The Japan Journals

picture: The Japan Journals
6 March 2005


Anyone who has read anything on Japan will surely at some point have stumbled across the name of Donald Richie. With almost 60 years living in Tokyo and 30 books behind him, there's barely an aspect of the culture he hasn't touched upon - classic literature, architecture, tattoos, teen fashion, and of course, most famously, the movies.

Such ubiquity has earned him the title of "the dean of Japan's art critics" from TIME magazine, which somewhat misleadingly implies an aspect of lofty academicism on his behalf, a tendency to point out to the rest of us what we should all be looking at as he holds forth at the front of the lecture hall.

But what still makes Richie's writing so refreshing after all these years is that he doesn't affect such expertise. He sees himself first and foremost as a writer, a writer who just happens to be living in Tokyo. In the tradition of expatriate literati such as Lawrence Durrell or Henry Miller, he situates himself firmly within his subject matter. Much of his work describes, rather than ascribes, as he struggles to reconcile the Tokyo of the page with the Tokyo of everyday reality, dabbling in every aspect of the culture and the society in this continual process.

"I write to make a pattern in the carpet. I write to make sense of things," he mentioned to Midnight Eye in an interview given in October 2003, a sentiment which finds itself echoed in one of the entries in his Japan Journals. And indeed, over the years, the often nonsensical Tokyo has proven a sufficiently elusive muse to inspire literally volumes of writing from the author. This most recent to hit the shelves is the result of over 50 years of vigorous journal-keeping, give or take a few years here or there when his time was otherwise occupied.

Having lived in Japan since 1947, Richie has had an experience of the country that none of us could ever dream of emulating. Arriving as a fresh-faced 23-year-old along with the US occupying forces, he readily flouted rules against fraternizing with the locals, throwing himself wholeheartedly into his new life in the country. After all, life among the executors of the occupational policy of the Supreme Commander for the Allied Powers, General Douglas MacArthur, proved little more rewarding than the humdrum existence in small-town Lima, Ohio that he had just escaped.

"Little America," he writes, "try though it does to impart democracy and individualism, is always a territory where the Japanese are worried over, and are made objects of condescension... I soon see I will experience nothing, learn nothing if I stay within these commodious and American folds."

A commission to provide a "human interest" story for The Stars and Stripes Weekly, a bulletin for the occupational forces, proved a fortuitous catalyst for Richie's latent writing talent. The resulting article "Man Under a Bridge - The Story of a Refugee from Ruin" was a major turning point - both in the fortunes of the writer, launching him on a prestigious journalistic career that soon saw him ensconced as Arts Critic for the Japan Times, a position he still holds today, and that of his subject, a certain Kiyoshi Iwasaki, whose makeshift temporary shelter in the war-wrecked capitol soon became the subject of the wrong kind of attention from the SCAP forces.

At this point, Richie developed a keen interest in the national cinema: "For me, as for so many, the movies were a preferable form of life. I knew nothing about films themselves - did not know how they were made, or why. And if I knew next to nothing of the films of my own country, I knew nothing at all about Japanese films: did not understand the language, and knew little about Japan itself. From such beginnings knowledge of Japanese cinema could only grow."

Movies became one of the windows through which Richie began to learn more about his new adopted homeland, and after making the acquaintance of Joseph Anderson, the two joined forces to share this passion with the rest of the world. With the publication of The Japanese Film: Art and Industry in 1959, there came a sudden change in the global consensus that prior to the arrival of Akira Kurosawa's Rashomon at the Venice Film Festival in 1951, Japanese cinema consisted of "great quantities of films of dubious merit and purely local interest", the view expressed by Arthur Knight in his 1957 book on world cinema, The Liveliest Art.

Richie's life in Tokyo was certainly by no means limited to film circles. Early entries in his journals describe him struggling to get to grips with the fundamentals of Zen under the tutelage of Daisetz Suzuki, and a shared moment in 1947 with the novelist Yasunari Kawabata in the days before he could speak the language, with the two staring out over the blasted remnants of Tokyo's Asakusa district locked in their own private thoughts.

During the 1960s, Richie also became a close friend to Yukio Mishima, or at least as close as any other Westerner ever got. One of the most colourful of his personal reminiscences is a visit to Daiei studios to see Mishima rehearsing the hara-kiri scene of his short film Patriotism (Yukoku) in 1965, while among the many photographs from the author's own personal collection that accompany the text are some truly eye-popping shots of the internationally celebrated author of works such as The Golden Pavilion and Confessions of a Mask rolling around in the snow with a sword, clad only in a loin cloth.

In between entertaining foreign guests ranging from Truman Capote, W. Somerset Maugham, and Francis Ford Coppola (and teenage daughter Sofia) or hobnobbing with major stars such as Toshiro Mifune, Richie admirably conjures up life in the fast lane in Tokyo in all its licentious splendour, making little attempt to bowdlerize his own sexual proclivities, which are often treated with an explicit frankness. A touching account of the breakdown of his marriage to Mary Evans in the 60s is leavened with more intimate portraits of personal close friends met over the years, with well-known figures such as the composer Toru Takemitsu, and another renowned expat ally in the form of translator Edward G. Seidensticker making recurrent appearances throughout the book.

But the most poignant moments of his journals come during the 90s, a section which takes up the bulk of the writing. Looking back with the benefit of five decades of experience behind him, we see the author moving more and more away from merely recounting events into a more introspective frame of mind. Speaking the language fluently, yet having never learnt to read it, Richie's writings on Japan stem from the long-held belief that "the ostensible is the real", or to put it more simply, what you see is what you get. Can one ever understand the culture? Can one ever really say that they've understood any culture?

These sections can't fail to resonate with those who have ever had the joy of living in Tokyo, the familiar sensations of never feeling quite in sync with the city, simultaneously overwhelmed by its apparent politeness and hospitality, whilst always being kept at arm's length by one's status as an outsider, never freely able to join the society. This sensation of feeling constantly on guard against new fashions, new trends and new developments brings a heightened sense of awareness that makes living there such a perpetual buzz.

With the Tokyo of the 90s a lifetime away from the city he first arrived in as a wide-eyed young man, he reflects on the value of his life's project. "What I have done is describe myself through Japan. People who do not read carefully still ask when I fell in love with Japan. I never did. I liked the place from the first, but I fell in love with other places - Greece, for example; Morocco for example."

Richie's catalogue of this constantly dynamic and changing metropolis is essentially a story with three intertwining narratives: of how Tokyo has intrinsically changed, how it has changed in the eyes of the world, and how the writer has changed within it. At almost 500 pages in length, as a personalised account of one city's miraculous rise from post-war ruin through the Bubble years of excess to its recession years at the end of the millennium, it is perhaps the most fitting testimonial one could ever wish for.