Soya in Hokkaido, and its southernmost point, Cape Sata in Kyushu, and this book, The Roads to Sata, was the result.


Views from Cape Sata

Booth had been living in Tokyo for several years but had begun to suspect that Tokyo was not the ‘real Japan’ and therefore decided to embark on his journey, choosing to walk, mainly along roads rather than across country, so as to have chance to meet and talk to people along the way. He explains his motivation in an interview with a journalist after completing his trip:

“Why did you decide to do it in the first place?”

“Because I’d lived in Japan for a quarter of my life and still didn’t know whether I was wasting my time. I hoped that by taking four months off to do nothing but scrutinize the country I might come to grips with the business of living here, and get a clearer picture, for better or worse”.

but admits that he was not successful in his mission:

“Have you managed to do that?”

“No.”

The trip avoids many of the typical cities and tourist sights, leaving out Tokyo (mentioned only in passing at the beginning), Osaka and Kyoto, and instead concentrates on the ordinary, everyday towns and cities along the way. Booth also eschews the usual clichés found in writing by Westerners about Japan – geishas, mono no aware, wabi-sabi, the homogeneity and consensus culture of ‘the Japanese’ and so on – presumably because Booth had been in Japan for long enough to get such things out of his system if he ever had them in his system to start with. His introduction specifically points out that he has:

“tried to avoid generalizations, particularly ‘the Japanese’. ‘The Japanese are 120,000,000 people, ranging in age from 0 to 119, in geographical location across 21 degrees of latitude and 23 of longitude, and in profession from emperor to urban guerilla.”

However, in the course of his travels, Booth finds that he cannot avoid clichés and preconceptions – not his own about ‘the Japanese’, but those of the people he meets about Westerners. Despite speaking fluent Japanese, he often has to convince the owners of the ryokans where he wishes to stay that he can indeed eat raw fish, use chopsticks and sleep on a futon, and that he in fact does all these things regularly with his Japanese wife in Tokyo. At one ryokan, the owners finally say “but we can’t speak English!” despite the fact that for the previous few minutes, they had been speaking in Japanese. Booth is also frequently accosted by schoolboys asking “Amerika?” (i.e. “Are you from America?”) and saying “Ziss is a PEN” – the first sentence in the English language textbook used in Japanese schools – and “Hey YOOO!” (I can’t imagine what sort of textbook would teach this as an appropriate way to greet, well, anyone, so I’m somewhat bemused as to where it may have come from.) The schoolgirls, on the other hand, politely asked him for his autograph, and a policeman is surprised that the money in his wallet is Japanese money.

Booth clearly wants nothing more than to blend in, be accepted and talk to people, and the constant reminders of his otherness cause great frustration. At one point in the journey, an elderly lady clearly becomes aware of his frustration and attempts an explanation:

“We don’t see many foreigners here” explained the old lady as she pedaled off. “That’s why the people stare at you. That’s why the children shout.”

but nonetheless, being treated in this way starts to get to him:

“I haven’t got any friends,” I snarled. “I’m a gaijin.”

Occasionally, the frustration boils over into what seems to be a somewhat exaggerated sense of injury. Some children are reported as saying, of the gaijin:

“Look at it!… What’s it eating? What’s it speaking?”

and later:

“See what it does when you say ‘hurro’ to it.”

although there is, to my knowledge, no way of unambiguously referring to something or someone as ‘it’ in Japanese; the only expressions I can think of that they may have used – which are admittedly not terribly polite – are:

あのもの ano mono, which could mean あの物 that thing or あの者 that person.

あの奴 (あのやつ) ano yatsu, which could mean ‘that guy’ or ‘that thing’

彼奴 (あいつ) aitsu, which means ‘he, she, that guy’ but is also used, at least in Kyushu dialect, to mean ‘that thing’, if I remember correctly.

However, it could be that I have missed an important expression here – please let me know in the comments if so!

Things have changed a great deal since the late 1970s, when Booth made his journey, and particularly in large towns and cities, people are used to seeing foreign faces and hearing non-Japanese people speak the language with varying degrees of fluency. Even by the time of Booth’s later book, Looking for the Lost (published after his death in 1993) he seems to have been accepted into ryokans without the long debates. The earlier, 1970s book gives many hints of a disappearing era; for example, older people cite distances in terms of ri – “the distance that a man with a burden would aim to cover in an hour on mountain roads” (aim to, presumably, because he may find his way impeded by bears, or be bewitched by foxes, or have some other unpleasant fate befall him). Some things remain the same, however: music and sirens blaring out at various times of day to indicate that children should go to school or go home, politicians’ vans blaring out messages “My name is Tanaka Kenji, vote for me”, tiny noodle shops run by elderly couples, a love of nature and of the restraining powers of concrete, good food, good beer and sometimes overwhelming friendliness and hospitality, adult manga in full public view (although I heard some time back that they were finally to be banished to top shelves) and the idea that Japan and the Japanese people are unique and uniquely difficult to understand. In Hokkaido, not long after the beginning of his trip Booth has a conversation with an old man and tells him that he, Booth, lives in Tokyo.

“Tokyo is not Japan,” he said. “You can’t understand Japan by living in Tokyo.”

Booth agrees and says that’s why he decided to look at the rest of Japan.

“You can’t understand Japan just by looking at it,” the old main said.

No, agrees Booth, he was also talking to the people he met. The old man tells him that you can’t understand Japan just by talking to people. How could he understand Japan, then, asks Booth.

“You can’t understand Japan,” he said.

booth_sata

The Roads to Sata gives an insight into a Japan that is far removed from the touristy stereotypes and is probably particularly fascinating for those who have never had a chance to visit. However, the premise of the journey – walking from one end of the country to the other – does not allow much detailed discussion of the individual places Booth travels through, and many themes come up repeatedly through the account – concrete, dead snakes, beer, pollution, to cite some examples. There are some parts of the journey that Booth himself appears to find rather tedious; certain parts of Japan are ‘away from the tourist trail’ for good reason. The Roads to Sata also, necessarily, reflects the Japan of its time, which has now partially passed away, and the state of mind of the author, who was still trying to “come to grips with the business of living [there]” and “didn’t know whether I was wasting my time”. In Looking for the Lost, we see a man who appears much more at ease with his life in Japan. Sadly, Alan Booth passed away from cancer when he was only in his 40s. An obituary can be found here and a short review of “The Roads to Sata” here.

Booth appears in this video, part of a BBC educational series.

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One thought on “The Roads to Sata

  1. Pingback: Looking for the Lost | Tsundoku bookcase

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