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.”