Donald Richie: A Living Tribute

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Honorable Visitors: Ulysses S. Grant, Rudyard Kipling and Charlie Chaplin

The following is part of Tokyo Journal’s Living Tribute to Donald Richie who passed away on February 19, 2013. Donald Richie’s contribution was originally printed in the April 1994 edition of the Tokyo Journal. It was excerpted from “The Honorable Visitors” by Donald Richie (Charles E. Tuttle Publishing Co., Tokyo. May 1994). Donald Richie’s first honorable visit to Japan took place in 1947. Since that time he became a celebrated film critic, author and composer, not to mention a journalist of many talents recording the changes of over half a century of life in Tokyo. Donald Richie contributed to the Tokyo Journal over the years and when asked about times in the nineties, Donald replied, “Frightening but exhilarating. I think everybody with a pencil should be out there taking notes.”

IT was perhaps the nation’s most fascinating period. Between 1867, when the U.S. navy blasted Japan from her 250-year introspection, and the early 1930s when the shadow of militarism loomed, the cultures of East and West met and mingled, often with spectacular results. In this window of accelerated history, the population also grappled with a new creature: the tourist.

They came to Tokyo from all over the world to experience a place that barely existed out- side myth. Among them were some very distinguished guests. The three we feature here all had special reasons for coming – trouble at home, a lifelong curiosity, a Japanese friend – and Tokyo had special reasons for welcoming them.

In July 1879, when former U.S. president General Ulysses S. Grant steamed into Yokohama on the USS Richmond, he received a lavish welcome. At the time, Japan was afraid of Russia, wrangling with China over the Ryukyu Islands, worried about Western aggression, in desperate need of a foreign friend.
In Grant, it thought it had found one...

Ulysses S. Grant
A National Hero

Grant’s grand tour had actually been under- taken because the ex-president had nothing else to do. Though he was honest enough as a politician, some major scandals (the Credit Mobilier disclosures, the Whiskey Ring mess) had discredited his administration. He was happy to leave and he wanted to stay away as long as possible.

The reception for the Grant party, which included his wife Julia, and son Colonel Frederick Grant, was most gratifying. At Yokohama, the imperial barge conveyed them to Shimbashi Station, where Grant was greeted with a display of hydrangeas formed in the shape of his initials. There was also a band playing Hail Columbia, and everywhere the people were
waving Japanese and American flags. The road to the Enryokan – a Western-style brick “palace” adorned with a verandah and real window blinds on the grounds of the Hama Palace – where the Grant party was to stay was lined with cheering throngs.

The reception was such that an American source maintained that “General Grant has been the recipient of an official and popular welcome unparalleled in the history of Japan.”

Grant’s meeting with His Imperial Majesty, set for two that very afternoon, was the first of many special honors. The imperial carriage conveyed the Grant party to “the home of the Emperor,” which they found “as simple as that of a country gentleman at home.”

The emperor, noted John Russell Young, the “historian” of the party, “is a young man with a slender figure . . . . The face expressed no feeling whatever and but for the dark, glowing eye, which was bent full upon the General, you might have taken the imperial group for statues.”

The historian also noted that “the manner of the Emperor was constrained, almost awkward, the manner of a man doing a thing for the first time, and trying to do it as well as possible.” Indeed, the emperor might well have felt a bit awkward. Here he was all dressed up in the European fashion and only six years before he had appeared in public with blackened teeth, rouge, and a formal topknot. And now, as he stepped forward, he was truly doing something which had never been done.

He stepped forward, raised his arm, and shook hands. An emperor of Japan had never before performed this alien action. “Such an incident,” says a Japanese account of the meeting, “was not known in the history of Japanese majesty”. The gesture indicated Japan’s willingness to honor Grant, as did the opening speech of the emperor, which began: “Your name has been known to us for a long time, and we are highly gratified to see you.”

After the meeting, the Grants were carried back to their brick place where, after such a filled day, they had no doubt collapsed. All their days from then on tended to be filled. On July 4, the day after they arrived, the Grants went to a Fourth of July luncheon with the American community, and then graced an official reception with 2000 in attendance. This was followed by an evening with the Iwakuras, old acquaintances from Washington, and concluded with the Grants being taken by their hosts to the Noh.

