In Search of the “Real” Japan

By Colin MarshallAugust 18, 2016

In Search of the “Real” Japan

The Inland Sea by Donald Richie

“IT IS PERHAPS TRUE that the best way to get to know a people is to sleep with them,” writes Donald Richie about halfway into The Inland Sea, “but this is complicated in Japan.” That hardly stops him from trying, however. In this account of a journey through the towns and villages of the titular “landlocked, lakelike body of water bounded by three of Japan’s four major islands” appear a memorable cast of partners: an island girl, barely of high-school age, who invites herself into Richie’s room; a brash, young yakuza cast into exile as a Buddhist acolyte; a sailor, even younger and more severe, who quashes his sexual urges with buckets of cold water; a pouting prostitute with whom a bar owner all but swindles Richie into spending a dire evening; a kept woman whose name he never catches, but with whom he imagines an entire blissful life together as, late in the book, they talk until sunrise.

Most of these episodes end with Richie indirectly but firmly rebuffed, and even his possibly successful couplings receive no more acknowledgment than such ambiguous lines as “he had walked me back to my inn, had come in for a cup of tea, had asked more questions, had finally spent the night.” (“Foreigners are nice,” says another young man, alone with Richie in a dark field. “They’ll do things that Japanese don’t do.”) But the author, who first came to Japan in 1947 as a typist and then a reporter for the US occupation force, was no mere sex tourist; by the time of The Inland Sea’s first publication in 1971, he had already established himself in Japan as a journalist, film critic, novelist, and interpreter of a host of Japanese subjects, from flower arrangement to phallic symbolism.

Though he certainly knew the country well enough to put together a solid travelogue, Richie was also no run-of-the-mill travel writer. The Inland Sea displays the writerly virtues most evident in a later book, well-known when published in 1996 (under a bewildering variety of titles, from Geisha, Gangster, Neighbor, Nun to Public People, Private People to Japanese Portraits) but much less so today. Each of that book’s chapters presents a prose sketch of one of the many Japanese people Richie knew, a group that included major film-world figures like the director Yasujirō Ozu (on whom Richie also wrote the definitive study) and the late midcentury cinematic icon Setsuko Hara, as well as literary celebrities like Yukio Mishima, the closeted ultranationalist whose infamous ritual suicide ended his futile attempt to overtake the Japanese government, and Yasunari Kawabata, who took his own life shortly after winning the Nobel Prize.

Richie observed no less keenly, and listened no less closely to, the “private people,” those geisha, gangsters, neighbors, and nuns who provide half of the book’s material and gave the first edition its publisher-chosen title — one Richie pushed back against, thinking its implied stereotypes ran directly counter to the mission of his book (and in some sense his life) of approaching each person in Japan as an individual. But the mission ran both ways, and The Inland Sea also narrates Richie’s quest to be treated, by the very private people he meets, as an individual himself. Striking up a conversation with a pack of teenage dandies in a coffee shop in the small port city of Takamatsu, he soon finds them desperately wanting him to “tell us about New York, tell us about the latest designs in automobiles, what about Jane Fonda, how did President Kennedy really die, and so on.”

“I answer as best as I can,” he writes, “aware — as one always is in Japan — that I have ceased being myself. Rather, I have become — once again — a Representative of My Country.” He realizes that “these boys are not looking at me as another person more or less like themselves, and that their friendly questions contain no friendship for solitary me. Like all Americans, like all romantics, I want to be loved — somehow — for my precious self alone.”

Richie keeps sweeping statements about his country of origin close at hand, a habit common among Western expatriates in Asia. Despite his resistance to describing in generalizations the Japanese men and women with whom he engages one-on-one, he does also indulge in bouts of theory about the Japanese people as a whole, with the implicit justification — one still often used by such expats — that nobody could possibly essentialize the Japanese more than the Japanese essentialize themselves. “Since the Japanese do not truly believe themselves to be individuals,” he observes in Hiroshima when approached by a snippy restaurant manager who questions his manner of eating prawns, “they refuse to allow anyone else to be.”

