Donald Richie in Tokyo's entertainment district of Asakusa, 1954. | Donald Richie/Stephen Mansfield.
The 1950s through the 80s saw Japan go from post-war disrepair to world-frightening powerhouse, adapting and even improving all manner of Western inventions from cars and consumer electronics to jeans and rock music. While America and Britain observed these developments from afar, a number of expatriate writers registered more thoughtful assessments of the rapidly changing situation on the ground. These Westerners, many of whom first came to Japan during the Second World War, brought outside perspectives to this endlessly fascinating era of unprecedented—and unsurpassed—Japanese development and engagement with the world.
Richie came to Tokyo in 1947 with the American occupation force and effectively never left. By the mid-1960s, he saw the city he loved falling—or rather, rising—into unrecognizability. Discontent with Japan's rush into the first world, Richie threw himself into domestic travel, documenting the small towns and island outposts he encountered in The Inland Sea. Though I read the book on a trip to Osaka, a center of vulgar commercial energy, The Inland Sea showed me how the Japanese live, or once lived, in humbler places. "I don't care if I never come back," Richie announces not once but twice. This "learned, beautifully paced elegy for one of 'the last places on earth where men rise with the sun and where streets are dark and silent by nine at night'," Richard Lloyd Parry wrote of the book, "is the only full-length work of Richie's that will be remembered a generation from now." But for extra credit, do seek out The Japan Journals, an incomplete but thoroughly entertaining account of Richie's life as a "smilingly excluded" outsider.
After the Second World War brought him to Japan, Keene's mastery of written Japanese allowed him to translate and interpret all kinds of works from all eras of Japanese letters, which is how most readers first encountered his writing. (Others might find their point of entry in his work on Japanese history and theatre.) After oscillating between New York and Tokyo for more than fifty years, in 2012 he finally established sole residency in Japan—a rare move for any foreigner, much less one who was ninety at the time. "'I want to live with these people. I want to die with these people," Keene said to the Financial Times shortly before becoming a Japanese citizen. He was quoting, fittingly, the diaries of the writer Jun Takami. These two memoirs tell the story — which is more or less the same in both books, though Chronicles of My Life comes with delightful comic illustrations — of how Keene arrived at that statement. They recount how a boy molded by the Great Depression gave himself to a deeply foreign culture, befriended its luminaries (both books discuss Keene's famously close friendship with Yukio Mishima), and how he came to illuminate the country's rich literary heritage even to the Japanese themselves.
Nearly a generation younger than Richie or Keene, writer, documentarian, and translator Nathan has alternately enjoyed and endured a far less clear-cut relationship with Japan than his predecessors. Nathan began studying Japanese at Harvard as a way of setting himself apart, and eventually found his way to the center of 1960s literary Japan, where he spent his time talking and drinking into the night with luminaries like Mishima (whose biography he would write), Kenzaburo Oe, and Kobo Abe. Nathan's impulsiveness and his painful self-awareness distinguish Living Carelessly from other Westerner-in-Japan memoirs. "In Japan for the first time in four years," he writes on one return to the country, "I made no attempt to contact any of the people who had been so important to me in the past. I had already let important connections unravel through inattention, and that carelessness has been a bane to me all my life." Over the course of forty years, Nathan bounced from writing to translation to filmmaking to Hollywood screenwriting to a bizarre foray into business instructional video production before returning to writing. Living Carelessly chronicles the thrills of these considerable accomplishments alongside Nathan's regrets over his less admirable behavior.
Iyer traveled to Japan in 1987 at the tail of the boom years to satisfy his lifelong curiosity about Japanese aesthetics and sensibilities. Finding no more gratification in the practice of Zen than he did in the chores at his childhood English boarding school, Iyer turned instead to the artistic community in the cultural capital of Kyoto. There he found his entrée into Japan in Sachiko, a young mother dissatisfied with the lot her homeland had assigned her. "Already, I could tell, she was savouring the poignancy our walks would have in memory, smoothed down and elegized in sepia tints," Iyer writes, "and yet, with half her mind, wondering whether a happy Western ending might not be better than a melancholy Japanese one." Some readers dismiss the book as another story of a Western man romancing an Eastern woman, but Iyer deliberately portrays the outwardly guileless Sachiko as holding all the cards. She picks him up; how and why she does so casts light on what her culture's sharply honed traditions and long-solidified expectations gave her as well as what they took away.
Colin Marshall, host and producer of the podcast Notebook on Cities and Culture, is currently at work on book about Los Angeles, A Los Angeles Primer.