John Dougill grew up in Grimsby, England. Since 1988 he has lived in Kyoto, Japan, where he is professor of British Studies at Ryukoku University. He has written numerous books about Japan (on travel, religion, and history) and England. His 2012 In Search of Japan’s Hidden Christians: A Story of Suppression, Secrecy and Survival is the best non-fiction work I’ve read in the past three years.
What was the inspiration for In Search of Japan’s Hidden Christians?
In a nutshell, culture shock. For most of my life in Japan, I’ve been fascinated by the cultural differences from Britain and trying to make sense of things in Japan. This led me to wonder how the first Europeans in the first sixteenth century managed, when there was no support material in terms of dictionaries or explanations. Contrary to what one might expect, some of the missionaries had surprisingly enlightened views. They were even able to recognise that the ‘primitive’ Japanese were superior in many ways to the Europeans – except of course for the vital matter of Christianity. My musings on the topic led to think about the religious differences between a monotheistic and polytheistic culture, and what this entails. Christianity has one truth; Japan sees many truths. i thought this would hold the key to understanding the culture shock I’d experienced myself.
I love the interweaving of travel and history in the book. It feels like we’re with you on the search. How did you settle on the structure and tone?
Thank you for that. It took me a while to settle on the structure. I’m naturally inclined to taking a historical view of things, and for a while it seemed I was simply writing a history. I’m not a specialist in Japanese history so that seemed fraudulent. Besides, I wanted to pursue something personal. After playing around with a few ideas, I came to see that the historical events fitted into geographical units. That gave me the idea to travel around all the relevant areas. I have long been a devotee of the spirit of place, and the effect of past on present is an abiding interest of mine. Moreover, I’m a Sagittarian and inveterate traveller. So everything fell into place.
In Search of Japan’s Hidden Christians is beautifully written, with none of the dryness or jargon you’d normally expect from a professor. Was it hard switching from your academic writing to something more popular?
Not really, because once I’d found the structure, the tone seemed to come naturally. I’ve always had a journalistic streak, and even while working as an academic I’ve written for magazines such as the former Kansai Time Out. My inclination is to write for the wider public rather than for the specialist, so it was natural to address readers who would be unfamiliar with the culture and places of which I was writing. A good writer should be flexible enough to be able to adapt their language.
Did not being a Catholic present any difficulties in how you approached the book?
Yes. I had to tread a thin line between sympathy and antagonism. I didn’t want to write a pro-Church, anti-Japanese book. Nor did I want to write an anti-Catholic book, which would have been easy. There were times when I found the thinking hard to understand, but much of that had to do with the nature of the times. How could priests have cajoled people into martyrdom, for instance? Even young mothers and children. How could they delight in pain and torture? On the other hand, I was also aware that not being Catholic gave me a certain advantage in being able to see the Church’s behaviour dispassionately rather than as an apologist. The hardest point was not to condemn people from the viewpoint of the twenty-first century. It’s too glib and too facile. So I wanted to be fair to the motives of the missionaries, while at the same point understanding those who opposed them. It meant walking a narrow line, and I may have strayed off course once or twice. But I’ve had very positive feedback even from practising Christians, so I may have got the tone right overall.
Retracing the story of the Hidden Christians took you all over Kyushu and to some of its offshore islands. What were the travel highlights of these research trips?
Like a lot of people I’m greatly drawn to islands, and Japan has hundreds of really fascinating small islands. My research took me to some out of the places off Kyushu to which the missionaries had been driven. The Amakusa and Goto islands were delightful. Ikitsuki was also enchanting. To access those places you need to go through Nagasaki, which I think is the most attractive town in Japan, full of fascinating history. It’s like a mini Hong Kong. Apart from those, I would say the town of Hirado was a highlight because of its charm as a little sea port and its historical role in hosting the first Dutch and English trading stations in the early seventeenth century. The first Englishman in Japan, Will Adams, often visited and died there – he was the model for the famous Shogun series starring Richard Chamberlain in 1980.
I couldn’t agree more about Nagasaki. It’s an absolute gem. What kind of response have you had to In Search of Japan’s Hidden Christians?
Very positive, I’m glad to say. I’ve been asked to talk about it at a couple of universities, and I’ve had good feedback from specialists in the area, which is a great bonus. The highpoint was hearing through a friend of a friend that Martin Scorsese had it on his bedside table. And I was delighted to learn that Pico Iyer, whom I admire, was also a great fan of the book. Hopefully the response will be even better once Scorsese’s film comes out!
You’ve spent most of your adult life in Japan. Do you feel like a fish out of water on trips back to England?
Yes indeed. Reverse culture shock is very cruel, because you feel alienated from your own culture. Dealing with the rudeness, dirt and aggression in the UK is not something you have to deal with in Japan. Those of us who live here are spoiled. But more than that I’d say we’re blessed because of the outstanding ease and pleasantness of everyday interactions.
If you could live anywhere in Japan, would you choose Kyoto?
