Book review: The Inland Sea

The Inland Sea.The Inland Sea by Donald Richie.
My rating: 2 of 5 stars.

In terms of travel books written about Japan, this is a classic. It’s a pretty simple work: Ohio-born outsider tools around the Seto Inland Sea and, in the manner of a flâneur, offers his take on the place. Pre-gallery Naoshima. Pre-bridge islands. A world of fishing boats and lazy afternoons.

Let’s put it in perspective from the outset: the area that he’s talking about is glorious. It’s hazy and hypnotic, and completely suited to romantic introspection if you’re a traveller who’s impressed by views. I mean:

Right? Right. It’s somewhere I wanted to learn a lot more about.

The problem is that through this book, you learn a lot more about Donald Richie than you do the area. And what you learn, ultimately, is that he’s pretty much a dickhead.

Fair enough, the book is almost fifty years old, so the conservatism displayed in its writing – conservatism echoed in some of the writing of Alex Kerr, who I think perhaps handles the encroachment of the modern far more successfully than Richie – is unsurprising. It’s a pretty Orientalist approach to the people living in the area: they’re abstractions of humans, not actual people. This is understandable, particularly in a nation like Japan where strangers are often presented another version of the self, with the private personal variant kept for friends and family.

To talk to other people, to make pleasant acquaintances and perhaps friends, to learn something of what is now so rapidly vanishing, to become close, if only for a moment, with someone, anyone—this is my quest. I’ll be satisfied with even less. I want to observe what people were like when they had time and space, because this will be one of the final opportunities.

Richie’s at his best when making small observations about the activity of travel itself, and of the inherent sadness of being the outsider. But there’s a feeling that the author has cast himself above the people he’s observing: that there’s some kind of superiority at play. And it reduces some of the more country bumpkin style encounters to a sort of Last Chance To See type trip: gadding about a dying Japan, or at least a populous in transition.

My search is for the real Japanese, the originals. The ur-Nihonjin.

Oh, there’s a lot of information presented here about the actual places visited: Richie duly retells stories that he’s heard second- or third-hand – and we’re presented with a great many names and religious tales. But the more Richie writes, the more he reveals himself to be a wannabe Casanova. He gives a gullible guy a tour of the vulva (Jane Fonda’s, no less) so he’ll better be able to land a shaggable fish another weekend. He eyeballs every girl he sees – invariably deemed sad but beautiful, or in possession of a vegetable intellect and speculates about screwing schoolgirls. Eventually, his dick takes over from the pen, and we hear of his repeated attempts to bed both men and women, despite the displeasure this causes his wife, who literally turns up solely to be pissed at him for this. She’s someone who he later refers to as dead during a conversation because you know, why not? What happens on tour stays on tour – except Richie seems keen to tell everyone about it, to the extent that semen, not the Sea, seems the focus of the book, or at least its key drive.

I get sex opportunism, the desire to partake of the act with abandon. I truly do. But it’s problematic in Richie’s case because – and again this is a function of the text being so dated -there’s such a sense of him taking possession of the partner, willing or not. Sure, he’s paid for some company, but the entitlement with which he takes what he wants is redolent of colonists shagging whoever they want, despite their thoughts on the matter that it’s a hard image to shake. There’s completely a weird air of an explorer forging forward with his phallus that’s pretty distasteful. Sure, there’s some interesting information in here about former pleasure districts, about the machinations of a very different water trade than exists today. But he conveys his own desires in a way that seems both boorish and inept, at once bragging about the sex shows he’s seen, and lamenting his failure to score. The relentless focus on “the small and furry opening that attracts all eyes” is overwhelming.

And then there’s this.

To cup a hand over a breast we would call immature, run a hand along a thigh we would name adolescent—these erase experience and recall innocence. It makes the Japanese seem sometimes childlike. It makes us, once again, for a blessed and horizontal moment, children.

And this:

Certainly a part of my quest is devoted to seducing the natives—a travel adjunct observed by traveling foreigner and traveling native alike. But in the case of fifteen-year-old girls you would be wise not to. If you are like me, you want to seduce rather than corrupt, and you attempt to maintain the fuzzy line separating the two. I want to take without hurting, I tell myself.

*gestures in disbelief*

It’s a struggle, this book. I am glad it ended when it did, because I feel that had it extended much longer I would’ve chucked it across the room. It’s infuriating to find a travel writer who feels their navel is much more exciting than the world they’re passing through, especially if they think the reader’s going to be more than thrilled by the adventures of his dick than of the destination. How this has received such glowing reviews when there’s so much problematic material in it strikes me as a bit odd, but hey, maybe I just figure that a travel book should be more concerned with the locale than with a writer’s attempt to fuck schoolgirls.

(It’s worth mentioning that Yoichi Midorikawa’s photographs throughout are great. They, more than the text, seem to evoke the subtle mystery of the area.)

My Goodreads profile is here.

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