The Japanese Reality of Appearances

Photo of Donald Richie

Donald Richie is a renowned American writer and expatriate who has lived in Tokyo, Japan, since 1947. He has written extensively about Japan’s culture and people and is the author of thirty books including The Temple of Kyoto (1995), The Inland Sea (1971), The Films of Akira Kurosawa (1965), Ozu (1975), and most recently The Image Factory (2003), an investigation of Japan’s extreme addiction to fad and fashions.

I met Donald Richie at the International House of Japan in Roppongi, Tokyo, in January 2002.

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Robert Jarrell (RJ): You once questioned your journey to Japan, specifically your voyage to the Inland Sea, and realized it was the voyage of life you were undergoing. You’ve now lived in Japan for half a century. You could have left and continued your journey elsewhere. Why have you continued to live in Japan?

Donald Richie (DR): One reason is sheer inertia. One stays where one is, especially when one has made an effort to leave where one was once before. But another answer is that you come for a purpose, you come to study as it were, and if you pick a rather shallow culture you can go through the culture quickly, see what you want to, and then roam around and look for another culture to study. But to go through Japan’s culture you have to go through its tradition, its history, which is many centuries deep, and really you’ll never ever get to the bottom. And so that continued interest, waking up every morning and wondering what you’re going to learn that day. Also, one of the reasons I came here is that I was looking for a place, a mirror image diametrically opposite to the little town in Ohio, and the largest city in the world on the other side of the earth seemed to be it. So this became my “antimatter,” it became my “idea.” I’ve been searching for utopia. Utopias, of course, don’t exist, but you can create them, and I’ve created my own.

RJ: Since you mentioned the “mirror image” let’s talk about the “Great Mirror”—the concept that when one observes Japan it is like gazing into a mirror, therefore one gazes at the self. When you compare both the United States and Japan to each other they are like two great mirrors facing each other. At one time they may have revealed a pure reflection, but now they are carnival-like, funhouse mirrors. When you look into them the image you see is warped, out of proportion, disturbing, but always entertaining. Tell me what you have discovered while looking into the great mirror of Japan?

DR: Well, to begin with you never discover anything in this life. You create, however, what is desirable. You create your self, but the mirror that Japan has provided me with is the means of identifying it. I think the ways things are mirrored come in many forms. One of them is certainly the idea that you define yourself by what you are not. So you go to an environment where you simply don’t fit in, then you consume yourself with it. Buddhist dain to create as it were the “you’re not here.” That’s the benign aspect of the Great Mirror. It has a malign aspect too, where nationalism looks at another country and demonizes it so they can angelize themselves. We do that all the time. America has a particular talent for it and is doing it right now with its war on terrorism. So this idea of demonizing is where we are. Japan knows all about this too because Japan is a fabricator and does it extremely well and it defines itself against what it is not. It’s complicated in Japan because Japan is not satisfied with what it is. It can’t afford to be. It opened up its eyes to the world very late in 1857. It was a populace behind the times and it has been trying as hard as it can ever since to catch up with the West. In Japan’s case, they look into the mirror of Asia and find them mainly to be people they don’t like, such as the Koreans and Chinese, in order to like themselves.

RJ: Do you now believe Japan has surpassed the West?

DR: No, no, no. Japan started lusting after material things very early, and it only lusted after American Western material things. It was “Western things, but Japanese spirit.” That’s the way the slogan went. They managed to import anything they could get their hands on that would fit their own conception of importation, but they would not import the surroundings of this, therefore the meaning of this importation is always different from the original meaning, and the Japanese over the centuries have learned that you don’t have to respect the integrity of anything in order to get it and perfect it. That means adapting it to ways Japanese, and this is the way they’ve approached this. We all do this, but we do it sometimes with more finesse than that. In Japan this didn’t happen because they had a system for keeping foreigners out, but then the foreigners in 1945 forced their way in. They only stayed until 1951, so they didn’t have much time to do any damage and didn’t have time to do any good. They did build a democracy, but the Japanese idea of democracy is a different animal entirely. So the Japanese use of the mirror is to support themselves and they have accomplished this one hundred percent, but the use of the mirror in order to enhance their image of themselves hasn’t been very successful.

RJ: You say that America occupied Japan for only six years from 1945 to 1951, and that little damage was done, but you can’t deny America hasn’t had a huge influence ever since?

DR: Well, economically you can say America put Japan on the road, and so the road just continues. There’s certainly economic links between to two countries. This had made it easier for the Japanese to acquire material things than they ever did before, but it hasn’t rendered them as Americanized. When you look around Japan what do you see?

