Japan: An Interpretation

Japan: An Interpretation


Those inscrutable Japanese. They’ve inspired more trash between hard covers over the past century than anyone–far more than the Chinese, if that’s what you’re thinking. Mysterious Japan, Japan Real and Imaginary: They come by the cartload, and they aren’t books so much as specimens. You learn little of Japan in them, but something of their moment in the West–in these two cases the early 1920s. They are about folly, in the end, and the human habit of cultivating blindness toward others. Cracked and discolored, they are old mirrors worth but a few moments’ gaze. “A thousand books have been written about Japan,” Lafcadio Hearn noted in his best on the subject, “but among these…the really precious volumes will be found to number scarcely a score.” This observation is not quite a century old; Hearn made it at the start of Japan: An Interpretation, which he completed not long before his death in Tokyo in 1904. But the genre lives on, certainly: The tap rushes or drips only according to the trade tensions, it sometimes seems. I put these unhardy annuals under the heading “JAJB.” Each one is Just Another Japan Book.

We have seen superb work on Japan over the past few years, it must immediately be added. John Dower’s Embracing Defeat and Herb Bix’s recent biography of Hirohito swept the prizes, and so they should have. They announce an era of revision and demystification, and numerous other writers are up to the same thing. It’s a rich time, it seems to me, for the simple reason that there is so much in our accounts of Japan that requires revising and demystifying. And now we have a compendium of Donald Richie’s work to remind us that beneath the blanket of cold war claptrap and beside the running stream of JAJBs, this essayist, film critic, fiction writer, screenwriter, portraitist and master of the journalistic feuilleton has built an honest, revealing body of work that spans the entire postwar era. Richie is neither a Dower nor a Bix, because he’s not a scholar. Is he a Hearn? The work requires no such flattering light to claim its place, but the comparison is useful–and more than moderately apt.

Most readers–Richie among them, one suspects–come to Hearn via the productions of his fourteen years in Japan. Glimpses of Unfamiliar Japan, Kokoro, the aforementioned Interpretation: This is the stuff he’s remembered for. But the pre-Japan period was formative. Son of an Anglo-Irish father and a Greek mother, he was abandoned early and at 19 departed the old world for the new. After some years newspapering in Cincinnati, he left the industrial North for New Orleans and the pre-industrial South. From there it was on to Martinique–ever-deeper into the nonwhite world–and by then Hearn had identified that which he detested most. “One can become weary of a whole system of life, civilization,” he wrote a friend in 1889. “Such is exactly my present feeling,–an unutterable weariness of the aggressive characteristics of existence in a highly organized society…. One feels this especially in America,–the nervous centers of the world’s activities.” All Hearn needed at that moment was an objective correlative. He found it when he docked in Yokohama a year later.

The short, orphaned itinerant, the olive-skinned misanthrope who held on to nothing and never belonged, the seer and sayer with one blind eye and the other enlarged, sank instantly into Japanese life. He wore yukata (robes) at home and sat on tatami (mats). He took a Japanese wife and then her family name–he is still Koizumi Yakumo in Japan–and in time became a patriot and a citizen. Japan was a rising power in Hearn’s day; it was leaving one life behind and borrowing another from the West. So it gave Hearn space to elicit all the regret and loss he considered implicit in anything beautiful. In Japan he found the superiority of the “primitive” he had always sought, and he could at last defend the soul and the shadow–the inner and the unseen–as against the hard, material substance of “civilization.” In all of this he gave expression to the two souls his parents imparted to him, “each pulling in a different way,” as he once put it. Japan, then, was more than the object of brilliant reportage: It was at bottom a canvas upon which to paint an unconscious self-portrait. “Japan gave Hearn nothing,” one of his later editors said a bit too baldly. “He himself, not Japan, is the interesting subject in his writings on Japan.”

There is a kind of template here–a couple of them, actually. Japan as mirror is an old idea, stretching back to the first Western arrivals in the 1540s. One saw in it the inverse of all one was, believed in, treasured, thought. Since its defeat in 1945, Americans have simply reversed the reflection: Being a nation of narcissists now, we look across the Pacific and think we see only ourselves. But Japan as a freshly gessoed canvas awaiting one’s oils–that is a tradition Hearn can be credited with inventing, more or less. It rests, paradoxically, on the “otherness” we still assign to the Japanese (and which many of them claim often enough) and the simultaneous sense some round-eyes have of arriving home upon arriving in Japan–of seeing things there that long ago fell by the wayside in the West. Then there is Japan as a site of eternal regret. Because it came so late to the modernization process, you can still affect to see the old gods and old ways as they fade into faint traces. “What is there, after all, to love in Japan, except what is passing away?” Hearn once asked. Again, too bald. But many writers have posed the same question since, and they haven’t all produced JAJBs.

