Interview with Miyoko Watai
By En Mafuruji
Miyoko Watai, acting president and general secretary of the Japan Chess Association, visits a detention facility in Ushiku, Ibaraki Prefecture, a 50 km northeast from central Tokyo, everyday except weekends and holidays, taking two hours of train and taxi rides for a one-way trip. Sitting on a chair in a small room there, she meets – through a glass wall – the chess legend and her fiancee, Bobby Fischer.
Since 59-year-old Watai first met Fischer in Tokyo in 1973, she had corresponded with the former world chess champion for years and visited his homes in the U.S. and Hungary. In January 2000, Fischer, wanted in the United States for violating international sanctions on the former Yugoslavia in 1992, eventually began living in Watai's home in Kamata downtown in Tokyo's Ota Ward. It was the start of their de facto marriage. Now the couple wants to legally tie the knot.
Their peaceful life in Japan, however, was suddenly interrupted on July 13, when Fischer was arrested at the Narita International Airport for allegedly trying to travel with an invalid U.S. passport. The chess grandmaster has been detained in the Ushiku detention center after he was moved from a similar facility at the airport on Aug. 10.
The situation is getting worse for Fischer and Watai. In the evening on Aug. 24, the Japanese government, which has an extradition treaty with the U.S., issued an order to deport him later that night. The surprise move shocked the couple and his supporters. But his lawyers quickly filed a lawsuit the same day at the Tokyo District Court to demand that the injunction be canceled, which is expected to delay deportation proceedings for a month, according to Watai.
Watai is in anger and in worry that the arrest has given the chess genius a mental anguish and messed up the couple's quiet life in Japan. "He is like a prisoner on a death row. He is afraid of being deported to the U.S., which could happen today or tomorrow. Why does he have to endure such misery?" is how she put it.
Right after the incident happened, Watai started desperately trying to free Fischer, seeking support from chess fans around the world. The Committee to Free Bobby Fischer was set up in late July by Watai and other Fischer' admirers, including Ichiji Ishii, a former vice minister of foreign affairs, and Canadian communication consultant John Bosnitch. The group has aggressively taken legal action to prevent the Japanese government from deporting Fischer to the U.S.
Despite the obviously taxing demands of her schedule, however, Watai recently found time for this exclusive interview with the ChessBase to talk about reality of Fischer and call for further support to free him.
Watai, who serves as a women's international master and international arbiter, began learning how to play chess after graduating from Meiji Pharmaceutical University to beat her boyfriend those days. Working as a pharmacist, she began attending Chess Olympiad conferences in 1972 and won the Japan Women's Chess Championship in 1975.
E.M.: How had you seen Fischer before you actually met him in 1973?
Watai: After he won the world chess match with (Boris) Spassky, he was like the god of chess. I cut out every articles about him from magazines and English newspapers, and I studied records of his games.
E.M.: When Fischer visited the Japan Chess Association in Tokyo in 1973 to find sponsors for a rematch with Spassky, you were asked to give him a quick tour of Tokyo. What kind places did you take him and what was your impression of him?
Watai: I spent several days with him. I took him to SKD women's musical revue, Akihabara (a district with a cluster of electric products retailers) and Asakusa (a traditional downtown with the famous Sensoji Temple). He had few words and he was gentle.
E.M.: How did the friendship between you and Fischer go on?
The "illegal rematch": Fischer vs Spassky in 1992
Watai: He asked me to stop by his place in the states before I visited Colombia for the Women's Chess Olympiad in 1974. So I did. Those days Bobby was involved in the Church of God. He was staying at a facility of the religious cult. So I stayed at a home of one of the group's member. I was taken to Fischer's place in the morning, and then we went out with his secretary for sightseeing and dinner. We also went to the Disneyland and Las Vegas. We had continued to visit each other's places and exchange letters. I was invited by Bobby to watch the rematch with Spassky in Yugoslavia in 1992.
E.M.: Fischer moved to Hungary after the U.S. government tried to catch him for violating international sanctions on the former Yugoslavia by playing the rematch. Did you go to the country to see him?
Bobby's mother Regina Fischer
Watai: I visited Hungary every once in a couple of years. I met his friends there and went to movies and shopping with him. We did ordinary things as other people do. He didn't always think about chess. Sad things happened when he was in Hungary. His mother and his sister died, but he couldn't attend their funerals. When his mother was in hospital in the States, he could not go to see her but only talked to her on the telephone. She was a great woman. [After divorcing Fischer's father] she did everything to raise two children by herself. She worked as a typist and a nurse. She even got a license of a [medical] doctor in Germany. Looking back what happened to him at that time, I think he already received enough punishments.
A Life with Fischer
During those years, their relationship became intimate, Watai admitted. So it was natural that they resulted in living together in Japan in 2000. Fischer and Watai intended to continue the de facto marriage, but ironically the arrest of Fischer pushed the two to enter legal marriage. Watai went to the Ota Ward office on Aug. 17 to register their marriage. But it was not accepted because Fischer needs to submit additional documents that are given by the U.S. embassy to marry a Japanese woman.
E.M.: Why did he come to Japan in 2000?
Watai: He came to Japan to develop a new chess clock with Seiko Inc. I won't tell you what it is, it's a corporate secret. A prototype of the clock will complete in September. It may go on sale later. That clock would be used for matches of other games like "go" and "shogi" Japanese chess games.
E.M.: How is a life with Fischer?
Watai: I would like to keep our privacy.
E.M.: Some people doubt that the attempt to legally marry is done just to help Fischer out of the miserable situation. To deny such speculations, would you describe a bit of your de facto marriage?