RJ: Conspicuous consumerism, just like America.

DR: But it’s so different in Japan. It has none of the spirit of America. The spirit is something else. Japan has a lot of objects you recognize, and in some ways it’s an improvement in Japan. I mean, look at the Sunset Strip on the one hand, and Roppongi on the other. Roppongi is kiddyland, it’s benign. Sunset Strip was never benign. Roppongi is the entertainment district of Tokyo built upon the idea of commerce—it shows you where the economy is. So when things come over here they get put through the Japanese machine and get refined and are often put to use in ways never intended. Then they become something else entirely, so it’s not Americanized, Germanized, Balkanized, or Franconized, it’s Japanized. The only thing that can be said of Japan is that it has internationalized its image — that’s what it has done. Some believe the surface changes, but the core holds. You scratch something and out emerges some aspect of its tradition. I myself was of that camp for quite a few years, but I doubt it now. I think the changes are too dramatic now. I don’t think the young people now will ever understand things like ma or a positive concept of negative space, or any of those abstract concepts. These concepts are forever changed, forgotten really. I would be surprised if they weren’t — it’s called progress.


We’re creating a world where we are really in the closet all the time. You don’t have to work anymore, except at home or in little cubicles. We’re going back to the Middle Ages. It’s a new scholasticism all these new machines are bringing us. There not bringing people together.

RJ: Ma, or time and space, are an important concept for the Japanese, or like you say, it was at one time. Its traditional characteristic in the last century was probably best articulated by Ozu’s films — the Zen here and now, the task performed in the moment. Time and space is what I notice most when I’m in Japan, but I’m experiencing it in the year 2002. Japan has changed a lot since Ozu. Tokyo, for example, is a space that puts every type of entertainment on the menu for consumers who have little concern for spiritual or ontological matters. This creates a unique existential space, one that can be empty, hypnotic, and dangerous. In what ways do you think Japan’s time and space are different now?

DR: One of the reasons time and space became important to Japan in the very beginning is the same reason this became important for the Greeks: they didn’t have anything else. This always occurs when you have poverty stricken nations. The Japanese were truly poor until the late twentieth century. When you don’t have anything you celebrate what you haven’t got and turn it into something else, so you don’t have empty rooms anymore, you have ma. You have an empty heaviness in scroll. Empty space is given weight and acts as a positive element. Temporally you also have concepts that emphasize this emptiness and its richness; things like haiku, tanka, and the way Japanese music is constructed. All of these things celebrated time and space. The reason we have space in Japan is because we didn’t have any furniture. The reason we have such fine pottery in Japan is because we only had mud. And so everything that is Japanese culture is posited from poverty. Now you take this, keeping in mind that only thirty years ago Japan was still poor, and all of a sudden it became rich. And what happens when a person becomes rich too fast? He turns into a vulgar, assertive, insensitive being. This is what has occurred in Japan. So when you have a poor people becoming rich, you always have these qualities come out. The vulgarity of contemporary Japan, the aimlessness, the rootlessness, the unhappiness of contemporary Japan is all based upon a culture having too much money.

Now, the gods with their wisdom have taken away all the money again. How Japan will cope with its new poverty, so celebrated in its art, will be interesting to see. Already there are some creative signs. You’ve seen the new look on the street now. Compared to the excesses two years ago, the girls in towering sandals, the black faces, the new look is neo-poverty, the new poor. Notice the careful scruffiness of fashion. You can follow fashion and see what’s coming because it’s like the lobster with its antennae, which comes out long before the beast. They are making something of poverty. It is not new; it’s very retro.

RJ: It appears these are good signs to come?

DR: It appears like good signs to come ... they are the only signs. Otherwise it is sheer frivolousness. The Japanese have always had this extraordinary frivolity. I mean for a former police state to have this unbridled sense, but maybe that’s the reason the police allowed it, because most police states do allow Saturnalia. In Japan we’ve always had this complete frivolousness called matsuri. The spirit of matsuri as in the eijanaika phenomenon of the mid-nineteenth century, where hundreds danced in the streets crying this phrase, eijanaika, which meant something like what the hell! Nowadays it’s … have you been to Gas Panic?

RJ: No, what is it?

DR: You have a girlfriend, so I don’t know if you should go.

RJ: Sounds dangerous and tempting.

