Citizens of Limbo

04.11.2006 | Robert Latona | Cultural Affairs, Literature | 5 Comments

The Donald Richie Reader (ed. Arturo Silva) Stone Bridge Press
The Japan Journals 1947-2004 (ed. Leza Lowitz) Stone Bridge Press




Except for maybe sitting through hundreds of movies with a soundtrack in Japanese, patronizing the male-only bathhouses of Tokyo’s sleaze-zone sidestreets or affixing my byline to a couple of brilliant books; except for these, my experience of living outside the United States for most of one’s entire adult existence is not altogether different from what the expatriate’s expatriate, Donald Richie, distills from his 50 plus years as a foreigner in Japan.

Seguing in with a quote from Alastair Reid that all expatriates are “curable romantics” Richie elaborates on how that trope gives the game away:

They retain an illusion from childhood that there might be someplace into which they can finally sink to rest, some magic land, some golden age, some significantly other self. Yet his own oddness keeps the foreigner separate from every encounter. Unless he regards this as something fruitful, he cannot be considered cured.

This is the great lesson of expatriation. In Japan, I sit on the lonely heights of my own peculiarities and gaze back at the flat plains of Ohio, whose quaint folkways no longer have any power over me. And then turn and gaze at the islands of Japan, whose folkways are equally powerless in that the folk insist I am no part of them. This I regard as the best seat in the house, because from here I can compare, and comparison is the first step toward understanding.


Trust me, the man has got it right. But it’s not a job description and not a boldface sidebar from the Self-Exile for Dummies manual. No matter how many carloads of Montaigne-class understanding it may precipitate, there’s no getting away from the downside of committing to live in a country that never asked you to come calling in the first place, much less insert yourself surreptitiously, like a virus, into its social and economic bloodstream. Still, opportunities for acquiring understanding will certainly arise, especially if you go the Richie route and choose a place where foreigners are fated by the host culture’s exclusionary fiats to remain foreign forever, no matter how determinedly they might attempt to “go native”, or merely “fit in”.

Richie never tried to. Hence his staying power – with a decade-long accumulation of time outs, from New Year’s Day 1947 to Right This Very Moment, when he’s coming up on 82. Early on he found out that it was possible to engage with an unfamiliar culture without having to recalibrate a value system or personal idiosyncrasies previously acquired via birthright or affinity. “I may have rejected the USA where I was born, but I did not decide to be Japanese,” he writes. “That is an impossible decision, since the Japanese prevent it. Rather, I decided to decorate Limbo and become a citizen of this most attractive, intensely democratic republic.”

In the photographic cull of those six decades, Richie always appears in suit and tie, his gawky Midwestern face bobbing up in a group of kimono-clad contemporaries; here seen schmoozing with Yukio Mishima, there in a two-shot with one of directors whose films he made accessible to Western viewers by contextualizing their culture-specific signifiers. No doubt had Richie never set foot in the country he could have written just as brilliantly about Bresson and film aesthetics in general, but without the jolt from Japanese cinema’s unfamiliar conventions for perceiving and representing, I suspect he might have never hit on his vocation.

Apart from cinema, Richie knows just about everything a Westerner is ever going to know about Japan, or want to, and put the best of it into a classic book, The Inland Sea. He doesn’t try to explain the inexplicable, but holds it up in the light of his own, inescapably alien sensibility so we can at least see its outlines clearly and make of it what we will. I wonder, though, if the Japan that engages him most deeply exists only in the films of Mizoguichi, Kurosawa and Ozu. Outside the movies, Richie is appreciative that his adopted country took his homosexuality with a shrug of indifference and gave him seemingly unlimited opportunities for indulging it. (He characterizes himself as a “sex addict” but the diary’s juicy bits have been hived off, apparently for separate publication).

Sexual opportunism is actually fairly common as a determinant in the expatriate game. Not only did Richie find more tolerance than he could have expected from the folks back home in Lima, Ohio, I suspect the built-in cultural abyss reinforced the emotional distance he prefers in his relationships, and a power dynamic – he talks about it in the diaries — in which each participant exerts a different kind of leverage over the other, mainly because of the difference in age. Bowles in Morocco, Isherwood in Berlin and California; I wonder why homos so seldom look homeward. Then there’s Gauguin and all that nut-brown Polynesian jailbait.

