Donald Richie

February 25 2013

Three gay Americans – Edward Seidensticker, Donald Keene and Donald Richie – were brought to Japan directly or indirectly by the Second World War and became its cultural interpeters to the English-speaking world for the next two generations.

Donald Richie has just died, aged 88. Edward Seidensticker died in 2007. Donald Keene is alive at 90.

They followed in an American tradition which included Lafcadio Hearn and Ruth Benedict.

I’m surprised at the lack of coverage of Richie’s death in the UK and American press. Here is the Guardian on him. Here is the New York Times. He was sometimes a fine writer of English. He was an interpreter of Japanese cinema, but he wrote about many things. Wikipedia has a list of his books. It’s best to begin with The Inland Sea. The œuvre is distilled in Arturo Silva, editor, The Donald Richie Reader, 50 Years of Writing on Japan, Berkeley, California, Stone Bridge Press, 2001.

Richie arrived in 1947 with the occupation forces. Guardian:

“Though recognised as the most important figure in introducing Japanese cinema to the west, Richie saw himself as a writer foremost and a film critic secondarily. His fictional work includes Memoirs of the Warrior Kumagai: A Historical Novel (1999) [set in the twelfth century], A View from the Chuo Line and Other Stories (2004) and Tokyo Nights (2005). His interests stretched to […] the country’s literature (Japanese Literature Reviewed, 2003), modern fashion (The Image Factory, 2003) and travel. Twenty years after its publication, his personal travelogue The Inland Sea (1971) was turned into an award-winning documentary by Lucille Carra and Brian Cotnoir. Richie narrated the film himself.


“In the late 1940s, Richie’s articles on such topics as kabuki drama, ikebana (the art of flower arrangement) and Japanese festivals were published in the Pacific Stars and Stripes [my link] US military magazine, and marked the beginning of a lifelong exploration of the country’s culture and lifestyle. However, he always remained strongly aware of his intermediary status [as outsider].

“Upon returning to Japan in 1954, after taking a degree in English from Columbia University, he supported himself by teaching at Waseda University, in Tokyo, and writing film and literary criticism for the Japan Times, which he continued to do until suffering […] a stroke in 2009. Over the decades he mingled with the novelists Yukio Mishima and Yasunari Kawabata, the actor Toshiro Mifune, the composer Toru Takemitsu, the Zen Buddhist scholar Daisetz Suzuki and another great western chronicler and translator of Japanese culture, Edward Seidensticker. Richie also played host to foreign guests including Truman Capote, Igor Stravinsky, W Somerset Maugham, Susan Sontag and Francis Ford Coppola. Yet, apart from his marriage to the American writer Mary Evans between 1961 and 1965, […] Richie spent his time in Tokyo living alone.”


From A Taste of Japan, Kodansha International, 1985, quoted in The Donald Richie Reader:

“Whoever said Japanese cuisine was all presentation and no food was, of course, quite wrong, but one can at the same time understand how such a statement came to be made, particularly if one comes from a country where it is simply enough that food looks decent and tastes alright.

“Actually, the presentational ethos so much part of the Japanese cuisine continues right into the mouth. Is there any other cuisine, I wonder, which makes so much of texture, as divorced from taste? The West, of course, likes texture, but only when it is appropriate and never when it is tasteless. Consequently, the feel of the steak in the mouth, the touch of the clam on the tongue are part of the Western eating experience, but they are not enjoyed for their own sakes. Rather these sensations are enjoyed as harbingers of taste.

“Japan is, again, quite different. There are, in fact, not a few foods that are used for texture alone. Kannyaku (devil’s tongue jelly) has no taste to speak of though it has an unforgettable texture. Tororo (grated mountain yam) again has much more feel than flavor. Udo looks like and feels much like celery but it tastes of almost nothing at all. Fu, a form of wheat gluten, has no taste, except the flavor of whatever surrounds it. Yet all are prized Japanese foods.

