Earlier this week, the world lost a great writer and expert on Japan. His name was Donald Richie, aged 88, an American who lived in Japan for over fifty years, mainly known perhaps for his writing on Japanese film and film directors like Akira Kurosawa and Yasujiro Ozu. But he also wrote countless other articles, essays, reviews, and 40+ books on topics ranging from a photobook on Yakuza tattoos to a historical novel about a Japanese warrior who became a monk.
Mr. Richie was born in a small town in the state of Ohio. He came to know and love Japan during a stint in the country in 1947 as a US Navy officer during the post-war occupation. Seizing his chance to live in a land entirely foreign – but endlessly fascinating – to him, he started out by writing film reviews for an Armed Forces newspaper. After returning to America briefly in order to earn a university degree, he decided to move to Japan permanently, where he continued to write for most of his life.
His experiences as an expatriate in an Asian country can be helpful to anyone trying to understand a culture different from their own.
Richie’s most successful work may be his Japan travelogue called The Inland Sea (1971), which was also the basis for an award winning PBS documentary narrated by him.
Richie also directed quite a few of his own short films, mostly experimental in nature.
He has been called the Lafcadio Hearn of modern times (Hearn was the foremost interpreter of Japanese culture to the West in the early 1900s), but his legacy stands on its own, and in fact it encompasses a greater amount of time and work than Hearn’s.
His experiences as an expatriate in an Asian country can be helpful to anyone trying to understand a culture different from their own. Richie always viewed himself as an outsider looking in, and he tried to observe and absorb everything, which kept him from becoming jaded about life. His presence will be sorely missed.
Donald Richie has written widely on Japanese film and is the author of the seminal book The Films of Akira Kurosawa (University of California, 1965; revised 1998).
By Tim Holm