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The Inland Sea

This is probably the pinnacle of all Japan travel memoirs by non-Japanese writers. Donald Richie, well known for his books and essays on Japanese cinema and a former film critic for The Japan Times, first came to Japan in the late 1940s, then returned in the 1950s and stayed until his death in 2013 in Tokyo, at the age of 88.

I'd recently read his A View from the Chuo Line and Other Stories (2004) and The Image Factory (2003), both interesting but not anywhere near as substantial, romantic, or insightful as The Inland Sea, first published in 1971.

In this travelogue-slash-memoir, Richie seeks out the “real” Japanese people, as he calls them. Those he envisions were around long before, who he hopes to find still on the "backward" islands of Setonaikai. Island hopping he meets a medley of locals, whose way of life was then fast changing in the rapid current of Japan's modernization. His descriptions of these people, the landscapes and nature, architecture, lodgings, family and customs are rich and delivered gently and often beautifully. There is humor and sadness as well, a sort of mixture of amusing bumps or collisions between cultures and a lament for the passing of old ways and of time itself. He decides that “only in appearances lies the true reality” and contemplates the "mask" of the Japanese, worn by each and all, which he as well as Ian Buruma and others have written about to a great extent. Richie tells us, “I would never find them, the real Japanese, because they were always around me, and they were always real.” He tells us, too, in the note to the first edition, that "for the Westerner Japan is a great mirror. In it we can see the land and the people clearly—but we can also see ourselves." And this, he also tells us, is what the book is truly about, making it not only a fascinating account of the Setonaikai people but also a narrative of self-discovery.

In addition, the book includes twenty black-and-white, rather abstract, photos by Yoichi Midorikawa, which adds to the already abundant imagery in Richie's prose and the atmosphere and moods within.


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