From the outside looking in

Japan through the eyes of its most renowned observer


THE DONALD RICHIE READER: 50 Years of Writing on Japan. Compiled, edited and with an introduction by Arturo Silva. Stone Bridge Press, 2001, 238 pp., $19.95 (paperback).

Full disclosure: I’ve known Donald Richie for more than 20 years and, like many people who have known him for a long time, I count him among my good friends. Once, he helped me write a full-length book on the history of Japanese poetry out of a slim collection I had made of English translations of Basho’s single haiku (yes, the one about an old pond and a frog). Another time, I committed an affront that would have prompted a different person to drop me. He simply waved it off with a smile. Richie is generous, considerate and tolerant.

The first book I read of Richie’s many volumes was “The Inland Sea” (1971), which I came across in the small library in the agency where I work. It was among the books our Tokyo office had bought for its New York branch, assuming, obviously, that it was a tourist guide or else one of those books written to “introduce Japan to the West.”

The Tokyo office wasn’t completely off the mark; “The Inland Sea” does introduce Japan to the West. But it does so in such a way that whoever was in charge in Tokyo would have hastily decided not to send the book to New York had he read it.

Visiting Onomichi, for example, Richie goes to a shabby striptease theater advertising an all-nude show. Watching it, he recalls another one in a different place, one held “on the bare tatami of someone’s living room . . . cramped between the wife’s sewing machine and the children’s toy-box.”

That show consisted of three acts: she-she, she-he and she-solo, Richie recollects. In the third act, the show’s principal “she,” a “pleasant young country girl . . . promptly produced a number of objects: a banana, a full beer bottle, a length of string. With no more preamble than a small smile, she peeled the banana with her fingers, inserted it, and bit off great chunks. When it was consumed, she deftly removed it and put the mess daintily on a square of tissues. . . .”

Richie doesn’t let it go at that. If he did, Richie wouldn’t be Richie, and “The Inland Sea” wouldn’t be what it is: a series of reflections on Japanese culture and society given in the guise of a journey of personal exploration. So, he goes on to describe the manner of the young stripteaser’s departure to make a point about routine Japanese behavior.

Her act over, “she made a low and formal bow . . . smiled a most charming smile and . . . said: ‘Domo shitsurei itashimashita,’ a common polite phrase that might be translated as ‘I have been very rude.’ All of this was accomplished without the least suspicion of irony, and none was necessary. This is what you say when you must leave, when you have stayed perhaps a bit too long, when you wish to reassure and at the same time show an attractive degree of gentility.”

Now, I read “The Inland Sea” in the ’70s and I don’t recall whether I wondered why the book captivated me (except for the sex part). But rereading these passages, and reading a number of pieces I hadn’t seen before, in “The Donald Richie Reader,” I did wonder: What makes Richie so good as a cultural observer and commentator? Now I think I know the answer. He has no cultural condescension, and he writes with enviable felicity.

These days, talk of cultural condescension may seem out of place. But it is still common. To give just two recent American examples, a woman journalist published a long article questioning whether a feminist movement is possible in Japan, and an editorial writer at a major daily openly cast doubt on the validity of Japan’s judicial system when a U.S. soldier suspected of rape in Okinawa was handed over to the Japanese police. The “We beat Japan, didn’t we?” or “Japan is a backward Oriental country, isn’t it?” attitude persists.

To any member of Richie’s generation, condescension could have come naturally. Born in Lima, Ohio, in 1924, Richie arrived in Japan not long after the Occupation started, on New Year’s Eve, 1946. It was during the time when, to cite his own example, an “occupier” watching a Japanese carpenter with a saw could say, with a smile, with no irony, “These people got a long way to go.” Why? Because Japanese use strength when they pull the saw, while Americans do so when they push the saw. A “topsy-turvy world”!

It apparently didn’t occur to this particular “occupier” that from the Japanese perspective “the world” could have been so described.

