Since the publication in English of Yukio Mishima’s 1954 romance novel, “The Sound of Waves,” there has been a fondness for visualizing Japan’s Inland Sea, with its islands of olives, oranges, sunburned fisherfolk and noonday siestas, as somehow Mediterranean in flavor, its water passages carrying the traveler on an Ionian journey. Nancy Phelan, in her 1969 travelogue “Pillow of Grass,” was similarly moved, the writer finding “figs, persimmons, mandarins and pomegranates ripening around tiered olive groves, redolent of Greece, with its fine filtering dust and glaring sun.” Donald Richie’s book “The Inland Sea” contains a little of this longing for an antique land, a place whereupon “somewhere near the sea . . . I will find them: the people the Japanese ought to be, the people they once were.”
Over 30 years since its first publication, this new edition of Richie’s neglected classic is both contemporary and archival. Tinged with a prescience of imminent loss, elegiac but unsentimental, “The Inland Sea” is both somber poetic meditation and acidulous literary entertainment. The places Richie visits are not so much destinations as departure points, the setting for a combination of composed detail and richly discursive passages on the mingled blessings of culture.
Richie’s themes, as elsewhere in his writing, are the primacy of the intellect, the centrality of sex, and the hidden patterns and compositions of life discernible to those with the requisite artistic clairvoyance. Like the late writer Alan Booth, Richie is adept at drawing people out, coaxing his subjects into revealing more than they might have intended. “As always in Japan,” he writes, “a little scratching under the asphalt highway or the concrete high-rise apartment house brings history bubbling to the surface.”
This journey without companions is by turns both intensely introspective and uninhibited in its descriptions of the people Richie encounters. He adheres to the sound Cartesian principle that “what we perceive clearly and distinctly is true.” Whether in the presence of silent fishermen, exuberant children or the mawkish prostitute he spends the night with in the grubby port town of Onomichi, or when befriending a tattooed delinquent banished by his family to the island of Inokuchi to serve as a Buddhist acolyte, Richie’s portraits are consistently incisive.
“The Inland Sea” is perhaps one of the few travel books of its time that attempts to make sense of the sexual encounter as part of the travel experience. While a commercially motivated attempt has been made within the last decade to publish racy first-person accounts of this kind, many well-established travel writers have preferred to suppress or marginalize their sexual experiences, or to fabricate tantalizingly close, but ultimately unconsummated, encounters. Richie, traveling through the islands in the late ’60s, was more honest, declaring that “part of my quest is devoted to seducing the natives — a travel adjunct observed by traveling foreigner and traveling native alike.” On the import of sleeping with your subjects, the writer confides that “there are few better ways of learning the language, of taking the temperature of the land, of measuring the inner state of its inhabitants.”
However much a manuscript is burnished for publishing, events resequenced or excised altogether, travel writing invariably preserves its highly associative character, content determined by serendipity, chance encounters, a continually engaged mind. This fits rather well with Richie’s book, which is after all, not merely cultural geography, but also an informal study of the people of these islands whose way of life and thinking bears some resemblance to the process of travel itself: “the Japanese person we’re talking with” Richie observes, “is ruminating in a circular fashion, where one thing suggests another and another.” And then again, “Anything the Japanese mind creates is associative.” This is a book that will teach outsiders a great deal about this country, and the Japanese, if they care to read it, a great deal about themselves.
Richie has given us a book that should, if it has not already, take its place in the permanent literature of the East.