The idea of gruff, cigar-smoking, hard-drinking Ulysses S. Grant sitting through a Noh performance is appealing in its unlikeliness. The ex-president always spoke his mind: what he liked, he liked; what he didn’t, he didn’t.

There had been an initial demonstration of this at a banquet in Nagasaki, here, if the reporter is to be trusted, “the first serious dish was composed of crane, seaweed, moss, ricebread, and potatoes.” Grant took a look at the first course, took a bite. Then, to general if muffled consternation, he “pushed it aside and lit a cigar.”
Now, however, presented with something much stranger than crane with seaweed, Grant did not light a cigar. He even stayed awake, something much commented upon since Japanese themselves often fall asleep at Noh. Grant not only paid attention, but was afterward most enthusiastic. “You must keep this,” he is said to have earnestly told his hosts.

On the morning of July 7, as a further indication of imperial favor (the empress had already sent over a complete set of lacquered furniture which Mrs. Grant had happened to admire), the emperor invited the general to a review of the troops. Again, this time, in the words of Young, “the review of the army by the emperor and the general was an event which had no precedent in Japanese history.” The crowd rejoiced, the troops marched past, the band again played Hail Columbia, and the emperor once more shook hands, this timegave each other presents. The ex-president got a precious sword and he, in turn, having come prepared, gave the emperor a Pratt and Whitney machine-gun.

Thus encouraged, suspicions forgotten, the populace proceeded to make the Grants their own. Quite suddenly, in the Japanese fashion, Grant was the national rage. His name was on all lips, a number of articles were named after him, and there was an instant plethora of prints. The public adulation was such that little Clara Whitney confided to her nowfamous diary, that, “General Grant is treated so much like a god here that a temple should be erected immediately.”

The extreme indication of imperial regard, however, occurred on August 10 when – an unheard-of-honor – the emperor actually came to call on General Grant. They met at a small summer house on the shores of a lake on the grounds of the Hama Palace. Again, there was the shaking of hands, and then business began.

The bothersome treaty question was brought up at once and the emperor was perhaps gratified to hear Grant plainly state: “I have seen things that made my blood boil in the way the European powers attempt to degrade the Asiatic nations.” The Japanese had consequently been forced to give up rights “which no European nation, no matter how small, would surrender.” The United States, however, was different from its rapacious European cousins. “We have great interests in the Pacific, but we have none that are inconsistent with the independence of these nations.”

The Japanese must be treated properly. If not given their rights, then they must stand up for them. Such pleasingly belligerent opinions had been earlier indicated when, asked what ought to have been done when a German ship, ignoring a Japanese refusal, had landed a stricken seaman and thus occasioned the current cholera epidemic, Grant in ringing tones cried: “You ought have fired on the vessel!”

The infatuation of the populace grew. On Grant’s trip to Nikko, so many people assembled along the route that sometimes the Grant party had to give up sightseeing and return to their accommodations. Nonetheless, hundreds came to watch through doors and windows, “enjoying a tremendous sensation when they detected Colonel Grant in the act of tying his cravat.”

The Enryokan must have provided a quiet retreat from the frenzied social life. Young people spoke of it as idyllic: “If you sit on this verandah, under the columns where the general sits every evening, you look out upon a ripe and perfect landscape bowered with green.” Sitting on the verandah of an evening made the general philosophical. Looking at a gardener at work, he observed: “There has been work enough on that tree since I have been here to raise all the food a small family would require during the winter.”

The final public occasion for Grant and his party was perhaps the most extravagant of all. It was a grand public festival, held at Ueno Park on August 25. “It was a day of general festivity and rejoicing,” wrote Young. “Every house was decorated with flags and lanterns.” The procession: Grant in full uniform, U.S. naval officers in blue and gold, a large Japanese military escort and Julia in her finery, inched through the dense crowds.

The band once again played Hail Columbia, perhaps the only Western tune in its repertoire, and the procession stopped while Ulysses and Julia planted trees: he, a hinoki, a kind of cypress, and she, a gyokuran, a kind of magnolia. (The trees are still there, large and healthy.) Then, the procession swept on to a special pavilion and a meeting with the emperor.