Of course! Where else would one wish to live except in the heart of the culture? For those of us who live here it’s difficult to understand why anyone would want to live in Tokyo, for instance. As the ancient capital, Kyoto is steeped in history and tradition. All the things that make Japan special. But as the new capital, Tokyo looks eastwards towards the USA, and why would one want to live in an inferior version of America? The cities are very different in character. The other day we had Robert Whiting, author of some bestselling books about baseball and gangsters, come to talk to our writers group in Kyoto, and he claimed that Tokyo was the best city in the world. We were bemused. Here we are surrounded by green hills, we have rivers flowing through the city with wildlife like herons, we enjoy geisha and the best of Japanese food, and best of all we can cycle around the city. It’s a city you can relate to without being swamped by. Unfortunately since last year it’s been ‘discovered’ and major hotel chains have started moving in as well as mass tourism from China. The city is changing before our very eyes, but hopefully it will retain its charm.
You’ve written numerous books on both England and Japan. Where do you find the time and energy?
I’m lucky that my job as a professor (Ryukoku University) allows me a lot of time. My great thanks to them (I’ve had two sabbaticals, which helps a lot in terms of book writing). I’m also inclined to agree with Graham Greene that writing is a neurotic activity that helps one overcome existential angst. He wondered how others could possibly survive without the prop of constant writing, and I often think that too. Having said that, I don’t find my output to be very impressive, as it takes me a long time to complete books. I’m not a fast writer, and I need at least seven drafts and plenty of polishing before I can bear to send something to a publisher. For the amount of time I put in, I think a fluent writer would have produced a lot more.
Your most recent book is Shinto Shrines: A Guide to the Sacred Sites of Japan’s Ancient Religion, which you co-authored with Joseph Cali. You also have a website (greenshinto.com) which is dedicated to promoting “an open, international and environmental Shinto.” What attracted you to Shintoism?
My most recent book is actually Japan’s World Heritage Sites. It’s a large beautifully illustrated coffee-table book, the kind of thing I dreamed of producing when I was a teenager. So it literally was a dream come true for me to see it in print. It involved travelling the whole length of Japan to visit every one of the 16 Sites, which included some wonderful off-the-beaten-track places. The Shiretoko Peninsula in Hokkaido, where I encountered a bear at pretty close quarters. The Shirakami mountains where I got stranded overnight after a car accident. The Yakushima Island with its spectacular ancient cedars, up to five thousand years old. And best of all, the Pacific blues of the Ogasawara Islands, first settled by a handful of Western men with Polynesian ‘wives’ in the early nineteenth century. Though I’m not a photographer I took a camera with me and I’m glad to say that about half of the 200 or so photos that ended up in the book were by myself (albeit usually the small and less spectacular ones!).
As for Shinto, I’ve been engaged in exploring that for nearly twenty years now. I’m quite convinced it’s the heart of the culture, and since it concerns history, spirituality and cultural understanding, it’s become a passion of mine. The book was mainly the work of my co-author Joseph Cali and it’s an excellent reference book. The only one of its kind. But for the past seven years I’ve been running a Shinto blog, which I think is unique, and I like to think it’s pioneered popular understanding of an ancient religion that was little understood. Now it’s beginning to spread abroad, there are six non-Japanese priests for the first time in history, and there are people practising their own mix of neo-paganism and neo-Shintoism.
What are some Japan books that you’d like to see published?
The book I’d like to see published is Great Rail Trips Around Japan. The reason is because I’ve prepared a proposal with this title, which I’ve sent out to four or five publishers but been turned down. So I’d very much like to see it published! Japan has to be one of the best countries in the world to travel around by train. It’s an absolute delight, which is something you would never say about the railways in my home country of Britain. I’ve travelled personally up and down the country at least twice, and it’s a constant joy to discover the little-known regional castle towns , which in former times would have been the seat of a feudal lord. These castle towns, of which there are more than a hundred, promoted regional culture, such as local food and festivals. I would like to explore some of that in my book, and I’m sure it would have great appeal to a wider readership. Especially with the Olympics coming up in 2020. If any publishers are reading this, please feel free to contact me!
What are you working on at the moment?
A book about Zen and Kyoto. This has been a great project, because Kyoto is the heart of Rinzai Zen and its temples are a cultural storehouse which not everyone is aware of. I’m working with photographer John Einarsen, editor of the award-winning Kyoto Journal, and he has a great gift for capturing spirituality and the essence of things. I believe his photos will bring the subject to life, and that anyone with an interest in Zen or Kyoto will find the book attractive and possibly ‘enlightening’. It will be published by Tuttle in the autumn of 2017.
Before the Zen book comes out, I’ll be very much looking forward to the Scorsese film version of Silence, so it’s going to be an exciting year. It’s a funny thing, because though I’m not religious myself, so far in my writing I’ve covered Hidden Christians, Shinto and Zen in my exploration of Japanese culture. I seem to be drawn inevitably to the religious aspects, though it’s not intentional. It’s the culture I find endlessly fascinating, and the religious viewpoint offers insights that might not otherwise be evident. It’ll be fascinating to see how Scorsese handles that side of things.
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John Dougill’s website on Shinto is called Green Shinto.