In “The Japan Journals,” American writer Donald Richie has acted to the letter on Rimbaud’s conviction that the first study for the man who wants to be a poet “is to know himself, completely. He must search for his soul, scrutinize it.”
We are lucky to have had Richie in Japan for so long. He proves the point that age and the inevitability of physical decline need not be chained to intellectual erosion. The writing remains, as in the work of Richie’s age-peers like Norman Mailer and John Le Carre, as virile, as incisive as ever.
Attentive, a student of the ways of this Japanese world, Richie’s journals represent “a fluid succession of presents,” as James Joyce would have it. And like those of the great Irishman, these entries, intentionally or by the sheer persistence of time — the volume of days and years — achieve Joyce’s avowed aim in “Dubliners” of creating “some kind of intellectual pleasure or spiritual enjoyment by converting the bread of everyday life into something that has a permanent artistic life of its own.”
Generous with his time and advice, Richie is a true mentor, but one without the disciples he deserves, the young who sit at the feet of older men. In the absence of a permanent intellectual circle, Richie has gathered people, drawn them into temporary folds. But the missing “current of contemporary thought,” as he notes in the journals, still galls.
“I have no intellectual climate at all,” he laments, “I have no one with whom to speak of these concerns, no one to learn from, no one to teach. For fifty years I have lived alone in the library of my skull.”
The journals reveal an agile and fertile mind in continual need of good company. Though Richie, a half-century habitue of Tokyo, can seem at times like Baudelaire, a wholly urban creature, one who prefers Parisian stage-set forests to real ones, his love of nature, in particular the sea, shines through in his descriptions of the Chiba beach, the Izu Peninsula and the sparkling marine kingdoms of Kyushu, where “from the shore the sea turns light green, celadon under the first light of the clouded sun.”
In the journals, however, we find a Richie less well grounded than in his carefully finessed books. As death takes away friends, the fixtures and constants of his life, the writer’s emotional vulnerability surfaces. But even toward the end of the journals, as Richie looks less and less the ageless sage we have turned him into, as the voice seems momentarily less assured with his spirit more troubled by the sundering apart of lives, the writer pulls back, finds the detachment that always works for him and licks the nib of his pen in readiness for the next observation, the next confession.
And what good is a journal, we might ask, if it is not confessional? Age has put him on safer ground to talk candidly about his private life, the sexuality that underpins so much of the expatriate writing that comes out of Japan. Reinaldo Arenas famously said monogamy was an unnatural condition for homosexuals. Richie seems to spend a lot of time attending the weddings of his former partners, watching their nuptials while he ponders his memory of other rites performed with them.
Richie in fact, emerges as a more compelling subject than many of the celebrated people he knew. And yet these people, among them Yasujiro Ozu, Stephen Spender and Christopher Isherwood, are hard to ignore. Despite health problems, the enforced food regimes, the abstentions, the author has outlived a good many of the subjects he writes about.
Richie summons up the dead in vivid detail. First a ghost, a voice, then a body fleshed out and reclothed in the cerements of the returned, reaching us through the wind tunnel of time. Richie does a great service to his friends in recalling them. The journals faithfully record the beginnings of friendships, the start of new life, but also the end.
Attending the funeral of the leftist filmmaker Akira Iwasaki, Richie takes the opportunity to write about his friend, managing, as he does with other deceased subjects, to write something more than an obituary or tribute — to make these people spring back to life again, freed from the rigor mortis of forgetfulness.
If allowed to, the days grow wistful. In a very Proustian manner, a pot of maple syrup from Maine — a gift from the late French writer Marguerite Yourcenar — is kept in the back of the fridge. Only meager scoops are taken to prolong memory, the remembrance of things past.
Even though the writer sees a cyclic pattern to existence — “Life is a palindrome. As we entered, so we backward depart” — he is not overly nostalgic about the past. To be sure, there is a fondness for it, an affection for friends and the recollection of significant events, but there are no retrospective fixations.
In the “Journals,” Richie has appropriated the vitality of two very powerful forces, the English language and Japan, to produce in peerless synergy, a record of one man’s existence at a specified time and geographical coordinate on this Earth. The fact that much of what he records is a lost world, only intensifies its value.