DR: It’s impossible not to get laid. It’s in Roppongi, and it’s a big, raunchy, cheap, enormous club. Gas Panic is a new eijanaika, a place where all the young girls go hunting. Unfortunately you’re not the flavor of the week. The flavor of the week is black, and the black service men have discovered this. So they come to get picked up, and they do it in the toilet. It’s interesting, because of what it is, but also because it’s a relic. In the early twelfth century there was a cult to make the rice grow, and what they did was go out in the spring and fuck in the furrows, and everybody did it together, it didn’t matter who you fucked, and so this went on until the government found out and they had enough of it. So it’s that kind of matsuri, completely unbridled, where you take the forbidden and flaunt it, and there’s a very, very strong component, and in some ways I suppose a very healthy one.

RJ: Let’s move on to another subject: Japanese film. There has been much talk of the decline in contemporary Japanese film over the past twenty or thirty years, but there are still some remarkable filmmakers such as Miiki Takashi, Kitano Takeshi, Kurosawa Kiyoshi, Aoyama Shinji, Fukusaku Kinji, and Ishii Sogo. It disappoints me that very few Japanese know these directors and instead opt for mediocre American films. Why do you think these filmmakers are not given more regard in Japan?

DR: Because they’re Japanese. Japan is a country where eighty percent of all filmgoers go to see only foreign films. This happens in Japan because it always looks beyond its shores for the sign of the new, the sign of the latest trend. It never looks within its own shores, and it hasn’t ever since it opened up in the 19th century. Besides, importation cost much less to bring in then any native project. And so any Harry Potter film or Titanic or any of those things are blown out of proportion, and everyone in the world is susceptible. That’s one explanation. The other is that the Japanese long, despite everything else, despite their history, despite their xenophobic disposition, to be world members and long to learn about the outside world. Obviously, foreign films are seen as educational. Woody Allen has taught the young Japanese how to think. Diane Keaton has taught them how to dress. They get this idea that this is the edge of the cool. Diane Keaton has a lot to answer for in this country; the big blouses, girls wearing men’s clothes, that type of thing, and clopping around in clogs, the denial of male-informed femininity, that sort of thing. Whether or not it’s good or bad is another thing. So foreign films are educational; Japanese films are not educational runs the accepted opinion. Also the Japanese films don’t have a very good track record. When it came time to wake up and realize TV was taking the audience away, the industry did nothing. They would make another monster picture, or they would remake the big hit of 1953 with the same stars. So they don’t have a very good track record. Right now their success, if that is they have one, is that some filmmakers have managed to see that if they can get their films abroad and get them to festivals and win some prizes, then they come back import items. Takeshi Kitano is a master at this sort of thing.

RJ: So it’s a Japanese product reimported?

DR: Yes, everything is reimported. Everyone went to see Hanabei when it came back with its festival awards. All directors would like to do this, but only a certain number have done it, but more than a certain number have realized that there is sort of a visceral element which can be played upon. They’ve mainly learned how to do this by looking abroad. Miiki, for example, studied Quentin Terrantino, who is the master of designer violence, and some directors realized that this fits in very well with an amoral looking, economically feasible kind of Japanese chop’ em’ up. And so we have the excesses of Miike. You can translate that into supernatural excesses of the new Kurosawa, and the fake existentialism of Aoyama. But there are other directors who are doing more interesting things and these films give evidence that Japanese films are slowly getting better. The monster of television has been faced and television won, and so we know we don’t have to worry about that audience anymore. And instead a minority audience in a country of 130 million is still a big audience, and this is what the independent directors are aiming for.

RJ: Aoyama is making fake existential films? Can you elaborate on that?

DR: Fake existentialism in Japan postulates that a person is always alone, that a person is unable to move, that a person is forever shackled by the very fact of his existence. This is the popular take in all countries. Existentialism is more brilliant and dynamic than that. Actual existentialism tells you that you are only, merely, but finally and triumphantly, what you do. All the best intentions in the world, all the crying over spilt milk, never last. When you are in your grave, what you accomplish is the only thing that works. That’s why Ikiru is such a great picture — that’s what it’s about. Compare that picture to something like Aoyama’s Eureka, which is sheer sentimentality and enormously self indulgent in its length — it’s over three hours. So what is Aoyama saying? “People are no damn good. Life is no fun.” It may be unkind of me to say this, but it’s not unwarranted. When you compare Eureka’s existentialism with real existentialism, you will understand that the latter is extremely informing, and clears the board like nothing else. It tells you what is important and what is not. There have been very few films like Ikiru. It doesn’t lend itself to films because it’s undramatic to begin with. But a film like Ikiru has certainly done it, and some of Ozu’s films, in their avant way, have dealt with it successfully. But Aoyama’s films don’t even begin to touch, or begin to understand existentialism, because it’s all obscured with personal vanity.

