When Donald Richie first landed on Japanese soil on New Year’s Eve, 1946, he felt his “testicles descend to the earth.” Aside from a few years in New York, he never lived anywhere else again, and became a famous author of books on Japanese cinema, as well as other subjects, including the street life of Tokyo, the American occupation, and the art of Japanese tattoos. He has also written several novels set in Japan. Other Americans dedicated their lives to Japan before him and some knew a great deal, but few matched Richie’s intimacy with Japanese society. We have been friends for almost thirty years. His writing on Japanese films was one of the things that inspired my own interest in that country. Like others, I have benefited from his wisdom, by no means confined to the movies, ever since.
What could he have meant by that arresting phrase, about his testicles coming to earth? Is it to do with finding love, or the promise of erotic adventure, or something related, but more profound perhaps, something like finding the freedom to feel comfortable in his own skin? Richie has often said, and written, as much. This passage, for example, in The Inland Sea: “‘What do you think of Japan?’ This is the first, the salient question that one is asked…. How to respond? I think the most honest answer is: I like myself here.”
To understand Richie, one has to know something about his childhood in Lima, Ohio, described in The Donald Richie Reader. These snatches of memoir, compiled by Arturo Silva from Richie’s writings, are so witty and stylish that, pending the publication of his copious diaries, one longs for a full autobiography.
Lima, Ohio, in the 1930s was not the ideal place for a young man of wit and style to linger. As long as he can remember, Richie wanted to leave Lima, preferably for some distant land, far over the rainbow, hinted at in the dark of the Sigma movie theater where the artist as a young boy caught his “first glimpse of the waiting world.” There were some distractions from provincial torpor, to be sure: a swarthy boy named Manuel, who “smelled of funny things like garlic which we never had in our house,” a trip to the Chicago World’s Fair in 1933, and of course the movies: “When the lights went down and the curtain went up and exhaled upon me its great stale breath, I was on my way.”
After hitchhiking to New Orleans in 1941, inspired by the fanciful fictions of Frederick Prokosch (notably in The Asiatics), Richie joined the US Maritime Service, and saw the world as a bookish ensign and purser, before arriving in Japan on the last night of 1946. The country was in ruins, of course, but the people impressed him with their willingness to dust themselves off and get on with life. What’s more, they were happy to let Richie get on with his. Here is his ode to expatriation, which is as good an apologia pro vita sua as any:
Foreigners, says Alastair Reid, are curable romantics. They retain an illusion from childhood that there might be someplace into which they can finally sink to rest: some magic land, some golden age, some significantly other self. Yet his own oddness keeps the foreigner separate from every encounter. Unless he regards this as something fruitful, he cannot be considered cured.
This is the great lesson of expatriation. In Japan I sit on the lonely heights of my own peculiarities and gaze back at the flat plains of Ohio, whose quaint folkways no longer have any power over me, and then gaze at the islands of Japan, whose quaint folkways are equally powerless in that the folk insist that I am no part of them. This I regard as the best seat in the house because from here I can compare, and comparison is the first step toward understanding.
The American male, in those early postwar years, was a highly privileged outsider in a conquered land, where he could do pretty much what he wanted. Such constraints as there were, were imposed mainly by US occupation officials who disapproved of “fraternizing with indigenous personnel.” Lording it over the Japanese was not Richie’s style, however; he wanted to fraternize, and began to do so, characteristically, by sneaking into off-limits Japanese movie houses. There, pressed together with anonymous Japanese humanity, Richie, as the only foreigner, tried to get a fix on Japanese life by watching Japanese movies. Since this was a period of realism in Japanese cinema, his task was made easier. Anyone trying to do the same today, when most movies are modeled after the Kabuki-like fantasy world of Japanese comic strips, would get a very strange picture of Japanese life.
At first, Richie could not understand a word, but “undistracted by dialogue, undisturbed by story, I was able to attend to the intentions of the director, to notice his assumptions and to observe how he contrived his effects.” It was the start of a lifetime of Japanese film scholarship. In the packed movie houses of bombed-out Tokyo, “smelling the rice odor sweat of the people back then, mixed with the fragrance of the camellia oil pomade the men used to use on their hair,” the seeds were sown of many books to come on Kurosawa, Ozu, and other directors.
There was—still is—a strong romantic component in Richie’s desire for fraternization. The Inland Sea, a kind of philosophical travelogue through one of the most beautiful rural areas of Japan, is a quest for Arcadia, a half-imagined place of natural innocence and guiltless sensuality, where people are yet unsullied by urban sophistication and Western corruption, where “people live better than anywhere else because they live according to their own natures.” The trips were made in the 1960s, when Japan was on the cusp of high-speed industrialization, when the old was about to be buried under layers of steel and concrete. Richie wanted to catch a glimpse of that better life before it was gone for good.
