Bondo-San in Japan: Interview with Graham M. Thomas

We are thrilled to welcome Graham M. Thomas in from the cold, who is the author of Fleming, Bond, and Connery in Japan: The Japanese Story of You Only Live Twice. Graham’s first hand knowledge of Japan coupled with his love of Bond has produced a fascinating account of the legacy of Bond in Japan.

What inspired you to write this book?

FlemingInJapanI got fed-up seeing misinformation on the web! I’m going back some fifteen years ago when I was writing about one of the events in my life that had triggered an interest in Japan – namely seeing the film of You Only Live Twice and then reading the novel when I was in my early teens.

So as I was writing I did some simple research and immediately came across information that was clearly wrong – for example that Matsu was the Ama island in the film. (In fact you can still find this on the online.) So this I wanted to correct and a couple of years later I published a single web-page (now long gone) that began to get the facts straight but only focused on the film locations.

Fast forward a decade, I was writing a book about Tokyo and wanted to include a page or two about Ian Fleming having visited in the late 1950s. I had to do more research and realised that instead of just a few pages, a whole book could be written about Fleming, Bond, Connery in Japan, and that at least for me it made a fascinating story about a film and novel I really like.

What research materials did you call on including your own?

The first thing to know is that I live for part of the year in Japan and have done so since the mid 1990s, and as I started to put a structure together for the book I realised that I had or could visit most of the places that Fleming had written about or had been used as film locations. And I understand the cultural references so there was this intimate knowledge and I thought that was useful if not critically important.

foreigndevilI still had my copy of YOLT (of course) and I bought Thrilling Cities, Hughes’ Foreign Devil, Alan Whicker’s book, and many more including copies of the books that Fleming had used for this own research.

As I started my research this opened up more and more avenues to explore and being able to access material on-line is undoubtedly a huge benefit for writers. But going back to the opening question, I always try to access the primary source and that is increasingly possible on the web nowadays, for example, newspaper archives like The Times, or the original Alan Whicker film about the making of You Only Live Twice is on YouTube.

And of course there are a lot of sites devoted to Bond which I read to see if there was anything I had missed.

But knowing the place and culture is hugely important because you’ll able to spot details or know what Fleming is referring to even if he is imprecise in his description. You also know when, for whatever reason, he gets something completely wrong. All the detail about the location of Shatterhand’s castle and the ama island in the book really don’t match up at all to anything in and around Fukuoka even though he went there. (And I visited last year.) So it begs the question why did he bother to go in the first place if he wasn’t going to use local colour. Another example: in the Whicker movie, although he doesn’t say so, I knew immediately that when he shows Connery being chased by photographers as he visits a shrine it is in fact next door to the hotel where he was staying.

Fortunately I had already started writing the book when I was in Tokyo last year and realised that the Hotel Okura where Bond and Fleming had stayed was being demolished. I had stayed in the hotel a couple of times over the years but had never taken any proper photos so I was able to go there on the very last day before it closed and take photos that I included in the book.

You kindly asked if there is a print version and I said no. One of the great benefits of digital books is that you can easily update them. Almost inevitably something important will emerge that I will want to include. Or maybe a new Bond film will be shot in Japan in the future. And perhaps I’ll add a chapter devoted to The Man with the Red Tattoo.

Could you tell us how Richard ‘Dikko’ Hughes is integral to Fleming’s experiences in Japan?

Fleming with Richard Hughes

Fleming with Richard Hughes

Hughes was a reporter and an Old Asian Hand. He’d lived in Tokyo for a number of years, knew his way around and had been a long-time friend of Fleming. In the novel Hughes who has become Henderson comes across as neither liking Japan nor the Japanese and makes some pretty racist comments.

Hughes’ own opinions were completely the opposite. At one stage, he had a Japanese wife but she died and in his book Foreign Devil he writes that he spent, ‘thirteen long and happy years of residence in Japan’ so the fictional Hughes really doesn’t match the real Hughes.

What we do know is that Fleming before his first visit was wary of the Japanese because of their behaviour in the 2 World War. He disliked them but then in Britain at the time this was very much the norm. My belief is that he never lost this dislike and the words that he gets Henderson to say are more likely to be his own thoughts, and perhaps he wanted to ensure that his readership who might well have still been anti-Japan then were not alienated.

So I am unsure whether Hughes swayed or informed Fleming other than being a wonderful travel companion.

I think Tiger Saito a local journalist and another friend of Fleming who was on the trip was far more important in helping Fleming understand the Japanese.

How significant was You Only Live Twice the book and respective film received at the time and does it still have relevance in modern day Japan?

YOLTI’ve been told that the books themselves did not have a major impact. They were published in paperback and some were serialised in manga form and enjoyed limited success. However it was the films that had the major impact. By the time Connery came to Japan, Bondo-mania was in full flight albeit part of a huge influx of Western popular culture as Japan’s economy boomed and the young enjoyed greater wealth. So you had the Beatles, pop music generally, other spy films (which were very popular), imported TV series, fashion and so on. YOLT was the Number 1 foreign film at the box office when it was released and there was a lot of merchandise created around the movie just as there was in the West. So I think Bond helped create this impression of fashionable Britain when beforehand the country had been a bit invisible.

Bond nowadays doesn’t have the same impact in Japan. Spectre for example made $24m at the box office in Japan but over $130m in the UK. It was only the 18 biggest film in 2015 in Japan so if YOLT was remade and released in Japan today I’m sure it would do better than Spectre but only if the Eon decided to get right behind it and emphasise the Japanese aspect.

