The Inland Sea: an elegy to rural Japan

The Inland Sea: an elegy to rural Japan

In 1971, Donald Richie took his readers on a tenderly wistful journey of Japan’s Inland Sea, unfolding before his audience an intricate tapestry of fishing villages, ritual baths, ubiquitous tea, statuesque babies, sagely grannies, virgin boys and magnetic courtesans. That was not the high-tech robotic Japan of ingenious design and legendary workaholics. Richie’s Japan is that last dip of the proverbial fishing-net, right before the tide recedes, forever condemning all that charm and innocence into macabre depths of merciless Progress. In this respect, The Inland Sea has aged well, painting a traditional landscape of shrines, boats, and seawater, before ambitious new bridges drove the fish and the fishermen away.

In many other respects, however, this book religiously follows classical tropes of a travel narrative through Western eyes. There’s that conventional quest for innocence and wisdom preserved by the superior hearts and enviably alabaster brawn of the “noble savage”. There’s that all-too-familiar fetishisation of all things foreign, and, of course, the good old pilgrimage to “find yourself.” And above it all, there’s palpable desire to flee, to escape, to disappear by all means possible from our complicated, industrial, dehumanizing, and artificial century. The author, in a touching display of sincerity, replicates this attempt at an escape not only from the womb of his civilizational home (Ohio, The West, America, whatever) but also in the context of his marriage. We see his wife popping in toward the end of the book, on a detour from an undoubtedly fascinating journey of her own. We see her through his disinterested eyes, her in all her blondness and tallness and impenetrable disappointment, contrasted with younger distractions sampled by her pilgrim-husband in this village and that… Alas, it’s not even framed as a sad moment. Instead, it’s just another wholly self-contained bead on the necklace of life’s myriad moments. This is where Richie goes Japanese, taking a bite off of that transient verisimilitude, so fundamental to that culture’s understanding of life:

“Reality is skin deep because there is only skin. The ostensible is the truth. There is no crack between the mask and the face because the mask is the only face anyone ever has.”

Well, that ought to make things simple, no? No. This is still a pilgrimage, after all. There is still a purpose, the narrative is still linear because our hero is still a Westerner. No amount of sake can reprogram his settings. He journeys from island to island, admires the quiet beauty of landscapes and the charming indifference with which it is regarded by the lucky souls who call it home. He claims to find peace, here or there, yet it’s always tainted with a delicate note of disappointment, translucent like mountain mist. His pilgrimage won’t be a success, for he is a Ulysses of the Inland Sea. This is no Mediterranean. This is a nearly landlocked body of water, an overgrown lake pretending to be a sea. He will bounce from an island to an island, like a billiard ball hitting the edges of a pool table.  His problems won’t go away, and he won’t find that coveted elixir of life’s eternal happiness. Alas, that’s perfectly alright, and our traveller gracefully accepts the scant embraces of detached resignation. Such distinct aesthetic of “sadness-lite” infuses not merely the narrative (or, rather, the emotional stasis) of the book, but also, quite literally, its very pages. In my edition text is printed in two vertical columns for a “Japanese look,” no doubt.

And then there’s Hiroshima…

Richie takes his reader to the place whose name is heavier than all the tears of the world. And yet, in all this history, legacy, and pain comes a thought that’s quite optimistic:

“This is also one of the facts of death – that one forgets it. One may disapprove of oneself for forgetting, may have wanted to keep the fact green, tended like a grave. It is impossible. Life is too strong. Death loses on every occasion except the last.”

It is life’s inherent strength that penetrates island after island on the silver backs of fish and carves itself into the weathered faces of the fishermen, only to return back to them in the calming glow of a full moon. We feel it too, this dignified strength, all throughout and into the final paragraphs, ending in a particularly lovely image of a grandmother and grandson, their finely chiseled shadows vanishing into the sunset.

Richie ends his labour of love saying he doesn’t care if he never goes back (to the States, presumably, not Japan). Many call this book an elegy, even an epitaph to the lost world of rural Japan. I, for one, wonder how many more elegies will pop up within the travel fiction genre as mass tourism and its insufferable practitioners (aka pretty much all of us) pollute the magic of this world’s most beloved treasures with our own ambitious pilgrimages.

Image: a 16th century European map of Japan.

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