Obituary: Alan Booth

Derek A. C. Davies
Friday 05 February 1993 00:02

Alan Booth, journalist and writer, born London 5 December 1946, married Su-chzeng (one daughter), died Tokyo 24 January 1993.

ONE OF the favourite watering- holes of the writer Alan Booth was a very small, country-style bar in the suburbs of Tokyo named after the Japanese 'wandering poet' Ishikawa Takuboku, who died of tuberculosis in 1912 at the age of 26. Booth liked the place for several reasons: it was close to where he lived, he was on friendly terms with the masta of the shop and the beer was not served from small glasses, as usual in Japan, but from half-pint pewter tankards stamped 'Made in England'.

It was to Takuboku-tei that Alan Booth might turn after a hard day's writing - a bristling film review for the Asahi Evening News, or an account of his epic walk from the tip to toe of Japan, a journey which cost him several toenails, and which eventually became a classic travel book on Japan, The Roads to Sata (1986).

At that time, Booth was only in his mid-thirties, but he was almost an old Japan hand. He moved there in 1970, following a brief spell working in theatre in England. Before that he had studied theatre and English literature at Birmingham University and produced a prize-winning Hamlet.

In his early years in Japan, Booth studied Japanese theatre, particularly the classic Noh drama which was developed in the 15th century. While learning the art of Noh-style drumming, he was also gradually finding his true vocation as a writer. He wrote for local English-language publications, taught English at Waseda University and worked for the Japanese broadcasting company NHK, scripting English-language television documentaries. He also learnt how to speak fluent Japanese and sing old Japanese folk songs, a skill which gained him great respect from the Japanese.

After the success of The Roads to Sata, Booth made more epic walks in Japan, one of which retraced the last journey of Saigo Takamori, the Meiji leader who came to a tragic end making a last stand at Kagoshima in the southern island of Kyushu. Saigo characterised the spirit of the Kyushu man: bold, brave, decisive and honourable; qualities which also applied to Alan Booth. Both were physically powerful men with strong voices and both died in their forties.

Booth's last book, Tsugaru, inspired by a gloomy book written nearly 50 years ago by Dazai Osamu, deals with his travels in the far north of Honshu. Booth's manuscript was translated into Japanese, serialised in a leading weekly magazine and published as a book in 1992. The original English version is yet to be published. Other books of Booth's journeys have been published in both English and Japanese, as well as articles, many of which were commissioned by Winds, the inflight magazine of Japan Airlines.

Although Alan Booth was a city person - having been born and brought up in London and spending most of his working life in Tokyo - one of his main strengths as a writer was his ability to capture the anecdotes and atmosphere of present-day rural Japan, a world of farmers and fishermen, shopkeepers and school children, festivals and funerals. Booth's skill was to be able to walk into a small inn or restaurant in a remote corner of Japan where at first he would be greeted with considerable suspicion, but would end up entertaining the assembled company with folk-songs that even the Japanese did not know and listening to the life-story of the innkeeper's wife. This was a world far removed from the slick city life and corporate comforts of urban Japan. With sharp wit he criticised Japan's manic modernity and his sympathies always lay with people whose houses were pulled down to make way for new motorways.

Not surprisingly Booth felt comfortable in the rural atmosphere of Takuboku-tei. 'In England, pubs are called 'Robin Hood' or 'King George' or 'The Duke of Wellington' or 'The Green Man',' he once wrote. 'But they are rarely named after consumptive poets who specialise in describing the human condition in terms of unrelieved melancholy.'

Into the blue sky smoke fading . . .

sadly, emptily, smoke fading . . .

nothing but my life.

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