My first encounter with Donald Richie, who died earlier this week at the age of 88, was a pleasant surprise, since it was he who approached me. In late 1995, about a year after I started my Media Mix column in the Japan Times, I received a letter from him that had been forwarded by the JT. He wrote that he always looked forward to reading me “in the paper” and “much enjoy[ed] the column.” He was prompted to get in touch by a recent piece I had written about the relationship between “the royals,” as he called them, and the media. “And it occurred to me that you might like to read about my recent encounter with their imperial highnesses and their keepers. This is not for publication, naturally, merely for your amusement.” Enclosed was a four-page, single-spaced, word-processed manuscript, seemingly taken from a longer work (pagination), about a visit to the newly rebuilt imperial palace. At first I was confused because the date in the heading was “5 October 1955,” and after reading through the MS and noting a number of typos and run-on sentences I concluded the thing hadn’t been copy-edited. Though I hadn’t read much of Donald’s work at that point aside from his weekly book reviews in the JT and his piecemeal memoirs in Tokyo Journal, I knew his reputation and was delighted to have received from him what seemed like an unpublished article, flattering myself that maybe I was the first one to see it. The piece recounted Donald’s first ever visit to the palace. Besides providing a rare, detailed glimpse of what actually exists within that highly fortified compound in the middle of Chiyoda Ward (“…then down what looked much like a country road on either side of which were further walls and behind them virgin forest which is the heart of this land. I had heard rabbits and foxes still lived here, in the center of Tokyo, but I didn’t see any…”), he at last enlightened me on just what it is the emperor and empress say to their guests as they stroll down a line of well-wishers. Though I wouldn’t characterize the tone as irreverent, it wasn’t bemused either. He was genuinely fascinated by the ritual aspects but under no illusion that these peoople had any sort of traction on reality. “They glided from the room,” he wrote. “Yes, glided, for their gait was also practiced. It was this that made me suddenly become conscious of a word which had been waiting there during the entire audience and now appeared: ghosts.” He cared enough about them as people to wonder how they lived their lives but not enough to feel sorry for them. I was happy to read at the end of the piece that while all the other guests actually got down on the floor to bow to their hosts, he did not. “I have nothing against full obeisance and will occasionally employ it when needed, but I thought that this promiscuous kowtowing had nothing to do with me and so I politely smiled and merely inclined from the waist whenever looked at.”
I didn’t actually meed Donald face-to-face until several years later, in the press lounge of the Tokyo International Film Festival when it was still being held in Shibuya. He was sitting at a table reading a newspaper, wearing a tie but not a suit. I introduced myself and he invited me to sit down. Since receiving his letter I had become the film critic for the Asahi Evening News, and while we talked a little about the movies we’d seen at the festival and those we wanted to see we mostly discussed other things. As in the article, he had a way of expressing candor in the most disarming way, a talent that certainly came in handy in a country as enamored of solicitude as Japan. After that I would sometimes run into him at press screenings, and when I lived in Minami Senju we occasionally found ourselves taking the same subway into town, since he lived three stations away in Ueno. We rarely talked about movies, but instead what each of us had been writing about lately. Whatever topic I was tackling in Media Mix that particular week, he always had an appropriately illustrative anecdote to explain his own take on it. Since I also had the habit (or liked to think I did) of thinking in complete sentences, I found myself mimicking his style of speech–not his high-pitched enthusiasm (very different from the somber academic tone he assumed for his DVD commentary), but his diction. He was one year older than my father, and while they had nothing in common personality-wise, the vocabulary was similar. “So what are you writing for the paper?” he would always ask, “the paper” meaning JT. In 2002 he was the head of the jury for the Pusan International Film Festival. He told me he didn’t particularly like being on juries because he rarely agreed with other judges, but he was too nice to turn down such offers, and besides, it was an excuse to do nothing except watch movies for a week and get paid for it. This was when PIFF was still being held in the collegey warren neighborhood of Nanpong-dong, with its large movie houses, and we’d pass each other on the stairway going from one screening to another. “Seen any good pictures?” he’d always yell out. For a while I used “pictures” instead of “movies” or “films,” but people just looked at me funny. Only certain individuals have a right to use a dated vernacular, no matter how charming it sounds. Even his Japanese was quaint. The first time I visited his apartment, across from Shinobazu Pond, he gave me directions on the phone (he famously disparaged email). “It’s right across the street from the benjo,” he explained, referring to the public toilet.
Like many non-Japanese residents of Japan who became friends with him, I was most attracted to Donald’s rationale for staying here, his insistence that Japan was more stimulating than likable. Given my age it was impossible for me to share his despair at what Japan had lost over the past fifty years, but he still found enough on a day-to-day basis to make his residence here an investment of the soul. God knows he didn’t make any money out of it. Whatever value his notoriety had it did not translate into exceptional monetary gain. He always asked me how my book was coming along, and since there never was a book coming along I always tried to avoid answering, but eventually he told me there was “no money in it” anyway. Nevertheless, he wrote dozens of the things, simply because he had to do something with all that investment. It was all he had to show for the time and emotional capital he’d spent abroad. As I said, he lived by the anecdote, which is why The Inland Sea is such a moving and strangely familiar work. I’m still an outsider in Japan and grateful for the chance to be one. If Donald taught me anything it’s that there’s no shame in not trying to belong as long as you try to understand.