Memories of Donald Richie

I was very much saddened to read of the death of Donald Richie on February 19, 2013 in Tokyo at age 88. He was the greatest of the early postwar generation of expat Japan experts, commonly referred to as “the old Japan hands.” Although Richie, the author of some 40 books (and 50 years of Japan Times columns), was best known for his work on Japanese film, his body of work was all the more impressive because his writings consistently maintained a clear vision. He was neither an apologist for Japan nor a bitter critic. He was able to write perceptively about both Japan and himself with exceptional honesty and clarity. Among all the obituaries and tributes to his professional career, I’d like to take a moment to recall what a kind, humble and generous person he was.
He had gained great status and recognition in his field, but he also was very supportive and encouraging of many younger writers in the expat community in Japan, whether by providing  introductions, inspiration, a kind word, or a book cover comment.

I was a recipient of that legendary generosity in 2003 when he offered his support for my first self-published book The Couch Potato’s Guide to Japan. I needed a testimonial for the back cover copy and decided to ask Donald Richie. It was an outrageous idea really. I did not know him personally. I had never met him. (I was honored to meet him only once later in 2004 when we both participated in a SWET panel discussion in Tokyo.) But, because he had written something complimentary about me in a review of a book I was associated with over a decade before, I decided to write to him and ask if he might consider reading the pre-publication manuscript. It turned out he was a long-time reader of the TV column and familiar with my work. (His interests bridged everything from serious literature to pop culture.)

He very graciously agreed to read the manuscript eventhough he was recovering from heart surgery at the time.  A few weeks later, he sent along the following quote for the back cover: “After nearly two decades of brave and unremitting watching of Japanese television, the author has created a guide so stimulating and so entertaining that only later do we relish its sound sociology.–Donald Richie.”  That, no doubt, helped sell more than a few copies and added gravitas to a book burdened with a lightweight title like The Couch Potato’s Guide to Japan.

But my fondest memory of Donald Richie came several years later when we published Matsunosuke Morikawa: A Western-Style Painter of the Meiji Period about my husband’s grandfather, who had been active with the Meiji Art Society and Kuroda Seiki’s famed Hakubakai (White Horse Society), leaders in the introduction of Western-style painting to Japan.  The book, which was not offered for public sale, reprinted a treatise Matsunosuke had written on the teaching of Western-style painting at the turn of the 20th century and several of his paintings, including one that had been exhibited at the Bridgestone Museum of Art and the National Museum of Modern Art in Kyoto in 1997. None of his descendants had attended those exhibitions for in the annals of family history his achievements had been long forgotten. He had died during the Spanish flu epidemic of 1918 and the few in the family who had been told anything about him had heard him characterized, perhaps erroneously, as a man whose preoccupation with painting had caused the loss of the family fortune.  The book was able to reveal the rest of the story.

I sent Donald Richie a copy out of continued gratitude for his previous kindness and because I suspected he was interested in that period in history but I did not expect him to read or comment on the book. I was quite surprised to receive a postcard from him a short while later noting: “Many thanks for the monograph on Matsunosuke and his work. It is as good as it is rare to see neglected work revived. And now the grandkids can be proud of him.”  The message came on a rare vintage postcard so antique it looked like Matsunosuke himself might have sent it.  It was a lovely gesture–so perceptive, so kind, so Donald Richie.

In Charlotte’s Web, E.B. White writes of Charlotte: “It is not often that someone comes along who is a true friend and a good writer.”  I’ve often thought that might be the best eulogy any writer could receive.  It certainly applies to Donald Richie, who was a true friend and mentor to younger authors as well as a most excellent writer.

Kathleen Morikawa