An inclined view: The life and work of Donald Richie

by Stephen Mansfield

Special To The Japan Times

This was meant to be a tribute to a living writer, one whose main concern beside health issues, was his own legacy.

It was with a heavy heart that I heard from Donald Richie’s longtime friend and editor Leza Lowitz that he had passed away on the morning of Tuesday, this week. He was 88. Temperamentally grouchy about hospital environs, he spent his last days, as he no doubt would have wished, in the surroundings of his own home in Tokyo’s Ueno district.

I remember that apartment well. The first time I visited, the door opened onto a tiny entrance with a bookshelf where normally there would have been a shoebox. Passing through a dark kitchen, one emerged from the shadows into a small living room lined with more bookshelves, a narrow cot, a table and two chairs. A seated Buddha figurine, a rather fine piece from Sri Lanka, sat on a red-stained wooden chest, gazing with an expression of compassion upon the confined but sunlit space. It would have been an otherwise unremarkable place, except for one thing. Looking down from the room’s eighth floor balcony, Shinobazu Pond lay suspended beneath, with its expanse of sacred lotuses and shrine to Benten, deity of the arts and music. Little wonder he talked of it as a living mandala.

Richie never wrote much about the rituals of death; he was more concerned with the rituals of life. When writing about his work, it is fitting that it be undertaken less in the shadow of his death than in the radiance of his life. And what an extraordinary life it was. Among those he counted as his friends and intimates were the writers Marguerite Yourcenar, Susan Sontag, Christopher Isherwood, Anthony Thwaite and Angela Carter. He knew and consorted with everyone from Igor Stravinsky to Stephen Spender, Alberto Moravia, Truman Capote, Tom Wolfe, Francis Ford Coppola and Leonard Bernstein.

Since coming to Japan, Richie lived exclusively in Tokyo. In one of his early novels, “This Scorching Earth,” the narrator crosses Tokyo’s Sumida River to visit the east side district of Fukugawa after a major air raid, observing, “There was nothing. Nothing but black and smoking ruins, as far as he could see in all directions. He had never known that so much could be destroyed in one night.” Richie was not witness to that night, when over 300 B-29s dropped incendiary cylinders on the city, but, arriving in Tokyo in 1947, he did see the aftermath. Over the following years, he watched a destroyed city, defeated people and damaged culture as they were rebuilt from the ruins of war.

For many readers, Tokyo, a city that can seem as distant and alien as the Rings of Saturn, began on Richie’s doorstep. Great cities are invariably connected in the mind with the literary figures that made them home, even if only for a brief period. Donald Richie, in books such as “Tokyo: A View of the City,” and countless articles and essays, will surely be remembered as one the city’s preeminent poets, one who made the great metropolis his home for over six decades.

Richie’s genius was to invert the impression of Tokyo as a stimulating but singularly unlovable place, a hastily assembled, hopelessly bodacious and shrill city, based on an ethic no higher than the creation of wealth. Perhaps it was his love of the Arab medina that developed in him an affinity for alleys that go nowhere, lanes that addle the memory and pell-mell neighborhoods where people, not buildings, come first. This would certainly have described the community ethos of Yanaka, a well-preserved pre-war quarter of the city in which the writer lived at one time.

Richie was certainly qualified to comment on the changes wrought on the city over the years. In a Time magazine article on the Tokyo district of Asakusa written in 2004, Richie recalled his first visit there in 1947. Taking the Ginza Line, he surfaced into “this sexy stratum, redolent of oysters over rice and camellia hair oil, cotton candy and underarm sweat.” What a different world of the senses it is today.

Richie has been variously described as literary critic, Japanese cinema scholar, novelist, essayist, biographer, composer, travel writer and cross-genre artist, one who directed several short avant-garde films before writing made more demands on his time. He was, of course, all of this and more.

Among other things, he wrote copiously for The Japan Times, producing countless articles on all manner of topics, his first piece appearing in 1953. Serving as the paper’s film critic for many years, he also contributed a weekly book review in his Asian Bookshelf slot. With the persistence of time, these reviews amassed into a book, “Japanese Literature Reviewed.”

