Outsider: Donald Richie in Japan, 1947-2013

Colin Marshall looks at Donald Richie’s life in Japan through his works.

By Colin MarshallMarch 29, 2014

Outsider: Donald Richie in Japan, 1947-2013

The Inland Sea

PITY THE WESTERN JAPANOPHILE who longs to become Japanese. He either takes on every trapping he can manage of what he imagines as the Japanese existence, going as native as possible and in the process turning into a grotesque, or, having collided with one too many of the invisible barriers honeycombing his adopted homeland, throws up his hands and returns, filled with obscure frustration, to his actual one. Donald Richie, though known as a critic, novelist, curator, and filmmaker, had one real life’s work: to solve that problem, in a life lived almost entirely in Japan since service with the American occupation brought him there on New Year’s Eve, 1946, until his death one year ago. In his observations of, explorations in, and engagements with Japan, he exemplified how to place oneself advantageously in a land and culture not one’s own, a process begun by accepting, then embracing, how adamantly it will remain precisely that: not one’s own.

“The white man who goes native in Samoa or Marrakech,” Richie writes in his best-known work, 1971’s The Inland Sea, “the Japanese who goes native in New York or Paris — this is possible, but it is, I think, impossible for anyone but a Japanese to go Japanese.” Nominally an Ohioan, he stayed in Japan for about 60 years, except for two stretches in New York — first for an English degree at Columbia University, then to curate the Museum of Modern Art’s film program. In this time, he wrote some 40 books on his second, ever-strange country of residence: histories of Japanese film; Japanese travelogues like The Inland Sea; coffee-table books introducing Japan, its cuisine, its cities, its traditions, and its tattoos; novels set in ancient and modern Japan; and the 510-page Japan Journals, a collection, first intended for posthumous publication, of diary entries chronicling 57 years of his daily movement through Japanese society at all levels. What fascinated him throughout is its otherness. “If I were Japanese,” he liked to say of Japan, “I wouldn’t stay here ten minutes.”

“Another country, I am discovering, is another self,” Richie writes in the Journals in his very first year. Japan seemed to him a land that, as the newly proficient Japanese speaker (“I feel like Siegfried in the forest — understanding the language of the birds”) would note seven years later, “is particularly beautiful for those of us who cannot read.” As the decades pass, he settles into this outwardly undemanding land while assiduously avoiding the comfort (“I am considered too much of an outsider for that”)  and thus, he often argued, the complacency that, for expatriates, such comfort usually induces. “At least I question myself,” he writes in his diary in 1990, over 40 years of living in Japan behind him. “This is not done by many foreigners here. They hate. It is there, on their faces, and in their books.” Fellow gaijin of both high and low profile who give themselves to complaint (not in short supply, then or now) draw his scorn, while those who claim to feel at home draw his bewilderment: “I find anyone who is ‘at home’ in this universe a person seriously deluded,” he writes in 1992.

But reflecting that same year on Cyril Connolly’s observation that Henry James “was not an expatriate in so far as he repatriated himself as an Englishman,” Richie draws the conclusion that “I am at home in Japan precisely because I am an alien body. I am no longer a member over there, and cannot become a member over here — this defines my perfectly satisfactory position.” From that position he wrote his books, made his films, composed his lectures, and came to embody Hugh of Saint Victor’s proclamation, beloved of literary travelers, that “the person who finds his homeland sweet is a tender beginner; he to whom every soil is as his native one is already strong; but he is perfect to whom the entire world is as a foreign place.” How, then, did he attain the position in the first place, let alone maintain it for so long in a country that, almost as a rule, knocks its foreigners off balance?

Having already visited and enjoyed Europe, the young Richie enlisting in the army requested a placement in Germany. The United States military proceeded to send him (“in their wisdom,” he would say) to Japan. He could hardly have chanced upon a more foreign place to go, or a more simultaneously stimulating and alienating time to remain there. The decades following World War II saw Japan hypermodernize itself from a shambolic, defeated backwater to, for a time, the most feared financial powerhouse and fascinating cultural producer on earth. Amid all this, Richie enjoyed everything from acquaintance to close friendship with a gallery of Japanese notables like Akira Kurosawa, Yasujiro Ozu, Hiroshi Teshigahara, Toru Takemitsu, Yukio Mishima, and the royal family, as well as Western ones like Marguerite Yourcenar, Richard Avedon, Christopher Isherwood, Susan Sontag, Richard Brautigan, and Francis Ford Coppola.

