Seen from afar: An outside view of the 'real' Japan
Donald Richie has been writing on Japan for 60 years, but which Japan? @ CNNgo
It’s almost impossible for the English-language reader with an abiding interest in Japan to avoid Donald Richie.
You may find him in print through his copious newspaper columns and reviews, his several wide-ranging books on Japan, assaying subjects as seemingly disparate as film, gardens, Zen and the Inland Sea, or his forays into fiction.
If you live or stay in Tokyo for a stretch, you may also find him in the flesh. Last time I checked, the 87-year-old Richie was still very much a man-about-town, appearing frequently to give readings and talks at foreigner-friendly venues in the heart of the city.
Little wonder: Richie has been living in Tokyo since the late 1940s and writing about Japan for nearly as long. You’d be hard-pressed to find an expat writer in town with greater seniority.
But seniority takes its toll, of course, and not just physically.
When I attended one of Richie’s Tokyo readings from his last major publication, “The Japan Journals: 1947-2004,” I couldn’t ignore an unnerving discrepancy: the prose in his more recent entries lacked the force, clarity and sheer frisson of his earlier writing, as if the Japan of the now had somehow wilted for him, grown fuzzy and indistinct.
At the time, I was about to publish my own book, “Japanamerica,” about the abundant color and creativity in contemporary Japan and the enthusiasm it had triggered in the West.
Were we living in the same country? Or was I, as a much younger expat writer, simply more sensitive to and excited by what I was seeing?
Richie nearly answers the latter question in a 2003 interview for the Japan cinephile website, “Midnight Eye.”
“I think in any country if you're an expatriate, the first five to 10 years are the most exciting,” he says. “This is when you are learning the most, and when you're most open to things that are new and are putting things together.”
Points of view
So what are we to make of a Japan rendered by an aging yet experienced and deeply knowledgeable expat author delineating its culture -- the slippery, fast-evolving and often ambiguous topic that Richie has engaged for six decades?
“Viewed Sideways,” Richie’s latest collection of often very short writings (many only a few pages long -- mere musings), due out later this month, at least partly answers the question.
A compact, commuter-friendly paperback, it contains 11 essays previously published in the books, “A Lateral View” and “Partial Views” (including one dating back to 1972), but mostly focuses on 26 uncollected writings from the 1990s and 2000s -- sort of a quickie Richie update.
The book begins with Richie’s personal declaration: an American from Ohio’s rationale for spending two-thirds of his life living in and writing about Japan.
Beyond cultural observation, historical record and aesthetic insight, the deeper subject of Richie’s work is rooted in his own self-imposed predicament -- that of being a perpetual outsider in a nation of resolute insiders.
Foreigners in Japan, Richie writes, are more foreign than they would be in other non-native nations because “the major religion is perhaps neither Buddhism nor Shintoism but, rather, simply being Japanese.”
Since foreigners cannot become Japanese through sheer will, study, conversion or citizenship, they are kept at bay, in the distance, forever ghettoized regardless of residency or, the term used by Richie, “intimacy.”
It’s a striking word choice, and one worth examining.
For Richie, the paradox of distance and intimacy, what he calls “an oscillating dialectic,” drives foreigners’ attraction to Japan.
The former affords them an elemental freedom and near perfect objectivity (“the best seat in the house,” he writes), and the latter, born of the natives’ need for and curiosity about the outsider, combined with Japan’s predilection for politeness, hospitality and civility, creates a perpetual attraction to and longing for what one might call a state of ‘Japan-ness.’
In short, the foreigner in Japan receives special treatment, sometimes exoticized, true, but still unique, without the messiness of communal, political or civic responsibility.
Expats and long-term residents of Japan will instantly recognize Richie’s formulation and likely nod accordingly, and those who write about the country might even snooze.
Being enticed into living in a society without the burden of direct involvement can be ideal for writers, who are often at their best in more liminal, marginal positions.
As Japan-based American author Pico Iyer once told me, "In countries as hospitable as America, I have one foot inside the community, one foot out. But in Japan, where I always have both feet out, I find solace."
Richie’s personal sense of distance, of being an outsider, runs deep, as do, correspondingly, his feelings of intimacy with his adopted homeland.
A gay man from Ohio, he expresses no nostalgia for the land of his birth, which “no longer has any power over me,” and instead pines for the Japan he first encountered in the 1940s and 1950s, a people poor but curious, open to the world and cognizant of their own traditions, including Japan’s “tradition of change.”
His own sensibility is neatly encapsulated in a memorable phrase from his 2004 essay on Tokyo’s leather-clad Rockabilly dancers in Harajuku: “we are conscious of being nostalgic about someone else’s nostalgia.”
Nostalgia is often a mask for rage, or at the very least, disappointment with the way things are. Richie’s take on Japan’s pop cultural juggernaut is Orientalism redux: It’s yet another form of Western condescension to a politically inert, nonthreatening other.
In other words, we like Hello Kitty because we’re projecting our own needs upon Japan, defining from afar -- never mind that Kitty, anime and manga often drive young foreigners to study Japan and its culture and history.
Yet in his 2007 introduction to Joan Sinclair’s photo-book, “Pink Box: Inside Japan’s Sex Clubs,” Richie finds the practice of enjo kosai, or “compensated dating,” in which older men gift underage girls with luxurious items and money in return for sexual favors, sane economic policy.
“Would that all economies worked this well,” he concludes.
Richie is at his best when he is at his most candid and least guarded, when his efforts to transcend the clichéd “topsy-turvy” exoticism of Japan lead him to genuine insight.
Insight about the nature of Noh theater, Japanese gardens and ways of seeing. Even the quite deliberate misuse of English in Japanese appropriations of the language and on T-shirts.
The book’s final essay, “My View,” a reflection upon being at peace with his life and that of his lifelong home, is among its most unfussy and memorable.
At one point Richie admits that if Japan were not to change, it would not be Japan. That’s the writer you’ll want to find, over and again.