In a recent email, author Burritt Sabin wrote that Richie “taught generations of us a way to think about Japan.” And also how to write about it. Richie’s work was always about ideas, discovering a kernel of truth that could be nourished and cultivated into an essay or an entire book. Richie’s friend, the editor Arturo Silva, wrote, “While he is undoubtedly the expert on Japan,” he had no pretensions to being a “Japan expert.” This is true. As a writer he took no fixed position. Or rather, he reserved the right to shift positions at will. Without an obvious agenda, he was able to exercise the freedom to dabble, masterfully, in his enthusiasms, to make art from inclinations.

Silva, who had no reservations about calling Richie “the best writer we have on Japan,” corroborated this view when he stated that “Richie has always had only a single subject: himself.” The writing, however, is not just about Richie, but what it was like to have lived in Japan for more than 60 years.

Few authors, including the likes of Lafcadio Hearn, Basil Chamberlain and more recently Ian Buruma, all of whom have written engrossingly on Japanese themes, have been able to match the breadth and erudition Richie brings to his topics. Richie’s formidable output was due in part to the fact that he was around for so long, able to write with a sustained intensity few if any have been able to rival. The expatriate experience, viewed by most as a temporary interlude, sharpens the analytical faculties, shows us how to scrutinize ourselves and the host culture more keenly, but invariably, the stimulation pales. Richie’s gift, one of persistence and faith in his own work, is to have nourished the seedbeds of his initial experience and turned them into the flowers of art.

Never one to agonize over the gulfs, real and imaginary, separating foreign residents and Japanese, Richie rejoiced in his outsider status, writing “always the exception, I see everything as exceptional.” In “Intimacy and Distance: On Being a Foreigner in Japan,” an essay that should be mandatory reading for everyone coming here, he developed this theme, concluding “I have learned to regard freedom as more important than belonging — this is what my years of expatriation have taught me.”

Much as he admired Japan and the Japanese, he periodically felt the urge for the distance and perspective that travel imparts. Going through dozens of postcards and a few letters received from Richie, I read “Off to Burma tomorrow, a lovely country with a lousy government,” “Looking forward to visiting Luang Prabang,” “Leave Thursday for Pusan where I head a jury at the film festival there,” “Am going to Shanghai next week,” “I am to New York for a couple of weeks,” “Will be in Ulan Bator in August,” and the amusing “Am off in a few weeks to Delhi. Delhi in July? Yes, Delhi in July.” This was a man, I realize, who knew the world.

Richie played a significant role in introducing Japanese film to Western audiences in the post-war period. Film in fact, was a major factor in his initiation into Japanese culture. In a 2004 interview for the Japan Foundation, writer and editor Lowitz asked Richie what his favorite Japanese film was. He had no hesitation in responding with Ozu Yasujiro’s 1953 masterpiece “Tokyo Story,” elaborating: “Ethically and morally, it is impeccable. Aesthetically, it is one of the most balanced structures in the history of cinema. Technically, it is made of nothing at all. It is an exercise in economy and conciseness.” This might well be a description of Richie’s own work.

I once observed in a review for this newspaper, that “One opens a book by Donald Richie with certain expectations — namely, that it will be literate and original, the last word on the subject.” In its elimination of nonperforming space, its fluidity and stillness, economy of line and form, Richie’s writing is akin in its aesthetics and design to the most minimalist of Japanese forms. A transcendentally gifted writer, one notes the lyricism of his prose, an eye for the telling detail, the ironic poise and the light lash of his humor, all of which amount to a great deal of style.

Asked to write a foreword for his book “Travels in the East,” I noted that “Richie’s carefully composed and textured work — aerated, full of sunshine and graduated shadow — resembles, to appropriate a phrase from Andre Malraux, a ‘museum without walls,’ that is, an open exposition of landforms, native people, aesthetic artifacts, newly encountered cultures that, regardless of tireless intrusion, can seem like newly minted worlds.”

