Someone once described Tokyo as “a post-modern, science-fiction story set ten minutes into the future”.
Having just returned from this extraordinary city, I can tell you that it sums the place up perfectly.
I spent a week in the Japanese capital and was blown away by its colourful culture, its high-speed technology and its sheer energy. It was, as that quote suggested, like stepping on to the set of a Blade Runner movie. Yet ironically, my stay in this most futuristic of environments was made most memorable by an encounter with the past. My own past, to be precise.
Was Bob really a rival to Hello Kitty? How could Japanese people relate to our very British story?
I had been invited to Japan with my cat Bob, to coincide with the late August release of the movie based on the story of how we met and changed each other’s lives, A Street Cat Named Bob. The Japanese film company Comstock had lined up almost a week of interviews, TV appearances and book signings, all built around an exclusive premiere of the movie.
To be honest, I’d had little idea what to expect. My books are published in Japan and we have several thousand Japanese followers on social media.
A couple of devoted fans – Tomoko and Yayohi – have even visited book signings in London. But as Bob and I boarded a flight from London, I set off feeling a mixture of excitement and intrigue. I was fascinated to find out whether our story really has touched a nerve in the land of the rising sun. Was Bob really a rival to Hello Kitty? And if so, why? How could Japanese people relate to our very British story?
I got the first answers to these questions the minute I walked through customs and out into the concourse at Narita airport [above]. A group of fans – Tomoko, among them – had gathered and were waiting for us. It wasn’t quite The Beatles arriving at Heathrow on their return from America in the 1960s, but it was still a shock to see so many smiling faces, waving British flags and photos of Bob and me. It seems we have a Japanese fan club.
Arriving in mid-town Tokyo, his popularity slowly began to make more sense.
We British like to think of ourselves as a nation of animal lovers. And cat lovers in particular. The Japanese are in a different league. Cats are everywhere. Brands like Hello Kitty are global phenomena, of course. But there are so many other feline icons, both ancient and modern. Japan’s cartoon and manga culture has its own legion of cat heroes.
There’s Nyan cat, for instance, and Chi, the cat mascot for TV Tokyo, to whom Bob and I were introduced during one of our visits to a TV company. But there’s more to their love of cats than mere entertainment. They see them in a spiritual light too. The famous Maneki-Neko lucky charm cats are everywhere, beckoning you into bars and restaurants and the popular pachinko parlours.
The city is also the global home of the cat cafe, oases of calm where stressed out city-dwellers come to chill out and relax in feline company. I visited one and found it fascinating. So I could see that Bob fitted in well to their broad and diverse ‘cat culture’.
The British are a nation of cat lovers. But the Japanese are in a different league
But it still didn’t explain why the story of how Bob had helped me recover from drug addiction and homelessness seemingly resonated so much. That surely didn’t chime with Japan’s modern, super-successful and disciplined culture, did it?
The answer to that became a little clearer when we attended the premiere. I’d been a little apprehensive flying over. Would the film translate to a Japanese audience? Thankfully my anxieties disappeared in moments. People laughed and sniffed emotionally at the same moments. They cheered Bob when he reappeared after going missing towards the end. They sang along to the music at the final credits.
James Bowen receives flowers before the screening of Japanese TV show, Unbelievable
It also seemed to connect with a cross-generational audience too. Before the screening we were presented with flowers by a lovely little girl (above), the daughter of a well-known anime director. She seemed as overwhelmed as any of the little girls Bob has met in London or Manchester, or on our other foreign ventures to Berlin, Amsterdam and Oslo.
Speaking to people afterwards, they said they had connected with the film’s humanity. One said that she had been most touched by the message of hope that it embodied.
It was a couple of days later that I began to understand the significance of that. At first glance, you wouldn’t imagine Tokyo as a city with social problems. It seems too ordered, too clean, too focused on the here and now. But in fact, for all its gleaming modernity, it is a place that’s badly in need of hope, especially at the bottom end of the social ladder.
I’d known there was an edition of The Big Issue there. We’d arrived to find Bob’s face staring out from the cover of the latest edition, a slightly surreal experience, I must say. With most of our promotion work out of the way, I’d asked if it was possible for Bob and me to meet a group of the magazine’s street vendors. On our final working day, I sat down with a few of them.
Street Cat Bob gives Big Issue vendor Shinzo a high five
I’ve often wondered about the circumstances that drive people on to the streets in different parts of the world. I’ve – perhaps naively – assumed that the factors are the same everywhere. Drugs. Alcoholism. Mental illness. Family break-ups. In Tokyo, there were subtle but significant differences.
The magazine was founded there in 2003 following the crippling recession of that year. Among the biggest victims of the economic crash had been middle-aged and senior men who were once employed in either the construction or food and service industries. Their fall from grace sounded all too familiar.
For all its gleaming modernity, Tokyo is a place badly in need of hope
Unemployment had led to the loss of their friends and family, which had in turn made them less likely to find new work. Japanese employers apparently tend to prefer family men on their staff. The downward spiral has continued until they had been driven to the margins of society.
