The passing of Donald Richie – writer, painter, filmmaker and Tokyo flaneur – marks the end of an era. Richie, who died Tuesday in Tokyo, was far and away the West’s foremost interpreter of things Japanese. American author Tom Wolfe called him “the Lafcadio Hearn of our time”.
Born April 17, 1924, in the small Midwestern town of Lima, Ohio, Richie first arrived in Japan in 1947, as a 22-year old typist with the Allied Occupation forces. His eyes were soon opened to the country that he would choose to call home for most of his life.
“If I had stayed in Lima, Ohio, I think my life would’ve been endless, like two thousand years,” Richie told Kyoto Journal in 1999, in a superb interview still online here. “But here, everything is so interesting, every day has something new you can do, people you can meet. Everyday you wake up and think ‘What am I going to learn today?’ And, of course, that’s what kept me here, and what made things go so fast."Enjoying this article? Click here to subscribe for full access. Just $5 a month.
Aside from a stint at Columbia University, where he graduated in 1953, and a period working as film curator for the Museum of Modern Art in New York, Richie spent roughly half a century in Tokyo, documenting and delving deeply into Japanese art, society and culture.
When he first arrived in Japan, the country was in ruins and still seen as the enemy. But Richie found himself driven to understand and connect with Japanese on an individual, human level.
“Donald was a great humanist. Though he fraternized with the rich and famous, he wrote about everyman, the invisible. He elevated the ordinary to the extraordinary in this way,” Leza Lowitz, a Tokyo-based author, editor and personal friend of Richie, told The Diplomat. “For him, writing was a way of life. It was built into the way he lived: Observing, questioning, learning. He was always open to seeing. And in seeing, he was able to transform an ordinary experience into something extraordinary and sometimes transcendent.”
As an observer and writer, “prolific” is an understatement for Richie’s output. Throughout the course of his long life he produced some 40 books, on themes ranging from travelogues and historical novels to collections of short fiction and his renowned tomes on Japanese film scholarship. Volumes on flower arranging, the art of the Japanese tattoo, aesthetics, sympathetically written portraits of individuals and a riveting memoir also fill his bibliography.
Yet even this fails to capture the true extent of Richie’s contributions as a writer. In the introduction to The Inland Sea, his classic autobiographical travelogue of a journey through Japan’s Seto Naikai (Inland Sea) – the shallow, picturesque sea bounded by Honshu, Shikoku and Kyushu – author Pico Iyer writes: “It is, in fact, an injustice to call Richie a writer on Japan; really, he is a writer on artifice and time and death, on being human. And most of all he’s a writer on the particularly modern art of learning how to be a foreigner.”
In the introduction, Iyer goes on to place Richie in the company of literary figures such as Graham Greene, Jan Morris, Paul Bowles and Somerset Maugham. He continues: “The only problem with Richie’s writing, in fact, is that it’s never been easy enough to find around the world, in part because people, knowing him to be a writer in Japan, assume that he’s a writer on Japan. And as a pure, reflective writer of a kind that seems all but antique, he has done nothing to sell himself to the world or to dress himself up with gestures or high concepts.”
This humility and approachableness are very evident in his writing. Even readers who never met him are afforded an intimate glimpse in much of his writing of Richie as a human being.
Picking up on this, filmmakers Lucille Carra and Brian Cotnoir produced a film version of The Inland Sea in 1992, which is narrated by Richie. The movie works on two levels. On one, it explores the geographical body of water and the traditional aspects of Japan disappearing around it. But more deeply, it dives into the metaphorical “Inland Sea” within the author himself.
Ultimately, Richie is best known for his association with film. Indeed, he almost single-handedly introduced the West to Japanese film, starting with his landmark 1959 study The Japanese Film: Art and Industry, co-authored with Joseph L. Anderson.
In The Japan Journals: 1947-2004, edited over the course of a decade by Lowitz, Richie tells the story of a trip to a film studio in the late-1940s when he met a director and “someone I guessed was a star” in “a loose Hawaii-shirt”. The duo turned out to be legendary director Akira Kurosawa and actor Toshiro Mifune. In similar fashion, Richie had a knack for meeting people in high places and telling us about them.
Richie later did the subtitles for three Kurosawa films and penned books on the director. He also became a great lover of Yasujiro Ozu’s films and introduced him to the West in another lauded study.
“His many publications on Japanese film were the touchstone from which all of us English-language critics on the subject sprang,” Rob Schwartz, Tokyo Bureau Chief of Billboard Magazine and reporter for The Hollywood Reporter, told The Diplomat. “As a friend he had a loving human warmth and deep generosity of spirit that is very rare in this world. This deep humanism informed his analysis and writing on film.”
Ultimately, it was Richie’s humanism, remarked upon by all who knew him, that defines his life and work, and helps explain the outpouring of tributes since his death.
“I loved his curiosity, compassion, sensuality and edgy wit…. He was gracious and generous.… I was in awe of his talents. Once, when he called a suggestion ‘brilliant’, I was over the moon,” recalled Stewart Wachs, a former associate editor of Kyoto Journal who edited Richie’s work over the years. “But with time I also grew humorously puzzled by his mangled spelling, and sure enough when I asked him about it he just laughed and said he trusted his editors to fix that and other minor blemishes while he rode the alpha waves that enabled him to be prolifically creative.”
Wachs continued, “Being Donald, he had actually put this too humbly, for his submission drafts were routinely extraordinary. He revised them extensively, making them a formidable challenge for any editor to improve.”
What turned out to be one of Richie’s most interesting works were his own journals, edited by Lowitz and published by Stone Bridge Press as The Japan Journals: 1947-2006.
Stone Bridge Press publisher Peter Goodman told The Diplomat he “was totally floored by what was there (in the Journals). I guess I had been expecting a linear and comprehensive account, but it was more like dipping in and out of a stewpot. There are time gaps and threads never followed to the end, but the palpable sense of time passing, a man aging, and an old postwar world fading away is astonishing. His life seemed so full of meetings, conversations, and travels, punctuated now and then by a celebrity or by an ordinary but engaging person.”
The Journals are interspersed with accounts of Richie’s encounters with some of Japan’s biggest movers and shakers, as well as artists and dignitaries visiting from abroad. Yukio Mishima, Toru Takemitsu, Truman Capote and Somerset Maugham make appearances, among many others.
Goodman added, “While he (Donald) indicated to me that they were expurgated, they are certainly not tame and reveal a penchant for adventure and exploration that some readers have found a bit shocking. So while I was expecting a more mannered ‘overview’, we got — thank goodness — a very full-blooded portrait of a man and the world he inhabited, and not entirely as the observer he became most famous for being.”
Lowitz said Richie was equally generous as a mentor. “Donald was an incredible inspiration to young writers such as myself. He was diligent and committed to writing – he did it every day, no matter what.”
She called him “a master of form”, explaining that “his work in the Japanese cinema informed his understanding of narrative. The films of Ozu, among his favorites, were exemplary because in a good film, the end is built into the beginning. He said ‘To become aware of form is a liberating experience’.”
This need for structure and form in order to achieve freedom was a recurring theme for Richie. It comes up time and again in his writing and recorded conversations and, indeed, was part of the very reason he chose to make his home in Japan, where he could never fully belong.
In 1999, he told Kyoto Journal, “I think you can only get freedom within bounds. I don’t know who said that — Sartre? . . . But I believe it. You set your own boundaries and then within those you find freedom.”