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Home > Books & Journals > Book Review Last Updated: 14:22 03/09/2007
Book Review #33: July 8, 2002

"The Donald Richie Reader: 50 Years of Writing on Japan"

compiled and edited by Arturo Silva

Reviewed by Takahiro Miyao (GLOCOM)

Title: The Donald Richie Reader: 50 Years of Writing on Japan
Editor: Arturo Silva
Publisher: Stone Bridge Press, Berkeley, California
Date/Time: 2001
Pages: English text 238 pages (Paperback)
ISBN: 1-880656-61-2 (pbk)


This book is a collection of writings by Donald Richie, an American essayist, film scholars, and arts critic, about Japanese society and culture during his stay in Japan for over 5 decades. He is probably most famous by his books and articles on Yasujoro Ozu (e.g. "Ozu," University of California Press, 1977), and the reader can clearly see his profound love for the Ozu films in this book:

"I was so devoted to the films of Ozu, and so cherished the man who made them, that I could only wait in front of the typewriter and hope that from these emotions something encompassing his work might eventually appear on the page. Eventually it did." (p. 63). For more on Japanese films, see:
Donald Richie, "A Hundred Years of Japanese Films" (2001):

There is a brief list of "Best Books on Japan," which may be revealing his stance and inclination regarding "Japaneseness" as he sees it. The following is the list:

"Things Japanese" by Basil Hall Chamberlain, Charles E. Tuttle, 1905.
"Japan: An Attempt at Interpretation" by Lafcadio Hearn, Tuttle, 1903.
"The Honorable Picnic" by Thomas Raucat, Tuttle, 1927.
"Mirror, Sword and Jewel" by Kurt Singer, Kodansha, 1973.
"The Kimono Mind" by Bernard Rudofsky, Tuttle, 1965.
"Empire of Signs" by Roland Barthes, Hill and Wang, N.Y., 1982.

He adds that "the reader will have noticed that none of them are from among the accepted 'nihonjinron.' This is because I do not like 'nihonjinron,' find them limited, pretentious and arrogant, prescriptive rather than descriptive, and much more concerned with their theories (giri/ninjo, honne/tatemae) than with their presumed subject." This explanation speaks for itself, and gives us a good introduction to the essence of his approach towards Japanese culture.

After 50 years of his observation of Japanese society, Donald Richie seems to have come to a conclusion that Japan is a country of "change within continuity," and "land of contrasts, a place where the new and the old lived equitably together." In this respect, he quotes from Edward Seidensticker: "The relationship between tradition and change in Japan has always been complicated by the fact that change is itself a tradition." Donald Richie has gone so far as to say in Epilogue (p. 223) that there may be a difference between a land-scape garden built by the daimyo and golf courses created in forest areas, but the difference is only in degree. "Yet the mechanism is the same. Everything changes. ----- What is important, and what is eventually defining, I decided, is this genius for the harness of change."

It is interesting to find out that this epilogue is from his essay, "Partial Views," in 1994. By that time, most Japanese writers and critics were saying that things such as building golf courses really got out of hand and completely deviated from the norm during the "bubble" period of the 1980s. But Donald Richie shows a much deeper understanding of Japanese society and sees constant change within continuity even in that period and throughout the course of Japanese history for that matter.

The following is a brief explanation about his book on the publisher's webpage:

Edited, compiled, and with an introduction by Arturo Silva

The best of an extraordinary expatriate writer. Over the past half century, no one has written more, or more artfully, about Japan than Donald Richie. In this celebratory publication, we now have the chance to observe Richie himself - the man, the novelist, essayist, journalist, and film scholar-and through him the Japan that has evolved from postwar turmoil to postmodernist materialism. In addition to editor Arturo Silva's extended appreciation of Richie-"The Great Mirror"-the book presents a hundred excerpts and miscellanea that wind thematically through Richie's long writing career. Includes photographs.

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