My other theme is the great metamorphosis of Japan. Japan is changing, as we speak, to such an extraordinary sense, that the Japan that I wrote about is going to be like the Medes and the Persians in another ten years. Enormous changes are afoot. And so the politesse of which I write is pretty much vanished. The other day I did what I thought had been proper—I had to pay somebody some money, so I put it in a piece of paper, which is traditionally done—white paper, and then give them the money. And he laughed. He said, “What are you wasting the paper for?” He got the paper and pulled the money out and put it in his pocket. Ah, gone! There went a whole section of the [culture]. I see a hole, this whole museum disappearing. I thought it would last forever. I subscribed to the theory that the surface may change, but the core holds. Well, the core is not holding.
What does that mean for the world, if Japan changes in the way that you’re talking about?
Oh, we all change. Heraclitus tells us that’s what it’s about. So it happens. But in the case of Japan, it’s very dramatic, because I cannot think of another country which, for well over 150 years, held its former feudal face. That the face is crumbling now is not surprising. It’s surprising it didn’t crumble 100 years ago.
I am going to articulate a point about your work; tell me if I’m right or wrong. I find in your stance toward Japan a Japanese-like quality, which is very much like the way you describe how the Japanese relate to nature and the world, and the reality around it. Is that fair?
I’d be surprised if it weren’t true, but with the question goes an assumption that this is something which is to be learned exclusively from Japan. This is not true. What I find in Japan is exactly the same thing that I find when I looked out of the window in my pensive elegiac days and was able to discover what I had done. This quality, this refraction of reality, is something which would have concerned me no matter where I went. But it has taken the particular form of the country I’m in. If Henry James had gone to Luxembourg instead of England, it would have been a different set of novels, right? In the same way, if I’d gone to someplace else, the same thing would have operated. But the end product would have looked different because it is, after all, Japan that I live in, and Japan that I describe, so it’s not surprising that it’s Japanese.
Donald Richie, again.