Wednesday, January 12, 2011


Last night I finished a book by a writer who could be called, or classified ‘foreigner in Japan.’ The book was Tokyo Central and the writer Edward Seidensticker. It is a memoir in great part, of the years spent in Tokyo and is a good book for one interested in such experiences. What I found surprising was that in the book’s entirety, not once did Mr Seidensticker write of his longtime friend and fellow expatriate, Donald Ritchie, with whom he shared experiences over many years of living near each other in Tokyo’s downtown Bunkyo-ku. To this day Donald Richie continues to live in Tokyo, there since 1947, and in the same apartment for over fifty years. The interesting thing about Richie is that while his friend and fellow American translated an impressive list of Japanese novels and stories, Richie, though certainly fluent in the spoken language, still now does not read or write Japanese. But do not misunderstand; his knowledge and understanding of the country is exemplified by the more than forty books he has written about Japan.

Probably because of the conspicuous absence of Richie’s name in the just read Seidensticker book, I pulled off the shelves one of my favorites of the Richie oeuvre, The Japan Journals: 1947-2004. In many ways Richie’s telling of his experience in Tokyo is much more colorful and human. There is too often the impression with Seidensticker that he is overly careful in concealing that he may once or twice have gotten down and dirty. As far as memoir goes, there’s little earthiness to his well written paean of days and nights in Tokyo. Richie gives us the grime on the bar counter, the prostitute’s sad tale, all rich in the multifaceted textures of life in the world’s largest and at times oddest city.

One of my favorite passages from the Richie journals is from late summer 1947, from his earliest days in Tokyo and long before his settled longterm residency:

‘Wandering in the city after work, smelling camellia hair oil, dusty long unaired kimono, the passing night soil wagon with its patient ox, listening to the incomprehensible murmur of conversation around me, looking into eyes suddenly averted, I try to make sense of what I see.

In a way it already makes sense—Tokyo in ruins still reveals something known from Chicago, New York and during the war, Naples, Marseilles: the look of a big city just anywhere. In another way, however, I begin to apprehend alternatives to things as I already know them…

Another country, I am discovering, is another self. I am regarded as different, and so I become different—two people at once. I am a native of Ohio who really knew only the streets of little Lima, and I am also a foreigner who is coming to know the streets of Tokyo, largest city in the world. Consequently I can compare them, and since comparison is creation, I am able to learn about both.’

For those interested in a more diverse example of Donald Richie’s writing, it is hard to go wrong with the delightful 2001 book, The Donald Richie Reader.


  1. Although both writers are writing as strangers in a strange land, it is Ritchie who interests me most with his descriptions of "the grime on the bar counter, the prostitute’s sad tale." The best writing always scratches the surface to reveal darker unseen elements.

  2. Nice post. Just thought I'd point out that Richie has moved a few times during his long stay in Tokyo.


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Oak Hill, Florida, United States
A longtime expat relearning the footwork of life in America