Such a quest is doomed to failure, as Richie acknowledges, since Arcadia does not exist. Romantic perfection, in Japan, or anywhere else, is often promised but never fulfilled. Richie also knows that his longings took him down some well-trodden paths. For the Arcadian myth of Japan, where a purer, more innocent, more sensual way of life is just about to be destroyed by modern civilization, had attracted other visitors before him.
Richie wrote about some of them in a little book entitled The Honorable Visitors.1 The most egregious pilgrim was Pierre Loti, who came to acquire “a little yellow-skinned woman with black hair and cat’s eyes…not much bigger than a doll,” his own little Madame Butterfly, whom he named Chrysanthème. Cocteau, believe it or not, was after something similar. Henry Adams, with his friend John La Farge, imagined that they were “playing baby, and living in doll-land.” And, much later, Truman Capote, still in thrall to his childhood memories of a Japanese florist in New Orleans, who made “toys much too exquisite to be played with,” felt he was in heaven amidst the plastic cherry blossoms and temple fairs of Tokyo.
The assumption behind all these romances is the same as General Douglas MacArthur’s, namely that the Japanese are childlike, or in the general’s words “a nation of twelve-year-olds.” MacArthur was speaking of cultural and political development. Richie has a more positive but, from the perspective of currently fashionable notions, risky take on this. He links his erotic enchantment to childhood nostalgia. Here, in The Inland Sea, is his rhapsody to Japanese bodies, which he calls “early Greek,” unlike “our Renaissance ideas of human beauty.” He writes: “To cup a hand over a breast we would call immature, run a hand along a thigh we would call adolescent—these erase experience and recall innocence. It makes the Japanese seem sometimes childlike. It makes us, once again, for a blessed and horizontal moment, children.”
This is, as I said, unfashionable. But Richie is nothing if not self-aware. He knows exactly what he is up to. In The Honorable Visitors, he notes the condescension of Western visitors who find the Japanese charmingly childlike, and takes note of the politics behind such picturesque views: “To condescend is to have the power to do so. Americans and Europeans visiting Japan, brought with them, in their mental luggage, this assumption of superiority. They still often do.”
Sex, he observes elsewhere, “is imperialistic since it always implies a top and a bottom, and one of the ways to encompass (and subject) the distant other is through what is often called the act of love but in this context should probably be called the act of sex.” Yet, side by side with this hard truth, comes almost inevitably the more romantic notion that Westerners find in Japan and other imagined Arcadias something that we, in our supposedly superior, more sophisticated, more cynical part of the world, have lost.
Two characters in Richie’s The Honorable Visitors also appear in Christopher Benfey’s fine new book, The Great Wave. Henry Adams, historian and aesthete, and John La Farge, the painter, were products of what Mark Twain called the Gilded Age, and Edith Wharton the Age of Innocence, when dirty politics and a rush for riches followed the Civil War. The coarse energy and baroque self-indulgence of post-bellum America was ill-suited to artists, intellectuals, and aesthetes, many of them from Boston, who hankered after a more refined or spiritual way of life, a kind of lost world of natural nobility.
Hankering came in various ways. Adams himself, as Benfey points out, was nostalgic for the more gallant aspects of the old South. Others—Dr. William Sturgis Bigelow, Ernest Fenollosa—were attracted to Buddhism. Herman Melville had a romance with South Sea islanders, and hoped to be “deconverted” by them from his modern Christian ways. Lafcadio Hearn looked for nobility among the poor Creoles of New Orleans. But at one time or another, all of them were infected by a strong dose of Japan-ophilia. In Zen austerity and reserve, writes Benfey, “they found confirmation of their own recoil from Victorian excess and ostentation. In Old Japan, in short, they thought they glimpsed a Golden Age, a world they were eager to visit before it disappeared.” Just as Donald Richie’s romantic yearnings produced a rich store of cultural knowledge, the Japanese dreams of nineteenth-century Americans resulted in some of the best Asian art collections in the world, such as that of the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston.
Some of the Japanese journeys described by Benfey were little more than glorified shopping sprees. In 1886, Henry Adams was disappointed by what he saw as rather slim pickings in the Japanese art market. Tokyo, he declared, had been “cleaned out.” No wonder, since friends of his, notably Edward Morse, Fenollosa, and Dr. Bigelow, had already been there, foraging before him. Still, Adams bought plenty, and was more flexible in his tastes than Fenollosa, who despised anything produced after the sixteenth century, especially woodblock prints, which Adams acquired in large numbers.