Donald Richie Interview: Conversation with History; Institute of International Studies, UC Berkeley

Writing, Film, and Japan: An Expatriate's View: Conversation with Donald Richie, writer and film critic, 9/21/01 by Harry Kreisler

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Japan: Retrospect

The story of your writing is really your continuing sojourn in Japan.

It turned out to be that way.

Japan is such a complicated place, and you have helped introduce it to us in very simple and powerful ways. But what should we be left with? Is that a fair question? Is there some way to summarize those few things that are a simple rendering of your understanding of Japan?

It's like a prism. A prism has lots of facets. One of the facets which must concern us now is that Japan has usually been largely misrepresented as being monolithic, as being people all with the same face and the same expression, and the same kind of thoughts. This is not true. I mean, this is true of no people on earth. People are just as variegated in Japan as they are in Brooklyn. But for political purposes, since all countries need to have an "other" to compare themselves, and hence, find themselves, more and more in America, since we have this new infatuation with China, Japan has been used as the "other" -- this mysterious, enigmatic, and so forth and so forth. This is one of the things I think I have to correct.

I cannot correct the source of the problem, which is that people usually think that things exist dualistically -- this is something the Greeks gave us. So people think you must either like Bruckner or Mahler -- this is a pair-- or Debussy and Ravel -- that's another pair. It doesn't occur to anybody that these are absolutely discreet things, not to be compared with each other. So it's the same way Japan or China: Orient, right? Japan, China, right? Now, China has ascended because it's got all the money. When Japan was really rich ten years ago, then there was an awful lot of interest in the country.

So right now, Japan is a big monolith. It's them. It's the other. It's something against which we can define ourselves. I would like to (and, indeed, I have to some extent done so) show what the country is truly like, and to stop this sort of political nonsense.

You have written, "To think of Japan is to think of form. But beneath this, a social pattern also exists. There's a way to pay calls, a way to go shopping, a way to drink tea, a way to arrange flowers, a way to owe money. A formal absolute exists and is aspired to: social form must be satisfied, if social chaos is to be avoided. Though other countries also have certain rituals that give the disordered flux of life a kind of order, here these become an art of behavior."

That was true when I wrote it.

And it's still true, I'm sure.

No.

It's not true?

No.

And why not?

My other theme is the great metamorphosis of Japan. Japan is changing, as we speak, to such an extraordinary sense, that the Japan that I wrote about is going to be like the Medes and the Persians in another ten years. Enormous changes are afoot. And so the politesse of which I write is pretty much vanished. The other day I did what I thought had been proper -- I had to pay somebody some money, so I put it in a piece of paper, which is traditionally done -- white paper, and then give them the money. And he laughed. He said, "What are you wasting the paper for?" He got the paper and pulled the money out and put it in his pocket. Ah, gone! There went a whole section of the [culture]. I see a hole, this whole museum disappearing. I thought it would last forever. I subscribed to the theory that the surface may change, but the core holds. Well, the core is not holding.

What does that mean for the world, if Japan changes in the way that you're talking about?

Oh, we all change. Heraclitus tells us that's what it's about. So it happens. But in the case of Japan, it's very dramatic, because I cannot think of another country which, for well over 150 years, held its former feudal face. That the face is crumbling now is not surprising. It's surprising it didn't crumble 100 years ago.

I am going to articulate a point about your work; tell me if I'm right or wrong. I find in your stance toward Japan a Japanese-like quality, which is very much like the way you describe how the Japanese relate to nature and the world, and the reality around it. Is that fair?

I'd be surprised if it weren't true, but with the question goes an assumption that this is something which is to be learned exclusively from Japan. This is not true. What I find in Japan is exactly the same thing that I find when I looked out of the window in my pensive elegiac days and was able to discover what I had done. This quality, this refraction of reality, is something which would have concerned me no matter where I went. But it has taken the particular form of the country I'm in. If Henry James had gone to Luxembourg instead of England, it would have been a different set of novels, right? In the same way, if I'd gone to someplace else, the same thing would have operated. But the end product would have looked different because it is, after all, Japan that I live in, and Japan that I describe, so it's not surprising that it's Japanese.

I would conclude that your destiny was to wind up in a place like Japan, so that you could both find yourself and effectively use the skills in two different, very important media.

I think you could say that, yes.

Let me ask you one final question. If students watch this interview, what lessons do you think they might learn from this journey -- from Lima to Tokyo via cinema and writing as an expatriate?

I don't know. One of the great things which moved 1915 France was the final line of Les Nourritures Terreste by André Gide, which I might translate as, "Nathaniel, get out! Get out!" I think, maybe, that would be my message to you.

On that note, Mr. Richie, thank you very much for joining us today for this Conversation with History.

Thank you very much.

Thank you.

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