I had originally read and enjoyed some excerpts from Donald Richie's The Inland Sea (1971) in The Donald Richie Reader (2002). I have always thought that Richie has done some of the best writing about Japan from a foreigner's perspective and have been sympathetic to many of his opinions about Japan and the Japanese. After reading his journals last year after his death, I decided that there were several complete works that are worthwhile searching out and reading and this was at the top of the list. However, there are still several others to explore. It is at once a travel memoir, a love letter to a region and way of life that no longer exists, and a mediation on life in a strange country that he was not born in but elected to live in despite the fact it would never truly accept him. Richie also has musing about life in Tokyo versus the country, puritanism, the individual's place in the world, and the things he appreciates about living in Japan. He also makes some revelatory observations about his marriage and sexuality. Some of the experiences he has with locals have to be read between the lines and are not explicit admissions of couplings, but obviously are. There was an interesting scene where an old woman in Miyajima tells Richie a story about a boy who is excommunicated from the village for cutting the fishing nets-an act synonymous with barn burning at the turn of the century in America.
Here are some of the more interesting observations that I largely agree with and find true even today some 40 plus years later:
So the people are indeed backward, if this means a people living eternally in the present, a people for whom becoming means little and being everything.
Words make you visible in Japan. Until you speak, until you commit yourself to communication, you are not visible at all. You might travel from one end and, unless you open your mouth or get set upon by English-speaking students, be assured of the most complete privacy.
But to believe this is to disregard a great truth that all of Asia knows: appearances are the only reality.
Japan is the most modern of all countries perhaps because, having a full secure past, it can afford to live in the instantaneous present.
I answer as best as I can, aware-as one is always in Japan-that I have ceased being myself. Rather, I have become-once again-a Representative of My Country.
The white man who goes native in Samoa or Marrakesh, the Japanese who goes native in New York or Paris-this is possible, but it is, I think impossible for anyone but a Japanese to go Japanese.
Japanese loyalty. I cannot approve of it, and I certainly do not like it. Mindless devotion-whether of samurai or kamikaze-leaves me as unmoved as does the less spectacular variety from I come from. It is actually a kind of laziness.
The Japanese carry it one step further. Nothing is anyone's fault. This is because no one will take responsibility for anything.
Asia does not, I think, hoard and treasure life as we do. Life, to be sure, is nto considered cheap, but at the same time, one does not see the tenacious clinging to it that is one of the distinguishing marks of the West.
There is no tradition of anything but a politely hidden suspicion of the unknown wanderer. To be anonymous is in Japan, to be nothing. Only after your name, occupation, family, history are known do you become real.
Here, I thought, is a glimpse into the real Japan. This is the way the Japanese mind works. Appearances are reality without a doubt, and if the reality is not sufficient, then change the appearances.
An early symptom (of the influence of the West) was that everything somehow had to become respectable-not according to Japanese standards, where everything was already respectable, but according to the half-understood and even the dissolving standards of the West.
(As someone has remarked, the Japanese have fifty-three words for "prostitute" and yet do not distinguish between "lock" and "key"-which must be a commentary of some sort upon the importance they assign to things).
This nightly closing of all forms of public transportation is, I suggest, but one of the many forms that Japanese puritanism takes.
Europe , America-these lands are also inferior, but their ideas and products may be put to good use if they are first run through the Japanese mill and emerge unrecognizableand therefore very Japanese.
I really enjoyed tagging along with Richie on his journey to the Inland Sea and within himself. Luckily, there is more by him for me to explore.