“And I realized that my quest was over–at least part of it. Sitting in the sunny Hiroshima station…. I understood what I had guessed earlier: that the voyage had not been to find them, but to find myself, and that–to an extent–I now had.” That isn’t Hearn, though it could be, apart from its cleanliness of style. It is Richie, toward the end of the The Inland Sea, which recounts his midlife journeys–and midlife crisis, fair to say–over many warm months spent along the coasts of Honshu, Shikoku and Kyushu islands. Many consider this book, first published in 1971 (and which Stone Bridge is due to reissue in a handsome new edition later this year), Richie’s masterpiece. Richie calls it fiction, perhaps because he reshaped multiple voyages into one. But it’s a fine line, and what it is in this respect hardly matters in any case. From the title onward, it is an almost perfectly realized effort to express the self through what one sees–without slighting either.

Learning from Hearn, then? Perhaps even consciously, as the rest of the passage just noted suggests. It is worth quoting at length because it could easily stand as a statement of Richie’s lifelong purpose in swimming ever toward the bottomover five decades among the Japanese (while accepting that he would never touch the sand and rocks that lie there):

In the train, looking at the flat, bright coast, traveling to the ferry station, I suddenly, and for no apparent reason, thought of Lafcadio Hearn dying and penning a few last bitter pages. The book was called Japan: An Interpretation, but he, like all of us who come to this land–attractive, mysterious, and impenetrable as a mirror–was writing about himself; the tender, myopic, beauty-loving Lafcadio was being, finally, interpreted. I mingled with the others who left the train, waiting for the gates of the ferry to open. This disillusioned end I would be spared, I thought, I hoped. I would never find them, the real Japanese, because they were always around me, and they were always real, but I might at last decide what my own real self was, and hence create it. But it was too nice a day just to sit and ponder. So, for the first time in my life, I was able to achieve the feat I had so long admired in the Japanese: I shook my head and put aside perplexing thoughts. Then I turned with a smile to the waiting, open day, and–along with all the others–boarded the boat.

The boat Richie first boarded to Tokyo arrived by way of Okinawa on New Year’s Eve of 1946, a year and a few months after the surrender. There wasn’t much left, Richie the occupation sailor wrote in a journal entry included in The Donald Richie Reader. But there were those things wars don’t destroy. And Richie, like Hearn, was immediately enthralled. “I remember Tokyo moving slowly in front of me, fittingly undressed in the hot summer night, showing a beauty and an innocence and a naturalness by which I, from the rigid West, was alternately ravished and enlightened.” In 1949 came a trip home for five years of study at Columbia (and another, from 1968 to 1972, during which Richie was curator of film at the Museum of Modern Art in New York). In between and after came thirty-odd books on everything from Zen gardens and Japanese cookery to biography and history, along with many decades of (as yet unpublished) journals and enough rent-paying literary journalism (some for The Nation) to put most full-time correspondents to shame.

Hearn once wrote admiringly of “civilized nomads,” and there is something of this rare type in Richie’s sprawling output as well as in his life. One could argue that Hearn anticipated and Richie found his own use for that practice of purposely purposeless drifting that Guy Debord, the peripatetic Situationist, used to call dérive. It seems especially suited to the expatriate in Japan. But Richie’s method is not Hearn’s: He seems never to have sought a place in the folds, or to write from within: He preferred surface and sunlight to all that. Japan, he notes in a later essay called “I Like Myself Here,”

allows me to keep my freedom. It makes very few demands on me–I am considered too much the outsider for that, a distinction I owe to the color of my skin, eyes, and hair–and, consequently, I become free. I become a one-member society, consistent only to myself and forever different from those who surround me…. Our basic agreement permits an amount of approval, some of it mutual; our basic differences allow me to apprehend finally that the only true responsibility a man has is toward himself.

Japan as proscenium? Well, to an extent. And there’s something learned from the postwar existentialists in this, too–as Arturo Silva, who edited this volume, points out in his lengthy and finely considered introductory essay. But neither notion should be taken to suggest that Richie has been a dishonest observer, or that he never truly had his eye on the ball. He hasn’t, and he has rarely taken his eye off it. Better to recognize, it seems to me, that Richie accepts two things Hearn never did: On the one hand, surface and substance are joined in Japan; on the other, one’s nomadism is to be entered into, for–gift or curse–it is never to be overcome.

It can hardly be a surprise that film was Richie’s principal milieu for much of his life in Japan. Today one recognizes Japan’s mastery of surfaces in everything from fashion to the placement of objects in shop window displays. But it was in the golden age of Japanese film–the first decades after the war, before the big studios commodified it–that this preoccupation was best expressed in a modern art form. Film was his escape as a child in Lima, Ohio, Richie explains; in Japan, it became a form of embrace. He saw his first Japanese movie during the occupation, when it was against the rules to fraternize with the locals. He was soon writing criticism, standing at the edges of sets, and watching rushes with Akira Kurosawa and other directors.

