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Outsider: Donald Richie in Japan, 1947-2013

PITY THE WESTERN JAPANOPHILE who longs to become Japanese. He either takes on every trapping he can manage of what he imagines as the Japanese existence, going as native as possible and in the process turning into a grotesque, or, having collided with one too many of the invisible barriers honeycombing his adopted homeland, throws up his hands and returns, filled with obscure frustration, to his actual one. Donald Richie, though known as a critic, novelist, curator, and filmmaker, had one real life’s work: to solve that problem, in a life lived almost entirely in Japan since service with the American occupation brought him there on New Year’s Eve, 1946, until his death one year ago. In his observations of, explorations in, and engagements with Japan, he exemplified how to place oneself advantageously in a land and culture not one’s own, a process begun by accepting, then embracing, how adamantly it will remain precisely that: not one’s own.

“The white man who goes native in Samoa or Marrakech,” Richie writes in his best-known work, 1971’s The Inland Sea, “the Japanese who goes native in New York or Paris — this is possible, but it is, I think, impossible for anyone but a Japanese to go Japanese.” Nominally an Ohioan, he stayed in Japan for about 60 years, except for two stretches in New York — first for an English degree at Columbia University, then to curate the Museum of Modern Art’s film program. In this time, he wrote some 40 books on his second, ever-strange country of residence: histories of Japanese film; Japanese travelogues like The Inland Sea; coffee-table books introducing Japan, its cuisine, its cities, its traditions, and its tattoos; novels set in ancient and modern Japan; and the 510-page Japan Journals, a collection, first intended for posthumous publication, of diary entries chronicling 57 years of his daily movement through Japanese society at all levels. What fascinated him throughout is its otherness. “If I were Japanese,” he liked to say of Japan, “I wouldn’t stay here ten minutes.”

Read the whole thing at the Los Angeles Review of Books.

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