Once at the pavilion, they met the emperor, enjoyed a medley of national airs played by the band, and witnessed a sports exhibition which included feats of horsemanship. After dinner, there was a grand fireworks isplay and then the long drive home.

“I recall this drive as among the most extraordinary phases of our Japanese visit,” Young remembered. “For miles, the general’s carriage slowly moved through a multitude that might have been computed by the hundreds of thousands, the trees and houses dangling with lamps and lanterns, the road spanned with arches of light, the night clear and mild, all forming a scene the like of which I had never witnessed, and which I can never hope to see again.”

And now it was time to return home – really home, the United States. Time for packing. The party had done much shopping – there were swords and statues and vases and other things difficult to ship. There was also an accumulation of china, particularly examples of a shade that foreigners called “Old Blue” and became much fond of. Mrs. Grant had bought masses of it, so much so that, in the words of Young, the general “has thrown a good deal of suspicion upon one’s enthusiasm for the antique by circumstantial narratives of a certain factory which flourishes in Newark, New Jersey . . . devoted to the manufacture of curios, especially “Old Blue.”

It was time as well for a few last parties including one given by Prince Date, which was most touching. All of a sudden, in the midst of the usual “seaweed jellies and raw fish”, there appeared “a surprise, a special compliment to our nation – a dish of baked pork and beans.” What ingenuity, what agony this must have cost the cooks is not recorded. Actually, the ex-president did not want to return at all. Earlier, he had written from Tokyo, “I am both homesick and dread going home.” At home, his reputation was at its lowest and he was returning to public indifference and a failed business venture as well as – though he did not yet know it – a penniless old age, cancer of the throat, and death six years later. The reception by the Japanese had been an autumnal reprieve, one of the last pleasures of his life.

Rudyard Kipling
The Meeting of the Twain
When he first visited Japan in the spring of 1889, Kipling was a 24-year-old, stillunknown newspaperman, leaving India to go back to England. Before Kipling, those coming to view the country had not been trained observers. It was only later that professional newspaper people – Lafcadio Hearn among them – appeared, and very few of them saw the country as whole as did Kipling. He did not attempt to “understand” in the painful manner of many later travelers. For him the Japanese were people – ordinary people – and were understandable as such. For this reason, he was not seduced by the picturesque, though he enjoyed the scenery; was not put off by any inscrutable qualities, because he found none, and quite enjoyed himself because he did not believe, as have later commentators, that one is supposed to solemnly search for “unique traits” in the hopes of stumbling across that elusive quality, “the Japanese soul.” Knowing none of this, Kipling left a series of funny, pertinent, perspicacious and honest letters which still give one of the best views to be had of Meiji-period Japan.

Kipling arrived in Nagasaki on April 15, 1889 aboard the P&O steamer Ancona. Accompanying him were his friends, Professor S. A. Hill and his wife, Edmonia, who had met the young author in 1887. The three friends loved travel. Young Rudyard had earlier delivered himself of the aphorism: “All things considered, there are only two kinds of men in the world – those who stay at home and those who do not. The second are more interesting.” Kipling knew that “the knowledge that you may never live to see an especial treasure twice teaches the eyes to see quickly while the light lasts . . . ” So, from his very first, he saw things. From “the three-cornered smiles” of the babies, to the realization that Japan is extraordinarily colorful, to the fact that, context being everything, Japan is not a small country, is not miniature. Consequently, Kipling was precise about size, particularly that of those enormous objects – shrines, trees, temples – which continually surround the traveler but which are usually ignored since they are not wee and quaint. At the same time he was honest
enough to record that “Japan is a soothing place for a small man.” And from his very first step off the boat, he saw the people. Other foreign observers of Japan saw “natives,” or objects of study, but not people. The first sight mentioned from the boat was “an indigo-blue boy with an old ivory face,” and the first off it was his rickshawpuller, “a beautiful apple-cheeked young man with a Basque face.”

