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: