The Korea Herald


[Kim Seong-kon] Riding the Seoul-Washington Express

By Kim Seong-kon

Published : Sept. 4, 2018 - 16:59

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Although Richard Brautigan tragically took his own life in 1984, before he died he left us some legendary literary classics such as “Trout Fishing in America.” This novel in particular has greatly influenced many other prominent writers, such as the celebrated Japanese novelist Haruki Murakami. By the 1990s, Brautigan’s legacy was so strong that, in 1994, a young man named Peter Eastman actually changed his name to “Trout Fishing in America” and a young couple named their baby after the novel.

From 1976 to 1978, Brautigan lived in Montana and Tokyo, back and forth, and published an autobiographical book entitled “The Tokyo-Montana Express.” In the epigraph of the novel, Brautigan writes, “Though the Tokyo-Montana Express moves at a great speed, there are many stops along the way. This book is those stations.”

Indeed, “The Tokyo-Montana Express” is a story of 131 stations inspired by the author’s reminiscence of Montana and Tokyo. Each story of the book represents each stop along Brautigan’s spiritual journey to Japan. At each juncture, we can see the American writer’s fascination with Japanese culture and his struggle to understand subtle Japanese psychology.

In the story called “The Eyes of Japan,” the narrator, who is presumably Brautigan himself, is invited to a Japanese home. The Japanese hostess busies herself preparing dinner, bringing snacks and sake to the guest. While Brautigan eats dinner, he notices that the Japanese hostess sits down several feet away from the dinner table, listening to the conversation and enjoying his presence. “In her eyes, I see the past of Japan,” Brautigan writes. “I see thousands of years of Japanese women, not sitting at the table and happy.”

Then he compares Japanese woman with American women, rather amusingly, “As I write this, I can also see American women reading these words, and grinding their teeth while thinking: Oh, the poor downtrodden slave of male tyranny! Instead of waiting on them like a servant, she should kick them all in the balls!” Then he continues, “I can see the expression on their faces. I can see their eyes filled with hatred that is so far away from this room.”

In another story called, “Time Square in Montana,” the protagonist tries to return two light bulbs that blew out as soon as he turned on the switch. As he gets upset and tries to return the burnt-out bulbs, his Japanese wife is skeptical. He writes, “I don’t think she really thought I was going to do it. The idea of a store accepting burnt-out light bulbs seemed like a foreign idea to her. I don’t think that was a common practice in Japan, but right now I didn’t care about Japan, I had been wronged and I wanted satisfaction.” When he storms into the store with the two burnt-out light bulbs, he humorously thinks, “My wife waited in the car, probably reexamining her decision to marry me or at least looking at it in a different perspective.”

In the story “The Irrevocable Sadness of Her Thank You,” Brautigan writes about a Japanese woman’s shyness and atmosphere of sadness. One day, the narrator gets on the train to Shinjuku where he lives. He notices a Japanese woman standing next to him. He writes, “There was a very calm, almost serene feeling of sadness about her.” At the next stop, a man gets off and there is a vacant seat in front of them. The Japanese woman waits for him to sit down and he waits for her to sit down. Suddenly, a man sitting next to the vacant seat slides over and takes it and then offers her his seat. As she sits down in his seat, she turns to the narrator and whispers, “Thank you” in English. “I had never heard two words spoken so sadly before,” writes the narrator. “She was young and sad, going to where I will never know, still sitting there on the train when I got off at Shinjuku Station, with her thank you like a ghost forever ringing in my mind.”

In “Toothbrush Ghost Story,” Brautigan illustrates the sensitivity of Japanese women. In Tokyo, a young Japanese girl spends the night at her American boyfriend’s apartment and leaves in the morning to work. She brings her blue toothbrush and leaves it in his bathroom. The American does not like her toothbrush, so he throws it into the garbage can and replaces it with a red one he bought at a drugstore. That evening she comes to visit him and goes to the bathroom to brush her teeth. She does not come out for 10 minutes. Finally, she comes out quietly and tells him that she has to leave because she has forgotten an important business meeting. Brautigan writes, “He never saw her again.”

Reading “The Tokyo-Montana Express,” Korean readers might wish there was a similar book titled “The Seoul-Washington Express.” If such a book were available, American politicians could ride the “Seoul-Washington Express” and understand Korea better. Then we could prevent many misunderstandings between the two countries. 

Kim Seong-kon
Kim Seong-kon is a professor emeritus of English at Seoul National University and visiting professor at Kyunghee Cyber University. He can be reached at -- Ed.