Book Reviews

The Donald Richie Reader: 50 Years of Writing on Japan

This article appeared in the Spring 2002 edition of Persimmon.

The Donald Richie Reader: 50 Years of Writing on Japan
By Donald Richie; compiled, edited, and with an introduction by Arturo Silva
Stone Bridge Press, 2001. 238 pp.

By Eve Kushner

In 1947, Donald Richie made an unthinkable move. He left behind the safe but stifling United States and settled in devastated, postwar Japan. Except for five years in New York, he has lived in Tokyo ever since, writing prolifically about Japanese culture and making a name for himself in the film world.

In The Donald Richie Reader: 50 Years of Writing on Japan, editor Arturo Silva has anthologized Richie’s insightful personal essays and cultural commentary, along with his eminently readable fiction, film criticism, and excerpts from eighteen of his thirty-some books, giving readers a satisfying taste of Richie across the genres and years. Selections include charming portraits of both celebrities and ordinary people; eyewitness accounts of unusual religious festivals, such as one in which children sleep in holes on the beach; stories that impart Zen philosophy; a brilliant analysis of director Yasujiro Ozu’s films; and condemnations of Western tourists who bring an “assumption of superiority” in “their mental luggage.”

Chion-in Temple in Kyoto, Japan.
Chion-in Temple in Kyoto, Japan. In this massive complex, stairways lead to temples and then more stairways.

The book’s magazine-style design allows Silva to incorporate miscellaneous material in sidebars, such as excerpts from Richie’s impressive travel memoir, The Inland Sea. The compendium also includes photographs of Richie with cultural giants like Ozu and novelist Yasunari Kawabata. Although the busyness of the pages may at first be distracting to those accustomed to a quieter layout, the packed-to-the-gills feeling of the anthology ultimately rewards the reader, who will finish it thirsting for still more of Richie’s writing.

Donald Richie consistently lures the reader onward with prose that is by turns entertaining, poetic, and journalistic in its telling details. For instance, he paints this vivid picture of postwar Tokyo: “Between me and Fuji was a burned wasteland, a vast and blackened plain where a city had once stood.” A stellar essayist, he tosses off aperçus: “Japan is not small. It is a full-sized country with more variety than most. Japan is thought to be small mainly because the Japanese want it to be thought small, just as they themselves want to be thought of as a small people. They feel that it is gross to be large.”

Richie’s relationship with Japan and its people provides grist for an ongoing discussion. He takes pleasure in the freedom afforded by his gaijin (foreigner) status, as it gives him the “best seat in the house” for observing the culture of his adopted country. He writes that Japan “makes very few demands on me—I am considered too much the outsider for that, a distinction I owe to the color of my skin, eyes, and hair—and, consequently, I become free. I become a one-member society, consistent only to myself and forever different from those who surround me.” At the same time, he yearns for connection with the Japanese and rues the lack of possibilities for making such connections, owing to his outsider status. After a young woman resists his sexual advances, he describes himself as

…ashamed of being big and lumbering and stupid. This is how the foreigner traditionally feels in the small, fragile Japanese house. There he sits all hands and feet, afraid of sticking an elbow through a shoji pane. He never gets over it, even after many years. He may, however, refine the feeling, as I have done: I no longer feel clumsy around their houses; I feel clumsy around their feelings.

Writing in English for Westerners, Richie keeps the West as a reference point while he muses about Japan. Though he never succumbs to facile judgments about the superiority of either East or West, he does not disguise his horror at the consumer-driven disintegration of the Japanese culture and landscape he has known so well. By 1988, he says, “I felt I was living in a museum that was being swiftly destroyed. The wreckers were at work and—oh, there goes a whole room I thought never would; oh, there goes a whole wing of what I had thought was the permanent display.”

Working furiously to document everything he sees before it disappears, he writes about all manner of highbrow and lowbrow subjects, from architecture and gardens to the pinball-like game pachinko, clothing trends, urination in public, flatulence, and tattoos. His essays about the moribund traditional culture often have an underlying sadness, as seen in this comment about the less developed islands of Japan’s Inland Sea: “Already the change is upon us—already the innocence is fading, going, gone. It lingers here, in these islands that I have so recently visited, but only for a time. I’m fortunate to have seen it.”

Ever analytical, Richie asks why Japan has evolved as it has. The Japanese, he asserts, have historically accepted and even embraced change, mutability, and death as natural processses. They take this disposition so far as to erect buildings for only a season, later demolishing perfectly intact structures. With this insight, Richie finds a way to swallow what he regards as the otherwise unpalatable self-destruction of the Japan he has loved.

Eve Kushner is a freelance writer who lives in Berkeley, California. Her articles on Japan have appeared in Japanophile, NACLA, the East Bay Express, and Bright Lights Film Journal.