Sensei and Sensibility

Two outsiders take readers inside Japan.

A few years ago, on a radio program discussing the work of Willa Cather, I heard an academic say "behind every romantic is a racist." That the program's host let the assertion pass without comment wasn't all that surprising (it was public radio, after all). What struck me was how many great writers could, under that silly definition, be called racists. The list is long, and includes not just notorious ivory tower whipping boys (and girls) like Kipling, Conrad and Cather, but also such modern greats as Jack Kerouac, Larry McMurtry and Cormac McCarthy. The academic's assertion, uttered without nuance or worthwhile elaboration, was patent nonsense.

Widely acknowledged as America's foremost authority on Japanese culture, Donald Richie has been writing about Japan for 50 years and has lived there for almost as long. A self-described romantic, Richie casts a sensitive, empathic eye on his hosts, and thus lays waste to the romantic-equals-racist assertion. In fact, as a gaijin, or foreigner in Japan, Richie has himself been the victim of racism. He knows that even after a lifetime in Japan, he'll never be fully accepted in Japanese society. Luckily, he wouldn't have it any other way. Indeed, it's the role of outsider, and the vantage point it affords him, that Donald Richie cherishes.

The best of Richie's writing, including some previously unpublished work, is collected in The Donald Richie Reader. Nicely edited and annotated by Arturo Silva (another long-time foreign resident of Japan), the Reader includes excerpts from a great number of Richie's books, including his own favorite, The Inland Sea. Long out of print but due for reissue this fall by Stone Bridge Press, The Inland Sea is Richie's autobiographical novel-travelogue and an unmitigated delight. At turns hilarious and heart-wrenching, it's filled with Richie's wry observations and easy-going prose. Especially lovely is his rendering of his seaside meeting with a young Japanese girl, the subsequent cultural and sexual misunderstandings, and the indelible mark the experience left on the young author.

The Reader also includes Richie's largely neglected but graceful fiction, along with dozens of short observations on everything from Japanese skin and hair to the peculiarly Japanese take on toilets and flatulence. Also included are excerpts from his journals, and insightful profiles of all manner of Japanese, from gangsters and geisha to famous authors and lowly waitresses.

Sex--both romantic and commercial--is an important part of Richie's fascination with Japan. At one point he makes the obvious but still startlingly honest declaration that sex is the best souvenir. Elsewhere he describes experiences and observations in various pleasure enterprises, among them porn theaters and geisha houses. Universally recognized as an expert on the subject, Richie has written numerous books on Japanese film, including definitive studies of the directors Akira Kurosawa and Yasujiro Ozu. Ozu is the most "Japanese" of Japanese film directors (and Richie's favorite), and the author's biography is adventurously (and satisfyingly) structured like an Ozu film. The Reader includes excerpts from both studies, as well as punchy little profiles of the directors' respective alter-egos, actors Toshiro Mifune and Chishu Ryo.

On the subject of film, Richie's recently-released A Hundred Years of Japanese Film is--despite a subtitle that includes the word concise--monumental. Tracing the roots of Japanese film while exploring artistic and industrial intricacies of the business, A Hundred Years is encyclopedic, laced with Richie's wonderful insights, and full of information gleaned from his friendships with Ozu, Kurosawa and others, and his own experience as a filmmaker.

Especially satisfying is Richie's re-evaluation of Seijun Suzuki. Director of such wacky, lurid films as "Branded to Kill" and "Fighting Elegy," Suzuki received short shrift in earlier Richie film books, but here gets his due. A useful appendix offers capsule reviews and ordering information for Japanese film on video and DVD.

A contemporary of Richie's (their Japan experiences both started with World War II), Edward Seidensticker is largely responsible for introducing modern Japanese literature to America. As a translator for Knopf's pioneering Japanese literature program, Seidensticker rendered major works by Japan's big three--Tanizaki, Kawabata and Mishima--into lush, accessible English. He also single-handedly introduced the underrated and neglected Nagai Kafu to American readers with his innovative biography-anthology, Kafu the Scribbler. Seidensticker's just-released memoir, Tokyo Central, proves he is also a master storyteller.

Throughout Tokyo Central, Seidensticker displays a good-natured orneriness, which, coupled with an appealing self-effacing wit and a gentle, conversational prose style, makes for enjoyable reading.

Had Richie and Seidensticker done nothing more than introduce us to Ozu and Kafu, their keep would have been earned. That they have done so much more to present Japan to the West secures their status in the worlds of literature and cultural studies. When it comes to observing Japanese culture, Seidensticker and Richie are sensei with sensibility.