Donald Richie in San Francisco in 2001


Donald Richie is short, not one of those Americans who looms over Japanese. (The other explicator of Japanese culture to Americans, Donald Keene [born in 1922], is also short.) He struck me as a fastidious, mellifluous old queen/trouper. He wore a black suit with a red tie and white shirt, black-framed bifocals. He chose to focus his presentation on writing. The most crucial and difficult part, he said, was to start. There is an infinite variety of other ways to fill the day. He claims he writes to pare down and get away from the self, though I have my doubts, since his sensibility is always on display in his writings. But he said that expressing it is a way to get rid of it. He said that most of his essays grow out of journal entries. His journals are going to be published posthumously, so there must be sexual indiscretion, not just drafts for his weekly book column in Japan Times! He said he writes it in about an hour, though reading the books takes longer than writing about them.


He claimed that emotions lead to bad writing; distance is essential. Of his 40 books, he likes The Inland Sea the best. He says “I like myself here” (in Japan generally). He finds the wisdom of Japanese writers in their way of showing, Tanazaki being like Jane Austen in this. Because Japanese don’t fear the future, he thinks that Seneca should be popular. He also endorsed Ruth Benedict’s shame but not guilt interpretation in saying that Japanese are not conscious of self, though they are individuated.

I asked him about the ignorance about the Japanese film heritage that I have encountered in Japanese I have met. He agreed there is no audience in Japan for Japanese classical films. Such money as they make is mostly from videos, rather than theatrical release. Even Kitano’s. Kitano can raise money, though “Brother” flopped in Japan. Movies from elsewhere are dubbed into Japanese, contributing to the belief that everyone everywhere speaks Japanese (though many Japanese believe foreigners cannot learn it, that it requires a uniquely Japanese brain).

Kitano teaches the “parasite generation” (children into their 30s who live at home) how to be cool, though they don’t get guns. Smoking in public has lost acceptance. Smokers are called “fireflies” for the appearance outside in the dark of their drags on their cigarettes.

Although the sense of job security is fading as Japan becomes ever poorer, those who lose jobs are shunned [see “Departures”].

Living abroad one is necessarily analytical all the time, especially watching oneself.

I asked him why  [Ruth Benedict’s] Chrysanthemum and the Sword is not on his list of best books on Japan by foreigners. He said that he likes the book, but is suspicious about the method and thinks she was not severe enough. He thinks that Kurt Singer‘s book Mirror, Sword and Jewel is the best and that Barthes wrote what he saw (!) in Empire of Signs, though that book has seemed arbitrary and a priori to most everyone else.

He was surprised that I had a copy of George Stevens: American Romantic (1970), from his NY-MOMA stint. He said that Stevens hated the book and tried to buy up and destroy all the copies. I told Richie that I thought it was quite good and have had it since my first trip to NYC in 1971.

[Born in Lima Ohio, 17 April 1924, Richie died 19 February 2013 in Tokyo. He was in San Francisco in September 2001  promoting the Donald Richie Reader (Stone Bridge Press; a volume of Japan Journals was published by the same publisher in 2005. ]


©2001, 2016, Stephen O. Murray

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