“I refuse to give in to that easy and sentimental feeling of guilt in which Americans specialize,” he continues, his pronouncements growing more expansive, “and, at the same time, I refuse the equally easy thought that the disapproving manager is not after all a representative, but merely a single man among millions.” This disquisition is typical of those Richie intersperses throughout the book, taking the text down historical, linguistic, sociological, and aesthetic avenues even as the narrator makes his island-hopping way on a succession of buses, trains, and boats from western Japan’s port metropolis of Kobe to the national treasure of the Miyajima shrine, floating as it always has about 200 miles down the coast.

Richie stops at plenty of humbler shrines along the way. Strolling through the alleys of the first island town at which he alights, his alien presence ignored by the townspeople he passes, Richie finally asks a girl for directions, and then observes:

Words make you visible in Japan. Until you speak, until you commit yourself to communication, you are not visible at all. You might travel from one end of the country to the other and, unless you open your mouth or get set upon by English-speaking students, be assured of the most complete privacy.

Almost 200 pages and most of the journey later, we find Richie at another shrine, this one a venue in which to discuss the Shinto religion, whose “casual, unremarked acceptance of nature speaks to something very deep within us,” unlike “smiling Buddhism with its hopeful despair” or whatever we feel in “confident, vaunting, expectant Christian churches.”

A boat ride happens to take Richie past a “perfect cone of an island,” which immediately draws his attention, but his alone: “To the Japanese the perfect is unnerving, suspicious. This wooded triangle reaching toward the sky moves me but not my fellow passengers. They look at it, but they do not approve.” (The body of water itself suffers a similar neglect for its too-perfect appearance: “with the exception of a few celebrated heights, the beauty of the Inland Sea is little noticed.”) But a hike past the site of a battle between the Genji and the Heike, those ever-warring clans of Japanese history, sparks a meditation on the nation’s love of regularity in behavior, even during wartime when, he imagines, “the massacres were held according to rules.”

“Last night I had been the respectful otaku, today I was the standard anata,” he writes, recounting an evening spent drinking beer with an island fisherman’s son invited to his room. “I could have responded by calling him the familiar kimi. I was, after all, older and richer. But I have never felt at ease with kimi. In the same way I will call myself the formal watakushi, the standard boku, but I don’t feel right using the familiar ore — much less the lowest of all you’s, omae.” Yet his mastery of the spoken language belies an almost total lack of facility with the written, one he doesn’t entirely regret: “Japan can be very beautiful to us illiterates,” he remarks in gratitude for his inability to understand the highway billboards in “this automobile-ridden land.”

Throughout The Inland Sea, Richie expresses a disappointed loathing not just for the cars and the advertisements that beset Japan during its postwar economic boom, but for its inexorable dismantling of what he had briefly come to know, and love, as the Japanese way of life. He regards his jumping-off point of Kobe as “indication enough of Japan’s sad future,” a “large, overgrown, unfinished-looking city” with “big new hotels shouldering out shrines and temples, big new banks pushing away parks and gardens, big new parking lots where the gracious old inns of the city once stood.” (Still, he credits it with just enough remnants of the old Japan “to spoil the effect of a new Los Angeles.”) He frames his travels as a flight from not just the likes of Kobe, but also “hot, crowded, smog-covered Tokyo,” “steaming Osaka,” and “poor fragmented Kyoto.”

This most acclaimed of Richie’s non-film-related works has often been described as “elegiac,” and it delivers its elegy for his idea of the old Japan (or, as the bright red cover of my 1970s paperback edition promised, “THE ‘REAL’ JAPAN”), a place far from “the sensationalism, the cynicism, the brutality” of the late 20th century — those forces conspiring to bring about the day when “everyone will be like everyone else, all will be wandering about, promiscuous, on hot concrete under a blazing sun.” His desire to find what remains leads him to the Inland Sea in search of its less-developed places, “the last places on earth where men rise with the sun and where streets are dark and silent by nine at night,” the ones that remind him that, once, “the Japanese were a rough and lively, lusty, impatient, enthusiastic, open, loving and hating people.”