Since he had no position to defend, no mystique to discover, Kipling could like and dislike as he felt. At the port, he met his first Japanese customs official, a breed as formidable then as now: “I . . . was told in faultless English by a young gentleman, with a plated chrysanthemum in his forage-cap and a badly- fitting German uniform on his limbs, that he did not understand my language . . . Had our stay been longer, I could have wept over him because he was a hybrid – partly French, partly German, and partly American – a tribute to civilization.” At the same time, he was aware of the irritated mood Japan sometimes fosters in the foreigner. Of a curio shop, he wrote, “I tried to console myself with the thought that I could kick the place to pieces; but this only made me feel large and coarse and dirty – a most unfavorable mood for bargaining.”

He felt himself a “barbarian,” and was aware of the reasons. When his companions professed themselves surprised that the Japanese already knew all about cameras, Kipling said, “It’s due to the extraordinary fact that we are not the only people in the world. I began to realize it at Hong Kong. It’s getting plainer now.” This was the tone of his first letter and all those that followed during his three weeks in Japan. Being young and idealistic, he also at once began devising schemes for saving the Japanese from themselves. “It would pay us . . . to establish an international suzerainty over Japan; to take away any fear of invasion or annexation, and pay the country as much as ever it chose, on condition that it simply sat still and went on making beautiful things . . . It would pay to put the whole empire in a glass case.” Along with an appreciation for the country as he found it, he also entertained certain fears for its future in the industrial world. “In fifty years,” he later wrote, “from the time the intrusive Americans first broke her peace, Japan will experience her new birth and reorganized from sandal to topknot, play the shamisen in the march of modern progress.

Kipling’s disdain was reserved for the new era which was threatening Japan, the country and people he admired. “Japan is a great people . . . . Mercifully she has been denied the last touch of firmness in her character which would enable her to play with the whole round world. We possess that – we, the nation of the glass flower-shade, the pink worsted mat, the red and green china puppy dog, and the poisonous Brussels carpet. It is our compensation.” Looking about him attentively, Kipling was able to fix the look, the feel, even the smell of Meiji-period Japan; his letters are filled with minute and alive descriptions. On Tokyo: “The place roared with life through all its quarters . . . . All the trams were full, all the private and public omnibuses were full, and the streets were full of “rick-shaws.” From the seashore to the shady green park, from the park to the dim
distance, the land pullulated with people.” He was able, as no one else had been, to capture that sense of sudden strangeness which even now remains – as in his description of 1889 Tokyo after dark: “Half the town was out for a walk, and all the people’s clothes were indigo, and so were the shadows and most of the paper lanterns were drops of blood red. By the light of smoking oil lamps, people were selling flowers and shrubs – wicked little dwarf pines, stunted peach and plum trees, wisteria bushes clipped and twisted out of all likeness to wholesome plants, leaning and leering out of green-glaze pots. In the flickering of the yellow flames, these forced cripples and the yellow faces above them reeled to and fro fantastically all together. As the light steadied, they would return to the pretense of being green things till a puff of the warm night wind among the flares set the whole line off again in a crazy dance . . . their shadows capering on the house fronts behind them.”

And so, his three weeks up, Kipling left Japan, a newspaper-trained reporter of enormous talent, a professional observer who recorded with an honest impartiality and who respected things as they were. And three years later, he returned. He was now famous, a “great writer,” a married one as well, and was once more passing through Japan, this time on his way to India. In the intervening years, he had been much acclaimed. He had also been criticized. “Kipling is too clever to live,” wrote Robert Louis Stevenson from far Samoa. In London, observing the younger author’s departure, Henry James, said, “The infant monster of a Kipling has publicly left England . . . carrying literary genius out of the country with him in his pocket.”
Kipling had much changed. So had Japan. Both were much more grown-up, if this means the solemn taking seriously of oneself. The Japanese government had obtained a firm control, which it was never to relax, and was already displaying a belligerence that would lead to a number of wars. Kipling was now rather grand, stayed at fine hotels, and swept in and out of official banquets since Japan now knew who he was: another of the country’s famous friends. But now, again face to face, Kipling and Japan had nothing to say each other. Both had matured. The fine fettle of youth was gone. There seemed little more to add.

