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Donald Richie: He Covered It All

It was strange timing. For essay 1777 on 塀 (fence; boundary wall; wall), which ran last week, I pulled out three books by Donald Richie, trying to find out how he interpreted Japan's walled-off-ness on a cultural level. I hadn't read any of these books in a long time, but I somehow found the answer immediately.

Then for essay 1164 on 峡 (ravine, gorge; strait), which has posted today, I turned to another Richie book, The Inland Sea. Again, I hadn't read it in about a decade, even though it's my favorite book in the world. I knew he said there that the construction of massive bridges across the Inland Sea has destroyed the charms of island life and that one formerly inhabited island was now home only to a pylon. But where had he said these things? I had no idea, so I spent 90 glorious minutes with the book on Sunday, dipping in here and there in the most delicious way. I knew I could have been more efficient about the search, and efficiency is always paramount to me. But I allowed myself the guilty pleasure of spending time with Richie, and I didn't regret it for an instant. How nice to have him back in my life after such a long time!

I had already read the book three times by 2002 when I reviewed it for the Hyde Park Review of Books. I had also pored over the Inland Sea segments that appear in The Donald Richie Reader,which I reviewed back then for three other publications, including Persimmon. I had even seen the documentary version of The Inland Sea. And I've now traveled there twice, feeling deeply fulfilled each time because what I saw on Miyajima and Shodoshima wholly matched the high expectations that Richie created in me with passages such as this: "Houses tumble down the hillsides, fall over each other, and all but end in the water. Their gray-tile roofs almost touch, and small and narrow alleys swarm in all directions. The mud walls, straw showing through, are so close that it would seem the inhabitants move crab-fashion. The port is filled with fishing boats, strange junklike ships with high prows and raked sails, and around them, on the docks, are bales and coils and baskets and boxes. On all sides there is the most glorious confusion" (p. 21).

Though I should have been completely familiar with the book, I somehow experienced it on Sunday almost as uncharted territory. I remembered it as part travelogue and part personal essay, and it certainly is. But I also realized that everything anyone could ever hope to know about Japan lies between the covers of that slender book. Richie displays an encyclopedic breadth and depth in explaining each aspect of Japan's culture. To take just a few of many examples, he gives cogent explanations of both Buddhism and Shinto, and he spends quite a bit of time talking about folklore. The names Momotaro, Taro Urashima, and Benten pop up frequently.

Whatever I've learned over the past few years with Joy o' Kanji seems to have been in The Inland Sea already! I almost feel that I should start all research by turning to that book.

And then he died.

[To read the rest of this, go to Joy o' Kanji.]