The Inland Sea at 50

Patrick Foss, College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, Tokyo Medical and Dental University [About | Email]

Volume 21, Issue 2 (Book review 1 in 2021). First published in ejcjs on 16 August 2021.

Review of Richie, Donald (2015) The Inland Sea, Berkeley: Stone Bridge Press, ISBN 9781611720242, softcover, 320 pages. (Original work published in 1971.)

Keywords: Donald Richie, expatriates, travel writing

The first time you read Donald Richie’s The Inland Sea, it is easy to understand why it became the noted film scholar and writer about Japan’s most celebrated work; it seems like a sublime achievement. First published in 1971, it describes a journey by the Tokyo-based author, mostly by boat, from Kobe to Miyajima (near Hiroshima) through the Seto Inland Sea sometime in the 1960s. As it begins, Richie—American, middle-aged—seems to be at an unhappy point in his life. His marriage, you find out later, is dissolving, and he fears the country he has adopted as his own is changing rapidly for the worse, its past being destroyed in the name of progress. In the face of this ‘growing blight’ (Richie 2015, p.16), he seeks escape to a part of Japan still largely untouched by pollution and bulldozers, a part of Japan where the ‘real Japanese’ may yet still live: the islands of the Inland Sea. However, although he visits many of these islands and meets a number of people during his travels, ‘for the Westerner Japan is a great mirror’ (p. 310); the real subject, you gradually understand, is Richie himself.
It is a compelling story, deftly mixing the observational and the personal. As Richie slowly makes his way from port to port, it is as if he is traveling through history, both Japan’s and his own. At Iejima, his first stop, he encounters one old man for whom utility poles are novel enough to be used to measure distance, another who recounts the famous folktale of Momotaro as if it were a little-known local legend. At Oshima, where Richie ends up by mistake, he finds a colony of lepers, many of them effectively abandoned despite available treatments, cut off from the passage of time. At Ikuchi, he is surprised by a visit from his wife, and as he recalls memories of their life together, what he sees as their shared dismay at the state of their marriage takes on an almost palpable presence.
Throughout, his writing is beautifully evocative. Richie was a magnificent stylist, and The Inland Sea is a showcase for, as Mansfield has put it, ‘the depth and resonance of his prose’ (2016, p. 22). ‘The sea road was still faintly light,’ he notes at Iejima, ‘a ribbon of gray between the black forest and the blacker sea. Then, light against the sea and near, I saw two men, one larger than the other, their clothes white in the dark. They were folding their nets before going home’ (2015, p. 28).  Later, near Mebaru, he describes sailing ‘through fields of oysters and pearls, the sun rising, making the mountains golden, cragged, shadows spread across their face’ (p. 211). Reading Richie is like walking through a gallery of exquisitely chosen paintings, each seeming to flow gracefully into the next. This elegance of presentation makes every descriptive passage lovely, every observation wise—even, at times, seemingly profound. ‘Japanese scenery is like Japanese poetry,’ he opines at one point. ‘Both its beauty and meaning depend upon a context of things perhaps incongruous. One observes a relationship that had always hitherto escaped notice but which, once seen, becomes inevitable’ (p. 44). Yes, you think, that’s it exactly. You are firmly in Richie’s spell from the very beginning of The Inland Sea, and it is easy to wonder, as many have, how it is that a writer of such talent never became a bigger name.
Of course, that he managed to make a name for himself at all was extraordinary. Born in 1924 in Lima, Ohio, his father’s business was in radio parts; his mother was a housewife. After graduating from high school, he hitchhiked away from home and drifted to New Orleans. Soon after he enlisted in the Merchant Marine, where he served for the duration of World War II. The end of the conflict presented him with something of a dilemma. In an interview published in 2006, he stated that ‘after the war, the prospects of going anyplace else were very slight. And I certainly didn't want to go back to Ohio. So I heard that they were recruiting people for the occupied areas, Germany and Japan. I'd been to Europe and I liked it and I wanted to go back. And so I put down Germany. And they, in their wisdom, sent me to Japan.’
What followed was thus entirely unplanned, and yet somehow, after starting out as a typist in Tokyo in January of 1947, Richie quickly moved on to a writing position with the U.S. military newspaper Pacific Stars and Stripes. Within months of his arrival he’d met Kawabata Yasunari, Suzuki Daisetz, Mifune Toshiro and Kurosawa Akira, despite not speaking a word of Japanese [1]. He left Japan in 1949 to get a degree in English literature at Columbia University in New York, but he was back a few short years later, and soon began writing film criticism for The Japan Times. His circle of acquaintances by the end of the 1950s included Mishima Yukio (whom he had shown around New York in 1952 at the request of translator and later publisher Meredith Weatherby), notable expatriate residents like Edward Seidensticker, and famous literary visitors to Japan that decade such as Cecil Beaton, Truman Capote, Angus Wilson, and Somerset Maugham.
