Book Reviews

The Inland Sea, by Donald Richie

This article appeared in the Hyde Park Review of Books in November 2002.

The Inland Sea
By Donald Richie
Stone Bridge Press, 2002. 260 pp.

Reviewed by Eve Kushner

In 1962, Donald Richie first journeyed through Japan’s Inland Sea, island-hopping in a meandering exploration. He returned repeatedly in subsequent years, always keeping an astute travel journal. Between trips, he wrote essays about Japanese culture from his home in Tokyo, where this prolific American expatriate has lived and written since 1947.

In 1971, he finally published The Inland Sea, which deftly interweaves journal entries and essays. The overlays form a neat composite, giving the impression that he took just one action-packed trip with brilliant musings at every turn.

Eve at the famous Itsukushima Jinja Shrine
Eve at the famous Itsukushima Jinja Shrine in Miyajima, Japan, April 2002.

In 1991, the out-of-print book became the basis of an amateurish but visually appealing documentary, with Richie narrating unintelligibly and appearing at the end. Now, 40 years after his first Inland Sea trip, Stone Bridge Press has reissued his book, adding an introduction by Pico Iyer and an afterword by Richie, who, at nearly 80 is still writing away.

The misleading label travel fiction appears on the new cover, and Richie himself likes to categorize this work as such, though I cannot understand why. As he explained in the earlier edition (but not the current one), “The travels are real, the chronology is real, and the people are real, though certain details concerning them—myself included—have sometimes been changed….” If readers approach the book as fiction, they’ll miss the wonderful experience of feeling like Richie’s privileged confidantes.

Though as much as four decades old, this book remains timeless. And whenever I read it (three times and counting), it makes me want to linger over the pages and hang out with Richie a little longer. Occasionally cranky, always funny, keenly and compassionately observant, intelligent in his musings, staggeringly well-informed about Japan and the world at large, and admirably honest about his own humanness, he serves as an inimitable traveling companion.

Richie’s book has also made me long to visit the Inland Sea. And in 2002 I finally did. From the first moment to the last, the landscape looked exactly as I had imagined (which isn’t surprising, because I’d seen the documentary). Gazing at mountainous islands sloping into the sea, I felt I’d found the same tonic that had repeatedly soothed Richie.

When the new edition of his book came out, I jumped at the chance to read it, wanting to see the area again through his eyes. This is how he describes the vistas: “Wherever one turns there is a wide and restful view, one island behind the other, each soft shape melting into the next until the last dim outline is lost in the distance.”

In Richie’s decades-old view, “The islands of the Inland Sea are among the last places on earth where men rise with the sun and where streets are dark and silent by nine at night. Here is the last of old Japan.” With urban Japanese uninterested in this long, narrow stretch of water between three of Japan’s four major islands, the Inland Sea towns remained relatively undeveloped in the 1960s. Then large bridges appeared, destroying the sleepy island lifestyle. One formerly inhabited island is now home to only a bridge pylon.

Anticipating that modernization would wreak such damage, Richie infused his work with an elegiac sadness: “These islands are extraordinarily beautiful, and a part of their beauty is that it is passing…. When this paradise, this ideal sea garden[,] … goes, … so will the people who inhabit it, the race … that these islands have created.”

He documents the islanders’ evanescent ways, noting for instance that “they know much of their own island and nothing of the next, though it is framed daily in their bay.” When asked about Honjima, a nearby island, locals speak of it as “some distant, fabled place of which one has only heard.” In their minds, “Even its existence is doubtful.”

Although he beautifully captures the rhythms of island life, that’s not his primary quest. Actually, Richie doesn’t seem sure what his quest is. He states several purposes for his trip, including a desire to find “the real Japanese … the people the Japanese ought to be, the people they once were.” But he revises his statement of intent as the book continues, coming to understand that, above all, he aims to dissolve the considerable barrier separating him from the Japanese. They persist in viewing him as a foreigner, or worse, as a “Representative of My Country,” forever accountable for misguided U.S. foreign policy. “Like all Americans,” he says, “… I want to be loved—somehow—for my precious self alone.” Occasionally alluding to his unraveling marriage, he provides more context for his journey; with his personal life falling apart, he needs to feel that he belongs, both to certain individuals and to a larger group.

On his travels he spends time with more than a dozen locals, including a virginal country bumpkin who presses Richie for information about female genitalia (particularly Jane Fonda’s); a prostitute who believes that she and the poet Elizabeth Barrett Browning have a great deal in common and who therefore feels too refined to service Richie; and a delinquent who, having been sent to the priesthood as a punishment, confides in Richie his plan to escape.

Using these encounters as springboards, Richie muses about all aspects of Japanese culture, from coffee shops, leprosy, Shinto shrines, and bathhouses to the way the Japanese approach death, emotional difficulties, leave-takings, personal transgressions, fashion, gender roles, and more.

Usually positive or at least relativistic about Japanese culture, but sometimes harshly critical, Richie spins countless aphorisms, both about human nature (“Travel hopefully broadens those who travel. It usually narrows those who have to deal with the travelers”) and about Japan: “The Japanese are really a sea people; they are all really islanders. To see them hedged in their enormous cities is to see them unnatural.” Some pronouncements seem too neat to be believed, perhaps even by Richie himself, but he clearly had so much fun writing them that the reader cheerfully suspends disbelief most of the time.

Richie revels in his prodigious verbal gifts, particularly when it comes to lyrical descriptions. Departing on a ferry, for instance, he looks back to shore and paints this picture: “The sun lifted itself above the mountains, flying. The rising mist turned gold. The entire island floated large on the sea like a mirror. The girls were gone, swallowed into the morning.”

As description segues into personal narrative and slides into cultural commentary, creating refreshing variations in tone and pace, Richie takes readers for a glorious ride. Ultimately, that matters far more than any specific quest.