The Legacy of Donald Richie

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Donald Richie’s Reflections on Novelist, Yasunari Kawabata

by Peter Grilli


Whenever I think of Donald Richie’s early life in Tokyo, somehow the very first image that always springs to mind is of his rooftop conversation with Yasunari Kawabata.

It was a chilly morning in the early spring of 1947. Richie, the tall 23-year-old American GI journalist, dwarfed the frail Japanese novelist, who was older and far wiser, at more than twice his age. They stood high above Asakusa, gazing out over the ruins of a city that the older of the two knew intimately and the younger was just beginning to love.

Why were they there together on that Asakusa rooftop in Tokyo? Young Richie hardly knew. As an eager young features writer for the “Stars and Stripes,” he had no doubt requested an interview with “Japan’s greatest writer,”, and poor Kawabata had been summoned forth to obey the victorious Americans. Japanese readers had been praising his novels and short stories for more than two decades; but young Richie knew nothing about that. Before the war, Kawabata had made his home in the bawdy entertainment district of Asakusa and had written poetically of its back streets and shady characters; but Richie knew little of that either. He had read only one story by the Japanese writer, clumsily translated for him prior to the meeting. Alone on that rooftop, they shared no common language and could not converse. Silently, they contemplated the charred aftermath of war. Attempting to find an intimate connection, Richie uttered a single word: “Yumiko” – the name of the heroine of the only Kawabata story he knew. He could only wonder about the emotions of his middle-aged Japanese companion, looking over the ruins of his beloved home. Neither of them could know that Kawabata, 20 years later, would receive the Nobel Prize in Literature.

In his reflections on Kawabata for this Tokyo Journal article, Richie adds two more short excerpts from his diaries – each separated by a decade or more of Tokyo experience. tj

The complete article can be found in Issue #274 of the Tokyo Journal. Click here to order from Amazon.

Written By:

Peter Grilli

Peter Grilli is Senior Advisor and former President of the Japan Society of Boston and a well-known specialist on Japanese history and culture. Raised in Japan for most of his childhood,he earned B. and  M. degrees in East Asian Studies from Harvard University, and also studied at Waseda University and University of Tokyo in Japan. He was director of film, education, and performing arts at the Japan Society of New York in the 1970s and 1980s, and later headed the Japan Project for PBS. From 1996 to 2000, he was director of the Donald Keene Center of Japanese Culture at Columbia University. He has written extensively on Japan, and as a documentary filmmaker he wrote or co-produced several films.


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