So how, exactly, did Richie end up where he did? Or me? Or anyone? In Richie’s case, the bottom line might be that he just isn’t into body hair. I’ve seen odder specimens, with odder reasons for being where they are, drift in and out the slipstream in the course of 30 plus years of slogging it out in Spain: alcoholics, remittance men, second-home owners, English teachers (hey—if it was good enough for James Joyce….) Vietnam draft dodgers gone potbellied and gray, people who get on and off yachts, Army brats and many, many lost souls with too much money or with no money at all.

But I also know my own unsettled scores with Tonawanda, New York, got left behind when I went away to college, that exceedingly banal but effective cure for hometown malaise as borne out in narratives by everyone from Thomas Wolfe to Terry Teachout. Going the distance, short or long, is not the only way to acquire your get-me-the-hell-out-of-here-free card. For the Brando character in The Wild One, all it took was a leather jacket, attitude and a chopper to achieve otherness, for Richie, a ticket to smoldering, bomb-devastated Tokyo. Go figure.

The template for changing countries out of contrariness was set by Robert Graves in 1929, in his autobiographical Goodbye To All That. It was written as a searing indictment of the world into which he was born and hoped to put forever behind him by moving to the then-remote and exotic island of Mallorca. So it was phooey and so long to Edwardian hypocrisy, mother’s stern religiosity, British public schools, the enduring horrors of trench warfare and a decade of refusal to make compromises with the society he had come to despise.

Actually, Graves’ classic kvetch was a cover story for his walking out on his family and decamping to Spain with Laura Riding, his poetic mentor, sometimes lover and personal divinity. Like other self-displaced persons, Graves carried his own private England with him during the four decades he lived outside it. He used to laugh when tourists filched fruit from his orchard — they were in a for a surprise from the only bitter oranges on the island, planted by himself so as not to have to go without that most ur-British of breakfast marmalades.

Also in Spain during roughly the same period was Gerald Brenan, junior adjunct of the Bloomsbury set who burrowed into an impossibly remote Andalusian village a decade before Graves. Brenan went there with 2000 books because he could just get by on an allowance from Dad and his Army pension, making him a forerunner of the Americans who, a generation later, would be wafted to postwar Paris on the wings of the GI Bill. Caught in its perennial economic (not to mention social and political) time warp, Spain remained a honey-trap for professional “remittance men” especially alcoholically-inclined Brits, until 1986, when it got into the soon-to-be European Union and the good old days of living on the cheap came to an abrupt and painful end.

Because Brenan wrote with surpassing insight on his adopted country, Spaniards always assumed he was an infatuated Hispanophile, and that explained his presence among them. Read the biography, though, and it’s clear that Spain was merely the whetstone on which he honed the skills of observing and elucidating he hoped to apply to the novels he was trying to write. And sometimes just a backdrop of color and noise that he responded to with indifference or annoyance. Yet he stayed on until his heart gave out at age 92, mainly because it allowed him to overcome, after a fashion, his early-onset impotence issues by getting it on with illiterate servant girls. Once he had diluted his hang-ups in the solvent of squalor, Brenan managed to father a daughter and write a couple of the most fascinating, though not necessarily reliable, books ever written about Spain by an outsider, but his personal feelings about the country remained ambiguous to the end, as witness this unpublished fragment quoted by his biographer:

We in England measure out our egoism and altruism to suit the occasion,. We have a measure appropriate to every situation, and if we haven’t one, we pretend we have. The Spanish nature is to move in one step from one extreme to another. When we are feeling horrified by Spanish insensitivity, Spanish negativenes or Spanish egotism, we come across some act of generosity and sheer goodness of heart such as one could scacrely find in any other nation.