In the Inland Sea of the 1960s, which has yet to undergo the kind of development seen in booming Olympics-era Tokyo (and many parts, their villages since depopulated and ferry routes closed, have lost all hope for it today), Richie encounters such living time capsules as an old man who speaks without hesitation to Richie in Japanese because, so his little grandson explains, “it was not so much that he knew I could speak Japanese as it was that he was certain there was no other language on earth.” Another, asked by Richie how far away his inn is, responds cryptically that it is “two,” as in two electricity poles away: “Just as the natives of Mexico divide space into the time it takes to smoke a cigarette, these island people reckon by the relatively recent innovation of electric-line poles.”

Still, signs of the encroachment of modernity and the West — sometimes one and the same, sometimes not — nowhere escape Richie’s notice, nor do the signs of the younger generation’s over-eagerness to embrace them. One young woman regales the cringing narrator with the Tokyo slang-sprinkled news of a new resort about to go up on her island: “The hotel is eventually going to be really great (saiko, maximum), but the island is dreadful (saitei, minimum); the hotel is, in fact, going to be real ikasu (groovy).” This “daughter of a fisherman” dismisses as saitei, Richie’s choice of a humbler place to stay: “After all, it’s only a fishing village.”

Richie comes away less troubled from an encounter, on one of his many small-ferry rides, with a schoolgirl on her way to the mainland for her weekly guitar lesson. She mentions learning to play Gabriel Fauré’s “Pavane,” having heard it on the radio and sent away for the sheet music from Tokyo. When Richie, a classical music aficionado, hums a bit of the piece hoping for a thrilled response, he receives only her unsurprised humming accompaniment with an occasional correction of the melody. “And did I know ‘Banjo on Knee’? — this in English — which was another pretty tune?”

Richie has come to expect nothing less from “Japan, land of incongruity.” But for all his worries about global uniformity, he must have felt at least a little heartened at the idiosyncratic way in which Japanese society, promiscuous in its enthusiasm for all things foreign, integrates them into its daily life. He finds a window onto the process, even in the tiny towns of the Inland Sea, among “wire chairs, bent-iron tables, solid units of primary colors, acute angles,” and beehive-haired ladies negotiating elaborate parfaits. “In the musical coffee shops you first heard Schoenberg, in the artistic coffee shops you first saw the picture of a Giacometti. Here also were observed the first signs of the great innovation, the miniskirt.” In coffee shops he sees “no attempt at discrimination, but many of the pieces of various foreign culture are lying there, all brand new and ready to be put together, like pieces of some giant and scattered puzzle.”

Cosmopolitan Japan has such fascinations, even for Richie, but his persona in The Inland Sea finds mostly causes for dismay. Bemoaning the Japanese commuter’s choice of reading material (“he could do Proust in a month, Tolstoi in a season,” but “he reads only trash”), Richie thinks back to his days on city trains spotting belt buckles. He had come to see them, whether shaped like animals, school crests, or the wearer’s initials, as shining beacons of personal choice amid the uniform of the Japanese male. But no sooner did he notice them than they began to disappear, displaced by pre-buckled belts (“of the kind you go into the department store, buy, and put on, already made”), except on the waist of the occasional yakuza, “the last of the breed, the final samurai, the ultimate individual”:

What has happened to all the buckle sellers? Are they now sitting dispossessed in the street? And those thousands of happy and inventive people who used to make the buckles, what of them? A small point, perhaps, but a sign that individuality is passing, has passed, and — much worse — also presumably passed is the need for that individuality.

Words like these can sound curmudgeonly, like the resentful thoughts of the kind of expatriate who would deny, or at least begrudge, his host country the considerable benefits of modernity in the name of the fading picturesqueness and eccentricity with which he fell in love. “He’s too late,” Richie writes in his journals of the Japanologist Alex Kerr, who makes use of a similarly backward-looking persona in books like Lost Japan (1993). “We’ll both end up in a Dayak long house and even there it will be too late.”

