Just Looking: A Journey with Donald Richie

Donald Richie

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 true reality."

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 so fast.

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.


Ginza, 1947

You must 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.

Riche with Kawabata Yasunari

Richie with Kawabata Ysunari in Kamakura, 1949 (signed by Kawabata)

Tell 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 Asia?
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?

299: Pokemania
Pikachu conquers the world by stealth and cuteness
298: Snow time like the present
When, where and how to get your share of the white stuff this winter
297: Helping Hands
The spirit of giving through volunteering
296: Stop the Music
Tokyo's nightclubs under attack
295: Just Do It!
Staying in shape in the city
294: 2 can play that game
The next generation of games consoles
293: Vegging out in Tokyo
Some of Tokyo's meatless oases
292: Multiplicity
The belated arrival of the multiplex
291: After a Fashion
Zita Ohe walks through Tokyo's fall/winter fashions
290: Used and Abused
Second-hand shops in the city
289: Microbrew - a mini guide
Tour the best of Tokyo's independent suds makers
288: The Delusions of a Kabuki Addict
Visit Ginza's Kabuki-za
287: Live and Learn
Studying traditional culture in Tokyo
286: Are you quaking?
Preparing for the big one
285: Sagawa Kyubin guys
Faces behind the takkyubin phenomenon
284: South Park
Christian Storms, creative producer and transwriter of the Japanese South Park
283: A saner Tokyo
Counselling and healing options for Japan's foreign community
282: Trainspotting
The Yamanote Line trivia quiz
281: The Lost World
Graham Hancock, inventor of a new genre of history mystery investigation
Graham Hancock: Transcript
280: Body of Art
Working out with traditional Japanese arts to work out
279: Open all hours
Japanese convenience stores
278: The Rice Stuff
A guide to sake
277: Get out!
Feasting al fresco in the summer
276: The Empire Strikes Big
The force behind Star Wars
275: Don't worry be happy!
A definitive guide to Tokyo's drinking deals
274: Off the hook
Tokyo's Central Wholesale Market
273: Books
Donald Richie, worldwide authority on Japan and Japanese culture
272: What's up pussy cat?
Hello Kitty turns twenty-five
271: Moving mountains for Freedom
The Tibetan Freedom Festival
270: So you think you're safe?
Women's safety in Tokyo
269: Are these the droids you're looking for?
Japan's new robot army
268: From beast to beauty
Catering to the beauty needs of foreigners
267: Perfect TV
Exploring Japanese TV
266: Let's do talk
The portable phenomenon of keitai
265: Get ready to rock!
The third annual Fuju Rock Festival
264: Kichijoji uncovered
A delightfully different day out
263: Tour Japan one bite at a time
The eleventh annual Furusato Fair
262: Golden getaways
Get you out of town this Golden Week
261: Millennium fudge
Can Tokyo survive the Millennium bug?
260: Ueno Park
A walk in the low city
259: Stressed to kill
Lifethreatening stress in Tokyo
258: Oodles of noodles
A day in a life of a local ramen shop
257: Off the shelf
Tokyo city libraries
256: Lord of light
Tokyo Classifieds founder Mark Devlin
255: Are you game
Indoor sports to get your blood on the boil
254: Eat your heart out
Valentine's Day in Japan
253: The way of wagashi
A friendly face in Japanese cooking
252: Face to face with Harajuku
Yoyogi Park street culture
251: What a grind!
In search of the perfect cup of coffee
250: The year of the rabbit
Chinese astrological signs



Summer reading fare

This summer, as you scuttle into Kinokuniya to gather your vacation reading, be sure to look for some of Donald Richie's books. A true Renaissance man, he has covered travel, food, nightlife and tattoos, as well as kyogen plays (now, unfortunately, out of print) and his mainstay, film. Most of his books, including his new ones, can be bought on-line at

The Inland Sea
(Kodansha, 1993)
Richie's fictional/  autobiographical travel epic, tracing his classic journey from Kobe, through the Inland Sea, to Miyajima. An award-winning documentary video was made in 1991 by Lucille Carra, narrated by Richie himself (distributed by Public Media Video).

Public People, Private People
(Kodansha, 1997)
An exquisite book profiling 48 Japanese figures, from day laborers and his landlady to Kurosawa and Mishima. The blend is heady, and all portraits are rendered extraordinary through Richie's perceptive lens.

The Honorable Visitors
(Tuttle, 1994)
Historical portraits of visitors to Japan from the late 19th century. Again, a refreshing cast of characters: Isabella Bird, the pioneering Brit, Ulysses S. Grant (credited with saving Noh), Charlie Chaplin, William Faulkner and Angela Carter, among others.

Lafcadio Hearn's Japan
(Tuttle, 1997)
Observer-Richie hailing his debt to one of the original faithful observers of turn-of-the-century Japan.

A Lateral View: Essays on Culture and Style in Contemporary Japan
(Stone Bridge Press, 1992)

(University of California Press, 1997)

The Films of Akira Kurosawa
(University of California Press, 1996)

Memoirs of the Warrior Kumaga
i (Tuttle, 1999)

Tokyo: A View of the City
(Reaktion Books, 1999) See the review on Plus.