Yet as much storytelling mileage as he got from having played, early on, the go-to Virgil for high-profile tourists like Truman Capote, Philip Johnson, and Angus Wilson, none of Richie’s works give the sense that he stayed an expatriate for the trappings of celebrity (admit though he did the thrill of once “being treated as someone quite special” by the Japanese). The vitality of Japan, and the vitality he drew from Japan, came from wells dug farthest from the developed world. Hence his countless assignations with the country’s simpler men, the coarse thugs, unlettered laborers, and success-hungry young capitalists; hence his attraction to the “primitive” customs, beliefs, and festivals swept mostly under the rug in the name of late-20th-century presentability; hence his savored, vivid memory of Mount Fuji, visible from every point in a flattened Tokyo; hence his many trips to the island villages where “where men rise with the sun and where streets are dark and silent by nine at night” that make up The Inland Sea.

In that deceptively dense book, Richie lays out his fascination with Japan’s old gods, above all Benten, “a willful goddess” said to have arrived with seven other deities on a boat from China. “One by one the others became identified with good things […] but Benten remained aloof — a foreigner. And, in fact, she also behaved badly. She was jealous, lustful — insatiable, in fact,” her “amorous activities […] chronicled in careful detail,” yet “always her disciplined self, always the eternal foreigner in a land she seemed to like.” It might seem a mere function of human nature that Richie would see in this figure of distant Japanese myth a reflection of himself (Richie cut down the manuscript for Journals heavily after a friend’s assessment: “too much sex”), but his writing, in every form it takes, reveals that he did so not just when contemplating his own lost Japan, but in all of Japan, past and present, real and imagined, as well as the entire world around it besides. Looking at a place, he looked effectively at himself; he’d even given his seemingly never-completed memoirs a title, The Great Mirror, reflecting the idea of Japan as, in the final reckoning, a means of seeing oneself.

“I am aware of a life design,” Richie writes in a journal entry while struggling with that book. “Where I have chosen to live seems to have redressed the lack of it where I was born.” Not only did Japan offer a way permanently out of Lima, Ohio, a birthplace he considered almost featureless, it also offered him a way out of himself, into a setting where he could float freely in contrast to a people adherent to life designs long since established. “The way to escape from one’s inside is to look at the outside and attempt to describe it,” he later writes, trying to take his mind off an absent lover. “Travel, the continual sighting of the new,” says this perpetual traveler, “saves self from self. I am not myself when I am somewhere else. I do not have to feel my familiar inner geography when I have the lay of the world to gaze upon.” His only freedom comes “when I am describing something,” an act in which “myself gets left out — only it is there: the object regarded, delineated, limned. All of my best writing is then. This is also what stops the memoirs.” Writing ostensible examinations of Japan, he inevitably produced, albeit in relief, examinations of Donald Richie; no wonder he struggled, outside the once-private Journals, for a direct way, and thus an unfamiliar way, to write straightforwardly about himself.

All of Richie’s books — the extended examinations of filmmakers like Kurosawa and Ozu; the fictions of life under the occupation and the economic bubble; the guides to Japan’s natural, architectural, and culinary splendors; the meditations on Japanese personalities, aesthetics, and places; the Journals — consist of description. This aligns perfectly with life as he conceives it and his job as a chronicler: “To write everything down, to remember, to think and to savor.” Applied to a writer who lived to describe, felt a constant compulsion to look outside, even away, from himself, and only drew sufficient stimulation to notice in an alien environment, does it matter to what extent his books describe Japan, and to what extent they describe himself? For Richie, each of these tasks necessarily entailed the other. “What I have done is describe myself through Japan,” he decides, approaching age 80, considering his long, “odd” professional association with the country. “You can do this only if you describe the place as it is. Only then, through what you emphasize and what you do not, does your own form become visible.”