Yet Richie also spent nearly his entire life in Japan in Tokyo and wrote a short book-length appreciation of the metropolis in the late 1990s. Even in The Inland Sea he knows, or strongly suspects, that there remain in Japanese cities things which have vanished elsewhere:

carpenters and stonecutters who take pride in their work, taxi drivers who polish their cars, salesmen who believe in the company, housewives who believe in happiness, disinterested politicians, students who have faith in the future, and waitresses who manage smiles for each of their hundreds of daily customers.

This may smack of romanticism, an affliction to which Richie admits at every turn. “Such are the vagaries of the romantic temperament, however, that it is never satisfied,” he writes, miserable and hungry on an aging, foodless train (albeit one “redolent enough of old Japan to suit me”), crawling from yet one more small-to-medium-sized coastal city to another. Richie’s haunting surprise encounter with his wife, who somehow turns up at his inn in an island town small enough to have since been absorbed into Onomichi, itself no megalopolis, provides the occasion for a high concentration of such self-criticism.

“Often enough I had reminded her that I was promiscuous,” Richie writes of their relationship,

I also often mentioned that if she were Japanese, she would be content with the home, the name, perhaps a child, and I could gallivant as I pleased upon my quixotic quest. But she wasn’t Japanese, nor was I, and it was equally probable that the complacent Japanese lady I had in mind did not exist.

As for his wife, a “tall, large, blue-eyed white woman” here named Louise,

[A]pproving of something attractively distant (romantic adventurer) and then living with it (philandering husband) uncomfortably near were quite different. On top of this was the ludicrous discomfort of my being such a singularly inept adventurer that I thought of possible adventures continually and actually consummated very few.

The narrative of The Inland Sea synthesizes a series of trips around that region of Japan, the first and most extensive of which Richie took in 1962, and it bears the marks of that now-distant era, one with attitudes of its own — some of them more permissive, in their way, than ours today. It might shock modern readers that Richie, in his late 30s to mid-40s during the time of his Inland Sea travels, admits to amorous thoughts about a 15-year-old girl who finds him an inn for the night, much less that he recounts his ham-handed, impulsive, and failed attempt at seduction. It begins with a touch of her skin, which brings on one of his paeans, too genuinely appreciative to come off as fetishistic, to Japanese skin itself: “It is not like a mere covering. It is as though the entire body, all the way through, were composed of this soft, smooth, lustrousness.”

But his fumbling also leads, as often in this book, to an astute cultural observation. His advances rejected with an uncomprehending giggle, he wonders how often these misunderstandings happen in Japan, fueled by “what we feel in Japan — the promise, the lure of the place, the mirage of pleasure, the distant vista of — uh — happiness. It is never quite where you are but it is always just around the corner.” Richie and his romantic temperament “go around hoping to be seduced and consequently read such unlikely intentions into the thoughts of this little girl who has kindly helped me find a room.”

Richie — who later theorizes that travelers want actual sex less than they want “something to fill the emptiness that their very freedom has created” — had already come to know the girl as something more than a conquest. Having met her in the company of a couple of friends who spot him on the beach, he falls into a long conversation, learning something of the lot in life of this last generation to come of age willing to enter into an arranged marriage, reproduce, and die in their hometown — the last truly rooted inhabitants, for better or worse, of the Inland Sea. “She sits on the rock, a schoolgirl, her bicycle lying in front of her. She is still whole. She still belongs to herself. Soon she will make herself forget what it was like to be fifteen with the whole world inviting.”

Like all romantics, Richie venerates youth, though he disputes “General MacArthur’s patronizing and ill-judged remark that the Japanese are a nation of twelve-year-olds. Actually, of course, they are a nation of eighteen-year-olds, that excellent age when innocence and experience are as nicely balanced as they will ever be.” These and other well-meaning asides contribute to the unfashionable tone of this exquisitely crafted book. A middle-aged white man’s travelogue in Asia raises suspicions enough, let alone one by one so open about his intentions of sleeping with the locals, and who so unironically declares that “I want to find the place where the real Japanese live. But are there any?”

