This light shed is cast, in large part, by the string Westerner-goes-to-Japan narratives I’ve been reading. The fact that I’ve been reading a string of Westerner-goes-to-Japan narratives at all says a lot by itself, but the books themselves, or the authorial minds revealed by the books, resonate with me as well. Donald Richie’s mind, perhaps the most resonant of them all, is laid pretty much bare in his Japan Journals. Like most Japan scholars of his generation, he went over there in World War II and never really left. Like many of those, he was won over by an aspect of Japanese culture and aesthetics — film, in his case. Like a healthy subset of those, he’s homosexual.
He refers this last as “the strange prevalence of people of like preferences among foreign Japanese specialists.” I’ve wondered aloud before about why Japan enthusiast groups now seem to be overrun by insular, unkempt social disasters. I now realize that, in a context like Japan, any Westerner is automatically so, so different, such an irredeemable outsider, that whatever made them an outcast at home is bleached out. This goes equally if your cultural literacy is primarily Naruto-based in 2010 or if you preferred the company of men in 1942.
Despite being able to more or less hold my own in my homeland, I still thirst for that feeling of foreignness. I got a whiff of it in New Zealand, though it bothered me that I could have passed as a local if I just got the twang down. Unlike many Japan enthusiasts of my generation, I don’t see the place as some sort of refuge, a dreamed-of “home” that will, at long last, accommodate my desires. I do see it as a place offering impressive track records in the sorts of things I enjoy — cinema, literature, certain stripes of experimental music, particular design sensibilities — and the intellectually fizzy vantage point of the outsider.
“Home” and the supposed comforts thereof are precisely what I don’t seek. Richie’s journals lay this out in a way that made me clench my fist in victory:
In Japan I interpret, assess an action, infer a meaning. Every day, every hour, every minute. Life here means never taking life for granted, never not noticing. I do not see how a foreigner can live here and construct that shroud of inattention, which in the land from whence he came is his natural right and his natural tomb [ ... ] it is with this live connection that the alert foreigner here lives. The electric current is turned on during all the waking hours: he or she is always occupied in noticing, evaluating, discovering and concluding [ ... ] It is the difference between just going to a movie and living it for a few hours, and going to the same film as a reviewer, taking notes, standing apart, criticising, knowing that I must make an accounting of it. The former is more comfortable; the latter is better. Being at home means taking for granted going blind and deaf, eventually not even thinking. It means only comfort. I would hate to be at home.If Donald Richie has premised his existence on one particularly acute insight, that insight is into the poison masked by identity, whether of nation, group, preference, or otherwise. He refuses to even sign on off on the label “gay.” On why he chose never to officially “come out,” he writes:
First, because it never occurred to me to do so. Why should I limit myself — and only for the sake of security within the ranks? True, I grew up when such disclosure would have been damaging, and it would not be that now. But I can also see almost no advantages. Just that of having refused plurality and the possibility of the pale comforts of a single-minded security — life finally rendered simple and sure amid the questionable charms of solidarity.While I happen to be into women, I felt nearly all of Richie’s homosexuality-related statements — and those which arguably spring from his chosen mindset on homosexuality — ringing true on other, perhaps unintended levels. I, who have lived nowhere but the United States, see more of myself in the guys who enlisted and effectively remained where the war sent them than those who served and came gratefully home, cursing the Japs to the end. By the same odd token, I often identify more with gay luminaries than straight ones. Richie discusses a New York Review of Books biographical article with (former Marketplace of Ideas guest) Ian Buruma, in a quandary about how to touch on the subject:
Second, an existential objection: when you name anything, you limit it; you slam the door on becoming and insist upon being. If a person comes out, he proclaims his belief that he is only one thing, has never been and could not ever be another. This is creepy.
Third, a political objection. A person who comes out chooses to predicate himself on his sexuality. And only on his sexuality. Whether he so intends or not, he has made a political statement. He is Homosexual; the world is not. And it is the world he has chosen to address by coming out. He has turned sexual preference into political preference. By insisting upon difference, he has condoned division.
Ian does not want to use terms like “preferences,” “life-styles,” etc., because they are euphemisms. Perhaps no word then. Words are half the trouble anyway. Instead, dramatize. He will think about how to do this, and I add that he might mention the advantages of homosexuality.Intellectual, aesthetic, and cultural stimulation aside, Richie stayed in Japan, by his own admission, because of the sheer abundance of a whole other flavor of stimulation. Many are the Japan Journals’ recollections of anonymous and semi-anonymous Tokyo sexual encounters. (Many more are the ones only suggested, which have been collected into an dedicated, unpublished memoir of their own, Vita Sexualis.) Richie has evidently also carried on ultra-long-term relationships with younger Japanese men, otherwise straight (!), which turn avuncular as the passing decades deliver their marriages, children, business troubles, etc.
There is John Updike: “Perhaps the male homosexual, uncushioned as he is by society’s circumambient encouragements, feels the isolated, disquieted human condition with special bleakness: he must take it straight.” A quote that means several things. Many men settle for the fact that they had children and this becomes why they are here — this is something that many women do, too. There is family life to sustain everyone except those who have never made families.
Richard Lloyd Parry puts it well in his pretty damned brilliant review in the London Review of Books: “The fascination of these journals, what makes them a literary, as well as historical, document, is the way in which — almost unconsciously and over the course of a lifetime — they reveal Richie’s intellectual and erotic compulsions to be a single consistent project.” This brings straight to my mind the words of Brian Eno:
The inclination is to make it all sound like [my work followed] a “grand plan”; and it wasn't like that actually, but there was always this thing with me of “leading by instinct”, and then saying “How does that connect up with everything else that I'm interested in at the moment in movies or books or science?” I always assume, and always have done, that my enthusiasms have a common root; and, I mean all of my enthusiasms, be they sexual, intellectual, aesthetic or emotional. I always assume that if I start to get interested in something or other that I haven't been interested in before, I can check it across the spectrum of my interests and see what it would imply in different areas.This acknowledged unity of purpose is perhaps what I respect most in writers, in expatriates, in travelers, in livers of life — in human beings. Yet I suspect that Japan itself could never satisfy my own “single consistent project.” Were I born Japanese — not that such a proposition makes ontological sense — I have no doubt that I would be desperately drawn to somewhere, anywhere else. Nothing has made me more transparent to myself than realizing that engage engage best with hybridity: exploring borderlands, reveling in liminal states. I will go to Japan, perhaps often. Yet if I’m honest, I know the Japan I want exists elsewhere, dispersed in the diaspora: the most interesting Japans have surely grown, ad hoc and impurely, in the likes of São Paulo; of Vancouver; of Mexico City; of Los Angeles, my next “home.”