He also began writing more of his own—much more. Novels. Short stories. Plays. Screenplays. Poetry. Works of literary and film criticism. Monographs. Travel accounts. Essays. Journals. Books on Japanese culture. Books on Japanese aesthetics. Books on Japanese cities. Books on Japanese daily life. From the 1960s onward, the volume of Richie’s published work on Japan-related topics in particular was staggering. The sheer amount of it conveyed a certain authority; by the turn of the century, Silva (2001a) was brashly referring to him as ‘undoubtedly the expert on Japan’ (p. xi, italics Silva’s). A bold statement, but one with at least a kernel of validity; it is difficult to think of anyone, non-Japanese at least, who has ever shown themselves to be more broadly knowledgeable about the country than Donald Richie. He was never widely recognised or read during his lifetime, a fact bemoaned by Silva (2001a) and dismissed by Parry (2006), but for a boy who grew up in Ohio in the twenties and thirties and was largely self-taught where his areas of interest were concerned, Richie nevertheless reached surprising heights. Few writers have their work described in the New York Times as ‘of a breadth and richness that underscore the inadequacy of categorizing it as a travel book,’ as Canby wrote of The Inland Sea in 1992, and the first time you finish it, you find yourself thinking the same thing, for you know it is that good.
The second time you pick up The Inland Sea, you notice its weaker aspects. For one, behind the elegance of his prose and despite his obvious erudition, Richie sometimes doesn’t make a lot of sense. ‘The Japanese disclaims nothing and, at the same time, really hides little’ (2015, p. 47), you read, and you think to yourself: What? Later: ‘Japan lives intensely in the present. At the same time, and perhaps consequently, it needs a rich varied past, which is itself forever under reconstruction’ (p. 58). This is perplexing in itself, but even more so when, just four pages later, Richie manages both to repeat himself and claim something quite different at the same time: ‘Japan is the most modern of all countries perhaps because, having a full and secure past, it can afford to live in the instantaneous present’ (p. 62). Little mysteries such as these pile up; in the author’s note to the first edition, Richie makes the case for embracing them. ‘One’s thoughts about Japan tend to be contradictory. And this is fitting in a land where mutual contradictions are entertained with no seeming inconvenience’ (p. 310). And then you wonder what that means.
Some of the more puzzling and/or contradictory reflections in The Inland Sea may stem from the fact that, although presented in the text as a single journey, Richie’s trip was (according to the author himself) actually a composite of several elements: an initial tour taken in 1962, during which he claims to have kept a detailed journal that eventually comprised the core of the book; other trips taken later that decade; and even experiences that had actually happened elsewhere (i.e., not in or around the Inland Sea) (2015, p. 309). As a result, he writes of having to choose between thoughts and ideas from various points in time, some of with which he had come to disagree, and yet still somehow remain true to the self that undertook the original journey (p. 310). As Holland and Huggan (2000) have written, travel writing, like autobiography, often ‘seeks to make retrospective sense out of discrete experiences: to convey a mishmash of impressions into a coherent narrative’ (p. 14), but in Richie’s case this process seems to have been taken to an extreme, one under which his narrative—and authorial self—occasionally buckles.
No matter, perhaps—Richie regularly expressed a disdain for consistency—but on any rereading of The Inland Sea, you also come to wish that he had kept some of his thoughts and ideas to himself, consistent or not. Silva, who in the bibliographical notes to The Donald Richie Reader calls The Inland Sea Richie’s ‘masterpiece’ (2001b, p. 227), earlier in the collection praises Richie’s perspective on Japan for ‘getting rid of that “Japan-equals-the-Other” mind-set’ (2001a, p. xii). This is curious, because from the start of The Inland Sea, Richie does precisely the opposite. Occasionally his generalisations can be helpful and even feel true—it doesn’t seem right to go as far as Kang (2016) and call them ‘at best inaccurate’—but there are so many as to be distracting, and the odder ones in particular create a distance between the reader and ‘the Japanese’ that only widens as the book progresses.

