The Inland Sea


The Inland Sea (1971)
Donald Richie
255pp

The Inland Sea is arguably Richie's best work, and certainly his most read.

This is the story of Richie, having already lived in Japan for many years, taking a trip by boat through the sea that lies between the main island of Honshu and the smaller island of Shikoku, and area dotted with smaller islands full of places that time had forgotten.

Richie saw that with the building of bridges to connect the two islands would mean the death of the boats that ran between them, and with that, the death of the life on the small islands that dot the sea.

Forty-seven years of hindsight tends to conclude that Richie was absolutely correct, and those islands are mostly bypassed in favor of quick jumps between the main destination spots.

I could go on an on about how much I love this book, and how much I think anyone living here, or loving here, should read it immediately. That could get bothersome, so instead I'll provide a direct quote which has helped me find my place here as well as any advice, or my own experience has done:

        "Yet, if there is one thing that Japan teaches, it is to distrust the emotions. They are, after all, only ideas, like any other. After an emotional excess of some sort, they will shake their heads as though just waking up and say, well, that's enough of that now, and turn their minds to other things. It is not a question of ability - anyone is able to do this - it is a question of volition. Today I have decided to be unhappy just as I might have decided to spend the day in bed.
         It is, to be sure, very easy for the foreigner to give way in this fashion. If he thinks about it at all, he cannot buy realize that he is regarded as unreal by the Japanese. He is too curious, too strange, to be taken seriously. His sorrows are not theirs, nor his pleasures - at least, so their attitude suggests. The friendliness is real but it rests upon simple curiosity. Most Japanese will go out of their way to help a foreigner in some kind of trouble, but this does not mean that he is any more authentic to them, nor that they find him emotionally understandable. And if a foreigner gets into a kind of trouble that the Japanese think is bad, then heaven help him, because they won't." (The Inland Sea p186)

I italicized the last part because it has always held true to me. Possibly a bit blunt and overreaching for today's society, but within it sits an important truth (I believe anyhow). Anyone with close Japanese friends may disagree, and fairly so, as each experience is different, but I wonder if those with Japanese families might see something still true. I for one would be in jail several times over if jaywalking held jail time and the police simply asked my children to testify. A joke? Sure, but I do find that compared to Canada for instance, Japan values society over individual or even subsets (such as family) to a level that some may not fully notice even after years of being here. An example that comes to mind is when my calling out"All clear" to my children does not hold the power of a teacher's voice telling them to never cross on a red light. My belief that catching the train to get us to the event on time is worth a little breaking of the rules doesn't translate to them (at least during elementary school age...)

That is just my opinion (and Richie's it would seem, in 1971) and I could easily be argued out of it and I could easily think of examples that counter the one above. However, to me at least, this book holds many of these quips and snippets of the truth of being here. It's changing, just like the sea did 40 years ago, and Japan is a modern land and maybe someday not too far in the future, might be cosmopolitan even. I still see the world that Richie did, and I still think that he captured it better than just about anyone.

Recommended to a supreme level



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