Just Looking: A Journey with
After over half a century living in Tokyo, and almost forty books on Japan under his belt,
Donald Richie is recognized worldwide as an authority on Japan and Japanese culture. Janet
Pocorobba spoke to him about his fifty-two year expatriate education, and the
benefits of being of a fish out of water.
High above the noisy streets of Yurakucho at the International Press Club, I sit across
from Donald Richie and let his soothing voice draw me into the story of his half-century
of journeys in Japan. He is animated and talks easily about the variety of interests that
have comprised his life. Like his books, the topic of discussion sprawls from history and
philosophy to writing and the arts. He is at once boyish and refined, a classicist and a
modernist, ever vigorous in his projects and enthusiasm. Happily acceptant of his
foreigner status in Japan, Richie has always reveled in the freedom of expatriate life.
Making sense of his world has come through endless observation and comparison. As he
writes in "The Inland Sea," (Kodansha, 1993), "Only in appearances lies the
How long have you been in Japan now?
Fifty-two years. It doesn't feel so long. But I think everyone feels that way about their
lives. It all goes by so fast, and it never goes quite in the direction you thought it was
gonna go. And it's fine, it's good - no regrets. But nonetheless, it's like being on the
express train. I know just how Rip Van Winkle felt, because it went by just like that. If
I had stayed in Ohio, I think my life would've been endless, like two thousand years. But
here, everything is so interesting. Every day has something different, something new:
things you can do, people you can meet. Every day you wake up and think, "What am I
gonna learn today?" And, of course, that's what kept me here, and what made things go
Do you still feel like a foreigner?
Yes. I think if I didn't feel like a foreigner, I wouldn't be here. I'm here because I'm a
foreigner, because I like being a foreigner. It's so rewarding to not have to belong to
things, to not be allowed to belong to things. It's really so free. When I was in Ohio,
taking things for granted, it never occurred to me that I could lead a life in which I set
my own obligations and decided how I wanted to comport myself. If you never leave your own
culture, you're forever bound by it, and you're bound without ever realizing it. If you
ask a person in America or Japan about American or Japanese culture, it's like asking a
fish about water. What can they say? They inhabit it, they don't know anything about it.
When you come over here, or anyplace different, you get your eyes opened, and you can
never get them shut again.
have seen so many changes in Japan over the years. Does anything in particular stick out
in your mind that is so different from what it once was?
Well, physically, when I first came here, we used to walk up to the Wako Building in Ginza
from work and stand on the corner because it was the best place in town to view Mt. Fuji.
I also remember when I was living by the Spanish Embassy, they were repairing a wall and
there was a very large beech tree that was in the way. So, they made a hole in the wall so
that the beech tree could go through it. Things like that happened all the time. It's
unimaginable now. They've concrete-covered the whole island. They've ruined the coastline
and dammed all the rivers.
That is what I really find changed: the Japanese attitude toward their surroundings. Now
it's as though it's been decided that there is nothing greater than monetary profit and
everything will be done to achieve this, no matter what sacrifice you have to make. So,
without thinking, all this wonderful attitude toward human beings, toward nature, toward
other life, has been pretty much eradicated.
Why? To keep up with the West?
Well, originally it was that, but now it's a self-fulfilling prophecy. Once you get
started, greed takes over and you want more and more.
This holy trinity of the construction companies, the government and the yakuza - it's
redone the country in the most shoddy fashion. I mean, England has the same problem, but
England has at least managed to keep an attitude which the Japanese - maybe because no one
was defending it - lost. People ask me if I have any regrets. Well, that's the only regret
I have. Japan was the most beautiful country I'd ever seen, and I'd seen a lot during the
war. It was heaven.
Do you prefer to write fiction, or nonfiction?
What is fact, what is fiction? There's a book being written about me now, the locus of
which is that almost all of my writing is autobiographical: a biography disguised as a
travel book, like "The Inland Sea," or books which are purportedly about other
people, but if you notice have a big hole in the middle. I tend to be a self-revelatory
kind of writer. I like to have a still center in the middle of whatever I'm writing about,
and that is me. The book is called "The Great Mirror," and that's Japan. The
idea is that you look at yourself in Japan and it's like you look at yourself in a mirror.
We all do it. If you don't like what you see, you go home, and if you do, then you can
spruce yourself up a little bit and turn into a better person or something. It's a very
sound idea. One might say that my work is ego-bound, but I can say it's not because the
eyes are always at the service of something else. But it certainly is self-bound.
with Kawabata Ysunari in Kamakura, 1949 (signed by Kawabata)
us about your new books.