Watai: [Nods reluctantly] He doesn't like taking any medicine at all and he doesn't go to the doctor. He dislike artificial methods. He prefers to Oriental medicine, a natural way to cure disease. As he loves "onsen" hot springs, we visited hot springs in Japan as well as in Hungary.
Chess legend Bobby Fischer visits the Beppu hot springs place in Oita Prefecture in Japan a couple of years ago. Photo Courtesy of Miyoko Watai.
He is very stubborn. He sticks to his policy. When he gets a cold, he just stays still at home. He also doesn't like women wearing lipsticks and high-heel shoes and coloring their hair. But how can a woman go out without makeup?
E.M.: How do you describe Fischer as your husband?
Watai: He is a very honest person. Once he told me that after he became the world chess champion, some companies offered him to be in advertisements. But he refused because he didn't want to advertise products that he didn't like.
E.M.: Have you found any eccentricity of his behaviors?
Watai: Yes. But I think he shouldn't be judged from ordinary people's standards.
E.M.: Why did Fischer like living in Japan?
Watai: When he lived in Europe, he was constantly being photographed by reporters. In Japan, no one recognize him, so he can relax. [To maintain the environment] he has never met any chess players in Japan. Only my close friends knew about our relationship.
Bobby playing Fischer Random chess against a young Susan Polgar in Budapest
E.M.: Does Fischer still like Japan?
Watai: Japan and Germany were the countries that he loved most. But he came to dislike Japan after he was caught and had to suffer such an ordeal.
E.M.: On July 13, Fischer was to leave for the Philippines and then visit Hong Kong. What was Fischer going to do in the two countries?
Watai: He has a lot of chess player friends in the Philippines. In Hong Kong, he enjoys gourmet food.
E.M.: When did you learn about Fischer's arrest? How did you react to it?
Watai: I received phone calls from an official at the Narita airport's immigration bureau and a Filipino friend of Fischer's in the evening of July 14. It made me really surprised. I didn't understand why he was caught. But I had a feeling that something might be wrong [before receiving the phone calls]. He usually gives me a phone call when he arrives at his overseas destination. But this time, there was no phone call from him. I went to the airport immediately [on July 14]. But officials didn't tell whether he was in custody or not. And I was not allowed to meet him because its visiting hours was over. Next day [July 15], I went to the airport again and had a meeting with him for 30 minutes at the detention facility. He was so upset, and I didn't know what to say to console him.
Fischer being detained by Japanese immigration officials on August 10
E.M.: Prior to the incident, did you or Fischer have a bad feeling that something was going to happen?
Watai: Not at all. His fugitive warrant was issued in 1992, but nothing had happened to him. Besides, he had a passport that has three years left to expire its deadline. But we should have become aware that something was wrong when he was waited for 10 days to get 24 additional pages to his passport by the U.S. embassy in Bern, Switzerland. We should have done something to get another passport. But we missed the sign. We just thought giving him the 24 pages was simply a good sign. I suspects that he could have been arrested there but the U.S. government didn't do so intentionally because Switzerland is a neutral nation. I guess the U.S. government waited for him to go back to Japan, which listens to anything that the U.S. government says. The Japanese government didn't explain the reasons for arresting Bobby. It just caught him because the U.S. told to do so.
E.M.: How is his conditions in custody?
Watai: He was angry in the beginning. But now he has calmed down.
E.M.: What have you brought to him?
Watai: I brought newspapers to him. He refused to read magazines because he doesn't feel like enjoying magazine articles. I've also brought some money. Visitors are not allowed to offer detainees food, but they can ask officials to buy some foods they want to eat. He bought "natto" fermented soybeans. It's his favorite. He likes eating natto put on boiled "genmai" brown rice and with miso soup.
He always carries his chess set with him. I'm not sure it's in his suitcase [that he brought to the Narita airport] or with him in the detention facility.
The Committee to Free Bobby Fischer and his lawyer, Masako Suzuki, is taking various measures to prevent deportation of Fisher – filing law suits, seeking countries that give him a passport, trying to renounce his U.S. citizenship and applying for a refugee status with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. Also, Watai and Fischer decided to marry legally.
E.M.: Why did you and Fischer decide to marry legally?
Watai: We had been satisfied with our life [before Fischer was detained]. But the arrest messed up it. To take back the previous environment, I want to get a strong position. Marrying him legally may be helpful to avoid the possible deportation and enable him to a permanent visa in Japan.
E.M.: Did he propose to you?
Watai: Yes, he did.
E.M.: Did you try to marry him legally if the incident had not happened?
Watai: I don't know. But one thing for sure is that we want to live together forever. He told me I'm the most reliable person for him and the closest to him.
Kaz Ozawa conducted this interview, which took place on Aug. 22 in Tokyo.
Picture gallery: Fischer's Tokyo
Miyoko Watai, Bobby Fischer's fiancee and acting president of the Japan Chess Association, takes us on a tour of the Kamata downtown in Tokyo's Ota Ward, where she has lived with Fischer for more than four years. Photos by Kaz Ozawa.
A shopping center in downtown Kamata in Tokyo's Ota Ward
A bustling neighborhood where Bobby and Miyoko had made their home
Very important in Fischer's life: fresh Japanese vegetables
The soy, rice and noodle section where Bobby gets his favourite "natto"
A small bookstore. It does not have chess books, but that's normal in Japan.
Two chess books written by former Japanese women's champion Miyoko Watai
A places of repost where Bobby and Miyoko often sat
The station where Miyoko embarks on her daily two-hour journey to see Bobby
Kamata station, where she and Bobby would set out on outings
Miyoko Watai is looking forward to the day when she will walk these stairs with Fischer again.
The above interview with Miyoko Watai is making its way through the world press. Mainichi Daily News quoted extensive passages from it (attributing it to chessbase.dom), and now AP and Reuters have picked it up and other news portals are carrying it.