Never far from the consciousness of his own limitations, Richie often used them to his advantage, building an authorial persona able clearly to consider the limitations, and thus the advantages, of Japan itself. “I am a novelist who writes few novels, a critic who usually can’t even criticize himself, a husband who prefers sleeping with men,” goes a hair shirt of a self-description, written to himself in a particularly dark moment in the mid-1960s as his marriage to the American writer Mary Evans unraveled. Allergic to theorizing of any kind, grand, academic, or otherwise, he nevertheless crystallized for several generations of readers penetrating insight into what we could call, though now at the risk of intellectual unfashionability, the Japanese mind, or, more acceptably and accurately, the coherent set of assumptions that informed his writing about Japanese culture.

Richie saw Japan as “one of the last countries to wear costumes,” whether overtly or tacitly defined, culturally accepted uniforms for work, for school, for crime — for every social context. An Englishman in Kyoto once told me I could identify the painters by looking for who wears the berets. I didn’t know whether to take him seriously, but on a mountain just outside town, I encountered a middle-aged hiking party dressed and geared up in all but Tyrolean hats. The Japanese painter becomes one by taking the culturally acknowledged form of a painter; the Japanese hiker becomes one by putting on the culturally acknowledged gear of a hiker. So it goes, from what I could see, with chefs, train conductors, youngsters, oldsters, responsible students, and even irresponsible students. Richie’s own entrée into his wide-ranging writing career came from his habit of sneaking into occupied Tokyo’s forbidden native movie theaters, then not contradicting anyone who assumed he had an expertise on Japanese film: “Posing as an expert, I had to become one.” In his Japan, individuals (for he rarely regarded them as a monolithic whole) shift from form to form as their changing contexts demand, a way of life many Westerners, piously as we value the idea of who we “really are,” find disingenuous or even deceptive.

“Appearances are reality,” Richie writes in perhaps the defining observation of The Inland Sea. “[T]he mask is literally the face, and the cynic can find no telltale gap because none exists.” He describes approvingly the Japanese retention, 

right into the latter half of the dehumanized 20th century, a very human, even primitive, quality: their innocence. While this does not prevent great subtlety and a degree of sophistication, this mighty innocence — one that the Japanese share with those the white man elsewhere calls natives — rests upon an uncompromising acceptance […]. The innocent does not look for reasons behind reasons. He, secure in the animal nature that all of us have and only half of us admit, is able to see that all reality is what the West finds merely ostensible reality. Reality is skin deep because there is only skin. The ostensible is the truth.

Outsiders, especially those of us from the West, where “persons draw solace from their very consistency,” may find this psychological environment, where “mutual contradictions are entertained with no seeming inconvenience,” where “the intention is the deed,” where “the highly selective Japanese intelligence which makes literally true that which it chooses not to believe” (demonstrated to the world one day in August 1945 when “everyone in Japan changed his mind”), infuriating. Richie did not. He understood that Japan, by selecting and adhering to its own limitations, empowers itself, even grants itself a counterintuitive flexibility. Outside Japan, he writes in The Japanese Tattoo, a man with a strong character and strong personality “has successfully arranged his disorder and has imposed a proper and individualistic character upon himself.” In Japan, however, “if he is so certain of what he likes and what he doesn’t like, he will then not be able to adapt and compromise.” Richie makes one literally colorful example of the remaining traditionally tattooed Japanese, who “do not structure any presumed inner man. Rather, they structure the outer.” In voluntarily acquiring his tattoo, which restricts his place in society, this Japanese man “need not codify his mind, because his body has been codified.”

What Richie observed in tattooed men, he also observed, in other forms, in non-tattooed men, and indeed in women, even famous ones. Profiling suddenly retired movie star Setsuko Hara, at the time quite possibly the most beloved woman in Japan thanks to her roles as dutiful daughters and mothers under Ozu and others, he writes that “she did not allow them” — the studios, the fans, the country — “to define her; rather, she defined herself. And she did this by setting up her own limitations.” The piece appears in one of Richie’s better-known books, one that would enjoy an even greater readership had it not, over the decades, appeared under a confusing variety of titles from Public People, Private People to Different People to Geisha, Gangster, Neighbor, Nun. The unconventional form of the text itself as well as its ever-shifting title reflects both the difficulty of defining Richie as a writer — for the publishing industry especially — and the freedom in making use of his own limitations that he enjoyed.