Richie chatting with Yasujiro Ozu or Kon Ichikawa; Richie behind the camera on the set of Futari: These are among the pictures peppered through The Donald Richie Reader, and they suggest the story, if they don’t quite tell it. The Japanese Film: Art and Industry, which he wrote with Joseph Anderson and published in 1959, brought Richie recognition as an authority. Books on Kurosawa and his beloved Ozu followed–along with screenplays and films of his own. Here and in his lectures, Richie tells the marvelous story of watching Ozu spend obsessive hours arranging the cushions on a sofa before he let a camera roll. “Ozu was perhaps primarily interested in pattern, in the design that Henry James called ‘the figure in the carpet,'” Richie writes in the excerpt here from Ozu (1975). It is among Richie’s best books. In it you see how, even in a critical study, Richie manages to evoke Japan’s eternal dedication (and his own) to the reality of appearances.

I came to Richie’s writing via film, as one comes to Hearn via Japan. But as with Hearn, there are immense other plots and prairies to explore. And this is the great pleasure of The Donald Richie Reader. The work spills across genres and subjects like a river without banks. All of his best books are properly represented: The Inland Sea and the film volumes; A Lateral View and Partial Views, his two gatherings of essays; and The Honorable Visitors, a 1994 collection of portraits of expatriates from Pierre Loti to Henry Adams. Sprinkled throughout are entries from the journals, more portraits from his 1987 collection, Different People, and various pieces in the short, discursive form known as thefeuilleton, on gods, gardens, temples, tattoos, television and–well, you see where it all goes.

It is a strength and a weakness, this profligate wandering. While it makes the Reader a handsome whole, it also seems over the years to have diffused interest in Richie on this side of the Pacific, so that his output–in terms of reputation, I mean–is not quite the sum of parts. I doubt Richie cares; one can’t imagine him entering into “the quality lit biz,” as Terry Southern used to call it, the way young American writers market themselves now with distasteful enthusiasm. The Reader‘s imaginative, broken-up layout is, if anything, a celebration of Richie’s mosaic. And the surprise for me is the extent of the fiction–and the extent to which Richie’s graceful, easy style works when applied to it. Apart from The Inland Sea (a special case, in any event), there are stories from a collection called A View From the Chuo Line and parts of two novels. The first is called Where Are the Victors? and the second Tokyo Nights. They make a fine frame: The former is from 1956 and concerns the occupation; the latter is Richie’s droll take on the bubble of the 1980s, when the Japanese at last finished their century-and-some game of catch-up with the West.

Somewhere in the 1970s, Arturo Silva points out, Richie’s writing began to reflect his disappointment in the Japan he saw emerging from the postwar ashes–the consumption-crazy Japan that eventually produced the bubble. He wanted his “nourishing void,” that emptiness at the center that Roland Barthes famously identified in Empire of Signs, to remain unblemished and unfilled. Long earlier, Richie had recognized that much of what there is to admire in the Japanese–their aesthetic, the old proximity to nature–grew from a culture of poverty. “If you don’t have furniture, then you pay a lot of attention to empty space,” Richie tells Silva in an interview included here. “And if you have only mud, then you pay a lot of attention to pottery.” It’s gone now, he laments–the pathos, the folkways, the demotic culture of the city’s poorer quarters–gone from film as it is gone from life, lost to “cultural carpetbaggery and nouveaux riches.” So there arrives a touch of the old, familiar regret. Richie, like Hearn, has not been spared after all.

He ought to have known. The 1940s were to Richie precisely as the 1890s were to Hearn: Japan was rising again, becoming other than what it had been. The transformation Hearn witnessed is described in all the histories as radical and swift, and the one that Richie has watched for half a century has been no less so. The best of what is offered for tasting in The Donald Richie Reader will last beyond its time. But it has a time–a very specific one. Richie’s Japan is cold war Japan. His work presents life observed during that period, now also coming under renewed scrutiny by such scholars as John Dower. It lends much of what Richie has done a value never intended and a unity never sought.

“There is no simple cut to ‘The End,’ no surge of music to indicate a final cadence,” Richie writes in a concluding piece. “Life, not being art, knows no such conventions.” No, not for a writer now in his 70s, and not for a nation still finding its way forward. Japan stumbles on now in search of nobody knows quite what. Only itself, in my view. And to judge by this fine collection, this record of a quest, that may be what Donald Richie has all along admired most about it.

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Katrina vanden Heuvel
Editorial Director and Publisher, The Nation

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