[T]he Japanese mind has always reminded me of the Japanese garden, which is a place that nature plainly made, but which man has just as plainly ordered. (Richie 2015, p. 47)
[The Japanese] are literally not conscious of self and they literally have no conscience—Western man’s pride and pain—at all. (p. 49)
The Japanese may occasionally be childlike. He is never childish. (p. 84)

 It is as if Richie is talking about the residents of another planet. In one key passage, he all but admits it:

I live in this country as the water-insect lives in the pond, skating across the surface, not so much unmindful as incapable of seeing the depths. This is because I am not Japanese and can barely imagine what it must be like to be so. I can observe, I can speak the language fairly well and if I cannot read I can at least have things read to me, but Japan is a land that repels empathy. (p. 82)

Repels empathy! That is, to put it mildly, an extraordinary thing to say about a group of fellow human beings, and it lingers in the mind like an unpleasant comment at the dinner table. (It also makes you wonder about Richie’s earlier observation concerning the Japanese hiding very little. How would anyone ‘incapable of seeing the depths’ be able to tell?) Even if all travel writing, as Thompson (2011) has argued, involves a certain degree of ‘othering’ (p. 133), this othering in The Inland Sea can be startling, and it is interesting that from the time of its publication until his death Richie apparently never repudiated any of it [2].
He certainly criticised it in the works of others. In a withering look at the state of the literature on Japan in 1961, ten years before the initial publication of The Inland Sea, he writes: ‘Reading most books on the country one would scarcely imagine that human beings inhabited it’ (p. 4). In a 1984 review of a biography of Pierre Loti, the nineteenth-century French writer of several books on Japan, Richie quotes Loti’s musings on the Japanese ‘soul’ in Madame Chrysantheme somewhat contemptuously: ‘“It is a soul which more than ever appears to me of a different species to my own; I feel my thoughts to be as far removed from theirs as from the flitting conceptions of a bird…” And later (italics his): “…we have absolutely nothing in common with these people.”’ Richie concludes: ‘Given this attitude it is not surprising that Loti understood nothing of the country’ (p. 12).  In an article published in 1995, he complains that too many books about Japan adopt the view of it as ‘a homogenous entity, sharply defined as different, not to be understood. Yet the real Japan is nothing like this. It is a much more diverse place and complex place than this literature describes’ (p. 18). At the turn of the century, he summed up for the Japan Quarterly one of the major problems associated with interpretations of Japan that emphasise how the Japanese are somehow ‘different.’ ‘To define by difference rather than similarity is common to us all,’ he writes. ‘For us to become truly human in our own eyes we must have an alien against whom to measure ourselves’ ([2001] 2011, p.59). The logical endpoint for the Westerner taking this approach, Richie suggests, is to see the Japanese as somehow not human.
And yet Richie himself spent decades defining himself through his differences with ‘the Japanese.’ ‘To me “self” demands definitions every day,’ he stated in an interview toward the end of his life, ‘not only of myself, but I think that I have to define everybody else. I’m wild about definition’ (2012, p. 172). Earlier in the same interview, when asked what he liked best about Japan, Richie replied that Japan ‘is very different from Ohio, where I came from. Difference always teaches me something… I have found out many things in Japan about myself that I would not have found otherwise’ (p. 170). The idea of Japan (all of Asia, really) as a ‘mirror’ for Westerners, borrowed from Mears (1948), is one found in some of Richie’s early published work (e.g., 1961, p. 4); in The Inland Sea (2015, p. 310), as already mentioned; and in writings from the twilight of his career. ‘Certainly it is true that by creating such bipolarities as East/West and them/us, the results include an amount of self-referential imaging,’ he muses in a 2000 article in The Japan Times (p. 15). Later in the same article: ‘Looking deeply into the eyes of the Other is a way to find a reflection of yourself’ (p. 15). Summing up his life’s pursuits in a journal entry from 2004, he writes: ‘What I have done is to describe myself through Japan…. You look into this country and find yourself reflected’ (p. 474-475).
What, then, did Richie see?
