After finishing all of Higashino's mysteries, and Yokoyama's suspenseful dramas, why don't we all take a huge left turn and look at a man who may be considered the (surely one of the) biggest experts on the study of Japanese society from an outsiders perspective. I hope to take a few weeks and look over each of the late Donald Richie's books on Japan.
If you are unfamiliar with the man, Donald Richie was an American born in 1924 in Ohio. After the war, Richie was able to enter Japan in 1947 as a staff writer for the American army based publication Pacific Stars and Stripes. He returned to America to finish his education, then returning to Japan, basically for good from 1953.
A bi-sexual, Richie felt at this time Japan was a far more accepting culture than post war America and found a home here as the film critic for the Japan Times.
During his time here, Richie became respected as an expert, most specifically on Japanese cinema, and more indirectly, of the developing society of post-war Japan.
He published numerous books, on cinema, life, society and diaries of his own experiences. In my humble opinion, his works range from insightful and interesting, to absolutely essential reading for anyone hoping to get a hold of being in Japan for the long term.
He remained an important figure in this world until his passing in 2013.
I choose to start with Richie's Different People, not because it's the best, though I hold it highly, but because some parts of it remain with me years after first reading it, and so, it seems like a good entry point.
First, Different People, much like just about all I've read of Richie, is excellent, perfectly on point, insightful and enjoyable.
Richie tells us the true stories of various people he knew, well known or not. About half the stories here are about famous or infamous people or stories, and these hold interest, but it`s the stories of average people that hold the real weight and insight.
One exceptional story is of an out of work Tokyo youth who explains why he feels so deeply for the homeless who dot the landscape, how so many are one week of work from being among them... only to find a job and almost immediately forget his feelings and scoff at the useless bums who are now in his way.
However, above that story and all others (in this book, in all Japan social commentary?) is the story of Mrs. Shiraishi.
With the story of a aging busybody neighbor Richie is able to create one of the most discerning pictures of what makes Japanese people Japanese, and what makes Americans (Westerners) western.
Richie is warned to avoid the old woman by many, but as a friendly American he knows perfectly well that a smile can save the world and one day he knocks on the door and offers the old woman some fruit.
Soon he becomes her communication to an outside world world that mostly ignores her, becoming more and more of a nuisance as she decides that Richie isn't just her ear to complain to, but also the problem she would most like to complain about.
Mrs. Shiraishi becomes harder and harder to deal with, calling in the middle of the night to ask Richie to stop using his toilet after dark, or discontinue all walking.
Richie reacts by attempting to bring the group against the old women, proclaiming that if everyone stood together they could stop this silly harassment. As time passes, more and more neighbors choose to avoid Richie and his complaints.
Richie reacts by saying that the whole situation is blatantly prejudiced. Mrs. Shiraishi is picking on him because he's not Japanese, and the neighbors ignoring him because he's American. It isn't until later, seemingly at the time of planning and writing the story, that Richie begins to see it more clearly. Initially, when the neighbors warned him to avoid Mrs. Shiraishi, that was their group stand against the mean old lady. When Richie ignored him, because he knew better, he had abandoned the group and gone off alone. Mrs. Shiraishi didn't pick on him because he was white, but because he was alone and so weak and close enough to take on her dislike.
His neighbors didn't hate him because he was American, or not except for the fact that his actions might be described as "brazenly American" in their strong willingness to ignore the group in favor of your own ideas.
In the end, Richie had to move, and all he got for his trouble was this wonderful counterintuitive work of artistic genius. One wants so badly for the sad old lady to find happiness, but Richie's story holds far more truth in the real world. If I ever feel that some trouble in my day might stink of racism, I remember Donald and Mrs. Shiraishi and assume that it might not be, and that my life will be better to smile and walk away.
The book is worth searching out just for that one story.
Very highly recommended, sometimes sold under the title of Japanese Portraits.