To make matters worse, asking for help is culturally frowned upon, particularly among the older generation. The Big Issue offered one of the few opportunities for them to rebuild their lives.
Street Cat Bob and James Bowen on Japanese TV show, Unbelievable
The number of vendors in the city is relatively small, especially compared to the UK. Tokyo has about 40 vendors in all and there are only about 150 vendors in the whole country.
As I chatted to the group of all-male vendors, it became clear they led working lives that are very familiar to mine when I was selling The Big Issue at Angel Islington and Covent Garden. Having proved they are homeless, vendors are given 10 free copies of the magazine to sell. After that they buy each copy for 170 yen and sell it for 350 yen, about £2.40. On average one vendor sells around 20 copies daily. Pretty good going, if my own experience was anything to go by.
As I spoke to the vendors at length, however, the similarities ran much deeper than even that. Surprisingly deep, in fact.
In particular, the stories of two vendors – Akira and Shinzo – touched a nerve with me. Shinzo had a cat too, a stray that he had named Mi. It seems he had been living a pretty simple existence on the streets, somehow surviving on scraps of food and sleeping rough. He’d tried selling The Big Issue but found it very hard going. He couldn’t attract people’s attention.
Mi had changed his fortunes immediately. “People were more open to me,” he said. “They stopped and talked.”
He said that he now sold The Big Issue mainly so that he could feed Mi, even though the fact that he had a cat meant he wouldn’t be accepted for any kind of social housing. He couldn’t take his eyes off Bob. He smiled when I let him stroke him. He appreciated the scene in the film when a mother and her young son offer me money for Bob. “How much for my cat, how much for your child,” had been my reply.
“I would have said the same,” he said. “No.”
“She makes you feel less alone,” I said to him.
He simply nodded.
Street Cat Bob and James Bowen at The Big Issue Japan
Another vendor, named Akira, had found a cat abandoned in a park. He had looked after it for two weeks before it was reunited with its owner. In that fortnight his world had been transformed. He’d started taking the cat with him to sell The Big Issue outside the main railway station where he had his pitch.
“I was no longer invisible,” he said. “You know how that feels.”
“Of course,” I nodded.
It was extraordinary. It was as if I was looking into a mirror. These men were experiencing something that had happened to me a decade earlier.
They told me that Bob’s drawing power as a cover model was almost as great in Tokyo as it is in London. Akira sold the magazine outside a large hospital. People usually walked by but this week they’d stopped and bought the magazine, drawn in by Bob’s handsome features.
“One lady ran across the street when she saw the cover,” he smiled. An editor from The Big Issue office told us that people were buying the magazine in bulk. It had been an exceptional week for sales.
This was obviously gratifying in all sorts of ways. In the short term it meant that the vendors would eat and sleep well that week. More broadly, however, it confirmed that Bob’s magic was spreading goodwill far from home.
I spent almost an hour talking and drinking green tea with them. The vendors were full of questions, having seen the movie. They recognised some of the issues I faced, being sanctioned for ‘floating’ or selling magazines, on the move. But they were surprised by other aspects of my life. They were amazed, for instance, that I’d had my drug addiction treated for free by the state, via the NHS.
Throughout our chat they were very humble, very respectful. I was moved close to tears by their dignity. I would have spent longer with them but my packed itinerary didn’t allow it. Bob was also tired and in need of his bed.
After reading the books, people started to engage with Big Issue sellers
I got back to the hotel smiling quietly. My encounter with the vendors had provided the answer I’d been looking and – to be honest – hoping for. The book had connected in Japan for the same reason it had touched people’s hearts in London. This was further confirmed by the reviews of the books I was shown by my publisher during a final book signing.
Most were on Amazon’s Japanese site. A few comments mentioned that after reading the books, people had, for the first time, started to engage with and befriend Big Issue sellers – and indeed other homeless people. Many had given them financial help. The attitude was best summed up by one reviewer who wrote: “My life is bright so I did not know the life of homeless man could be this tough.”
My week-long visit flew by, as if on fast-forward. It was only after I’d said my final sayonaras to our hosts and fans at the airport and I had sat in the plane heading back to London that I was able to properly take stock. My time in Tokyo had been filled with other amazing moments. From meeting the Japanese equivalent to Ant and Dec and eating sushi in a street market to sharing a drink at my hotel bar with Edgar Wright, the director of Baby Driver who was also promoting his film in Japan that week.
But as we took off and I looked down over the sprawling, neon-li metropolis below us, it was clear to me that the conversation with Akira and Shonzi had made the most lasting impression. To be honest it made my trip.
A writer’s greatest hope is that he or she can connect with a wide audience. When I’d had my first book published back in 2012, my main ambition was to shine a light on a world that is unknown, to alert people to the plight of those who have – often through no fault of their own – fallen through the cracks and are now homeless. I cannot put adequately into words how proud I am to know that it is doing precisely that. All the way from where it began, in Tottenham, to Tokyo.
If you can't visit your local vendor on a regular basis, then the next best way to support them is with a subscription to the Big Issue. As a social enterprise, we invest every penny we make back into the organisation. That means that with every subscription, we are supporting people in poverty to get back on their own two feet.