“The reason is that the Japanese appreciate texture almost as much as they appreciate taste. The feel of the food, like its appearance, is of prime importance. The West, on the other hand, does not like extreme textures. Those few Westerners who do not like sushi or sashimi never say that it does not taste good. Rather, it is the texture they cannot stand – the very feel of the food.

“Not only do the Japanese like textures, they have turned their consideration into one more aesthetic system governing the cuisine. Textures, runs the unwritten rule, ought to be opposite, complementary. The hard and the soft, the crisp and the mealy, the resilient and the pliable. These all make good and interesting combinations and these, too, have their place within this presentational cuisine.

“There are other aesthetic considerations as well but this is a good place to stop and take stock of what we have so far observed. For review let us take a very simple dish, a kind of elemental snack, something to eat while drinking, a Japanese canapé. Let us see how it contrives to satisfy the aesthetic demands of Japanese cuisine.

“The dish is morokyu, baby cucumber with miso (bean paste, usually consumed with sake, more often nowadays with beer. Let us look at its qualities. First, the colors are right; fresh green and darkish red is considered a proper combination. Second, the portions are small enough so that their patterns can be appreciated – the dish consists of just one small cucumber cut up into sticks and a small mound of miso. Third, the arrangement and plate complement each other. The round mound of miso (yamamori) is considered operative, so the dish is served on a long, flat, narrow plate, thus emphasizing the very roundness of the bean paste. The length of the cucumber – and it is always cut along its length, never its width – stretches away from the miso and emphasizes the emptiness and again, by contrast, the fullness of the food. Fourth, the dish should be redolent of summer, since morokyu is mainly eaten in warm weather. So the dish should be untextured, unornamented, of a light color – white, pale blue, or a faint celadon green – thus emphasizing the seasonal nature of morokyu itself. Fifth, the textures are found to blend. The cool crispness of the cucumber complements perfectly the mealy, soft, and pungent miso.

“Let’s see, is there anything else? Oh, yes, almost forgot – the taste. Well, morokyu tastes very good indeed, the firm salty miso fitting and complementing the bland and watery flavor of the cucumber. But it is perhaps telling that, with so much going on in this most presentational of cuisines, it is the taste that one considers last. Perhaps it is also fitting. The taste of this cuisine lingers.

“Naturally, one cannot compare the taste of a few slices of fresh fish and almost raw vegetables with, let us say, one of the great machines of the French cuisines, all sauces and flavors. And yet, because it is made of so little, because there is so little on the plate, because what there is is so distinctly itself, Japanese cuisine makes an impression that is just as distinct as that of the French.

“This is because the taste is so fresh, because the taste is that of the food itself and not the taste of what has been done to it. The sudden freshness of Japanese cuisine captures attention as does a whisper in the midst of shouts. One detects, in presentation and in flavor, authenticity. Things are introduced and eaten in varying degrees of rawness, nothing is overcooked; one feels near the food in its natural state. Indeed, one is often very near it because so much Japanese food (cut bite-sized in the kitchen and arranged on plates before being brought out) is cooked or otherwise prepared at the table, right in front of you.

“Japanese cuisine is, finally, unique in its attitude toward food. This ritual, presentational cuisine, which so insists upon freshness and naturalness, rests upon a set of assumptions concerning food and its place in life. Eventually, the cuisine itself depends upon the Japanese attitude toward the environment, toward nature itself.

“These assumptions are many. First, one will have noticed that the insistence upon naturalness implies a somewhat greater respect for the food than is common in other cuisines. At the same time, however, it is also apparent that respect consists of doing something to present naturalness. In other words, in food as in landscape gardens and flower arrangements, the emphasis is on a presentation of the natural rather than the natural itself. It is not what nature has wrought that excites admiration but what man has wrought with what nature has wrought.”


One Response to “Donald Richie”

  1. davidderrick Says:

    Ruth Benedict was an interpreter at a distance. She made an anthropological study of Japan when the US was fighting it in the Second World War, but was unable to visit it. Still, her work is respected by the Japanese.

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