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The Inland Sea

Book Review

The Inland Sea

With 20 full-page photographs by Yoichi Midorikawa

By Donald Richie

In the central region of Japan, the Inland Sea stretches approximately 325 miles from the Kii Channel in the southeast, which opens on to the Pacific Ocean, to the Kammon Straits in the northwest that lead to the Sea of Japan. (See map below.) It flows around the island of Shikoku and past the major cites of Western Japan (Kansai), Ōsaka, Kōbe and Hiroshima and is dotted with hundreds of minor islands, large and small. Although it is a picturesque area, it is not primarily geared toward the tourist trade. Perhaps that is because it is too big and amorphous, and does not lend itself to easy characterization. Regardless of the reason, there have been few books written about the Inland Sea.

Nonetheless, the one that is reviewed here, “The Inland Sea” by Donald Richie, is a masterful treatment of the subject. The author starts out from Kōbe and travels from there to Himeji, but does not begin his journey in earnest until he gets to the port of Shikama, a short bus ride away from there. Over the next few weeks he visits villages and cities, temples and shrines, fishing grounds and sightseeing spots, all the while meeting a wide assortment of the people who live and work there. His plan is to travel to Miyajima in Hiroshima Prefecture, visiting as many interesting places as he can along the way.


During the course of his island-hopping, from Iejima to Shodoshima to Takamatasu on Shikoku which he uses as a base for side trips to Ōshima (relating at the same time that there are 38 islands in the Inland Sea named Ōshima, or Large Island) and Onigashima, then on to Naoshima, Honjima, Samejima and a dozen others, Richie meets with all sorts of sights, sounds, tastes and sensations. He relates all that he sees and hears vividly and memorably.

Most of the time Richie visits fishing villages or shrines, but there are also unusual encounters.

For instance, an old man tells him how he and his friends used to enjoy octopus rides when they were children. They would catch a fairly large octopus and slap it on a kid’s back. The creature would wrap its tentacles around the boy’s chest, then cling there, even after the boy went back into the water. There it would shoot water out behind, propelling the boy through the water.

Or on the tiny island of Ikuchi, Richie found a Buddhist temple that a retired businessman had built to preside over as priest. In addition, feeling that Japanese should be able to visit the treasures of their country conveniently in one place, he erected miniature versions near the temple of the famous pagoda of Nara, Heian Shrine in Kyōto and the great gate of Nikkō. It strikes Richie as a Japanese version of Disneyland: “absurd, beautiful, very Japanese.”

Or on Osakishimojima, “I stepped off the boat and into eighteenth-century Japan.” It is an enchanting place that he never expected to find, since it is not mentioned in any travel books. “The houses look like old Edo, the streets look like Genroku prints. Black-laced white plaster, lozenge patterns, gray-tile roofs cemented with white, windows and doors fronted with tall, narrow, vertical bars. It is like backstage at the Kabuki, like wandering in the world of the woodcut artists.”


But Richie’s primary concern is with the Japanese people:

My search is for the real Japanese, the originals, the ur-Nihonjin. In this I am not put off by doubts, by fears, nor by such reasoned observations as that private remark by one of the most popular of writers on Japan: The soul of the Japanese is like the heart of the onion; you peel off layer after layer, then expectantly, hopefully, you peel more; finally you reach the center, the heart, the core: the onion has none.

If one enjoys people-watching, this book offers the ultimate in this type of experience. At first, Richie’s impression of the people that he meets is that they all exhibit reserve, dignity, friendliness and shyness. He finds that they have an innocence that is rare, and is critical of others’ impressions of that aspect of the Japanese: “Such a feeling was certainly behind General MacArthur’s patronizing and ill-judged remark that the Japanese are a nation of twelve-year-olds. Actually, of course, they are a nation of eighteen-year-olds, that excellent age when innocence and experience are as nicely balanced as they ever will be.”

Richie also praises other qualities of the Japanese, especially their deeply felt appreciation of the environment. “The Japanese are the last people who stand in reverence of the natural world.”

However, he does not view the society uncritically. One of the heartbreaking sections of the book deals with Ōshima National Leprosarium. Isolated lepers received treatment there. Sometimes they were cured. And sometimes, that did not even matter:

The beautiful girl from Kyoto turns and looks at the sea. There is no hope for her either, and she is cured. The doctor told me about her. The last of her lesions, just there, along her side, under the light, freshly starched summer kimono she is wearing, will soon vanish. But she cannot return. Her family has disowned her. She has no place else to go. They did this because disease is a disgrace. If it became known that she was a leper, her sisters could not make proper marriages, her brothers could not find proper employment. Her name has been removed from the family register. To the outside world, it is as though she never was. And the law is strict. If you have no place to go, no one to take you, then, even though you are cured, you cannot leave. So, for the rest of her life, this healthy and beautiful girl will remain on this island, looking, as now, toward the distant land.

Richie relates other matters that exasperate him about Japan, such as trying to find a particular product that he is fond of but that overnight has disappeared because the Japanese marketing plan changed. Book publishing is also rigid, making it hard to reprint books, even though they may be popular. And although there is always a steady supply of traditional Japanese goods, such as geta clogs, kiseru pipes or traditional musical recordings, the modern equivalents are sometimes not to be found. Why? Because they are not Japanese. Unless something originates in Japan, it is often given short shrift in that country.

“The Inland Sea” is based on a trip to the region that Richie took in 1962 and is supplemented by material that he collected after that. The book was published in 1971. Therefore, much of the material in the book is somewhat dated (“only the Japanese eat raw fish”). Many things have changed over the years since then. Perhaps even that story of the beautiful girl from Kyōto actually worked out well, since social values have evolved subsequently.

But regardless of that, “The Inland Sea” is filled with insights about Japan and the Japanese. (One fascinating section reveals that the passage of the Anti-Prostitution Bill in the late 1950s caused prostitutes to pose as geisha. The Geisha Association then made their by-laws stricter, requiring mastery of various traditional skills to qualify as a bona fide geisha. But enterprising prostitutes enthusiastically passed the tests, leading to the idea in the West that all geisha are prostitutes!)

The book is also filled with erudite allusions to art and literature in both the West and Japan. In addition, Richie recounts a number of famous Japanese fairy tales, episodes in Japanese history, reflections on differences in religious sensibilities and philosophical ruminations. It is impossible to cover anything but a superficial smattering of this material in a short review.

However, “The Inland Sea” is enjoyable on so many different levels and is packed with so much information, that it must be given the highest recommendation. It offers much information and many perceptions about Japan that one will find nowhere else.

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