The late Donald Richie lived at apartment number 804 in a block directly facing Shinobazu Pond in Tokyo’s Ueno Park. The writer would lead visitors through his home’s dimly lit entrance area — crammed with bookshelves — and his minuscule living room to the balcony, beneath which a vast lotus pond spread out, in his words, like a “sacred mandala.” The process, no doubt repeated with many visitors, was the closest the modest Richie ever came to a flourish.
Today marks the anniversary of the American writer’s birth in 1924. It seems an opportune moment to assess the legacy of his work and its prospects of enduring.
Inseparable from Richie’s value as a writer is the sheer fact that he lived in Japan for so long — more than 60 years. Unlike many others who wrote about Japan and then decamped, he entrenched himself here, and in the process bore witness to unimaginable changes.
This persistence of time is important. Although some very fine writers have made Japan their home at one time or another, such as Anthony Thwaite and, more recently, David Mitchell, all eventually left.
An early entry in Richie’s “The Japan Journals: 1947-2004,” judiciously edited by Leza Lowitz, illustrates the point. Exploring Ginza’s black market, the writer observes the “products of a dead civilization” spread over tables and stalls — the old world of Japan being auctioned off to make ends meet.
“There were wartime medals and egret feather tiaras,” he writes, “bridles and bits and damascene cuff links. There were old brocades and pieces of calligraphy, battered woodblock prints and old framed photographs.”
Standing at the district’s main intersection, practically all of its buildings leveled and Mount Fuji as visible as it was in an old Hokusai print, the young Richie watches the approach of “braces of oxen on the Ginza.”
Will his work still be relevant to future generations of readers? The writer Lafcadio Hearn, with whom Richie is sometimes misleadingly compared to, is virtually unknown outside of Japan or his native Ireland. Future interest in Richie’s work will depend to some degree on Japan’s name value, its global visibility and the level of interest in the country itself.
It may be that the individual titles of writers fair better than entire opuses. One thinks of John W. Dower’s Pulitzer Prize-winning “Embracing Defeat” or Ruth Benedict’s flawed but still but much studied and referenced, “The Chrysanthemum and the Sword.”
Even writing a classic is not always enough to guarantee longevity in print. How could publishers, for example, have allowed such travel writing gems as Norman Lewis’s “Golden Earth” or Peter Goullart’s “The Forgotten Kingdom” to remain out of print for so long before reissuing them? Richie’s classic, “The Inland Sea,” met a similar fate to these exalted but oddly neglected books, with Stone Bridge Press recently releasing a new edition of the original 1971 title. Rereading the book, we are reminded of Richie’s restrained lyrical style, the depth and resonance of his prose.
Despite only modest print runs and book sales during his lifetime, Richie has left us imperishable works. Richie analyzed Japan in words of unsurpassed eloquence in books such as “Japanese Portraits: Pictures of Different People,” “A Lateral View: Essays on Culture and Style in Contemporary Japan,” “The Image Factory: Fads and Fashions in Japan” and an incomparable biography of film director Yasujiro Ozu.
A hallmark of Richie’s staying power is that his books can be profitably reread any number of times; they’re enduringly engaging thanks to the multiplicity of his commentary. While ostensibly writing on Disneyland, Richie is also commenting on architecture, space and impermanence — the catastrophic tastes of modern Japan. Writing on Japanese cuisine, he examines its derivatives in nature and the environment; on the filmmaker Shohei Imamura, he contrasts the official, exported images of Japan with more salient realities. Richie’s work is marked by an engrossing interest in a succession of subjects. Topics are explored in ever greater depth, but there is little evidence of repetition. There are no sequels to his works, only incremental layers; successive depth charges.
Compared to his nonfiction work, the novels and short stories tend to pale, but even here there are exceptions. Some of the swaggering conceit that re-emerged during the bubble economy years — characterized by opulence, extravagance and strong notions of Japanese exceptionalism — is captured with remarkable accuracy in the febrile atmosphere of Richie’s 1988 novel, “Tokyo Nights.”
Then there are books and projects that presumably remain unpublished. As I write, I have on my desk a mock up of the front cover of a book titled, “Yukio Mishima: Sketches for a More Formal Portrait,” which was retracted because of a disagreement with Richie’s London publisher. A 1967 entry in his journals hints at the depth of insight Richie might have provided on the contentious Japanese author. Gazing out of the window into the Japanese garden of his Roppongi home, he sees photographer Tamotsu Yato, “taking pictures of Yukio (Mishima) in the snow. The photographer is bundled up with scarf and sweater; the author is naked except for a white loincloth. He also brandishes a sword … ” The photograph is famous, the man at the window — slightly out of frame — is a figure vulnerable to the excisions of memory.
An observation Richie made of the Japanese in 1958, one that appears in the “Journals,” might well serve as his own epitaph to writing: “This most pragmatic of people do not count hopes or intentions as accomplishments. A man is what he does. After his death, he is what he has done.”
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