Then as now, the “real Japanese,” as well as the “real Japan,” reside where you choose to see them. “‘One world’ is becoming a hideous possibility and I wish to celebrate our differences for as long as is possible,” writes Richie, who, having died just three years ago at the age of 88, lived to see decades of penetration into Japan by such ostensibly world-flattening multinational presences as McDonald’s and Starbucks. But as I’ve found on my own frequent visits to Japan, a Starbucks, though hardly the kind of cultural frontier Richie found in its local predecessors 50 years ago, provides not only one of the few reliable wi-fi connections a gaijin can get but also, as Richie knew a good Japanese coffee shop does, a window onto the qualities that still set Japan apart from everywhere else: all the standardized superficial qualities of its environment cast the deeper, unstandardizable differences into stark relief.

Still, they remain a far cry from the already-vanished country Richie memorializes in certain of The Inland Sea’s interludes, with an emphasis on the unsensationally, even elegantly erotic. He stops into a bar in Onomichi’s night town to catch a performance of a traditional geisha’s dance clumsily modified into a sutorippu show, and there remembers with much greater pleasure the “the enormous and pleasure-loving Yoshiwara, the little red-light district of the Chiba part of Choshi, the elegant houses of Nagasaki’s Maruyama,” the venues for private shows held with “enthusiastic artlessness” where, “cramped between the wife’s sewing machine and the children’s toy-box, one witnessed all kinds of lovemaking.”

Yet in Richie’s recollection, all this, in a country whose people “have fifty-three words for ‘prostitute’ and yet do not distinguish between ‘lock’ and ‘key,’” had not a note of prurience about it. “Try as one may — at least in my case — it is impossible to find anything sordid in Japan.” It has to do with one of Richie’s lasting insights into this country whose people he saw as having managed to retain,

[R]ight into the latter half of the dehumanized twentieth 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 of the world as it is.

This insight, stated and restated in The Inland Sea, underlies much of Richie’s written work on Japan: the evocation of a psychological landscape where “reality is skin deep because there is only skin. The ostensible is the truth. There is no crack between the mask and the face because the mask is the only face anyone ever has — that crack, which contains irony and wit as well as cynicism, does not exist.” This holds as true for him in a fishing village as in a fashion-forward coffee shop as in a provincial nudie bar as, finally, at the Miyajima shrine, illuminated at night by “hundreds of candles in their hanging cages casting their reflections against the lacquer” and “the great orb of the autumn moon.”

The book appropriately leaves that image, one of its last, to the imagination, but this new edition from Stone Bridge Press does include a picture of Miyajima’s famous torii gate by day, knee-deep in the water, captured in black and white by nature photographer Yōichi Midorikawa. The Inland Sea actually took its first form, as Richie tells us in the notes to the first edition, as an adaptation of pieces from travel journals meant merely to accompany a collection of Midorikawa’s photographs. But when that monograph didn’t happen, Midorikawa’s photographs became the accompaniment to Richie’s writing, and Stone Bridge has restored them all to their full-page magnificence, just as they appeared in 1971, their vision of the region’s textures — the sparkling plane of the sea broken up by the silhouettes of small land masses and smaller boats, the slopes of the islands carved into hundreds of stair-step terraces — coming right up to the edge of abstraction.

These high-contrast images also contrast with the text: on one page Richie’s writing, so personal, filled with longings, sometimes contradictory, so fascinated with and concerned about humanity, and on the other the austere, elemental beauty of Midorikawa’s photography. “I don’t care if I never come back,” Richie declares early in the book, about the thoroughly urbanized and increasingly internationalized mainland. “I don’t care if I never come back,” he declares at the end, about the United States. While he never did come back to the United States to live, he did, of course, go back to Tokyo, just secure enough in the knowledge that Japan would always have the Inland Sea, and that everything else in Japan — every word he spoke or heard, every place he went, every person he came to know or even love — would always have something of the Inland Sea within it.


Colin Marshall authors the Los Angeles Review of Books Korea Blog and is currently at work on the book A Los Angeles Primer: Mastering the Stateless City.

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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