The third time you read The Inland Sea, it finally makes you a little queasy. ‘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’ (2015, p.18), Richie writes at the beginning, but you can no longer take this sentence at face value. How do you make friends in a land that ‘repels empathy,’ with people who are so explicitly Other? And so you look more carefully at those Richie meets on his journey, the ones he interacts with on more than a basic level. Near the beginning, a young man of twenty-two, whom Richie invites to his room on Iejima for a beer and who later shows him the island. Next, a schoolgirl, with whom Richie discusses music on a ferry and subsequently has coffee before her guitar lesson. Then Saburo, nineteen, in Takamatsu: Saburo, sexually inexperienced, who asks Richie question after question about female anatomy in a park and eventually spends the night with him. On Naoshima, he meets a girl of fifteen who introduces him to the only inn on the island. When, in the room she has found for him, he makes an advance on her, she finally rebuffs him. ‘I did not, I was happy to observe, feel guilty,’ he writes. ‘My years here have taught me at least this much. But I did feel—Japanese feeling—ashamed, and—universal feeling—put out’ (p. 104). Not long after, on a boat from Shimotsui, he meets a twenty-year-old sailor and fails to seduce him as well. But then in Onomichi, after visiting a strip club, he ends up with a female prostitute in her early twenties, and not too long after that, in Omishima, has some sort of sexual encounter with a twenty-year-old male Shinto acolyte on the grounds of a shrine.
This is not a particularly long book, you note at this point.  Nevertheless, again and again, the fortyish Richie is seeking out the companionship, often sexual, of those half his age or less, in a part of the country he calls ‘backward’ three times in the opening pages (2015, p.12, 17, 18). It makes you wonder about Richie’s stated motives—his desire to escape the rapidly modernising cities, his search for the ‘real Japanese’: ‘the people the Japanese ought to be, the people they once were’ (p.50). In an interview in 1996 quoted by Silva (2001a), Richie discussed arriving in Japan in 1947. ‘I’d never been to a poor country before, and Japan was what we’d now call a Third World country.... [The people] wanted to be approached because everybody needed help. And so I was able to achieve terms of intimacy with people that I had singularly failed to back where I came from’ (p. xxv). It is an explanation open to multiple interpretations, but in his published journals he is more explicit. From 1990: ‘It was the Third World in Japan that so appealed to lubricious me, and now that Japan is more First World than even the U.S.A, the appeal is no longer there’ (Richie 2004, p. 250). He describes a visit to a brothel in Shinjuku leading to naught six years later, for the boys working there ‘did not possess the appearance of innocence and lack of guile that so appeals to me’ (p.363). In 1999, he wondered about his habit to cruise Ueno Park in search of casual sexual companionship [3]. Was it because the poor he found there seemed somehow more ‘real’? He then arrives at another possibility: ‘I prefer the powerless, because I am not intimidated by them’ (p. 437). He hastens to add that ‘[t]here is nothing intentionally sinister in this’ (p. 437), but that he feels compelled to insert this caveat more or less gives the game away.
Perhaps, as Marshall writes, Richie ‘was no mere sex tourist’ (2016), although the use of ‘mere’ here is telling. Perhaps, again as Marshall puts it, Richie’s sexual ‘fumbling’ in The Inland Sea even results from time to time in ‘an astute cultural observation.’ It is still hard to calm that feeling of queasiness; as Kang (2016) puts it, even on the occasions when Richie is critical of his own behaviour, ‘it doesn’t sit very well.’ You find yourself wondering again about Richie’s thoughts on empathy, about Japan as a ‘great mirror’, and about something else he writes near the beginning of his most famous book. ‘I like myself here,’ Richie says when ruminating about what he thinks of Japan (2015, p. 45). Expounding on this point, he adds: ‘It makes very few demands on me—I am considered too much the outsider for that, a distinction I owe to the color of my skin, eyes, and hair—and, consequently, I become free’ (p. 49). It is a theme that Richie returned to over and over. More than forty years later, when asked about the advantages of being a foreigner in Japan, Richie replied in much the same way: ‘Since you don’t belong, since you are a foreign body, you have an incredible amount of freedom. Here… you can enjoy a life which is more or less free from society. They leave us alone, and we are really not held responsible for things’ (2012, p. 173).
And suddenly all you can think about is how convenient such an attitude might have been.
Perhaps you aren’t able to finish The Inland Sea a third time. Perhaps you put it up on your shelf, high up, in a corner where you are unlikely to see it. Or perhaps you manage to immerse yourself in it once again—it is, undeniably, a brilliantly written book. Whatever your inclination, if you do keep reading until the end, Richie’s epiphany, one of them anyway, is likely to strike you differently than it may have before. After an uncomfortable conversation with the manager of a restaurant in Hiroshima, it suddenly occurs to him that his quest to find the ‘real Japanese’ may not actually be his quest at all. ‘Is not what I really want a place where I can find my own individuality?’ he wonders (2015, p. 269). To which he concludes: ‘I am looking for a land where people will accept me; I am not looking, as I had thought, for a land where I could accept them’ (p. 270).