I like them both. One is called "Tokyo: A View of the City." It's not a
guidebook or history book. A meditation on the city sounds a little bit too grand, but
it's essentially a description of the city and what it feels like to be here. It's very
deconstructive. The book is in the shape of the city, and as you go through the book you
realize the shape of the city. The other book took me the longest to write of any book
I've ever written - ten years. My historical novel, it's called "The Memoirs of the
Warrior Kumagai." Ten years spent writing, rewriting and checking all the facts: this
is no historical romance, it's a real reconstruction.
Do you have a favorite area in Tokyo?
Where I live, shitamachi. I've been living in shitamachi off and on for a good many years.
A lot of it is nostalgia, because it's old Tokyo. It's the last place in Tokyo to get the
latest whatever-it-is, and even so, the latest whatever-it-is doesn't quite cover up the
old like it does in other places. That's the main reason I like it. The other reason is
that people are still recognizably people there. In Ueno, you still talk to people, and
get answers. I'm an awful codger to be saying this, but it does seem to me that a lot of
the old virtues that I knew, all those things that we don't really think about - the
spontaneity of the Japanese, their dedication to this and that, their craftsmanship, their
basic honesty with themselves, with the world - are still there [in shitamachi]. The
country has changed so elaborately that I don't find it existing to the extent that I used
to in most places. It's still very much there, so I like living next to what I consider
Japanese nature, or hopefully being a part of it.
You've travelled extensively. From your journeys, do you have a favorite place in
Bhutan. I've only been there once and I can never go again. At eight thousand feet it gave
me a heart attack. Bhutan is really an eighteenth century country. You go and the airport
is a stone hut with a turf roof and your transportation is two yaks. They have roads, they
have a couple of cars too, but the architecture is still thirteenth century. The people
don't know anything except the native garb, and yet the priests send each other sutras on
email and everybody speaks English because that's the second language. It's the most
modern and ancient civilization at the same time.
What about in Japan?
Tokyo, of course. Yes, Tokyo - and Tokyo's what all Japan's gonna be someday. I'm very
fond of the Satsuma peninsula, which is very far south in Kyushu. Satsuma's one of those
places in Japan that the Tokugawa cookie-cutter missed. Power didn't extend that far, so
you didn't get punished for being yourself like you did in Sendai or Edo. I like Satsuma
people a lot. They're like Elizabethans. They're boisterous and opinionated, hot-headed -
much given to fisticuffs. At the same time, they're very human and very reasonable.
They're extremely open.
Do you have any preferences among Japanese traditional arts?
Kyogen. I also like Noh. But traditional arts are not so much my specialty. I specialize
in people really, and they happen to be Japanese since I happen to be in Japan. I hold the
opinion, even now, that Japan is madly pluralistic, just as much as America is, that we
have just as many different points of view here, really. The thing is, it's hard to see it
without help. It takes an amount of attention to see it, [attention] that people don't
want to give. So they settle for the ant colony and everybody looking alike and acting
alike, which is not true.
You were talking about the changes in Tokyo. If you could change one thing, what
would it be?
Well, if I could change one thing I'd move back the clock. I think I would like to return
to the attitude Japan had toward nature, by which I mean human nature, by which I mean the
natural world, the way in which the Japanese related to their surroundings. I would like
that to return. Of course, it's impossible because what made them change was an economic
imperative. We are an island which is the size of California and yet it contains half the
population of America in numbers. What do you expect them to do? I can understand so well
how it became the way it is now, but, nonetheless, if I had my way...
I have to ask: If you were trapped on the Yamanote Line for eternity, and you
could bring just one book, one luxury item and one CD, what would they be?
For a pluralist like myself, that is so difficult. Musically, it'll have to be The Art
of the Fugue by Bach, as long as you let me have the score, too. And the book would
have to be something equally opaque, that demands constant re-reading, something
philosophical, something that I would be able to get my teeth in for the time. For the
luxury item, maybe a pair of binoculars, so I could look outside.
Ever the learning observer. If you were going to give some kind of advice to
foreigners on how to live a happy or successful life here, what would be important?
Don't try to join. Realize that we are on this planet merely in order to observe and
understand. Never try to preach. Realize that the joys of comprehension are the only true
joys there are. How's that?