That, by the way, is exactly true, exactly on the mark. Here is an equivalent aperçu from Richie about the Japanese that I’m more than willing to take on faith:

The Japanese is all Japanese and he must be seen in his own context because his mountains, his forest, his seas are also him. It is not that he does not have individuality, he has his context – and he has never been taught to foster a strong personality, has never been told that each and every person must be somehow, different, unique, only himself.

If that seems like Richie is down on the country he admits has made him “more or less happy,” you ought to see me when I’m in the mood. I am asked: Didn’t you implicitly renounce the right to grouse and gripe about the place when you voluntarily elected to live in it? Like hell I did. I tell them that on a good day, Spain is like Mayberry, USA, and that on a not so good day it is like Dogpatch. I tell them there are fundamental elements of the Spanish mindset I will never be comfortable with, such as the imperative to quedar bien, make a good impression, avoid anything that might be interpreted as conflictive or disappointing, that overrides any hope of getting a straight answer, an honest opinion, or a shared intimacy from the people you are closest to. The bottom line is that the retrograde, agrarian and above all interesting country I decided to try on for size in the mid-1970s is gone, and it sure ain’t coming back. Forgotten, despised and subverted, just like Richie’s Japan.

What has gone missing? One, and of course it’s irretrievable, is the beauty of the country. It was the most beautiful country I’d ever seen in my life and now it’s just about the ugliest. That and an attitude toward nature which was based upon penury. If you don’t have furniture, then you pay a lot of attention to empty space. And if you have only mud, you pay a lot of attention to pottery.

[elsewhere] And now I look around. In fifty years, it has changed, materialistic, peacetime Japan, 1992, where all that counts is how much you make and what you can buy. I read Main Street and Babbit back then and determined never to stay. It is now full circle; the Japanese are the new-rich Babbits in the true American mold. And Tokyo is the new Main Street.

Replace Japan with Spain and I’ll sign and have it notarized. Of course, nobody should complain about being bushwhacked by one’s own expectations and by assuming that the inevitable would obligingly wait for us to die off first. The circular nature of time brings the expatriate’s bitter comeuppance: elsewhere turns into the place he was trying to get away from. For consolation, I turn to Richard Ford, author of the 19th century classic, A Handbook for Travelers in Spain, a book in many ways comparable in its fiercely critical take on the country being scrutinized to one that Richie knows well. Japan: An Attempt at Interpretation shows that even for Lafcadio Hearn, a century earlier, Japanese life is not a bowl of cherry blossoms.

Ford makes up for his irascibility with his eye for the telling detail and by the regret with which he took note of the fact that most everything good about Spain was – in 1845, mind you – on the way out, ground under the unstoppable wheels of “the Lutheran locomotive”. Much as he was irritated by its barbers, bullfighters and bandits, it still made him wince to witness how “the European intellect is crushing many a wild flower” in Spain’s garden of earthly delights. His rants – so curiously like my own on the subject of government functionaries — didn’t do any good then, so what purpose would be served by my updating and elaborating on them now?

But I still haven’t answered my own question. If not acute birthplace disaffection, the joys of sexpatriation, draft dodging, cheap booze, and so forth, then what brought me here? What kept me here? There’s only possible answer to the question and everyone’s already heard it. “I came to Casablanca to take the waters.” Let that stand as mine, too, since it can’t be bettered. And was I misinformed? Only in the sense that nobody told me I would still be a stranger so long after the strange land lost its strangeness. I can live with it, though, and Richie can, too .



Awesome article. Exceedingly well-written, and also right on the mark from the perspective of someone else (me) who spent almost the entire 90's living in Japan and am now headed back for at least three more years.
04.2.2008 | Lance
Well done, insightful review. Lafcadio Hearn noted! Talk about a perpetual foreigner!
08.15.2008 | Samurai Girl
Right on the money. For the gay expatriate, limbo is more comfortable than home. Than any home, adopted or otherwise. For a gay man of Ritchie's generation, the very concept of home held more menace than the idea of being a perpetual stranger. The rejection was kinder and less personal.
01.11.2009 | headbang8

Love this. Who are you, anyway, and why are you on this brainwave? Almost too good to be true.

12.4.2009 | Samurai Girl

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