Some elements of this review were presented in different form at the 24th Japan Studies Association Conference (2018).


1. He would eventually learn to speak Japanese but never to read or write it.

2. Quite the contrary. More than twenty years after its initial publication, he was still calling The Inland Sea his favourite (Richie, 2015, p. 311).

3. He euphemistically refers to it as his ‘goût de la boue’, or (as he translates it) his ‘taste for mud’ (Richie, 2004, p. 437).


Canby, V 1992, ‘Searching for Japan, in a sea, in a mind and in metaphor’, The New York Times, 17 June, retrieved from
Holland, R and Huggan, G 2000, Tourists with typewriters: critical reflections on contemporary travel writing, University of Michigan Press, Ann Arbor.
Kang, J 2016, ‘The Inland Sea’, Hong Kong Review of Books, 18 September, retrieved from
Mansfield, S 2016, ‘Donald Richie: an entrenched view’, The Japan Times, 17 April, pp. 22.
Marshall, C 2016, ‘In search of the “real” Japan’, Los Angeles Review of Books, 18 August, retrieved from
Mears, H 1948, Mirror for Americans: Japan, Houghton, Mifflin, New York.
Parry, RL 2006, ‘Smilingly excluded’, London Review of Books, August, retrieved from
Richie, D 1961, ‘The wishful travelers’, The Japan Times, 31 December, pp. 4.
———1984, ‘Pierre Loti in Japan’, The Japan Times, 6 October, pp. 12.
———1995, ‘Exposing the myth of homogenous Japan’, The Japan Times, 14 November, pp. 18.
———2000, ‘From “either/or” to “both/and”’, The Japan Times, 25 January, pp. 15.
——— (2001) 2011, ‘Interpretations of Japan’, Japan Quarterly, reprinted in D Richie, Viewed sideways: writings on culture and style in contemporary Japan, Stone Bridge Press, Berkeley, pp. 55-63.
———2004, Japan Journals: 1947-2004, Stone Bridge Press, Berkeley.
———2006, Interviewed by Livia Bloom for The Museum of the Moving Image, 21 October. Available at
———2012, Interviewed by Adam Komisarof in A Komisarof, At home abroad: the contemporary Western experience in Japan, Reitaku University Press, Kashiwa, pp. 169-182.
———2015, The Inland Sea, Stone Bridge Press, Berkeley, original work published 1971.
Silva, A 2001a, ‘The great mirror: an introduction to Donald Richie’, in D Richie and A Silva, The Donald Richie reader: 50 years of writing on Japan, Stone Bridge Press, Berkeley, pp. ix-xxxviii.
———2001b, ‘Bibliographical note’, in D Richie and A Silva, The Donald Richie reader: 50 years of writing on Japan, Stone Bridge Press, Berkeley, pp. 227-238.
Thompson, C 2011, Travel writing, Routledge, Oxford.

About the Author

Patrick Foss is an associate professor of English in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences at Tokyo Medical and Dental University. He is the author of Across Tokyo.

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