Donald Richie, Yasunari Kawabata and a lifelong dream come true

I can’t remember exactly when I first stumbled upon the name Donald Richie, but it was probably at one of my Japanese literature classes at the University of Oregon about ten years ago. Later, studying Japanese film, his name showed up again – this time as the author of our textbook. Impressed by his insightful (albeit a bit conservative) views and often poetic musings on fads old and new in Japanese cinema, I visited the university library to see what other books by Richie I could find.

What I discovered, Kawabata Yasunari’s novel (in both senses of the word) The Scarlet Gang of Asakusa, translated by then U of O professor Alisa Freedman with a foreword by Richie, would make me fall in love not only with the Taisho Democracy era of Japanese history with its eroguro nansensu and other gaudy modernities, but also headfirst with the writings of Kawabata and Richie. That summer, after graduating, I lived in Sweden only physically while my soul was somewhere along the Sumida river in the years prior to the 1923 Great Kanto earthquake that would cause as much damage to the city as the Allied firebombings two decades later. Most importantly, Asakusa as Tokyo’s Montmartre was destroyed and would only partly recover in its same shape. Except, spiritually at least, in the writings of Donald Richie.

When I moved to Japan a year later to start my new job teaching English at junior high schools in Saga on the island of Kyushu, the last thing I did before taking the train south was to check the English language section of the Kinokuniya bookstore for more works by Richie. There were plenty, and I settled on his memoirs: Japan Journals: 1947-2004, a collection of diary entries from his time as a typist and later journalist for the Stars and Stripes magazine in the early years of the Occupation, to becoming the dean of Japanese art critics. I read them between classes from cover to cover, realizing that however excitingly I decided to spend my own Japanese adventure it would never come near the incredible journey Richie had made.

And he was still alive. At 83, Richie wrote weekly book reviews and occasional travel features in The Japan Times, a publication I started reading obsessively. Especially its travel section always featured exceptionally well-crafted pieces of journeys near and far, written by the likes of Richie, Stephen Mansfield and (later) Kit Nagamura. From his balcony overlooking Shinobazu Pond in Ueno Park, Richie could no longer see the silhuette of his friend and fellow Japanologist Edward Seidensticker, who had passed away a year earlier, but he would keep writing for the paper until the fall of 2009 when illness took its toll. He died in the spring of 2013, aged 88.

I’ve now read most of Richie’s over 40 books on Japan, and it pains me that I never had the chance to meet him. Once, in the spring of 2009 when I had moved to Tokyo to pursue somewhat of a career in television, I saw an ad for a lecture on film by Richie and finally thought my opportunity to shake hands with my hero had arrived. Only that the magazine in my hands was old, the lecture already passed. That same summer I left Tokyo to start a position at a film company in Seoul, Korea, and my opportunity window closed for good.

Then late last year, an editor of The Japan Times contacted me to let me know that a travel piece I had submitted was to be published in the first Sunday edition of 2015. Overwhelmed with joy, I rejoiced in the fact that I would at least spiritually share publication space with my hero and mentor. And it so happened that the article was about Kawabata Yasunari.

In his Japan Journals Richie tells of his first meeting with Kawabata, overlooking from the roof of the subway station an Asakusa demolished for the second time, this time among war ashes in the winter of 1947.

In between them, staring left to right in awe, stood a third, invisible man.

Footnote: Click on the link below to read my piece In Kawabata’s footsteps to ‘Snow Country,’ published in The Japan Times on January 3, 2015:

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Fallen Blossoms


A short story

The wind had already ripped the first cherry blossoms of the year off their fragile branches as a man silently walked up the hill toward Hanaokayama Park. It was his second time in Kumamoto, but not much had changed in the 15 years that had passed. Love hotels still squirmed the serpentine path, and the man particularly remembered one of them – Green Hill – as his soles accidentally squished a fallen pink petal.

The hotel stood as if unoccupied since that night 15 years ago, when a young tipsy couple had danced into its perimeters. He even remembered the room number – 208 – and the fat black cat guarding outside. Perhaps it was still there, patiently awaiting its master like a countryside version of Hachiko. The man checked his watch and hurried up the hill.

A few minutes later he had reached the park and the somewhat industrial cityscape of Kumamoto met his decrepit eyes. Indeed, not much had changed. Even the cherry trees looked the same, as did the white Buddhist temple crowning the hill. The man picked up a cigarette and a lighter from his pocket but quickly put them back down as he saw the familiar sun-lit hair strands reflected off and as easily recognizable as a cherry blossom.

It seemed as if she had not aged a day, and as she turned around, sensing that someone was near, the man got his assumption confirmed.


”Oh, Robbie. Is that you?”

