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Books on Cities: Donald Richie, Tokyo (1999)

Donald Richie closes his most personal book on Tokyo by quoting from his own diary. The entry dates from the summer of 1978, more than twenty years before. One of his generation’s best-known American expatriates in Japan, Richie first arrived while working for the U.S. occupation force after the Second World War. He returned to Tokyo to live in the mid-1950s, and there he remained until his death in 2013. The only exception was his stint as Film Curator at the Museum of Modern Art, which lasted for a few years of the late 1960s and early 70s. Toward the end of that decade, he writes in his diary of being back in Tokyo, taking in a heartily atavistic summer festival in his neighborhood of Ueno:

Japan in the summer is always more Japanese and never more so than at this fair. Families in summer yukata, clacking along on geta, gang boys hawking in cummerbunds and shorts; old gentlemen shuffling about in suteteko and underwear tops, carrying fans; girls back from the bath with wet hair sleeked back, towels in hands. This is what Japan once looked like. Summer brings it back again. And old attitudes as well. A sudden interest in nature, here in the bowels of the city. Exclamations at the size of the lotus buds. And a much slower tempo. No one striding, everyone strolling. And with it the old politeness. People standing to one side for each other.

Writing in the late 20th century, Richie finds this memory bringing to mind the memories of another Tokyoite: Nagai Kafu, who chronicled the life of the city in the early 20th-century. Even then, Kafu “was regretting the passing of the latter part of the century before. And in the middle of this century, he was complaining, remembering the early part of the century. Fifty years from now, this time about which I am complaining will probably have become someone else’s golden age.” I myself first visited Japan a decade ago, and never could have experienced the 70s there, much less the immediate postwar years. But Japan’s 90s would be a tempting decade to revisit, at least according to the stories of a slightly older American friend who studied abroad there at that time — and took film classes taught by Richie himself.

Read the whole thing at Substack.