A writer’s writer, Richie never had the commercial success he deserved, supporting himself teaching, lecturing, subtitling and overseeing film festivals, but this in no way detracts from his achievement. And why should it? I recall comparing his situation once to that of James Joyce, eking out an existence tutoring in Trieste, Ogai Mori working as an army doctor, Thackeray working for the postal services in Ireland, T.S. Eliot toiling in a basement of the Bank of England.

Widely considered the foremost foreign writer and cultural commentator on Japan, his physical energy may have failed him at times, but his creative energy was boundless. His death, like the felling of a great tree in a forest, has changed the inner landscape of literature on Japan. It is likely, however, that his work will remain unrivaled, not simply because of its quality and dimension, but because the time he inhabited can never be re-experienced.

The same may be said of the inevitable transformation of place. Though much altered since Richie’s first visits, the (Seto) Inland Sea, its surface the dull silver of a shrine mirror, can still inspire moments of somber poetic meditation. In his travelogue of the same name, Richie’s narrative voice recalls that of the ailing poet in Tennessee William’s play “Night of the Iguana,” a character who is drawn back to the sea, the cradle of life, on a last journey. In Richie’s journey, the writer and traveler are, for a short duration, “free from both time and space in these islands, free of those merciless masters who snatch our lives.”

In accordance with his wishes, his remains will be scattered over the waters of the Inland Sea.

Photojournalist and author Stephen Mansfield is a longtime contributor to The Japan Times.

Quotes from the work of Donald Richie

One characteristic of any writer worth his or her salt is that they are eminently quotable. Here are some random extracts from Richie’s work.

I cannot imagine Plato thriving here, with all his absolutes (“the truth,” “the beauty”) … Maybe that is why Japan is so backward (by comparison) in some areas: philosophy, diagnosis. And perhaps why it is so forward in others.

— “The Japan Journals”

These extremely contemporary-looking structures, are like the tents of the nomads — with the difference that the Japanese move not in space but in time. — “Tokyo: A View of the City”

… this is enough — this escape into the past, into an age where faith is possible.

— “The essay Koya-san: Sacred Heights”

… a salient shaft of observance, cause and effect, a seasonal sensibility, a taste of the common humors of humanity.

— On a haiku by Basho, from Japanese Literature Reviewed

No other country has brought the principal of the microcosm — ikebana, bonsai, chanoyu, gardens — to such profuse perfection. No other has managed to turn so much into something else.— “A Lateral View”

…I stood at the Ginza crossing looking at the kimonos and old army uniforms, hearing the geta and watching Hokusai’s Mount Fuji being blocked out by all the new buildings. They might lose a view, I philosophized, but they were gaining a city. — “Japan: A Half-Century of Change”


Further reading:

The champion of Ozu’s masterwork ‘Tokyo Story’

Sharing films with a master critic

Recommended reading

Life in the land where boredom is not an option

Films, Zen, Japan

Donald Richie offers history lesson

A lifetime’s observations

How Lon Chaney led to lifetime of Japanese film

Archive of The Asian Bookshelf book reviews

  • Jaycasey

    Very nice essay about Mr. Richie. I would often walk around Shinobazu Pond hoping I’d see him there and wondering which apartment was his. I’ve been trying to retrace his visits to various places he wrote about to see if I can see the same things he did – in the same way. I was just finishing up Japan Journals when I heard he had passed away.

  • DA

    Great tribute, Stephen. My own is an essay from a few years back about Richie’s (and my) beloved shitamachi and Shinobazu Pond: http://danasenlund.wordpress.com/articles/wandering-the-veins-of-the-heart-of-shitamachi/

  • disqus_PDI5XV8pOE

    Thanks to Stephen Mansfield for this touching tribute, and may I say that though Richie was unique in his insights, sensitivity and generosity to those who knew him, it’s lucky that at the Japan Times we have a writer as good as Mansfield to succeed him…