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Bookforum syllabus: Western literary expats in postwar Japan


My new syllabus for Bookforum magazine covers four favorite volumes on life in postwar Japan by four favorite literarily inclined Western expats: Pico Iyer, John Nathan, Donald Keene, and the late Donald Richie:

The 1950s through the 80s saw Japan go from post-war disrepair to world-frightening powerhouse, adapting and even improving all manner of Western inventions from cars and consumer electronics to jeans and rock music. While America and Britain observed these developments from afar, a number of expatriate writers registered more thoughtful assessments of the rapidly changing situation on the ground. These Westerners, many of whom first came to Japan during the Second World War, brought outside perspectives to this endlessly fascinating era of unprecedented—and unsurpassed—Japanese development and engagement with the world.

The Inland Sea by Donald Richie

Richie came to Tokyo in 1947 with the American occupation force and effectively never left. By the mid-1960s, he saw the city he loved falling—or rather, rising—into unrecognizability. Discontent with Japan’s rush into the first world, Richie threw himself into domestic travel, documenting the small towns and island outposts he encountered in The Inland Sea. Though I read the book on a trip to Osaka, a center of vulgar commercial energy, The Inland Sea showed me how the Japanese live, or once lived, in humbler places. “I don’t care if I never come back,” Richie announces not once but twice. This “learned, beautifully paced elegy for one of ‘the last places on earth where men rise with the sun and where streets are dark and silent by nine at night’,” Richard Lloyd Parry wrote of the book, “is the only full-length work of Richie’s that will be remembered a generation from now.” But for extra credit, do seek out The Japan Journals, an incomplete but thoroughly entertaining account of Richie’s life as a “smilingly excluded” outsider.

Read the whole thing at Bookforum.

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