Do you think a remake has value?

The last two Bond films have made much about trying to get into Bond’s psyche and the darkness in his life. YOLT has this in spades – and in fact a film version could tease this out probably better than the way that Fleming wrote it and better than it was tackled in Skyfall and Spectre. But you’d need to make it as a film outside of the current franchise. Perhaps Bond had second thoughts and decided not to leave Japan as he does at the end of the novel but instead returned to the island and is now living in the village as an old man, enjoying his fishing, drinking Japanese whiskey, and reflecting on how he got there.

YOLT touches on the theme of suicide, manifested in Blofeld’s ‘Garden of Death’. How was this interpreted in Japan and is this still a relevant topic today?

Suicide is not a taboo subject in Japan and indeed is still associated with honour or as a way of atoning for wrong doing. Japan of course still has one of the highest suicide rates in the world, although a rate that the government would wish to bring down. The real issue in the book is not suicide per se but the fact that it is a foreigner, an outside, who is facilitating it. That is the embarrassment.

You Only Live Twice Painting

“Dr. Shatterhand’s Banquet of Death” by Gerald Wadsworth

Another theme is the apparent decline of the British Empire, humorously discussed by Bond and Tiger Tanaka in the book. How well did Fleming captured the relationship between Britain and Japan through these characters?

It’s worth stepping back in time here. Britain was hugely important to the modernisation of Japan in the second half of the 19 century. Britain sent out experts who helped the Japanese put in place much of their basic infrastructure, from railways to lighthouse. Britain surveyed and charted the waters around Japan so that vessels could safely sail back and forth. The British were instrumental in starting some of Japan’s great trading and manufacturing companies. Britain and Japan were allies in the 1st World War and her Navy for example, protected our ships in the Indian Ocean.

Seto Inland Sea, Japan

Seto Inland Sea, Japan

After the 1st World War this relationship started to fracture after 1922 when the Anglo-Japanese Alliance was annulled. As Japan invaded Manchuria and Japan’s militarisation increased across the 1930s this estrangement worsened. Then after the 2nd World War, it was the Americans who became Japan’s partner and the major influence. We lost almost all our political clout because we were no longer a super-power but also we were neither much of a cultural influence. (In the late 50s and early 60s French ballad singers were the most popular western import.) Everything had been usurped by the Americans so the relationship between Bond and Tanaka could have been a real conversation between Fleming and Saito. However, if Fleming had revisited Japan a few years later in the mid-60s he would have then seen how British culture was making major in-roads.

Fleming famously wrote a chapter on Tokyo for his travelogue Thrilling Cities, in the company of the aforementioned Richard Hughes. How does Fleming’s Tokyo compare with today?

Ian Fleming’s Thrilling Cities 1964.I’ve written quite a lot about Tokyo in the 1950s when Fleming made his first visit and frankly Tokyo then and Tokyo today are both completely different and the same. That is one of the fascinations of Japan, the juxtaposition of the old and the new that isn’t found anywhere else. Tokyo is indeed both the future and the past co-existing, whereas London for example, just seems to be the now.

In truth I find Fleming’s chapter on Tokyo to be a little tame. Rather than making Tokyo a thrilling city, which it undoubtedly was, he makes it rather flat and boring. Strange because his chapter on Hong Kong and Macau are far more exotic and erotic.

The plot of the novel YOLT is one of Fleming’s most fantastical but how accurate a picture did Fleming portray of Japan?

In fact I think the central premise of the book that Bond has to become Japanese is a MacGuffin, which I’ll come back to. Bond’s initial mission is clearly a low grade assignment because after the assassination of his wife he has fallen into an alcohol-fuelled depression. So you can see a reality here and not just a forced plot device: his bosses deciding to send him on some useless mission knowing that the Japanese have no reason to value our relationship full stop. Out of sight, out of mind and in a country where Bond can do no harm if he messes up.

It is clear that Fleming already knew the basic plot prior to going to Japan.The story is a continuation of OHMSS so you’d expect that even when writing that book he knew that in the next it would start with Bond in this state. Then he needs to find a way of showing Bond’s redemption.

Blofeld - You Only Live Twice

Dr. Shatterhand | Illustration by George Almond courtesy of

But the whole Japanese thing is a nonsense. The trip Bond takes to get from Tokyo to Shatterhand’s castle is the most ludicrous roundabout journey as is the premise that he needed to be disguised as Japanese so he wouldn’t stand out. Japan was already full of mainly American tourists in the early 1960s. American cruise ships sailed through the Inland Sea. Japan was actively promoting the country as a tourist destination. Bond could have flown to Fukuoka as a tourist, stayed in a hotel and then walk to the castle, and scaled the walls just like all the suicide victims.

Of course, the funny thing is that the disguise failed as soon as he was captured.

Bond and Blofeld | Illustration by George Almond courtesy of

Bond and Blofeld | Illustration by George Almond courtesy of

Is it possible to retrace Bond’s route today?

Almost all the places that Bond visited are still there today, although a few things have changed such as the original Hotel Okura is now demolished and guests stay in a newer wing. Also passenger boats no longer ply between Kobe and Beppu but there is an expressway that hugs the coastline with a short ferry ride at the end to cross from the island of Shikoku to Beppu. I’ve never done the route in one journey but it was Hughes who said that he would recommend it as an itinerary for any enterprising holiday visitors.


Incidental Intelligence

GrahamThomasGraham’s book Fleming, Bond and Connery in Japan is available as a free download on iBooks or can be also downloaded via Google Play.

His books on Japan are also available from both iBooks and Google Play.

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