The last thing he said to me, before I closed the door of his smartly decorated loft apartment in Amsterdam, was to stay away from Donald Richie's crowd. This was in the summer of 1975. I can't remember the name of the man who offered this advice, but I have a vague memory of what he looked like: close-cropped grey hair, hawkish nose, an elegant cotton or linen jacket: mid-sixties, I guessed, a designer perhaps, or a retired advertising executive. He had lived in Japan for some years, before retiring in Amsterdam.
Donald Richie introduced Japanese cinema to the West. I knew that much about him. That he was also a novelist, the author of a famous book about traveling around the Japanese Inland Sea, much praised by Christopher Isherwood, and the director of short films that had become classics of the 1960s Japanese avant garde, I didn't know. But I had read two of his books on Japanese movies, and was instantly drawn to the tone of his prose: witty, in a wry, detached way, and polished without being arch or prissy. Reading Richie made me want to meet him, always a perilous step for a fan that can easily end in sharp disillusion. There was not much biographical information on the cover of his books, but his 1971 introduction to Japanese Cinema was written in New York, so I assumed that he was an American.
In any case, I was still in Amsterdam, and Richie was, so far as I knew, in the US, or possibly in Japan, where I was bound in a month or two, for the first time in my life. My Pakistan International Airways ticket had been booked. My place at the film department of Nihon University College of Arts in Tokyo was secure, as was the Japanese government scholarship that would pay for my living expenses. The thought of moving to Tokyo for several years was intensely exciting but alarming too. Would I be isolated and homesick and spend much of my time writing to people six thousand miles away? Would I come back in a few months, humiliated by moral defeat? I had a Japanese girlfriend, named Sumie, who would move to Japan as well, but still.
One of the most appealing features of Richie's books on Japanese cinema was the way he used the movies to describe so much else about Japanese life. You got a vivid idea of what people were like over there, how they behaved in love, or in anger, their bitter-sweet resignation in the face of the unavoidable, their sense of humor, sensitivity to the transience of things, the tension between personal desires and public obligations, and so on.
Richie's fond picture of Japan through its movies was not particularly exotic. But then exoticism had never been Japan's main attraction to me anyway. Nor was I interested in traditional refinements like Zen Buddhism, or tea ceremonies, let alone the rigors of the martial arts. The imaginary characters in the movies described by Richie seemed recognizably human, more human indeed than characters in most American, or even European films I had seen. Or maybe it was the common humanity of figures in an unfamiliar setting that made it seem that way. Perhaps that is what excited me most about Japan, which was still no more than an idea, an image in my mind: the cultural strangeness mixed with that sense of raw humanity that I got from the movies, some of which I had seen in art houses in Amsterdam and London, or at the Paris Cinémathèque, and some of which I had only read about in Donald Richie's books.
I actually stumbled into Japan by accident. Asian culture had played no part in my childhood in Holland, even though The Hague, my hometown, still had a nostalgic whiff of the "Orient", since people returning from the East Indian colonies used to retire there in large 19th century mansions near the sea, complaining of the cold climate, missing the easy life, the clubs, the tropical landscapes, and the servants. I liked Indonesian food, one of the few reminders of the recent colonial past, and the peculiar Indo-Dutch variety of Chinese cuisine: fat oversized spring rolls, thick and oily fried noodles with a fiery Indonesian sambal sauce made of chilies and garlic, the delicacy of the original coarsened by the greed of northern European appetites. My father's elder sister had the misfortune of being sent out to the Dutch East Indies as a nannie just before World War Two, so she ended up spending most of her time in a particularly grim Japanese POW camp. So no nostalgia there.
Asia meant very little to me. But ever since I can remember I dreamed of leaving the safe and slightly dull surroundings of my upper-middle-class childhood, a world of garden sprinklers, club ties, bridge parties, and the sound of tennis balls in summer. As a child, I was fascinated by the story of Aladdin, rubbing his magic lamp. It is possible that the mix of enchanted travels and faraway lands (he lived in an unspecified city in China) left a mark. The Hague was in any case not where I intended to end up.
Perhaps I was prejudiced from an early age against my native country. My mother was British, born in London, the eldest daughter in a highly cultured Anglo-German-Jewish family, which in my provincial eyes seemed immensely sophisticated. My uncle, John Schlesinger, whom I adored, was a well-known film director. He was also openly gay, and his milieu of actors, artists, and musicians added further spice to the air of refinement I soaked up vicariously. Like many artists, John was both self-absorbed and open to new sensations, anything that stirred his imagination. He wanted to be amused, surprised, stimulated. And so I was always eager to impress, giving a performance of one kind or another, mimicking mannerisms, styles of dress, or opinions that I thought might spark his interest. Of course, despite the posturing, I never felt I was being interesting enough. And recalling my efforts in retrospect is a little embarrassing.
