Donald Richie passes away at age 88. Saluting one of our pioneering Japanologist brethren


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Hi Blog. I just want to say a brief word of thanks to Donald Richie for a life well lived on the occasion of his passing (thanks AS for the notification) yesterday at age 88. We’ll add articles as they come out in commemoration, but here’s the first brief one from Yahoo News/Asahi Digital:


ドナルド・リチーさん死去 黒沢・小津らを海外に紹介
朝日新聞デジタル 2月19日(火)20時2分配信





The era of the pioneering Immediate Postwar hands-on Japanologists is truly and inevitably coming to an end. First Edwin Reischauer (long ago in 1990; I managed to meet him and host a talk by him and his wife Haru at UCSD in 1989), then Edward Seidensticker (2007), now Donald Richie (for whom has had praise for in the past for his healthy attitude of “swallowing Japan whole”; I met him about ten years ago and had a very good conversation; he also kindly lavished praise on HANDBOOK). Of the very famous ones, Donald Keene is basically the last one standing.  And I don’t think I will be able to eulogize that Donald in the same way.

I will miss Donald Richie. Feel free to append articles and your thoughts below. Arudou Debito

5 comments on “Donald Richie passes away at age 88. Saluting one of our pioneering Japanologist brethren

  • NYT on Richie:

    Donald Richie, American Expert on Japan, Is Dead at 88
    Published: February 19, 2013

    Donald Richie, one of the most prominent American writers on Japan and on expatriate life, who is best known for introducing the English-speaking world to the golden age of Japanese cinema, including the director Akira Kurosawa, died on Tuesday at a hospital in Tokyo. He was 88.

    Mr. Richie had been in poor health for several years, said Christopher Blasdel, a longtime friend of Mr. Richie. He said Mr. Richie died at the University of Tokyo Hospital, where he had been taken after his heart stopped at his apartment in Tokyo.

    During his life, Mr. Richie wrote prolifically not just on film and culture, but also on his own travels and experiences living in a nation that he watched rise from the wartime ashes to high-tech affluence and then stumble again. He won recognition for his soul-baring descriptions of a lifetime spent mostly in Japan, an impenetrable but permissive society that always held him politely at arm’s length, but that also allowed him to freely explore both its exquisitely refined classical arts and its garishly seedy demimonde.

    While he preferred to chronicle the private aspects of life rather than big public events, he is widely regarded as a leading interpreter of Japan in a generation of American intellectuals who first encountered the nation as a result of World War II.

    A native of Lima, Ohio, Mr. Richie first saw Tokyo as a bombed-out ruin, arriving in 1947 as a 22-year-old typist to the Allied Occupation forces, after serving on transport ships during the war. He spent most of the next 66 years in Tokyo, writing some 40 books ranging from studies of flower arranging to historical novels.

    He won a following among Western readers for his nuanced and sensitive descriptions of Japan and its people that transcended Western stereotypes of the country. His works, like the 1971 travelogue “The Inland Sea,” were widely praised for their finely textured portraits of Japanese individuals, both famous and ordinary, that humanized the former wartime foe.

    “I remain in a state of surprise, and this leads to heightened interest and hence perception,” Mr. Richie wrote in his diary in 1947, describing the thrill with living abroad that he would keep his entire life. “Like a child with a puzzle, I am forever putting pieces together and saying: Of course.”

    But Mr. Richie made his biggest mark in his writings on Japanese cinema, and particularly its great postwar directors.

    In 1959, he and Joseph Anderson published what is regarded by film studies experts as the first English-language book on Japanese movies, “The Japanese Film: Art and Industry.” In his memoir, he recounted how in the late 1940s he paid his first visit to a Japanese studio, where he met a director in a white floppy hat and “someone I guessed was a star … in a loose Hawaii-shirt.” Thus began Mr. Richie’s lifelong acquaintance with two of the giants of Japanese cinema, Mr. Kurosawa and the actor Toshiro Mifune.

    Mr. Richie went on to write several books on Mr. Kurosawa, who won an Academy Award for lifetime achievement in 1989, and on his films, including the 1950 samurai mystery “Rashomon,” whose innovative shifting of perspective among characters won it global renown. Mr. Richie later proclaimed it “the best-known Japanese film ever made.” He also wrote English subtitles for three of Mr. Kurosawa’s films, including “Kagemusha” (1980).

    Mr. Richie also drew attention to another brilliant Japanese director, Yasujiro Ozu, whose sparse and subtle handling of themes like family in “Tokyo Story” (1953) influenced Western directors like Wim Wenders, according to Aaron Gerow, a professor of Japanese cinema at Yale University.

    “Donald Richie was the one to get these films shown abroad,” Mr. Gerow said. “He was the first gatekeeper of Japanese film for the English-language world.”

    During his decades in Japan, Mr. Richie met and wrote about many of the more colorful figures in Japan’s postwar intellectual and artistic scene. He seemed to be particularly drawn to Yukio Mishima, the novelist who killed himself by ritual disembowelment in 1970. Mr. Richie struggled to make sense of the suicide, often interpreted here as an effort to draw attention to the nation’s loss of martial spirit, and expressed mild exasperation with Mr. Mishima’s widow for seeking to hide her late husband’s well-known embrace of homosexuality.

    Openly bisexual, Mr. Richie also wrote frankly about his lovers both male and female, saying Japan’s greater tolerance of homosexuality in the 1940s compared to the United States was one reason he returned after graduating from Columbia University in 1953. He lived most of his life alone, though he was briefly married to Mary Richie, an American writer.

    Still, Mr. Richie seemed to have a complex view of the nation where he spent most of his life. In his writings, he did not shy from painting a less-than-rosy picture of its xenophobic society. Yet, he also found much to praise, particularly the sense of balance and subtlety apparent in traditional Japanese arts.

