Tokyo writer Joseph Kang revisits Donald Richie’s travel book in light of a new edition, revealing some serious problems with the attempt to seduce and be seduced by old Japan.
Donald Richie, The Inland Sea, (Stone Bridge Press, 2015) 260pp.
Long acclaimed as a masterpiece of travel writing, Donald Richie’s The Inland Sea is an astute and intelligent, but also deeply flawed book. Though its media coverage has been significant, I haven’t seen a review of this book in English by a Japanese person, and I hope that a more critical view of The Inland Sea from this perspective can raise some interesting problems in this gap. In his famed book, Richie travels through the strait between the Japanese home islands of Shikoku and Honshu, seducing the locals and making grand and often contradictory generalisations about “the Japanese”. In doing so, he fulfils the archetype of the (male) wanderer on the exotic “lonesome road”- traveling among the quaint natives, alone with his self-pity and solitude. As he himself notes, writers on Japan are “writing about themselves”, and although he shows a willingness to self-reflect, in this case, it doesn’t always look so good.
We should carefully consider, for instance, Richie’s stated intention of avoiding “the sensationalism, the cynicism, the brutality” of civilisation. When he finds someone- a sailor- who seems, albeit misguidedly, to espouse innocent, chivalric values, he calls him “a little prig.” Elsewhere in the text, his attempt to sleep with a fifteen-year old schoolgirl is rebuffed. While his detailed and honest account of this attempt at the seduction of the underage and the subsequent rationalisations he provides for it gives him some credit, it also exposes a lack of self-control and venality in the author/narrator. What he describes as “loneliness” is perhaps really horniness. The book walks a difficult line and the gap between author and narrator is a constant problem for the reader. The problem is that even when Ritchie is self-critical, forcing us to confront his consumption of Japan, it doesn’t sit very well.
These examples are only the some of many, mostly failed attempts at “seducing the natives”, as he describes it. In its sexual dimension, The Inland Sea is less a catalogue of swaggering conquests than a sordid, self-pitying series of visits to brothels. That is to say, it is more Humbert Humbolt than B.F Pinkerton. But at least he has the courage to admit it. Despite his sensitivity and talent for observation, Richie, in this respect, is not worthy of admiration. His desire for “innocence” leads to him visiting said brothels and seedy bars. He records his experience, but admits he doesn’t care about “her feelings”- after all, to him, “feelings are just ideas”. The problem here is that, while his visit to Japan’s dark underbelly isn’t the easy, wacky Japan of samurais, sushi, Mount Fuji, and pop culture that travel writers often display, Richie fails to show how he is different from any other sex tourist (though perhaps this is the point). “To cup a hand over a breast we would call immature, run a hand along a thigh we would name adolescent- these erase experience and recall innocence”. These lines, along with a creepy paean to Japanese skin (“The skin of children”), make Richie seem more like an eloquent fetishist than a master travel writer. But this book is flawed not just because of the venal motivations of its writer. As a piece of travel writing it falls into the same, ancient trap: orientalism, essentialism, pontification on the nature of “the Japanese”.
Granted, Richie talks to dozens of people, and his sketches of their lives and stories are well observed and evocative. But the problem is that (despite claims to the contrary in Pico Iyer’s fawning introduction) he makes sweeping and inaccurate generalisations. These may be, elegantly written, fun to read, and they simplify a complex culture, but ultimately they presume to understand the behaviour of millions of human beings through one sentence. I wouldn’t go as far as Chinua Achebe and call Richie “a bloody racist”, but sometimes he veers closer than seems to have een discussed. For example, he claims that in Japan “nothing is anyone’s fault”. A strange statement, considering that here, people often commit suicide to take responsibility for mistakes. “To be anonymous is, in Japan, to be nothing”. Yes, but that could apply in every human society. “These people are mole-people. [their ideal habitats are] small, cozy, dark ” Which is why traditional Japanese houses have paper doors designed to open fully in the summer to let wind flow throughout the house. I could continue. But these statements- at best inaccurate, at worst dehumanising- are hardly the “ease with incompleteness” that Iyer advertises.
It is clear that Richie is no sneering western supremacist, and he makes it clear with his critical generalisations about the West. But he laments the fact that Japan is “hauling all the knowledge on earth” through the window. And, when that is done, according to him, there will “no longer be any Japanese”. He seems to display discomfort with the pace of Japan’s economic success. He may well share with many Japanese people a sadness that comes with the loss of traditional cultures, and a view that modern Japan is comparatively ugly. But ugly too is the viewpoint which believes that it is “easy to wax sentimental” about children choosing between prostitution and working in coal mines. Japan’s modernisation has at least ensured that few have to make choices like this. Japan was the first country to independently achieve Western standards of material living, and in doing so forced the West to confront the idea that other cultures might be something other than primitive or exotic natives.
Today’s globalisation is – for many reasons – a terrifying thing, but repeating and celebrating traditional cultures as quaint, poor relics is perhaps even worse. Today’s Japan meets the West as an equal, and perhaps it is harder to understand an equal than it is to impose interpretation on an inferior culture. As Richie says himself: “It was the Third World in Japan that so appealed to lubricious me, and now that Japan is more First World than even the USA, the appeal is no longer there. That makes me that figure of fun, the garden-variety colonial imperialistic predator.” This, of course, is spot on – but I would add that admitting this in self-criticism is completely insufficient if one shows no willingness to relate to the other culture differently.
Joseph Kang is a freelance writer living in Tokyo. He is interested in ethnic and cultural identity in modern Japan, postcolonial literature and the history and development of travel literature. In his free time he enjoys jazz guitar and mountain climbing.
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