In that, he imitated the art he loved. “They are made up only of themselves,” he writes of Haydn’s quartets in the Journals. “Like something perfectly tailored, not an inch left over, everything accounted for. And at the same time, a world of variety.” A more telling example comes in his book on Ozu, the Japanese filmmaker whose work he felt most deeply, one he introduces as “the most Japanese of all film directors.” Ozu found vast creative liberty within cinematic restrictions — the straight cuts, the lack of music, the much-discussed camera bolted down as if sitting on a tatami mat, the “one major subject, the Japanese family,” the “one major theme, its dissolution” — which strike modern, uninitiated viewers, Western and Japanese alike, as harshly ascetic. Set up between Japanese society unable by nature to admit him and the “snowy prefecture of Ohio” to which he had never belonged in the first place, Richie found himself similarly bound yet freed.

Richie quotes Edward Said in Orientalism (Said paraphrasing Hugh of St. Victor):

The more one is able to leave one’s cultural home, the more easily one is able to judge it, and the whole world as well, with the spiritual detachment and generosity necessary for true vision. The more easily, too, does one assess oneself and alien cultures with the same combination of intimacy and distance.

Richie himself had a plainer interpretation, and one more closely tailored to Japan: “The foreigners’ own oddness keeps them separate from every encounter. Unless they regard this as something fruitful, they cannot be considered cured.” In Richie’s case, the fruits took a variety of forms, some quite appetizing even to those with little interest in this intellectual seed that brought them forth: DVD commentaries for home cineastes‎ (on pictures as Japanese as Rashomon and When a Woman Ascends the Stairs or as un-Japanese as Au hasard Balthazar), lectures for International House crowds and college students, large-format photo books for armchair travelers eager to glimpse the exotic (yet ultimately understandable) wonders of distant Japan.

Outsider status in that most group-oriented country also lifted, for Richie, the burdens of group affiliation. The expatriate lives, he writes, “cherishing his own inability to be a part of anything larger than himself,” and in Richie’s own case this extended to matters of sexuality. “In Okinawa,” he writes of his very first moments in Japan, “I felt my testicles descend to the earth.” Despite his great and apparently unwaning physical interest in men, well documented even in the expurgated Journals and easily readable between the lines of The Inland Sea and other books, he repudiated the label “gay,” or any that implied having joined a group, much less signing on to a movement. “In my ideal world no one would pledge allegiance to anything,” he declares, accepting only those restrictions actively chosen. “Why should I so limit myself — and only for the sake of security within the ranks?”

At the peak of his career, Richie ranked only intermittently among the most popular writers on Japan. Still, his work, surely due in no small part to the unconventional lifestyle, daring candidness, and theory-free clarity shaping it, has long attracted a steady stream of considerably younger enthusiasts, some of whom edited his books (as Leza Lowitz did the Journals and Arturo Silva did the Donald Richie Reader); others of whom — former students, budding Japanologists — contributed eloquently to the outpouring of tributes occasioned by his death. Japan, no longer the freshly defeated enemy, nor the mysteriously furious economic engine, nor the exporter of Asia’s most thrilling or strange art and culture, nor even, apparently, a compelling stage for disaster, has once again become as difficult to define as Richie himself. As a prompt for writing, one senses that even the sharpest writers of place can’t figure out quite what to do with it. Richie himself, by the mid-1990s, called Japan “a deeply irrelevant subject.”

Yet around that same time, he found that “a new kind of visitor is now called for. The collision of cultures, the spectacle of the century, one country evolving from its past into its future — this is over. Now something else will happen. And other visitors will come to watch it.” They will emerge from the ranks of Richie’s current and future readers, a generation of Japanophiles who, not freighted by the baggage of ideological conflict, business competition, or a simpler time’s exoticism, will have come to a certain realization about his life and work. In the Journals, Richie records an afternoon in his 80th year with one such younger fan, a Japanese graduate student whose nationality and academic bent make her an unlikely member of his readership. Interviewing him for her dissertation, she arrives, with the kind of mild but nonetheless sudden realization of an Ozu character accepting the nature life, at a conclusion that reveals — Japan aside, film aside, himself aside — Richie’s true subject: “I now understand,” she tells him. “You discovered the virtues of being an outsider.”


Colin Marshall is currently at work on a book about Los Angeles, A Los Angeles Primer.

LARB Contributor

Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall hosts the Korean-language podcast 콜린의 한국 (Colin's Korea) and is at work on a book called The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles. You can follow him at his website, on Twitter @colinmarshall, or on Facebook.


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