    “Donald had a sensibility that was not nurtured where he grew up,” said his friend Mr. Blasdel, artistic director of Tokyo’s International House. “He was warm but also kept his distance, even in his personal relationships. This gives his writing a sense of passionately caring, but also of objectivity and truthfulness.”

    Indeed, some of Mr. Richie’s most poignant writings describe his status as an American expatriate in a nation that keeps outsiders at a distance. He said he never sought to become a Japanese citizen, but instead seemed to revel in his position on the margins of Japanese society, which he wrote offered him far greater personal freedom than he could have had back in Ohio.

    “I may have rejected the U.S.A. where I was born,” Mr. Richie wrote in his memoir, “The Japan Journals, 1947-2004,” “but I did not decide to be Japanese. That is an impossible decision since the Japanese prevent it. Rather, I decided to decorate Limbo and become a citizen of this most attractive, intensely democratic republic.”

    Mr. Richie lamented the changes he saw transforming the nation. In books like “The Inland Sea,” Mr. Richie bemoaned the passing of the quaint, agrarian country that he found in the 1940s, the victim of decades of unrestrained public works and American-style commercial redevelopment.

    “It was the most beautiful country I’d ever seen in my life,” he wrote in 1992, “and now it’s just about the ugliest.”

    Still, he expressed few regrets about his self-imposed exile. In one of the last entries in “The Japan Journals,” he likened himself to Rip Van Winkle because he missed out on the last half-century of popular culture and events back in the United States.

    “I managed to sleep through my generation,” he wrote. “By coming to this magical land where everything looks much the same but acts sometimes otherwise.”

    But where Rip Van Winkle felt loss at his separation, Mr. Richie concluded, “I feel gain.”

  • Loverilakkuma says:

    I just read his obituary on the NYT this afternoon. I didn’t know he was having a health problem for a while. His research is centered on the Japanese public culture and film studies. My hunch is that he knows Japan has problems common to countries having democratic society, but he ‘plays it safe’ to avoid getting into national stigma of ‘housed gaijin’ who turned into a Japan-basher.

    I sometimes get bothered with the term ‘Japanologist’ due to its uncertainty of meaning. My general understanding is any study related to Japan or Japanese society, but there seems to be moot point in its interpretation regarding the genres and choice of research methodology.

    Here’s the list of names I can come up with: Erza Vogel, Befu Harumi, John Dower, Don Keene, Robert Bellah, Teresa Morris-Suzuki, Simon Andrew Avenell, Ellis S. Krauss, and Robert Pekkanen. The last three folks are political scientists studying Japan’s political system and civil society. I wonder if they will be counted.

    — I think the classical definition of “Japanologist” (starting with the likes of Ruth Benedict, who never even visited Japan, which is why I said “hands-on”) has been one who has a teachable knowledge of Japan from a cultural aspect (Reischauer and his magic means of reading and negotiating US-Japan relations, Seidensticker for his translations and knowledge of Tokyo, Richie for film etc., and Keene for literature). That has hopefully by now been updated, since other Japanologists of later generations and waves (such as the late Chalmers Johnson, a mentor of mine) generally eschew cultural explanations as so much “Grand Kabuki” manipulations. I agree, many of the names you mention above are within the next generation of “hands-on” knowledgeables about Japan, only now from less safely-ensconsced niches parroting cultural arty-facts. Sociologists, political scientists, historians, etc.; qualified people, all. And for the sake of argument and fairness, one might include a few of the House Gaijin of Gregory Clark’s ilk and generation too.

  • Oh how sad! He was one of the few long-termers of fame who I could truly respect….and I had just learned about him through Debito’s post a few weeks ago regarding the “At Home Abroad” book. I thought his views were the most interesting, balanced, and articulate.

    I also empathized the most with his take on life in Japan as a foreigner:

    “Japan […] allows me to like myself because it agrees with me and I with it. Moreover, it allows me to keep my freedom. It makes very few demands on me – I am considered too much the outsider for that […] – and, consequently, I become free. I think if I didn’t feel like a foreigner, I woudn’t be here. If I were Japanese, I wouldn’t stay here ten minutes.”

    RIP kindred spirit!

  • The Japan Times on Richie:
    Writer Donald Richie dies at 88
    The Japan Times FEB 20, 2013

    Long-term Japan resident, writer and critic Donald Richie, who through dozens of books and articles published from the late 1940s until the last decade helped introduce Japanese film and culture to the world, passed away in Tokyo on Tuesday, according to his long-term editor, Leza Lowitz. He was 88.

    Richie, who was born in Lima, Ohio, on April 17, 1924, first came to Japan with the U.S. Occupation force in 1947. He soon began working for Pacific Stars and Stripes, where he gained a reputation as a prolific writer of film reviews.

    After a stint back in the United States, he returned to Japan and began writing regularly for The Japan Times in 1954. Richie wrote hundreds of articles for the newspaper, covering not only film, but his other passions of theater, literature and art.

    He continued to write for the newspaper through 2009.

    Richie also published many books, including “The Japanese Film: Art and Industry,” which he coauthored with Joseph Anderson in 1959.

    Between 1969 and 1972, Richie was in New York, working as a curator of film at the New York Museum of Modern Art.

    He is also known for his travel writing. “The Inland Sea,” a memoir of his journey to the Seto Inland Sea that was first published in 1971, is considered a classic of the genre.

    Richie suffered several heart attacks in the past decade. He is survived by his sister, Jean Reuther, who lives in the U.S.

    Below are interviews with Donald Richie over the years as well as Asian Bookshelf book reviews dating back to 2001.


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