Charlie Chaplin
A Brush with Death
Before his first visit to Japan in 1932, Chaplin already knew several Japanese. From 1918 on, three of his employees were from Japan. The closest was his secretary, formerly his chauffeur and then his valet, Toraichi Kono, who had traveled to California while still a youth. It was Kono who drove and dressed the famous comedian, who acted in one of his early films, who took care of his social engagements, and who eventually saved his life. The comedian’s son, Charles Chaplin, Jr., wrote that “there is a rapport between my father and the whole Japanese race. They understand and loved his pantomime . . . . My father, for his part, fell in love with their style of acting . . . from the first time he saw a Japanese troupe performing in this country.” “He liked the Japanese on another score,” Charles Jr. continued. “They were perfectionists at heart, and perfection down to the slightest detail [was] my father’s passion.” These three Japanese, his servants, were “closer in some ways to him than I who was his son.”

If Charles Chaplin knew something about the Japanese, they in turn knew much about him. In 1932, City Lights had just been released and the “little tramp” was known and loved everywhere – particularly in Japan, where all his films had been seen by most of the people and where the imperial family itself made a point of viewing Chaplin’s movies (though the dowager empress retained an affectionate preference for Douglas Fairbanks).
In 1932, as Chaplin’s ship steamed into Kobe Harbor, airplanes circled overhead dropping leaflets of welcome and thousands cheered from the docks. The government had called out the police and the military to maintain order and had put a special train at Chaplin’s disposal for the trip to Tokyo. At each station, the crowds and excitement increased. Chaplin recalled that “the platforms were crammed with a galaxy of pretty
girls who loaded [them] with presents.” The effect, he said, as they stood waiting in their kimonos, was like a flower show. At Tokyo, an estimated 40,000 people were waiting to greet him. The police cordon broke. In the rush, Sydney, Chaplin’s brother who was accompanying him, stumbled and was almost trampled.
This meeting with modern Japan puzzled the comedian who had already read of the inscrutable Orient. He found little of the reputed mystery or restraint in the Japanese demonstration, which was as excited and emotional as any crowd he had seen anywhere.

Something even more puzzling occurred on the way to the hotel. The limousine came to a stop and Kono asked if the actor would get out of the car and bow toward the imperial palace. Chaplin asked if this was ustomary and was told that it was but that actually he need not bow – simply getting out of the car would be enough. Mystified, he got out and bowed. When he got back in the car, he noticed Kono looked relieved. During the following days, Chaplin was fed, feted, taken everywhere. He particularly found Kabuki a pleasure that went beyond his expectations. “The Kabuki,” he later wrote, “is not a purely formal theater, but a mixture of the ancient and the modern. An actor’s virtuosity is the most important consideration, and the play is merely the material which he performs. According to Western standards, their technique may be limited but this is because surface realism is ignored where it cannot be effectively achieved.”
But while Chaplin and his party were out enjoying themselves, odd things were occurring back at the hotel. Sydney discovered that his bags had been searched while he was out. Also, Kono was acting strangely and a
government agent was suddenly assigned to look after them.

Shortly, the mystery deepened. A very worried-looking Kono appeared and said that a certain merchant wanted them to come to his house to view some pictures painted on silk. What kind of pictures? Well . . . erotic pictures. Chaplin refused, but Kono, looking even more unhappy, persisted. He revealed that “these people” did not take no for an answer, admitting that they had been threatening him for several days now. Chaplin said they would put the police on their tracks. Kono unhappily shook his head. The following evening, while Chaplin, Sydney and Kono were dining at a restaurant, six tough young men entered. One of them at once began to shout angrily at Kono, who turned white. Chaplin, as he later recounted,put his hand in his coat pocket as though he had a revolver and asked what was the meaning of all this. Kono explained that the merchant felt he had been insulted in having his pictures refused.

At this, Chaplin sprang to his feet, and keeping his hand in his pocket, looked fiercely at the young men. This apparently quelled the youths sufficiently, for they shortly made their escape in a waiting taxi. The next day, the mystery reached its deepest. Chaplin was at the sumo matches with the son of Prime Minister Tsuyoshi Inukai. An attendant appeared and the young man was called away. He returned looking shaken and Chaplin asked him if he was ill. He shook his head and then suddenly covered his face with his hands and said that his father had just been assassinated.

