Advertisement
YOU ARE HERE: LAT HomeCollections

Reveries of a Solitary Walker

Donald Richie teaches us the modern art of learning how to be a foreigner

July 14, 2002|PICO IYER | Pico Iyer is the author of numerous books, including "The Lady and the Monk: Four Seasons in Kyoto" and the forthcoming novel "Abandon." His essay is adapted from the foreword to a new edition of "The Inland Sea," to be published by Stone Bridge Press in September.

The foreigner in Japan, more than anywhere, stands at the edge of an intimacy that is closing slowly in his face. He walks along a beach, perhaps, as darkness falls, with a young alluring girl, and they talk of loneliness and all the places he has seen, the nights. The girl offers to introduce him to a local inn, where he will be taken care of, and they walk together up to a private room and sit by the window, looking out at the sea. Then he touches her arm, and the spell is broken. Giggling, she makes her diplomatic retreat. The next morning, when he rises to leave the small town by boat, sailing away into the mist, he sees her there, on the pier, with two friends, waiting for him with presents and goodbyes.

It is a haunting moment from Donald Richie's "The Inland Sea," and one that stands for a lifetime of such moments for those of us who find ourselves on the island of half-opened doors. It is made more touching by the fact that the girl knows she will never see the places that she dreams of; all her days will be spent in this forgotten town. And it is made more plangent by the fact that the foreigner confesses to himself (and to us) that the encounter is perplexing to him because he is "innocent despite experience" and innocent not only because he sees no point in guilt.

The plumbing of innocence and loneliness, the incarnation of a deeply Japanese freedom from cynicism and openness to wonder, the attentiveness to all the fine print, emotional and otherwise, in every fleeting moment are part of what make Richie the most lasting and graceful foreign writer on Japan since Lafcadio Hearn (and before). He apprehends Japan, in all senses, on its own terms yet puts it in a larger picture. He catches the sound of the sea through the mist, the fisherman's no-nonsense explanation of how the ocean will bring him a living, and then the sense of loss that is what the sound, and the explanation, mean. Richie writes that Japan keeps its visitors permanently enchanted--and vexed--through its teasing mix of intimacy and distance; it is that same mix, brought to us through a companionable yet solitary traveler, utterly unguarded but always discreet, that gives his own prose its particular strength and beauty. The writing is open, unpretentious, immediate, yet entirely poised, unhurried, at peace with mystery.

For such a large presence, which attracts so many votaries and critics from abroad, Japan has been strangely ill-served by its foreign writers. There is never any shortage of books purporting to lay its secrets bare through a microscopic scrutiny of its business practices, its political structures or its neon lanes, yet all of them, in the end, say the same thing (about how well Japan manages to keep its public face intact). And faced with the girl on the beach, many foreigners are apt to dilate on sexual mores in Japan, others to start anthropologizing about the persistence of rural custom, still others to talk about the rigid status quo that keeps the girl on the island. Richie is the only one I know who will follow the experience through to where explanations fall away, confide his own clumsiness to us and not even begin to attempt larger formulations or grand summations. It is, he knows, just an encounter, all but inexplicable, between one stranger and another.

Richie first found himself in Japan during the occupation, as a merchant seaman in Okinawa in 1946. In the half-century since, he has written dozens of books on the adopted home he's never really left: books on its Zen ways and its sex clubs, books on its films, tattoos and gardens. Yet the truest distillation of the place that has eluded so many of the rest of us comes in his classic book of travels, "The Inland Sea," about to be reissued. Sidestepping special interests and provincialisms, determined to be neither a narrow scholar nor a wide-eyed newcomer, Richie simply wandered around the largely unvisited and undeveloped parts of Japan that ran along the inland sea in the late '60s and described what they looked and sounded like.

Though the book first came out in 1971, it seems more urgent than ever today, in part because it records a world of rural custom that is fast becoming extinct and in part because it catches something deeper in Japan that never really changes. A typical Richie moment finds him walking up a hill to a shrine, perhaps, and telling us some of the folklore and history that surround the place; he pauses to observe how people talk (or don't talk) in this ostensibly holy site and then comes out again, with some gentle rumination on the country's relation to silence and worship and time. 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. As often as not, their stories have no ending, or leave him with a question he knows he cannot answer.

Advertisement
Los Angeles Times Articles
|
|
|