Life in the land where boredom is not an option

by Stephen Mansfield

Writer, commentator and film specialist Donald Richie has had a good year, on that saw, among other things, the publication of “The Japan Journals” and his receipt of the Rising Sun With Gold Rays, a prestigious award honoring a lifetime of achievement in the arts. Here he shares his thoughts.

Other writers have come and gone. In the “Journals” you’ve provided us with the longest expatriate account of Japan ever written. What has sustained your interest for so long?

I’ve often thought about that, but never for very long. I think it’s partly educational. The potential here is just so great. I’m still convinced every morning when I wake up that I’m going to learn something new today. And to be an eternal student, to never be filled up intellectually is a great privilege. Everything here is in flux. So what I learned yesterday I have to amend today. In Japan you are required to be attentive. I wonder how I would have reacted in Baltimore or Pittsburgh? I probably wouldn’t have been this alert. I would have taken things for granted. This is something the Japanese never allow you the luxury of. This is one of the reasons I stayed.

So does Japan still have the depth, the gravitas to stimulate and nourish? It has never bored you?

It still has whatever it was that originally attracted me, even with all the changes that have taken place. This, of course, is instructive in itself. I’ve never been as near to anything that changes as rapidly, as openly, as Japan. And this is of enormous and engrossing interest. As I know what it looked like before — more than those people who were not here — then I can make a comparison. And when you can make a comparison, you are very close to creation. No. Japan is the one country that has never bored me.

How would you characterize the gains that you have made from living here?

Thanks to Japan I have changed enormously. I think what Japan gave me was the gift of consciousness, to be continually aware, to look at causes and effects and to work myself into the equation. So, in a way, it approximates Socrates’ idea of a regarded life being worthwhile and an unregarded life being of no use whatsoever. Japan is continuously stimulating, I don’t think I could have achieved the same level of articulation had I not come here.

On the topic of expatriate writers, one thinks of Paul Bowles in Tangier, Gerald Brenan in Grenada, James Joyce in Trieste. What expat writers would you like to see yourself compared to?

Well, all of the above (laughing). The one that I feel closest to is probably Christopher Isherwood. Mainly because his influence on me was crucial, something I go into in the journals. Reading the Berlin stories when I was 18 years old was key to my development. I’ve always been very grateful to Christopher. I got to know him and became his friend much later. Another, a sort of antimodel I had in mind, was in fact Paul Bowles. Like me, he wrote music, loved it more than anything else. I probably have self-destructive tendencies the same as Paul did, though they don’t take the same form. Paul’s was drugs, mine is different. Maybe I’m a sexaholic instead of a drug addict!

Some people have described your mid- to late work as elegiac, a literary word for sentimental. I find the tone of your writing more inquisitive than nostalgic, more interested in describing mutating forms than preserving them. A valid observation?

I think yours is valid. The people who call me elegiac are the people who cannot imagine an 80-year-old being anything other than elegiac. If you’re not sentimental at that age, you have to be made so. Every time I see that word, I keep wondering how it relates to me (mock exasperation). I don’t think it applies.

You’ve hinted in the past at the lack of a New York- or Paris-style literary circle, or salon, in Tokyo. Do you still feel this is a deficiency?

Only in the sense that having one would keep me on my toes (smiles). Your peers would be reading you and telling you about it. I have peer friends in New York who question how I can live here and keep up with current ideas. But keeping up with current ideas has never occurred to me. I’m like Robinson Crusoe. Everything I need I construct for myself. I didn’t even attempt to explain that, for me, all these flavors of the month are alike. And that the idea of keeping up with them is limiting and ludicrous.

Back to the “Journals,” can you explain their genesis and development?

Firstly, the journals were a preservative, a place to dump an insight or experience. Then they began to make me aware that I do not appreciate my life properly unless I write it down. Once I write it down it seems to have a consequence, which it did not have. Then I can go back to it and extract from it the same bouquet, the same essence that I experienced when it was happening.

The function of the journals, their relationship to your work at large, clearly changed over the years from being existential notations into a complete score. How did this happen?

One of the ways was that by writing a journal I became aware of the entire genre of journals. I didn’t really become interested in reading other journals until I began my own. I might not have written it at all if I had not had the good fortune quite early on to read the journals of Boswell, which taught me something about myself. They taught me a freedom of expression and candor. Boswell is not ashamed to show himself as a humorless little prig when it serves his purpose to do so, let alone a marauding sexual outlaw. I admired that so much. My earliest journal readings began in high school when I was reading Andre Gide, who remains my constant companion. I learned from him an attempt to be sincere. What I do like about my journals is that they are not often turned to my advantage. That makes me think there might be some sincerity there.

With the journals there seems to be an unusually close collaboration with the editor, Leza Lowitz. How did that come about?

Most providentially (smiling). I met Leza a number of years ago when she was here. She was interviewing me. We got along extremely well and eventually became each other’s confidants. At one point she was looking through some of my papers and discovered a part of the journals. I had not thought much about them. I used them as exercises, first thing in the morning to clear my throat. She said these are terribly good. We have to do something about them. They were in disarray, badly typed, so we went through them. She went to the trouble herself of getting someone to retype the entire journals as they were then. This was 10 or 15 years ago, and it inspired me to continue writing them. They grew and she expressed a lively interest in them. I always made copies for her. Her appreciation made me think that others might be interested. So it grew.

It seems to me that in the journals you are trying to consolidate your legacy?

That’s absolutely right. One of the reasons for keeping the journals is that it validates your experience. This is an attempt at such validation.

The final question, I suppose, must be, what is there left to accomplish? How do you see the years ahead?

Mostly house cleaning at present (laughs), although I’m doing a small book now for the British Film Institute. I will wait until I feel something more urgent growing. I had major heart surgery a while back; I brushed the wings of the angel of death, and didn’t like it. That’s what made me want to complete the journals.