Donald Richie and The Japan Journals

donald-richie-coverThe Japan Journals: 1947-2004
by Donald Richie
Stone Bridge Press, 2005
496 pages / $18.95  Buy from Amazon







Donald Richie passed away on February 19, 2013. Many people knew him as the preeminent critic of Japanese film, bringing attention and exposure for directors like Akira Kurosawa and Yasujiro Ozu to Western audiences. “Whatever we in the West know about Japanese film, and how we know it, we most likely owe to Donald Richie,” director Paul Schrader declared. I became familiar with his work through his Japan Journals which was edited and compiled by Leza Lowitz, covering his life from 1947-2004. It’s a hybrid work that is in part autobiography, a compendium of Japanese culture, a menagerie of famous writers and directors, and a confessional. Richie first visited Japan in 1947 as a typist for the U.S. Civil Service and returned to stay, in part due to their greater tolerance of homosexuality (he was openly bisexual). What struck me about his writing were his keen observations that felt less like wordy descriptions and more like a cinematographer setting up a scene from a film. Take for example when he described the writer, Yukio Mishima:

“Look at Mishima, that casual wardrobe— the leather jacket the medallion on its thin gold chain, the boots, the tight trousers, and the wide belt. These create a cutout figure, an outline, and a recognizable icon. We can trace its lineage. From Hemingway to Brando and beyond, this image presumes virility.”

Or W. Somerset Maugham as an old man in 1959:

“The stutter is initially surprising. He is so very old, and stuttering is an affliction of the young. Even more adolescent seeming is that he apparently never accustomed himself to it. It still retains, after all these decades, the power to disturb. He remains embarrassed by it.”

Similar to the cinematographer, it’s the direction of the camera that highlights the perspective. Rather than painting with light though, he painted with his words. Richie knew how to craft a scene in a way that was not only entertaining, but gave us an unexpected insight into his subject. This often entailed taking famous figures like author Truman Capote or Nobel Laureate Yasunari Kawabata, and making them relatable and surprisingly human. He didn’t shy away from the negative nor the more sexual elements which he viewed without judgment or bias. As an expat, he was the outsider looking in, giving him the advantage of observer by being partitioned off. Surrounded by the rituals and societal customs of Japanese culture, it was probably as stark a contrast to his childhood growing up in Lima, Ohio as one could imagine. Even when he could reproduce their behavior perfectly, he stated with an air of accepting regret:

“I behave in the Japanese manner. I refuse something, have to be urged, I say I am wrong when I am not. This brings smiles and nods. But I am not seen as behaving “like a Japanese.” I am seen as behaving properly.”

When he was a boy, his parents left him at the theater to keep him quiet. He watched films multiple times and gained a deeper understanding with each viewing, surprised at the textures and compositional choices he discovered. He later recounted how the experience helped him to understand the world through film, the surface appearance merely being a layer to strip away. In that sense, his film analysis was less about the bullet-points of filmmaking, and more how the movie’s themes interpreted existence and human nature. There’s a film, Hiroshima, Mon Amour, that has both perplexed me and haunted me. I’ve seen it multiple times and have always gone away scratching my head, wondering what makes the film so unique. I found Richie’s own analysis intriguing:

“Its destruction of chronology is impressive. Particularly, I liked the feeling of intimacy achieved by two actors and a camera; and the hallucinatory final scenes of an apparently completely empty, moonlit Hiroshima. Wonderful passage where Okada Eiji raises his head in the nightclub and looks around, and we know that it is day.”

The destruction of chronology is an applicable description for The Japan Journals, especially as he described the changes within Japan, sometimes lamenting them, other times, understanding their inevitability. The Journals often feel like a conversation and even though it’s filled with brilliant anecdotes and linguistic insights, there’s always humor and a new skew on common ideas. Richie was the kind of writer you not only wanted to read, but get to know and spend time with. One hilarious section is when Richie talked about the differences in the words for erection between America, Japan, and Korea.

“When we have erections, we sometimes say we “are ready.” The Japanese usually say they “are hard.” But the Koreans say something different. Dae-Yung speaks of his chinchin standing up by saying in English, “It is angry, very angry.” And here was the Korean tobi saying the same thing in Japanese, since okoru means to become angry. How interesting. I wonder if this linguistic fact has ever before been noted by scholars… It is part of the Korean language itself. And how interesting that the Koreans have to get angry to make love.”

I’m fluent in Korean, and even I didn’t know that. Love-making and desire are a big part of the journals. Richie was a sensualist when it came to his relationships, describing both the women and men he loved. There’s a melancholy in many of these passages, best encapsulated when:

“In the train, going back to Tokyo, I write in my journal: The voluptuousness of another’s body, the joys of the finger, the skin, the lips, the tongue. I burrow into the body, as though I will wear it, like another skin; I want to lose myself entirely in this other or else to make it completely mine.”

As a reader, you can pick up The Japan Journals and peruse any section without having to go from beginning to end. Every segment has something interesting (there’s also a very convenient index of names in case you want to read about any of the amazing figures in the Japanese arts scene). It reminded me of some of my favorite movies, where I could watch scenes multiple times and never get bored. I felt a same connection to Richie’s life, which was a rich and extraordinary one, transcending both film and writing. I’ll leave off with these words Richie said about director Yasujiro Ozu which I think is a perfect summary of what he achieved in his Journals:

“I gave an introduction to Tokyo Story, recounting how Ozu hated just this kind of introduction. Explanation is always unnecessary. If you use your eyes and your ears properly, you will understand; if you do not, no amount of explanation will inform you. The reason is that Ozu is interested in showing, not explaining. He implies; you infer. He builds his half of the bridge; you build yours. Each having made some effort, a real communication becomes possible. No effort, no communication. This, I realize, is the only kind of art I admire.”


Peter Tieryas Liu is a big fan of Japanese cinema and literature. His debut collection of short stories, Watering Heaven, released from Signal 8 Press late last year. He is planning on watching all of Kurosawa and Ozu’s films in the upcoming weeks. He blogs at

Tags: , ,


  1. craig

      Thanks so much for the review Peter, and thanks to the htmlgiant folks for posting. The portrait this paints is lucid, compassionate and personal. Very glad to know that this book exists.

  2. The Whimsy of Creation: The Blog of Tieryas

      […] I was very saddened to hear the news last week that Donald Richie passed away. He was an incredible writer that lived an extraordinary life. He’s also one of the main people who helped bring exposure for Japanese cinematic greats like Akira Kurosawa and Ozu. I wrote this tribute that’s also a review of his awesome Japan Journals, wonderfully edited by Leza Lowitz that is up at HTML Giant. The Journals are an amazing work that gives us glimpses into some of the most amazing figures in the Japanese arts scenes, from the above mentioned Kurosawa, to writers like Yukio Mishima. I loved his sketches, not just of these famous figures, but his life in Japan, the cultural idiosyncrasies, and his lovers. The journals feel like a conversation! Thank you so much Janice Lee for allowing me to share this tribute to him! You can check it out here: […]

  3. TieryasXu

      thanks Craig! it’s an incredible set of journals and gives a lot of insight into an extraordinary life.

  4. A D Jameson

      R.I.P. Donald Richie.

  5. Donald Richie and the Japan Journals: A Tribute | HTMLGIANT

      […] Peter Tieryas Liu previously wrote about Donald Richie and his Japan Journals on HTMLGIANT (read the full review here). […]