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Japan through the eyes of Richie

by Jeff Kingston

VIEWED SIDEWAYS: Writings on Culture and Style on Contemporary Japan, by Donald Richie. Stonebridge Press, 2011, 264 pp., $16.95 (paper)

Viewed any which way, Japan through the eyes of Donald Richie is an interesting and rewarding place to read about. This is the third collection of Richie’s essays following “Lateral Views” (1987) and “Partial Views” (1995) and yet another reminder that he is a master of the short essay and a thought-provoking guide to his subject. The spare style and distinctive phrasing grow on the reader and are apt for unveiling and imparting.

The 37 essays span a half century and remarkably the early ones have stood the test of time in a country where, according to Richie’s long time friend Edward Seidensticker, analyzing traditions is complicated by the fact that change is itself a tradition.

These elegantly brief essays are packed with insights that one needs to unravel and contemplate at one’s leisure. There are many memorable lines such as, “Travellers almost by definition screw more (or want to screw more) than other people.”

Richie asserts that distance is liberating, an opinion one would expect from someone raised in the boondocks of Lima, Ohio. But he also means the distance of being a foreigner in Japan, because the “folkways are equally powerless in that they insist that I am no part of them. This I regard as the best seat in the house. Because from here I can compare, and comparison is the first step toward understanding. I have learned to regard freedom as more important than belonging.”

It is from the vantage of this “best seat” that Richie over the years has helped so many understand Japan. He is no sentimentalist and shuns the culture-is-destiny perspective of national character. The go-go bubble years of the late 1980s was a time of desecration on a grand scale and he confides that in watching all the tearing down of traditional houses and communities, “I felt I was living in a museum that was now being swiftly destroyed. The wreckers were at work and-oh, there goes a room I thought never would; oh, there goes the whole wing of what I thought was the permanent display.”

Japan, he believes, helpfully pushes us to reconsider what we think we know, sometimes well beyond our comfort zone. For those who find Japan frustrating, “I have myself in my fifty years learned that if Japan were to rid itself of all those things that are to me puzzling, illogical, distasteful, it would no longer be Japan at all.” Indeed, he finds much to learn from the incongruities encountered.

In a wonderful aside on sex clubs, Richie writes of Japan being the “home of the defining garment … not only uniforms on school students, but also puffy hats and aprons on cooks and full alpine gear when you climb the nearest hill. You are what you wear.” Or in pink boxes, it seems, also what you don’t. In this seedy world of “anything goes,” consumer sex, where the customer is king, oddly enough “there has to be endless rules and regulations.”

Why? Well nothing is left to chance and how else, he asks, to recreate the schoolroom ambiance necessary for reverting back to childhood?

Richie is a sympathetic witness to the plight of women in Japan, deploring that they are “frankly regarded as chattel. The double standard is so ingrained that it is taken for granted. The manipulation of women for economic, social, and sexual purposes is openly displayed and its rightness is seldom officially questioned.”

Lamentably, “women seem also to subscribe to the rightness of their own oppression. They submit and endure.”

It is precisely the systematic discrimination women suffer, he argues, that makes them consummate actresses. Role-playing is second nature, a coping mechanism as, “From the earliest age she learns to mask her true feelings and to counterfeit those she does not feel.”

This comes in handy in pornography where the formula insists that “women must be denigrated and she must deserve to be.” He adds that in this realm women are portrayed as hysterical animals: “While she screams, kicks, and in general abandons herself, he remains thoughtful, calm, a dedicated craftsman.” Curiously, the genre is “puritanical about the virgin state,” while insisting that “women are evil, that sex is their instrument and that men are their prey.”

Reading the subtitles of films often yields some dubious expressions and outright howlers. As a veteran subtitler Richie acknowledges the ludicrous simplifications and confines of limited space and viewer attention, but confides he sees the results “not with chagrin that so much gets lost, but with surprise that so much gets through.”

It is the charm of his self-effacing style that we reconsider our own accumulating lost in translation moments.

Jeff Kingston is director of Asian Studies, Temple University Japan.