“IT IS PERHAPS TRUE that the best way to get to know a people is to sleep with them,” writes Donald Richie about halfway into The Inland Sea, “but this is complicated in Japan.” That hardly stops him from trying, however. In this account of a journey through the towns and villages of the titular “landlocked, lakelike body of water bounded by three of Japan’s four major islands” appear a memorable cast of partners: an island girl, barely of high-school age, who invites herself into Richie’s room; a brash, young yakuza cast into exile as a Buddhist acolyte; a sailor, even younger and more severe, who quashes his sexual urges with buckets of cold water; a pouting prostitute with whom a bar owner all but swindles Richie into spending a dire evening; a kept woman whose name he never catches, but with whom he imagines an entire blissful life together as, late in the book, they talk until sunrise.
Most of these episodes end with Richie indirectly but firmly rebuffed, and even his possibly successful couplings receive no more acknowledgment than such ambiguous lines as “he had walked me back to my inn, had come in for a cup of tea, had asked more questions, had finally spent the night.” (“Foreigners are nice,” says another young man, alone with Richie in a dark field. “They’ll do things that Japanese don’t do.”) But the author, who first came to Japan in 1947 as a typist and then a reporter for the US occupation force, was no mere sex tourist; by the time ofThe Inland Sea’s first publication in 1971, he had already established himself in Japan as a journalist, film critic, novelist, and interpreter of a host of Japanese subjects, from flower arrangement to phallic symbolism.
Though he certainly knew the country well enough to put together a solid travelogue, Richie was also no run-of-the-mill travel writer. The Inland Sea displays the writerly virtues most evident in a later book, well-known when published in 1996 (under a bewildering variety of titles, from Geisha, Gangster, Neighbor, Nun to Public People, Private People to Japanese Portraits) but much less so today. Each of that book’s chapters presents a prose sketch of one of the many Japanese people Richie knew, a group that included major film-world figures like the director Yasujirō Ozu (on whom Richie also wrote the definitive study) and the late midcentury cinematic icon Setsuko Hara, as well as literary celebrities like Yukio Mishima, the closeted ultranationalist whose infamous ritual suicide ended his futile attempt to overtake the Japanese government, and Yasunari Kawabata, who took his own life shortly after winning the Nobel Prize.
Read the whole thing at the Los Angeles Review of Books.