venerdì 20 marzo 2009


I was born in London. My mother was Chinese-Canadian, my father Canadian and a professor of Chinese at the University of London. So I grew up surrounded by books on Asia and my parents’ friends - Chinese, Indian and other nationalities. I studied at Oxford University, then did an MA in South Asian Studies at London University.

Fascinated by Asia, I went to Japan in 1978 and lived and worked there for five years, learning Japanese and becoming deeply absorbed in the traditional culture. My first two years were in Gifu, near Kyoto, a small traditional city where life went on much as it had for centuries and geisha were still part of the landscape, where I taught English at a local university. I had been there for three months when I was introduced to the only two other non-Japanese in the entire city. I had to learn to speak Japanese instantaneously; it was sink or swim, there were no English speakers and no teachers because there were no other westerners. So I taught myself using tapes and books and asking people. As a single woman, I found doors open to the world of Japanese women and into Japanese homes, supposedly eternally closed to outsiders. I absorbed myself in the women’s world of small town Japan, studying the womanly arts - tea ceremony, flower arrangement, calligraphy and brush painting, plus aikido, a martial art - and learnt how to carry myself demurely and speak in the proper womanly tones.
I also went regularly to Kyoto. Later I lived in Kamakura, the ‘Oxford of Japan’, an ancient city of temples an hour outside Tokyo, and did Zen there.

Back in England I became aware that western notions of Japan had almost no connection with the Japan that I knew and decided that I wanted to write about Japan. I also wanted to find a way to get back there …
My first book, On the Narrow Road to the Deep North, was the story of my journey in the footsteps of the seventeenth century haiku poet, Basho, through the remote north of the country. I was thrilled to meet peasants and farmers and stay with them and discover the real life behind the picture postcard prettiness of the countryside. The book was shortlisted for the Somerset Maugham Travel Book of the Year award in 1988. It was filmed by WNET and Channel 4 in 1991 under the title Journey to a Lost Japan.
Later, living in high tech Tokyo in the buzzing eighties, I wrote The Brothers, about the most powerful and wealthy family in the country. It is a story of Japan over the last hundred years, told through the loves and enmities of several generations of this dynasty, and was chosen as a New York Times ‘Book of the Year’ in 1995.
I then presented and wrote A Taste of Japan, a six part series on Japanese cooking, shown on BBC2 in 1991, and presented a documentary made by NHK (the Japanese equivalent of the BBC) on my journey in the footsteps of Basho.
To research Geisha: The Secret History of a Vanishing World, I spent six months living among the geisha, shared their lives and found myself slowly but surely being transformed into one of them. The book is the definitive work on geisha, told through stories of historical geisha and the many geisha that I befriended.
I then became intrigued by the story of Sadayakko, the geisha who was the model for Puccini’s Madame Butterfly. I followed her footsteps around Japan, met her granddaughter and great grandson and also visited the theatres where she performed in England, America and Germany. My book, Madame Sadayakko: The Geisha who Seduced the West, is the first English-language biography of this brilliant and dynamic woman, who broke through many of the barriers surrounding Japanese women of her time. Sadayakko’s great great grandson travelled abroad for the first time with his new wife in order to attend my book launch in London! It came out in Japanese translation in December 2007.

Just before Madame Sadayakko came out I met a physicist and writer called Arthur I Miller. I had finally found Mr Right, after so many years I’d almost given up looking. He was well worth waiting for. I have now settled down very happily to married life, stopped spending more than a few weeks at a time in Japan and started attending Einstein conferences and meeting scientists. My marriage also gave me time to focus on my first novel - The Last Concubine. Arthur has now perforce become something of a Japan specialist too. We’ve been to Japan together a couple of times. He is an expert on military history and has made sure that the guns and cannons in my tale of Japan’s civil war are historically accurate. At this point he knows a great deal about Edo period Japan and can even recognise the crest of the Tokugawa shoguns - an ability few can claim!

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