RJ: Tell me about some of the directors you find thoughtful and making intelligent films?

DR: One of the most important is Kore’eda Hirokazu who made Maboroshi and After Life and a new film called Distance. Another director following the traditions of Ozu, but doing it through an awareness of Bresson, is Makoto Shinazaki, who has done two films. His first film Okaeri, is something of a masterpiece. There’s a Korean director, native born but so-called Korean, Sai Yoichi, who has made a remarkable picture called All Under the Moon. And so there’s a great deal of competition with Miike and the in-crowd.

RJ: Do you feel these directors are a reflection of Japanese reality, or Japanese desires, or are the violent filmmakers like Miike capturing this?

DR: Well, I think they all are, but what they’re reflecting is their own agendas. I think Miike would tell you that he is performing a social function as well as an entertainment function. Certainly Aoyama would confess to that. All these young directors are quite serious. The point is how well are they doing it. What is missing is the idea of art for its own sake. We don’t have people insisting on the preeminence of art. There is no place for that in contemporary Japan. I don’t know what that means, except that there are seasons where indeed that kind of endeavor is not much talked about. Some say it’s the economy. In Japan unemployment is reaching 7%. That’s not much for California, but it’s quite a lot for here. More and more people are on the street. They’re not able to do it anymore. Once they burn off this fat, all the Gucci outlets and what have you will be going out of business. So Japan too is undergoing a defensive, Baroque phase. A lot of the frivolousness will be put to an end. People will grow serious about their plight. There may come some new understanding of the riches and poverty. This has always been Japan’s strong card. Poverty is a virtue. Lack of time is a virtue. Lack of space is a virtue. This miraculous turning things around, which it shares with the Greeks. Lafcadio Hearn has an essay in which he compares the Japanese to the Greeks and their similarities. So this may occur, and would be very interesting. It would truly create a new renaissance. But for this to happen people will have to become more poor and the government will have to become more corrupt.

RJ: Let’s talk about the film industry ...

DR: There is no film industry in the same sense as there is a music industry or TV industry.

RJ: Is there any solution to bring about a new, healthier film industry or distribution for the independent filmmaker?

DR: No, because the hardware has changed so that software companies have to change too. We’re fighting a big war right now where VHS is going out and DVD is coming in. The other thing is that we are moving out of theaters in all senses of the word. We’re creating a world where we are really in the closet all the time. You don’t have to work anymore, except at home or in little cubicles. We’re going back to the Middle Ages. It’s a new scholasticism all these new machines are bringing us. There not bringing people together. They are bringing the effect together, but they are making the individuals more and more solitary, and people are internalizing, and there are the young people on the street and they all look like this [Donald Richie gestures as if to look at a cell phone]. It’s like they are reading the Koran or something. And so the new religion looks like this in Japan. It’s ironic because they are worshipping communication, but they’re not seeing anything, they’re not communicating, they’re only talking.

RJ: I want to return to the topic of film in Japan and talk about art houses, which do very well in some American cities, but I’m surprised it does not do well here, especially Tokyo.

DR: Well it depends on how you define art house?

RJ: Art house in the sense of showing independent pictures that lack commercial appeal: the avant-garde, the experimental, the movie critic’s film.

DR: But you see the art house in America shows Four Weddings and a Funeral. That’s art material there, but mainstream in Japan. What we would consider art material is a Bergman or Buñuel, but if you did these films in New York no one will come to see them either. It’s what you decide is art film and what’s mainstream. So we have to ask, “Do we even have art films or an art theater anymore in America?” Where are you going to see the classics? You don’t go to see them anymore.

RJ: San Francisco has a variety of art house and repertory theaters. The Red Vic, Castro Theater, and Roxie show a variety of independent films, and the five Landmark theaters show the international mainstream art film. Furthermore, there are many repertory theaters like the one in Berkeley, and a handful of some very underground theaters that show what you would define as the “bedroom art film” such as Cell Space. I can’t report what is happening in New York, but from what I understand, the art houses there have a healthier appreciation. However, America in general is weak in its appreciation of the art film, but you shouldn’t underestimate the appreciation of it in major American cities. I’ve lived in San Francisco for twelve years now and I can’t count how many times I’ve seen Bergman, Godard, Fellini, and Buñuel. It’s normal to see these director’s films and they come back every year. If no one went to see them I don’t think they would continue to show up on the art house calendar year after year.