Robbie did not know what to say, stunned by the beauty of his former lover while ashamed of his own all too obvious aging.

”It’s been a while…,” his somewhat shaky lips finally mustered.

”Yeah. You look different. How have you been?”

Robbie was affirmed by Yumiko’s warm smile, the same smile that always made him relax before (and especially after) his big exams at Kumamoto State College.

”Well, shall we sit down?”

Yumiko rested her arm softly against Robbie’s back and gently pushed him toward a bench at the front of the park – the same one they had sat down on moments before their first kiss. Robbie wondered whether her move was intentional or not.

Yumiko told him about her modeling, which had led to a brief acting stint for a minor talent agency in Osaka. She told him about her sister’s wedding in Europe and how she had fulfilled her dream of climbing the Eiffel tower in a night gown. How good the coffee really was in Vienna (they had once bet on it, Robbie claiming it was just a myth) and how real Belgian chocolate actually made one’s heart jump. She told him about Takuya Kimura and how his armpits had smelled when he hugged her.

Robbie told her about his aspiring directorial career, how his screenplays lay maculated in the offices of all major and minor production companies in Japan. He told her about his attempts of writing stories, and how he was once fired from a local information magazine for showing up late. He told her about his wife Mitsuki, their son Akio and the automobile accident that took his life. He told her about how Mitsuki had run away, filed a divorce and how the police later found her remnants in a river near her parents’ home in Saga. He told her about his drinking problems, and how a doctor had advised him to start studying again to regain some kind of happiness in life.

Yumiko listened, a tear almost discernible in her left eye. Or was it a drip of water fallen from a twig above her, disposed to a heaven just opening up?

”Let’s go,” Yumiko said.

She took his hand and produced an umbrella with the other, folding it up before handing it to Robbie.

”My pleasure,” he said as they walked down the slope escaping the rain. As they passed ”Green Hill,” Yumiko suddenly stopped.

”The rain is picking up. Let’s take cover in here.”

Following her lead, Robbie was dragged through the entrance and led outside room 208. He wondered if it was just a coincidence or if Yumiko still remembered. A fat black cat watched as the couple danced into the room and entangled on the bed under the mirrored roof.

Two hours later, the sun setting behind the eaves of the old glass window, Robbie found himself looking into the mirror. Yumiko, as he knew her, was gone and all he saw staring back at him was his own ailing body and its fifteen years younger shadow.

Copyright: Dan Asenlund, 2008.

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To be born in the wrong time – and the right at the same time

(originally published in Swedish on a game site community)

I’ve always cursed myself for being born in the wrong time, far away from all the action. While my grandparents saw Sweden blossom in the years following the Second World War, got to experience everything from the arrival of television into the living rooms to smiling stewardesses dressed in elegant uniforms, serving coffee in china sets on low altitude flights across the Continent. The welfare state was blooming and the standard of living rose not only in Sweden but all around the world. And people appreciated their surroundings, as everything was new and memories of the miseries of war were not far behind them. Now the winds were blowing faster than ever, but forward.

Since I was a little kid I’ve been a sucker for things old, and the summers spent at my grandparents’ house in Gotland (a Swedish island) always offered a bonanza. Grandpa was a mechanic and in his garage stood old English automobiles that had conquered the roads decades earlier, but shone polished and looked almost as good as new. That garage became my time machine, along with grandpa’s office full of old photographs, marine potpourri and all kinds of curious hodgepodge. And each time I watched an old city symphony documentary on TV, I thought about grandpa and his garage.

But if I did get a chance to be born in another time, I would not choose Sweden. Because despite all I’ve mentioned, not enough happened around us – submarine mysteries and other Cold War paranoia (being close to the Soviet Union) aside.

Maybe I’d choose to be born in the U.S. as a baby boomer. Then I could read science fiction magazines in the basement in the 50s, cry over the shots in Dallas a decade later, protest the Vietnam War and most importantly – see us land on the Moon. It must have been amazing to experience the Space Age of the 60s, from Yuri Gagarin’s maiden voyage in April 1961 to recently deceased Neil Armstrong’s big little step in July of 1969. Maybe I could follow it all from a small mining town, like Jake Gyllenhaal in the excellent film October Sky.

Or, if I’d been born a few years later, I could sit in this classroom and listen to the poetry of Simon and Garfunkel. The Dangling Conversation is one of Simon’s absolute masterpieces, here lectured by a charming young teacher in cinema verite master Frederick Wiseman’s High School from 1968. Look how her eyes sparkle after putting the song on for her students. I’d like to get to know her. Fall in love with her. Go out in the streets and revolt with her. Simply put, I’d like to be there.

