Voices from the Field

Commentary & Opinions

2019.13: Wayne E. Arnold, "Japan Field Research on Henry Miller"

Tsutomu Koga (古賀孜) is quick and sprightly. At ninety years of age, he propels his four-wheeled walker-chair through the streets of Tokyo. Mr. Koga’s energy is contagious—and humorous—and his eyes sparkle when he talks about his friendship with Henry Miller (1891-1980). For nearly a ten-year period, Koga and Miller exchanged several letters concerning the American author’s fame in Japan. As in the United States, Miller was a recognizable figure in Japan during the 1960s and 1970s. With the publicity of Tropic of Cancer (1934, first published in Japan in 1953), his admired water colors, and his 1967 marriage to Hoki Tokuda, a young jazz singer and aspiring actress, Miller was often front-page news in Japan. His writings and artwork struck a chord with a vulnerable group of young, post-war Japanese readers. More than a few of these readers would write Miller fan letters, and a select number would become correspondents with the famed author. In order to better understand Miller’s impact in Japan, I have endeavored to locate as many of his Japanese correspondents as possible. Koga’s connection with Miller is peripheral and he is not mentioned in any of Miller’s publications; nevertheless, Koga aided in bringing Miller closer to Japan. To learn more about Koga and Miller, however, required moving beyond the limits of the archival library and entering the field of Japan.

In 2015, while searching the Henry Miller archival documents at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA), I came across Koga’s letters. A few years later, while tracing the whereabouts of Japanese individuals connected with Miller’s life in California, Professor Yasunori Honda[1] proffered Koga’s address in Tokyo. My objective in reaching out to Koga was to support the hypothesis that Miller’s interaction with Japanese individuals was wide-ranging; meeting Koga would help provide fresh material in my effort to understand the influence of Japan on Miller. An exchange of letters ensued, and I travelled to Tokyo to interview Koga to determine the extensiveness of his interaction with Miller.

My initial meeting with Mr. Koga exceeded expectation. I hurriedly followed him into a restaurant and once seated, he took from his backpack a carefully wrapped bundle of letters—permitting me to document the material he had received from Miller. In total, Miller sent Koga more than twenty postcards, letters, and packages of books, spanning the years between 1966 and 1974. While theirs was not an intimate correspondence, the letters illustrate Miller’s interest in Japan and Koga was especially helpful in sending Miller material relating to his public image.

Surprisingly, Koga’s first letter to Miller is not located in the UCLA archives. In a strange twist of fate, the letter, I discovered, rests inside Miller’s own trans-Atlantic travel chest, now sitting in the Tokyo apartment of Hoki Tokuda. This circumstance demonstrates the interconnected nature of conducting field research in Japan: the relatively small size of the country means that many Japanese associated with Miller are only a few degrees of separation from each other, even if they never met or knew of one another. When Miller received letters in Japanese, he was in the habit of asking his wife Hoki or her friends to translate. Koga’s first letter, dated June 25, 1966, was in French and English; however, on the backside of the envelope Koga had written his address in both English and Japanese. Miller drew arrows to the Japanese kanji and wrote, “Hoki—what does this say?” Hoki must have chuckled at Miller’s failure to recognize an address, but regardless, the letter never made it into Miller’s files.

Koga’s initial letter to Miller highlights an important historical event in Miller’s relationship with Japan. In 1955, Miller’s first water color exhibit in Japan proved successful, with roughly seventy-five exhibited at the Bridgestone Museum of Art in Tokyo, an event Koga attended. Unfortunately, Miller was neither paid for the sales nor returned his unsold artwork from this exhibit—a circumstance he often brought up when discussing business dealings with Japanese. Koga likely read about this incident in an interview published in Japan and wrote Miller, regretting the theft by his fellow countryman: “It’s terrible and shameful. You must take ‘em back again [in] any way. I saw one of your water colors titled ‘The Dream Island’ someplace in Tokyo the other day. It was, maybe, stolen from your collection at that time.”

Miller replied by postcard on July 12, “Dear friend—Thank you for your kind letter. Don’t worry about my lost water colors! I always can make new ones. Good health and good luck to you! Arigato!” While a lackluster beginning to their correspondence, Koga never forgot about the missing water colors, and in 1999 he published in DELTA: Studies on Henry Miller, Anaïs Nin and Lawrence Durrell, a humorously titled article, “So who would want to tell me something about H. Miller’s lost watercolors?” Locating his initial letter to Miller provides a better understanding of Koga’s 1999 article and helps situate him in the greater realm of Japanese studies on Miller. 

Field research in Japan can be slow and intricate. There is no archival library system to encourage the donation of letters, even from famous foreign authors. The time-consuming task of locating correspondents cannot be underestimated—especially since, in this case, the letters to Miller were written forty or fifty years ago and many of the authors have little to no Internet presence. Additional names and addresses have often come to me through word of mouth, so to speak, and the list of names has evolved into a complex web of interconnections. Online graph database programs, such as Neo4j, have helped create a visualization of Miller’s relationships. Furthermore, the meticulous attention I have seen by Japanese who corresponded with Miller and preserved their letters leads me to believe that the existence of more letters in Japan—possibly located in closets or under beds—is inevitable. Of no little significance is the longevity of the average Japanese, which, even with the passage of time, has allowed me to conduct several important interviews. Patience is often the key, as older Japanese seem reluctant to open up to foreigners without a proper introduction. I must remember that they are the keyholders to the gates of a quickly-fading living connection between Miller and Japan.

A second meeting with Koga occurred while I was searching for letters from Miller to his Japanese translator, Shigeo Tobita (飛田茂雄, 1927-2002), when Koga informed me that he had a personal letter from Tobita he wanted to share. I learned during this visit that Koga is a card-carrying Hibakusha (被爆者), the Japanese name for survivors of the two atomic bombs. Both he and Tobita had miraculously survived the Nagasaki and Hiroshima bombings, and this, along with their admiration of Henry Miller had formed a long-term friendship. While seated in a busy Tully’s Coffee, Koga handed me a six-page handwritten letter; however, I was unable to read the Japanese penmanship, so Koga took it back and began reading aloud. The letter was written from a hospital, where Tobita was dying from cancer. Koga was remarkably calm, reading to me what was certainly a sayonara letter from his friend. Tobita concluded the letter by telling Koga he believed that discovering Henry Miller and then translating his works was the most important point of his professional career. The friendship between Koga and Tobita, formed through their admiration for Miller and his work, as well as their personal correspondences with him, would likely have remained unknown had my research consisted of only the Miller archives. Their mutual admiration further reveals the human element of interconnectedness surrounding Miller and Japan, and while time permits, behooves the effort to go beyond archival research and step into the field for fresh material.


The University of Kitakyushu, Japan

Email: waynearnold55@gmail.com


[1] Professor Honda is the preeminent scholar of Miller studies in Japan and is currently the president of the Henry Miller Society of Japan.