"In fact the whole of Japan is a pure invention. There is no such country, there are no such people".
November 9, 2004 5:28 PM   Subscribe

Discovering Japan. As a perennial outsider at loose in Japan, writer Donald Richie captures the joyous freedom of being foreign. The foreign observer is likely to be happy only if he sees his foreignness as an adventure, and recognizes that he has given up a sense of belonging for a sense of freedom, traded the luxury of being understood for that of being permanently interested. Richie, the philosopher-king of expats in Asia for the past half-century, arrived in Tokyo in 1947 as a typist with the U.S. government and never really left, writing dozens of books , on Japanese movies, temples, history and fashion, while enjoying himself as an actor, musician, filmmaker and painter. The Japan Journals: 1947-2004 is a monument to the pleasures of displacement. Richie watchers can observe, more intimately than ever, a man who is generally happiest observing. More inside.
posted by matteo (12 comments total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
according to Tom Wolfe, "Donald Richie is the Lafcadio Hearn of our time, a subtle, stylish, and deceptively lucid medium between two cultures that confuse one another: the Japanese and the American."
posted by matteo at 5:30 PM on November 9, 2004

As a mopey teenager I often felt alienated, so I decided I would one day move to Japan, where as a white guy I thought I'd never be expected to fit in in the first place. I picked up a copy of "The Broken Bridge : Fiction from Expatriates in Literary Japan," the introduction of which was written by Donald Richie. Good read...
posted by crank at 6:16 PM on November 9, 2004

Matteo, you are on a rampage! Good stuff! This definitely deserves a [choberigu!].

When a close friend moved to Japan in the mid '90s he referred to it as going "through the looking glass." I didn't fully comprehend his simple reference until I spent several weeks wandering around his Wonderland. And, I've wanted to return every day since. It is fascinating how that country touches people. Some people get sucked in for decades, other (expats) are simply spit out after a few months or less. It is definitely not for everyone.

While I (continuously) marvel at what it (as a country and as a people) does well, I find its quirks and dirty (socio/psychological) underbelly even more fascinating.

An interesting article from Iyer. I've read most of his books, but the more I read from him the less I like him/his perspective. Regardless, I'm definitely going to pick up Richie's journals.

OT: Matteo, have you seen Marker's 'Sans Soleil'?
posted by shoepal at 8:03 PM on November 9, 2004

I long ago gave up the objective of being understood. Who is ?

I find this post - and even the contemplation of this post - oddly liberating : I might just have to go handle some snakes or speak in tongues. We are all strangers in our own way. ; )
posted by troutfishing at 8:38 PM on November 9, 2004

God damn, Richie's awesome. The stuff on japan is great, but you'll read it no matter what I say; listen to him talk about writing (interviewer in italics)

I have four or five things I'm doing at once, and I'm allowed to pick which one I want to do -- what I feel like. If you involve your feelings in your writing, you're lost.

You mean if your feelings aren't there?

No. If they are there.

If they are there?

Look at Thomas Wolfe, he's unreadable.

Oh, I see, I see. So it's a question of not being overwhelmed by your feelings?

Not even to acknowledge it. I don't believe feelings. Feelings are only ideas whose time has not come yet. No, just throw away the feelings.

But in the end, the description leads to others feeling.

Oh, if it's any good, sure.


If it's any good, that's what it's supposed to do.

Okay. So you're really clinical in the act of doing?


But the impact on the reader is different.

Yes, it's supposed to be different. What you're doing is communicating the kind of feelings you know well that you have, but you're trying to communicate them in a very cool kind of way, through your writing, through a description which is so precise that the reader will have no recourse but to say, "Yes, that's the way it is."
posted by Tlogmer at 10:58 PM on November 9, 2004

shoepal, I'm a certified MeFi Marker freak
posted by matteo at 3:45 AM on November 10, 2004

oh, and I seldom agree with Iyer, too. Cuba and the Night was cute, though
posted by matteo at 3:46 AM on November 10, 2004

Momus also writes great stuff about Japan (especially when he lives there in the Summer).
posted by ejoey at 3:50 AM on November 10, 2004

I've been living in Japan these past 6 months and have mixed feelings about the place. One the one hand I find it shamefully similar to my home country, Australia, in the way that it has opened its legs to Western culture, but on the other hand it has so many different little things that you would never see anywhere else. I leave Japan in 10 days and the one thing I will miss the most is the general politeness of everyone. It's such an unthreatening place, and there's nothing ever intimidating about the people here - even the tough young guys are usually harmless, friendly and respectful even. Now I have to go home and put up with the macho morons that you get back home. *sigh*
posted by Jase_B at 4:50 AM on November 10, 2004

God damn it, matteo, I don't have time for this! How am I supposed to get done all the things I need to get done (sell the house, find work, and otherwise change my life drastically) when you're over there luring me with the siren song of all these articles and interviews to be read? And beyond them all those Ritchie books I suddenly need: I can't afford them! Just post some flash games or something, willya, and stop trying to save MetaFilter from itself! Well, actually, don't. You're making me suffer, but it's a good suffering.

I came to awareness in the Japan Richie arrived in, not long after the war, with old neighborhoods and rickety streetcars and mossy temple graveyards, and I think it had a tremendous effect on me; certainly I am living proof of Ritchie's "When you come over here, or anyplace different, you get your eyes opened, and you can never get them shut again." And he's singing my song here:
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?
That's good. That's very good.

I don't think I'd want to go back to today's Tokyo, though. The changes would sadden me and fade my memories. Unless, of course, I could hang out with Ritchie in Shitamachi...
posted by languagehat at 10:46 AM on November 10, 2004

sell the house, find work, and otherwise change my life drastically

just don't. it's a distraction from MetaFilter. fuck real life, we need you here.

posted by matteo at 10:58 AM on November 10, 2004

One thing I would miss if/when I leave Japan is the amazing customer service. One thing I wouldn't miss is the trains stopping between 1am and 5am. It's a damn conspiracy to keep you out drinking every night!
posted by ejoey at 7:08 AM on November 11, 2004

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