But if I only had one choice, I probably still wouldn’t choose the U.S., but Japan. During the same period. Because there, the bustling commotion around people’s daily lives was even greater. Mostly because they had lost a long and hard-felt war, and people wanted to forget all about the imperialism that had brought it about, but also because the Japanese post-war industry model became so successful that everything just exploded – in happier tones than the fire bombs during the war. The country was also bombarded by foreign influences left and right, not unlike when it opened its doors to the West after nearly 300 years in exile after Admiral Perry’s black ships sailed in about a century earlier. All of a sudden everything foreign became modern, and all came at once like the water in a dam someone had just opened. At the same it was Japanized  – the Japanese are masters at taking foreign things and making them more Japanese than they originally were foreign – and created a unique culture that could only be experienced there and then. Contrasts more beautiful and exciting even than a haiku poem by Matsuo Basho.

But let us get back to the 60s, perhaps to a university campus. Because the student protests that had started in the United States and spread around the world had reached Japan as well, and here more than anywhere else did the protests matter for the students as individuals. For the first time they could break free from the overly demanding expectations from family and society. Japan had become a rich country and individualism could prosper like never before. Many protested just for the sake of it, set up film festivals showing works of Godard and Koji Wakamatsu. The boys read Rimbaud and pretended to be Bob Dylan while the girls joined English drama clubs and masturbated with radio tubes. At least according to Ryu Murakami’s semi-autobiography 69, a fantastic novel depicting how the youths living in the countryside were affected by the wave of revolt that washed over the big cities miles away. (Both kinds, by the way, were crazy about Simon and Garfunkel’s Bookends)

There, in Tokyo, lived another Murakami. Namely Haruki. And the charm of one of his masterpieces, Norwegian Wood, is that the protagonists deal with their love issues in the middle of all the political chaos, but at the same time ignore it. In a sense, the commotion built a wall between them and society that made their lives a little but simpler, a little bit freer.

And I want to go there. Now. To Midori and Toru. To Yazaki and Adama in the countryside. While living in Kyushu for two years, I actually visited Sasebo, where 69 takes place, and located the high school Yazaki and his friends barricade. Japanese schools have a very timeless look so it was easy to imagine myself back in time. And through a window I almost saw Iwase shitting on the principal’s desk.

One year earlier, in 1968, Japan got its first Nobel laureate in literature, my favorite author Yasunari Kawabata. He grew up in the in my opinion most appealing era of Japanese history, the Taisho democracy of the 1920s. Here was glimpsed what would happen in full force 40 years later, especially as women got more independent and could both work and earn money. “Moga” (modern girls) set trends that shocked the older generations, broke free from the male-dominated society and got sexually liberated. Perhaps the most colorful portrait of “moga” was painted by another Japanese literary giant, Junichiro Tanizaki, in his short novel Naomi from 1924. A must read for everyone with a passion for Japanese culture.

But it is to Kawabata’s Asakusa Kurenaidan (The Scarlet Gang of Asakusa) I want to go. Asakusa in these days was Tokyo’s equivalent of New York’s Times Square or Montmartre in Paris. Entertainment in all its forms, cabarets and movie theaters, Tivoli games and peepshows. Ero guro nansensu.

And some of the charm of this era is documented on old e-hagaki (picture postcards) collected on one of my favorite websites, Click on a postcard and dream yourself away. At least that is what I do.

But wait a minute.

I was born the same year as Donkey Kong, got to experience the NES during its prime, enter the famed Nintendo bus as well as play Street Fighter II live on Swedish television. I’ve seen video game journalism develop from fanzines to the front pages of Sweden’s most respected dailies. Tested virtual reality when it was new. Heard all the schoolyard myths about Zelda II. Played portable games from Game & Watch and Game Boy to smartphones. Pretty much lived through the entire history of video gaming.

And in 20 or 30 years people will want to die to get a chance to have experienced that.


It’s enough to see the commercials above to understand that the 60s were awesome (note Bill Murray’s predecessor in the second film!)

And I’d really like to be able to crawl out of the TV when I see this one.

The Dangling Conversation, again.


Footnote: Everyone who likes Japanese culture should, if they haven’t done so already, read something by Donald Richie. He came to Japan on a ship as part of the Occupation in 1947 but quickly broke free from the military establishment and hit the streets, where he wasn’t supposed to go. He was one of the first Westerners to see the new Asakusa get built (but soon the western districts of Shibuya and Shinjuku would take over its role) and after specializing in film help introduce Kurosawa, Ozu and Mizoguchi to the West. He has written over 40 books on various topics within Japanese culture, among them the exceptional travel journal The Inland Sea as well as The Japan Journals, 1947-2004.

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