The Great Expatriate

I don’t remember when first I heard the word “Japan” but I certainly remember when I first read the word “Asakusa”, the word “Ginza” and hundreds of other (then) exotic names of places and people: It was in the writings and the books of an American who when I discovered him was already living in Japan for almost half a century and who seemed to know everything about it and was writing about them in a style both personal and at the same time very Japanese: although he maintained until the last moment the freshness of someone who just set foot in the country, every paragraph insinuated subtly that he knew very well what he was writing about. And it couldn’t have been any other way since he was the oldest of all expatriates, the dean of the amateur (in the literal sense of the word) japanologists.

Donald Richie came to Japan in 1947 while the fires from the destruction brought by the war were still smoldering and saw with his own eyes its trip to what it is today; his basic job, that of a journalist first in the US Army newspaper and then in the English-language “Japan Times”, allowed him to go everywhere, see everything and talk with everyone, from the emperor to the construction workers and the tired sarariman when they get drunk at Tokyo’s izakaya. And although he will always remain in history as the chronicler of Japanese cinema (he was the first Westerner to meet legendary cinematographers like Akira Kurosawa and Yasujiro Ozu and present them to the rest of the world), the rest of his work was equally important –if not more.

He never asked for anything more than the permanent resident status although he could had very well been a full-fledged Japanese citizen; if nothing else, he was awarded a medal from the emperor for his services to the Japanese culture. For him life in Japan was akin to the Catholic limbo: a vague state between the world he came from and the world he learnt from scratch. He never loved it (his reply to the question when he fell in love with Japan was “Never. Japan is not lovable. But it is extremely interesting”) but he understood it and he translated it to millions of people using as his language primarily its cinema but also almost every other aspect of its culture. And when he left, on February 19, 2013 he didn’t abandon it; he just moved forever from Tokyo’s Ueno to the Seto Naikai, the “Inland Sea” separating Honshu, Shikoku and Kyushu, subject of the book with the same name and, for many, his best work.

Photo © Grigoris A. Miliaresis

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