26 Nov 2023
30th January 2022
JET Spotlight : Lesley Downer
Please give us a brief introduction to who you are and what you do
I’m a writer, historian, speaker and occasional broadcaster, focussing on Japan, and also a freelance journalist with a much wider brief. I’ve written some 14 books on Japan and fronted two television programmes on Basho’s Narrow Road to the Deep North - Journey to a lost Japan for Channel 4 in 1991 and Journey of the Heart (心の旅) for NHK in 1997. I also presented a cooking series, A Taste of Japan, in 1991 on BBC2.
Among much else, I lectured on The World, a giant residential ship that circles the world, and was the Japan/geisha consultant for a ballet for Northern Ballet entitled Geisha. I also appeared on Netflix in the series Age of Samurai.
I’m the author of four novels, the Shogun Quartet, set mainly in the extraordinary and dramatic bakumatsu period. I’ve also taught Creative Writing at City University. So I do lots of different things!
For more see my website www.lesleydowner.com
Why did you decide you wanted to be on the JET Programme and Where did you go?
The JET programme was the idea of a man called Nicolas Wolfers and was initially called the Wolfers Scheme. It began in 1978 and I was on the very first year. I was drawn to Japan because I loved pottery and Japanese food and movies and all things Japanese and had been having Japanese lessons from a student of mine (I was teaching English as a Foreign Language at the time). Then a friend who worked at the Japanese Embassy drew my attention to an advert in the Guardian.
For the interview I borrowed my mother’s suit and went to the Embassy which was in Grosvenor Square. At the end of the interview I was asked, if I were offered a job would I rather go to Tokyo or the countryside. Thinking of green fields and sheep I said countryside. I ended up in Gifu City - and later on discovered that by ‘countryside’ my Japanese interviewer meant inaka, the provinces. There are no green fields or sheep, as you can imagine.
There were just 22 of us, dotted around Japan, 16 in schools and the other 6 in universities or industry.
So that was how it all began, not just my time in Japan but the JET Scheme itself.
What are some of your best JET memories?
My first two years in Japan were in Gifu City. People were unbelievably kind to me and I made many friends. I was taken everywhere and shown everything. I had a little 2DK apartment - two 6 mat rooms, a kitchen/diner and a little unit bath, plus a balcony on which I kept my one-person purple washing machine. I also had a bicycle and enjoyed cycling around the daikon fields. As a university teacher, at Gifu Women’s University (Gifu Joshi Dai), I had very long holidays which enabled me to travel. I hitchhiked all over Japan from Hokkaido to Okinawa. I also did tea ceremony (Urasenke), flower arrangement (Ohara ryu), sumie, calligraphy and aikido and made pots.
My best memories are probably of the Japanese women I made friends with - my ‘housewives’ class’. We spent a lot of time in each others’ kitchens, cooking, and also went by tram and train into the mountains to visit temples and eat marvellous vegetarian temple food.
What was your biggest challenge whilst on JET?
The first thing was to learn Japanese as quickly as possible. People’s English was very stilted, even the Professor of English at my university, and in order to have normal conversations, I needed to learn Japanese as fast as possible.
This was the very first year of the entire programme. It was 1978 and as far as I knew I was the only gaijin in Gifu City. Initially, I was eager to experience Japan one hundred percent but eventually, I began to think it would be nice to have a little western company if only to discuss my experiences with. I did eventually find two other westerners, a couple, an English husband and an American wife. They had small children and I seldom saw them but nevertheless, they became my anchor while I was in Gifu.
I also became tired of people’s preconceptions of what westerners were like and what they wanted. I was asked one too many times if I was sure I was vegetarian when everyone knows that westerners eat meat, lots of it. Fortunately, there was a lot of support from the other 21 Wolfers Scheme members, especially those who lived near Gifu, in Nagoya and Kyoto. We all went to visit each other at various times and there was a memorable party at the British Embassy in Tokyo. There was also a lot of support from the British Council.
How did your career progress after JET? How did you make the transition to other industries?
I’m afraid I didn’t think in career terms in those days. After JET I was eager to go to India and eventually found myself back in Japan, where I lived for another three years.
Back in England, I needed to find a way to make a living. I ended up working for TBS (Tokyo Broadcasting System) in London - not my entry into TV, as I had hoped, but as a dogsbody, coffee maker and human answering machine. In those days, anyway, being ‘local hire’ in a Japanese company meant being right at the bottom of the heap.
I also taught Japanese cooking. Being a keen cook I’d collected a lot of recipes while I was in Gifu. This led to my first book, Japanese Vegetarian Cooking - so it was a rather serendipitous process.
I was eager to find a way to get back to Japan. Even though I had travelled a lot while I was there, I hadn’t followed Basho’s Narrow Road to the Deep North which I’d always wanted to do. I decided to write a book on it and took time off from TBS to go to Tohoku. From there I moved into journalism; so I began with books and moved into journalism.
I also proposed a couple of ideas to a TV production company and ended up fronting a programme, based on my book On the Narrow Road to the Deep North, called Journey to a lost Japan for Channel 4 and a six-part cooking series, A Taste of Japan, for BBC2. So 1991 was a lucky year for me. My Japan connections led to my also making a programme for NHK, Journey of the Heart (心の旅).
Your work clearly shows a fascination with Japanese history. Are there any periods or aspects of Japanese history that you want to explore more in future work?
Knowing Japanese history, literature and art makes Japan all the more fascinating. In the course of writing my books I’ve read widely in Japanese history and have also tried to visit all the relevant places for each book. To research On the Narrow Road, I looked into the early Edo period. My research took me to Iga Ueno, Basho’s birthplace, and also in the footsteps of Yoshitsune and up to Hiraizumi, which in Yoshitsune’s day was a great kingdom. I also hugely enjoyed roaming around Yamagata and getting my head around Tohoku-ben.
The Brothers covered a hundred years of history from the 1880s to the 1980s. My book on Sadayakko led to my researching the Meiji period. My four novels are set at the time of the bakumatsu, starting with the arrival of Perry, and end up with the Satsuma Rebellion.
I’ve also read fairly widely about the Heian period and the Kamakura bakufu and read up on the fifteenth century for the Netflix production of Age of Samurai. Just about everything I do involves reading the history.
I’m about to set to work on The Shortest History of Japan so I shall be homing in on the areas of Japanese history that I know less about.
What advice do you have for others hoping to get a job that involves sharing Japanese culture?
If your aim is to tell the world more about Japanese culture, you will need to be in one of the communications industries. I started my career working for TBS in London. I imagine that there are openings for westerners in the foreign bureaux of all the Japanese TV channels. There are also many Japan-related organisations - the Japan Foundation, Daiwa Foundation, Japan Society, Sasakawa Foundation, etc.
Or you could be a journalist. Journalism is one of the most fun things I’ve ever done and I highly recommend it.
On a different note, I sometimes think it would have been fun to have joined the British Council. Though I’ve certainly enjoyed my life as a freelancer.
What is the key to maintaining such a career?
Hard work and luck. Persistence - being prepared to take the rough with the smooth, to accept rejection and just keep trying.
Do you have any tips for networking (something that is very challenging in the pandemic)?
The Japan-related organisations I’ve listed above all provide ample opportunities for networking.
In what ways, outside of work, can JET Alumni stay in touch with Japanese culture after returning to the UK?
Join Japanese-related organisations, make Japanese friends, keep up with fellow Japanophiles, read Japanese books and books on Japan, see Japanese movies. For me researching my books means that I can be mentally in Japan - 19th century Japan, in the case of my novels - while being physically in England!