Donald Richie, American who taught world about Japan, dies at 88

Posted Feb. 20, 2013, at 6:22 p.m.

Donald Richie, an American expatriate who became a leading authority on Japanese film and culture, and whose many books explained Japan to the rest of the world, died Feb. 19, at a Tokyo hospital. He was 88.

The Japan Times newspaper reported his death, but the cause was not immediately known. He had a heart attack in 2003.

Richie, who had lived in Japan almost continuously since 1947, was among the first Western writers to champion the artistry of such filmmakers as Akira Kurosawa and Yasujiro Ozu. He wrote dozens of books about film and Japanese culture, as well as the highly regarded travel account, “The Inland Sea” (1971), a journey through the country’s interior.

“What sets him apart is the fact that he was constantly on the scene,” Peter Grilli, president of the Japan Society of Boston, said Tuesday in an interview. “For me, ‘The Inland Sea’ is an absolutely top-of-the-list book. It’s a great travel book. It’s so personal and connects so deeply with the Japanese people.”

Nothing about life in Japan escaped Richie’s attention. Among his more than 50 books and countless articles, he wrote about Japanese food, social customs, fables, gardens, temples, folk art, music, pop culture, tattoos and sexual mores, from pornography to prostitution to gay bars.

When visiting journalists and scholars sought to understand Japan from the ground up, one of the first people they sought out was Richie.

“Reality is skin-deep because there is only skin,” he wrote in 2001, explaining the seeming contradictions of Japanese life. “The ostensible is the truth. There is no crack between the mask and the face because the mask is the only face anyone ever has.”

Richie first encountered Japan when he was hired as a civilian typist to assist U.S. occupation forces after World War II.

“I wasn’t here two weeks when I realized I was in a place that fit me,” he told the Japan Times in 1995. He knew he would be a permanent outsider in Japanese society, but that sense of exclusion appealed to him.

“I did my best to keep out of the Boy Scouts, the basketball team, or whatever,” he said in 1995. “So to come to this place, where I’m excluded from joining anyway, was heaven.”

He explored Tokyo on foot and began to attend the movies, which he wrote about for Stars and Stripes, the U.S. military newspaper, and later for The Japan Times.

“For me, movies became the preferred way of life, and when I wanted to get to know Japan, I had to know its movies,” he told The New York Times in 2001. “That’s where the secrets are.”

He was among the first English-language writers to look past “Godzilla” and recognize a depth and subtlety in Japanese filmmaking that rivaled the best movies being made in the West. He befriended and published books about Kurosawa, the director of “Rashomon” (1950) and “Seven Samurai” (1954), and Ozu, director of “Tokyo Story” (1953) and other films about Japanese middle-class life.

With the contemplative, delicately drawn “The Inland Sea,” Richie ventured into the heart of Japan, far away from Tokyo’s bustling business districts:

“The streets of the town, so narrow that my arms brushed either side, stretched past open doors, open windows, through which I saw families sitting at dinner; mothers in kitchens busy with fish, pickles, rice; two young boys flat on their stomachs doing their homework.”

In an introduction to a 2002 edition of “The Inland Sea,” writer Pico Iyer, who has lived for many years in Japan, described Richie’s masterwork:

“Driven by no designs upon the culture, he mostly describes it through its people: the kids and old women, bar girls and gangsters who open their hearts to him and tell him their stories. … I would venture to say that there is not a graceless sentence in his prose.”

Richie was born April 17, 1924, in Lima, Ohio. He served in the U.S. Maritime Service during World War II.

He received a bachelor’s degree in English from Columbia University in 1953, then returned to Japan. In the late 1960s and early 1970s, he was a film curator at New York’s Museum of Modern Art, but by 1973 he returned to live permanently in Japan. His marriage to Mary Evans ended in divorce.

Richie later bemoaned the rapid urban development that had caused the country to lose much of the rural character and timeless traditions he first saw in the 1940s. But in a 1948 journal entry, reprinted in the autobiographical “The Japan Journals: 1947-2004,” he captured the mystery lurking within the ordinary that he found so beguiling.

“Wandering in the city after work, smelling camellia hair oil, dusty long unaired kimono,” Mr. Richie wrote, “listening to the incomprehensible murmur of conversation around me, looking into eyes suddenly averted, I try to make sense of what I see.”

 

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