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Digging for insights on foreigners living in Japan from some of the most prominent figures

by Jeff Kingston

AT HOME ABROAD: The Contemporary Western Experience in Japan, by Adam Komisarof. Reitaku University Press, 2012, 251 pp., ¥3,570 (hardcover)

Donald Richie, prolific author of more than 40 books and longtime contributor to The Japan Times, died in February at age 88. April 17 was his birthday, so this review pays tribute by sharing some of the insights he passed on during an interview, one of 12 in this book, conducted four years ago.

Adam Komisarof, a professor in Reitaku University’s Department of Economic Studies and Business Administration, pushes aside academic conventions, confessing at the outset that when “it comes to insight into Japan, Donald Richie is my hero.” The interview is presented in 13 pages of question and answer format. The author, like many of us, later found himself wanting to ask more questions.

With typical modesty, Richie explains that the secret to writing a lot is to “get up early.” Thinking deeply and writing on a daily basis was how he took advantage of the freedom of not belonging, a situation he enjoyed immensely. Richie felt that being the outsider in Japan conferred significant advantages: “You can think more. You can feel more deeply.” He was also fond of saying, “We (foreigners) have the best seats in the house.”

Conversely, “If I were Japanese, I wouldn’t stay in this country for ten minutes. I stay here because I am in a position which I find preferable — a position where none of their qualifications for being a member apply.”

Correcting the record, he stated, “I never said I fell in love with Japan. A lot of people writing about me have said that I fell in love with Japan … Maybe I’ve never trusted anything or anybody to the extent of falling in love. … [but] I do feel great feelings of liberation.”

As much as Richie understood and explained Japan’s considerable capacity for change, he was also wistful about all that was being irretrievably lost: “A lot of the things I like about Japan have disappeared. If this symbiotic relationship with nature was ever here, it is not here anymore. The Japanese have done terrible things physically to their country.”

As difficult as it is to sum up Richie’s strategy for engaging Japan, perhaps it boils down to swallowing it whole, not expecting it to change according to one’s wishes and not dwelling on what one doesn’t like.

In general, Richie developed a “tendency to sink into Japan … not to become Japanese, but to simply arrange for a more comfortable life so that I do not find things as surprising or alarming as I once did.” But, he added, “I don’t know whether to deplore it or not, but anyone who lives in this country, which is terminally self-conscious, becomes absurdly self-conscious himself.”

Not being accepted means “they leave us alone, and we are not really held responsible for things. We’re like big children. This is a big advantage. I’ve lived a life freer than I ever could have lived in America, the ‘Land of the Free.’”

With apologies to the other interviewees for dwelling on Richie, I hasten to add that this book is a treasure trove. The collection includes interviews with former Japan Times contributor Karen Hill Anton, who wrote the superb and much missed Crossing Cultures column from 1990-99, and Debito Arudou, who writes Just Be Cause for the Community page. In addition, this book is highly recommended because readers can learn much from the other insight-brimming interviews with Donald Keene, Daniel Kahl, Paul Snowden, Stephen Murphy-Shigematsu and Glen Fukushima, among others.

In the final three chapters the author analyzes the interviews and acculturation strategies, but reader beware, there is no magic formula. Even so, non-Japanese and Japanese who contemplate this rich smorgasbord will think more deeply about how they engage Japanese society and what could be a better tribute to Donald Richie, whose passing leaves a yawning void.

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