LIMA — Donald Richie’s roots in Lima ran deep.
The Richie family had been involved in Lima’s civic life for several generations as businessmen and lawyers and judges. Donald Richie’s elementary school, Horace Mann, sits on land originally donated by a family member as the site for Lima Business College. Richie Avenue was named in honor of his great-grandfather, Judge John Eaton Richie.
“I wanted to leave,” Richie wrote in “Prose of Departure: A Memoir” in 1994. “Looking past the catalpa tree, over the syringa bush (lilac), beyond the corner where the street ran straight south, past the park and into the future. I wanted to leave behind what I knew. What I wanted was what I didn’t.”
Soon after graduating from Central High School in 1942, Richie did leave it behind, returning only for brief visits often noted in local newspaper stories under headlines beginning “Former Limaite …,” the exact status Richie sought in his youth.
Later in life, he said he wasn’t so much running away as running toward. What he was running toward turned out to be Japan, where he found a home and where, for more than six decades, he provided insight into the country’s people, culture and cinema.
When he died Feb. 19, 2013, the New York Times noted that Richie “wrote prolifically, not just on film and culture in Japan but also on his own travels and experience there. He won recognition for his soul-baring descriptions of a Westerner’s life in an impenetrable but permissive society that held him politely at arm’s length while allowing him to explore it nonetheless, from its’ classical arts to its seedy demimonde (world of prostitution).” The openly bisexual Richie said Japan’s “greater tolerance of homosexuality in the 1940s, relative to that in the United States, was one reason he returned to the country after graduating from Columbia University in 1953,” the Times wrote.
Richie was born April 17, 1924, the son of Kent H. and Ona M. Steiner Richie and spent his youth at 708 N. Jameson Ave. Feeling limited by life in Lima, he found escape in books, movies and occasional trips. At the movies, Richie wrote, “I could look past the people and see the places I wanted to be. Behind Clara was all New York and that thing Dolores del Rio kept getting in the way of was a real volcano. There was the world waiting for me but I had to satisfy myself with my imagination.”
After graduating from Central, Richie hitchhiked to New Orleans, where he spent four months. A brief stint at Antioch College was followed by service on Liberty ships in the Merchant Marine during World War II.
Released from the Merchant Marine in May 1946, Richie soon was on the move again. “A Lima youth who has spent the past three and one-half years seeing the world, is off again, this time headed for the Far East,” The Lima News wrote Nov. 5, 1946. “Donald Richie, 22, son of Mr. and Mrs. Kent Richie, 708 N. Jameson Ave., left New York Sunday on the month-long trip to Tokyo, where he will begin work at a civil service job in the War department.”
During a visit home in June of 1949, Richie told the News that Japan had not been his first choice. “I listed Berlin as first choice … but I’m delighted they sent me to Tokyo, my fourth choice,” Richie said.
Within a year of arriving in Japan, Richie had moved from a job as clerk-typist with the American Occupation Forces to a position as staff writer and film critic with the Army newspaper Pacific Stars and Stripes. “My only qualification was great typing champion of Allen County,” Richie told the New York Times in an Aug. 8, 2001, interview.
In 1948, as the Cold War heated up, Richie’s criticism of the film “The Iron Curtain” briefly landed him in hot water. When Richie panned the film as “an overdone propaganda piece,” the British Army newspaper reported Richie had been called on the carpet for a “loyalty investigation.”
U.S. officials denied the report, although they said Richie would be called in for a discussion of the review. In a letter to his parents, which they shared with The Lima News for an Aug. 24, 1948, story, Richie wrote, “I don’t think anything will come of it. I’ll probably be investigated but they won’t find anything for the simple reason there is nothing to find.” He was right.
“By spring 1949, Richie knew that he had found his home. He had also decided that he needed a ‘proper’ education and so returned to America, with no doubt that he would be returning to Japan,” Arturo Silva wrote in the introduction to “The Donald Richie Reader: 50 Years of Writing on Japan.”
In June 1953, Richie was graduated from Columbia University and soon was back in Japan.
“Former Limaite Donald Richie is listed as the author of an article in the current issue of Theatre Arts magazine,” the News reported Feb. 1, 1954. “Richie, now a member of the editorial staff of the Nippon (Japan) Times, Tokyo newspaper, wrote ‘Where the Silver Screen Has Turned to Gold,’ an outline of current trends in the Japanese motion picture industry.”
On June 5, 1956, the News announced the publication of Richie’s novel “This Scorching Earth” about the occupation of Japan after World War II. “Richie has not written the definitive novel of the American occupation of Japan, but neither has anybody else,” the News opined. “But he his young, he may yet do it.”
Richie returned to the United States in 1960 after, as the News reported May 13, 1960, having been “chosen to write and deliver the program and commentary for an American tour of the Japanese Kabuki in June and July.” Richie eventually asked to be replaced and spent the summer visiting his parents in Lima followed by a tour of Europe, where he was invited to attend the Cannes Film Festival in April 1961.
On Nov. 19, 1961, the News announced that Richie had married Mary Evans, a co-worker at the Japan Times. The marriage did not last. Except for a stint as Curator of Film at the Museum of Modern Art in New York from 1968 to 1973, where he organized a retrospective of Japanese cinema, Richie would live in Japan until his death at 88 in 2013.
“His books — some 40 altogether — were wide-ranging, including historical novels, studies of flower arranging and travelogues, which were widely praised for humanizing a people still remembered in the United States as a wartime foe,” the New York Time wrote in his obituary. “Perhaps his best-known travel memoir, “The Inland Sea” (1971), was the basis of a 1991 documentary film that Mr. Richie wrote and narrated and that, after appearing in theaters, was shown on PBS in 1996.”
Reach Greg Hoersten at TLNinfo@civitasmedia.com.