DR: Well then, San Francisco must be a place like Paris, where you can still go see your classics. Paris is the place you go to see movies. On the other hand, in Japan, we have art theaters that will very often show an unpopular picture, one that doesn’t have audience appeal. For example, Image Forum recently spent one whole month showing probably the most unpopular picture possible, but an art film nonetheless, called Foreign Devils which is a documentary about the Japanese atrocities in Manchuria. It was a very sobering, stunning film, but certainly not something to bring the kids in, but they showed it, yet this is very rare. I think the whole idea of theaters is going out so fast that the idea of an art house being healthy in this country ... I don’t believe it. Even Image Forum, that had this very difficult, unpopular picture going on, is the same place that played Miike’s new film in the basement. So obviously there’s some kind of books being balanced. Everyone’s got to eat, right?

RJ: In 1960 you wrote that the space in Japanese film was used differently—that there was a careful flatness and reliance upon two dimensions, which you recognized from Japanese prints. Your observation forty years ago would now be a description of what is known as superflat, a common characteristic in contemporary Japanese art and manga. Tell me your understanding of superflat — how has it evolved or become more or less extreme artistically, culturally, and socially?

DR: Well, my original observation was based upon history of course, and based upon the fact that people knew Japanese prints, and the convention that they were two-dimensional rather than three. There is a suspicion of real three-dimensional art, this idea of depth, coupled to make this influence last a long time in film. The films of Mizoguchi and Ozu still have this: the preference for the two-dimensional. When the manga comes in, of course manga is two-dimensional, and one of its triumphs is that it left out the three-dimensional. In American manga you very often have three-dimensional effects drawn in, but in Japanese manga you still only have two. One thing: two-dimensional art is much more dynamic graphically, and one should never underestimate the Japanese patience for the graphic. One of the reasons any Japanese film is a joy to look at is because of the superb graphics, because people still believe in composition as ...

RJ: As beauty?

DR: Yes, as beauty. Somehow or other, everything has to be balanced, or so artfully unbalanced as to be balanced, and so this goes on, and it is even stronger than it used to be. Not so much in films because films themselves are so much more Hollywood-coated. What this means is that this kind of simplicity artistically is a very good thing. What does it mean in other fields? Economically and socially I have no idea, but philosophically it encourages a duality. It encourages a black and white attitude in a country that heretofore has been traditionally neutral gray. This I cannot conceive of as a very good thing because its extremes are so artificial. Depending on the reading depends on how you class this two-dimensionality in everything. The new sexism in this country, for example, is based upon that. When I first came here the country was a wonderful emotional mass, in which none of the prejudices that the Christians, the Greeks, the Jews, and the Romans had taught me in Ohio. They had no relevance here in Japan, so emotionally I felt a freedom here. For one thing is has certainly made me stay, and I still find echoes of this, although it’s nothing so strong anymore, because we’ve been invaded by this sort of two-dimensionality, one of the things I escaped from when I left home, but nonetheless it is still here. This attitude used to be called natural, now it’s called hedonistic. It used to be called just plain normal—there was no name for it, but now it’s considered decadent. It used to be considered normal, now it’s considered kinky. Its been that kind of change.

RJ: I’m confused by the concept of appearance as reality ...

DR: A lot of people are. “The real is the ostensible” is what I’ve always said. The Japanese have chosen to ignore the depths of everything. We of the West of course, have the idea that depth lurks everywhere. This is because of Christianity. We are encouraged to believe we have a soul, that there’s something called the “real me.” They believe in the “real me” as opposed apparently to the “unreal me” which is the one you see, therefore it is not real. The Japanese have absolutely had none of this. The Japanese believe they are very bourgeois and rational. They believe in the appearance of everything, and have discounted these invisible depths. There is no word for “soul,” for example, in Japanese, and there’s really no belief in it. So when I say that “the ostensible is always the real,” this means that the world is accepted at face value and is not mined for meanings. If you have a person saying, “I’m so sorry, I thought of coming and decided that ...” so and so forth, you are give a statement of fact that you are expected to believe. When a person tells you a palpable lie, that you both know is a lie, you are expected to believe this. When the person presents anything that is apparent as the truth, even when a little bit of thought reveals that it is not so, nonetheless, Japanese good manners believe this, are based upon this. “You have done so much ... thank you so much ... “ but you haven’t done a thing, but nonetheless you accept this. As standing in relationship good manners, or ethical concern, or of all sorts of things, this is what I mean. This culture does not encourage you to delve. Of course, foreigners, find this difficult.

RJ: As a writer you have to.

DR: Well, I would think so. I admire the ostensible is the real. Oscar Wilde said … how did he put it? Of course he put it better than this, “Only a very superficial person does not believe in the reality of appearances.”