THE IMAGE FACTORY: Fads & Fashions in Japan, by Donald Richie, photographs by Roy Garner. London: Reaktion Books, 2003, 176 pp., £14.95 (cloth).

Fads and fashions are not, of course, exclusively Japanese. Still, the unself-conscious abandon with which fads and fashions are adopted in Japan assures that they are forever in one’s face and that one is, therefore, compelled to respond to them. In Donald Richie’s “The Image Factory: Fads & Fashions in Japan,” we have the pleasure of seeing how the best writer on things Japanese offers his response. By no means does he serve up the typical curmudgeonly dudgeon of everything was better in the old days and the kids today are no darned good, etc.

This will come as no surprise to those familiar with Richie’s work. He has always been less interested in judging what he is examining and drawing moral lessons from it than in simply seeing it. What he looks at are, to be sure, the same things the rest of us are looking at — keitai denwa (mobile phones), the Hello Kitty character, pachinko, manga, and so on — but the startling clarity of his vision and analyses reminds us that the ability to see the world around us, undistorted by facile judgments and parochial moralities, is neither easily done nor commonly attempted.

Richie notices, for example — and this will be a revelation to many — that far from being unique, Japan is a piece of the rest of the developed world. Differences that exist are not of kind but of degree. He explains throughout “The Image Factory,” for example, that Japanese youth throw themselves into fads and fashions not in an effort to define themselves as individuals, but rather to define themselves as members of a group of similar individuals. “How different is this from other countries?” Richie asks. “Not much, but one difference is that no one [in Japan] denies the fact, unlike in such purportedly individualistic nations as the USA, where such denial is routine.” Thus even as one may be bemused, befuddled, or, yes, irritated by this or that fad, one always respects the lack of pretense with which these crazes are embraced in Japan.

One fad — or is it a fashion, or perhaps even a tradition? — that has been wholeheartedly embraced not only by the young but by all of society is pachinko. Richie’s chapter on this phenomenon provides ample evidence of the pleasures with which each of his essays are loaded. We have, for example, his sly wit: “It is said that the owners [of pachinko parlors] are usually Koreans and that pachinko might be called an act of revenge for the long and calamitous Japanese occupation of the Korean peninsula.”

We have also his ability to draw analogies both startling and apt: “In the aural inferno sit long lines of patrons, each before his or her machine, oblivious of his or her neighbour. He or she is usually smoking and so the pollution of the air matches that of the ears. It brings to mind the worst of the nineteenth-century factories, humans themselves half machines, the assembly line gone mad.” Few readers will have considered pachinko parlors in quite this light; fewer still will deny that the analogy is accurate.

Ever the nimble essayist, Richie manages to move so gracefully from his association of pachinko with the dark Satanic mills of the Industrial Revolution to a comparison of pachinko with Zen Buddhism that we’re not quite sure how he does it. To still the mind, Richie explains that repetitive ritual is necessary: “the droning of prayers or the monotone of machines, the telling of the beads or the clicking of the balls.”

“‘One is reminded,” he goes on, “of a religious exercise because the pachinko hall is, in its way, a kind of shrine, a sort of temple. One is reminded of zazen meditation, one of the aims of which is liberation from the self through the stilling of that very self.”

Reading Richie’s essays, whether in this collection or in earlier compilations such as “A Lateral View” and “Partial Views,” one almost regrets that he is primarily identified as an authority — the authority — on things Japanese. He is that, to be sure, but he is so much more that this can come to seem reductive, making him sound like yet another journalist or scholar who blows through and squeezes out of his or her visit a book(s), a career. The great limitation of the tomes these short-timers tend to produce is not that they are about Japan, but that they are only about Japan.

Richie’s books, on the other hand, even as they are about Japan, also elucidate, as Susan Sontag has noted, “the paradoxes of modernity, culture and cultural difference, the image-world, art, conduct, beauty, fashion, conformity, sincerity, the pleasures of being a foreigner, and sex” — and Sontag’s catalog is far from complete.

Sontag goes on to identify Richie as “a Living National Treasure,” and it is no surprise that she admires his work. As two of the few remaining independent scholars and critics — these rare creatures used to be called “men of letters” back when they were all men — they are pursuing parallel enterprises. Unfortunately, however, Richie’s work has not received the recognition it should have garnered. Unlike fashions and fads, though, quality lasts. That being the case, one is certain that Richie will — sooner, one hopes, rather than later — receive the attention and accolades that are his due.

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