Why didn’t Richie have a condescending attitude? He was, after all, a young citizen of a freshly and overwhelmingly victorious nation. The correct answer may be that it is a matter of temperament and character. Still, I think it is telling that his early literary (and perhaps philosophical) mentor was the poet Lindley Williams Hubbell. In 1943, while his ship was docked in New York, Richie went to the Map Room of the New York Public Library, where Hubbell happened to work. Characteristically, Hubbell, then 42 years old, established an easy rapport with the 19-year-old merchant marine. Hubbell went to Japan in 1953, became a Japanese citizen, and died in Kyoto.

Richie was also among the first to be drawn to Helen Mears’ 1948 book, “Mirror for Americans: Japan.” Unlike Richie a member of the Occupation, Mears was so bluntly critical of the premises on which the Occupation policy was based that Gen. Douglas MacArthur, Supreme Commander for the Allied Powers, personally stepped in to prohibit the publication of the Japanese translation of her book. Richie heard about it, acquired a copy, and reviewed it, favorably, for the Pacific Stars and Stripes.

It is also telling that Richie counts among the “best books on Japan” Kurt Singer’s “Mirror, Sword and Jewel.” Though not published until the early ’70s, it is a collection of reflections on Japan during the ’30s, when the author, a German-Jewish philosopher taught first at the Imperial University of Tokyo and then at the Second Higher School in Sendai. To quote one of the more perceptive passages from Singer:

“Let (the foreigner), experimentally but unreservedly, behave according to Japanese custom, and he will instantly feel what a cell endowed with rudiments of human sensibility must be supposed to feel in a well-coordinated body. There is a bewildering number of conventions and taboos, in various degrees of unintelligibility; if these are mastered and observed, life becomes singularly easy and entrancing.”

Don’t miss Richie’s funny piece on being the sole foreigner on the jury for the Competition for Cultural Films on Japan. It’s an excerpt from his journals, dated Oct. 27.

Arturo Silva, who has compiled and edited “The Donald Richie Reader” ably and with dedication, says of Richie: “The man is charming, open, witty, a cosmopolitan flaneur. The style, the prose, is as well. He is comfortable to read, smooth, steady, melodious. The art is disguised, remarks flow naturally.” I agree. I may only add, perhaps unnecessarily, that Richie is blessed with the fiction-writer’s ability to deploy various styles with ease as the occasion demands. Compare, for example, the brief, cogent profile of Toshiro Mifune; the encomium to “morokyu” (cucumber with miso), the epitome of culinary simplicity; the Chekhovian short story “Commuting”; and the obviously well-informed, seriocomic discourse “The Sex Market: The Commercialization of a Commodity.”

Silva, an 18-year resident of Japan, occasionally objects to Richie as a long-standing friend might. One example concerns a vignette that appears in “Different People” (1987), in which Richie describes the reaction of his acquaintance Hanako Watanabe, “the tofu man’s wife,” when she misses a train.

“Mrs. Watanabe stopped short in front of the closed doors now sliding past and smiled. At a moment when we of the West would have turned our mouths down, she turned hers up. It was not an ironic grimace, common enough, nor was it mock despair for the benefit of those looking on. The smile was innocent and natural enough to seem instinctive.”

This, as you may expect, prompts Richie to philosophical musings, to which Silva makes a simple response: ” . . . there are any number of Japanese who miss their train — and curse.” I agree with Silva, though from a reverse perspective. I take the subway every morning in New York. Half of those facing the train doors sliding shut before them smile, not grimace.

Richie once wrote to me: “I, an American, prefer to live in Tokyo; you, a Japanese, prefer to live in New York.” If he followed this with a wise cultural observation, as he must have, I don’t remember it. But, if he had, it may have been a condensed version of what he says in “Intimacy and Distance: On Being a Foreigner in Japan” (from “Partial Views,” 1993):

“Foreigners,” says Alastair Reid, “are curable romantics. They retain an illusion from childhood that there might be someplace into which they can finally sink to rest: some magic land, some golden age, some significantly other self. Yet his own oddness keeps the foreigner separate from every encounter. Unless he regards this as something fruitful, he cannot be considered cured.”