Chaplin accompanied him back to his home and saw the room in which, two hours previously, his father had been murdered. The stain of a large pool of blood was still wet on the matting. A battery of newsmen and eporters were there, and they prevailed upon him to make a statement. “I could only say that it was a shocking tragedy for the family and for the country.” So it was. Prime Minister Inukai was one of Japan’s foremost liberals. He had long fought for parliamentary democracy and had initiated a policy of friendly relations with China which would, it was hoped, somewhat counter Japan’s military adventures in the country. Nine naval cadets had killed the guards outside the prime minister’s residence and had broken into his private quarters. Inukai had attempted to reason with them. The dialogue, now famous in Japan, has the prime minister observing; “If we talk, we can understand each other.” The answer of the cadets was, “No more talk!” – followed by a volley of shots.

It was only many years later that Chaplin learned of the connection between his own experiences and the assassination. At the trial of those who had killed the prime minister, Lieutenant Seishi Koga, the leader, estified
that the famous comedian was to have met Inukai on May 15 and both he and the prime minister were to have been killed. During the proceedings, the judge asked Koga what the significance of killing Chaplin would have been. The young man answered (in the words of Hugh Byas, from whom this account was taken) that “Chaplin is a popular figure in the United States and the darling of the capitalist class. We believed that killing him would cause a war with America.” Japanese sources, however, say the assassination was merely to cause such confusion that the coup d’ état would be more consolidated. The murder of Inukai was another step toward the overthrow of Japan’s liberal government. In the previous months, Junnosuke Inoue, the minister of finance, and Takuma Dan, head of Mitsui, had both been killed by rightist groups. This attempted coup d’ état by the naval cadets (with the help of the army) was succeeded by others and eventually the government was taken over by the military.

The so-called May Fifteenth Incident, when the prime minister was murdered, was a symptom of militarism, but also an indication of general dissatisfaction and grave depression. A wartime economy was to have benefited the country, but this did not actually occur until a decade later, and the benefits were brief indeed. As for Chaplin, “my holiday was at an end.” This was written, however, with no apparent irony. Commenting on his near escape, he said, “I can imagine the assassins having carried out their plan, then discovering that I was not an American, but an Englishman – “Oh, so sorry!””
Despite what had occurred, Chaplin retained his feelings for Japan, at least he was to return twice more. The final time was in 1969 with his wife Oona. The time before was in 1936, when he was traveling with his fiancée, Paulette Goddard, and her chaperone mother.

Chaplin eventually concluded that the Japanese “wants order above everything.” And it was this order which the Chaplin assassination was to have disturbed. And so it would have, had it not been for the faithful vigilance of Kono. It was he who, to minimize the chances of violence, made the comedian get out of the car in token obeisance to the emperor, he who requested the 330-strong police force that guarded the comedian’s entrance into the capital, and he who decided to keep Chaplin’s schedule secret and then to change it frequently, such as canceling the meeting with the prime minister and putting in the sumo bouts instead. Thus, he saved the comedian’s life.

There is still much to be understood about what occurred. Who went through Sydney’s bags? Who was the dirty-picture dealer and his thuggish companions? Simple rightists, or did they have some connection with the cadets? The answer will never be discovered. The comedian never knew, and Kono died in 1971.

As for Chaplin, the last reference to Japan seems to be that inspired moment in the 1952 film Limelight where, to amuse Claire Bloom, he imitates a Japanese tree, perhaps a bonsai, all unexpected angles, wrists bent, fingers splayed. Before our eyes something Japanese appears remembered perfectly from that visit 20 years before. tj

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Written By:

Donald Richie

Donald Richie is first honorable visit to Japan took place in 1947. Since that time he became a celebrated film critic, author and composer, not to mention a journalist of many talents recording the changes of over half a century of life in Tokyo. Donald Richie contributed to the Tokyo Journal over the years and when asked about times in the nineties, Donald replied, Frightening but exhilarating. I think everybody with a pencil should be out there taking notes. Mr. Richie passed away in 2013.


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