But in fact performance came naturally to me. I grew up with two cultures: lapsed Dutch Protestant on my father's side, assimilated Anglo-Jewish on my mother's. I could "pass" in both, but never felt naturally at ease in either. My destiny was to be half in, half out—of almost anything. Passing was my default state. In the meantime, there was never any doubt in my mind that glamor was always somewhere else, in London, especially in my uncle's house, when I was still living in Holland, but preferably somewhere farther afield, where I didn't have to choose.
By the time I was finally liberated from school and set out to live for a year in London, being "into Asia" had become a fashionable attitude: hippie trips to India in a Volkswagen bus, a superficial acquaintance with Ravi Shankar's sitar music, the cloying smell of joss sticks in tea shops selling hash paraphernalia and Tibetan trinkets. I got to know some Indian hippies in England, who made the most of their mysterious eastern provenance and were far more successful with impressionable European women than I could ever have hoped to be. One of them, an Assamese Christian from Bangalore, named Michael, was as much of a performer as myself, and he used his exotic allure to the fullest advantage.
The first Japanese I ever met weren't even really Japanese. In 1971, instead of heading east in a Volkswagen bus, before settling down to study at university, I travelled west, to California. I was nineteen. I stayed at the house of a friend of my uncle's in Los Angeles, an alcoholic brain surgeon (his hands were steady during operations, I was told). He introduced me to an intense young man named Norman Yonemoto. Slim, tall, with large myopic eyes, which bulged alarmingly when he got excited, Norman bore some resemblance to Peter Lorre, the German actor, in his role as Mr. Moto, the Japanese detective. Like so many young men who drifted to LA, Norman had movie ambitions. For the time being he was making gay porno films. The money was OK. But Norman took gay porno seriously. He was an artist.
Norman was a third generation Japanese-American, raised in what is now Silicon Valley, where his parents cultivated flowers. There was no talk about Japan, however, when Norman acted as my guide in Los Angeles, zooming around the freeways in his Volkswagen, usually in the company of Nick, his Nordic-looking boyfriend. We cruised along Santa Monica Blvd., where handsome young hustlers who hadn't made it into the movies hung back casually against parked cars scanning the road for a pickup. We went downtown at night, where Mexican girls were paid by the dance in dark halls with broken neon lights. Transvestites trawled for drunken truck drivers in menacing little bars stuck behind the once glamorous art deco movie houses. The alcoholic brain surgeon took us to a miniature Western town, a kind of erotic theme park, named Dude City, with saloons entered through swinging doors, where naked boys in cowboy boots danced on the bar tops. An olive-skinned young man in a white T-shirt kissed me on the lips. The surgeon chuckled and whispered that he was Taiwanese.
This was Norman's world, and it seemed a very long way from Japan. I was in a state of fascinated culture shock: Southern California was more exotic to me than any place I had ever seen, or would yet see in later years, stranger in its way than Calcutta, Shanghai or Tokyo. Whatever vestiges of a disjointed Japanese upbringing Norman might still have had up in the flower gardens of Santa Clara County, they had long been shed in favor of his California dream of rough sex and making movies. He embraced LA in all its tawdry glamor.
Rough sex was not for me. The kiss from the Taiwanese was as far as it went at Dude City. My sexual life at that stage had consisted of some fumbling affairs with a number of girls, and a few boys. Most of what I knew I had learned from a more experienced girl from Stuttgart with long blond hair and a Walküre figure who had taken me in hand in London with immense tact and tenderness. But what I lacked in real experience, I made up for in knowingness. Hanging out in gay bars, cruising downtown LA, seeing things I had never seen before, brought me a little closer, I thought, to the sophistication that I associated with my uncle and his friends. It was also very far away from the garden sprinklers of The Hague, which was perhaps the main point.
Norman's younger brother Bruce, who joined us one day from Berkeley, where he was studying art, was rather different. Like me, still searching for his sexual orientation, Bruce was more political than his brother, quicker to pick an argument; he was "into" French theorists. Paris, albeit just in the mind, was his intellectual center, more than LA. Unlike Norman, Bruce was also interested in Japan. This emerged one night when the three of us did a rather conventional thing for the time: we went to Disneyland, in the heart of Orange County, after sharing a tab of LSD.
My memories of that night are still vivid, even though jumbled up in a bit of a blur: The Supremes performed on a gilded stage, changing glittering costumes after every song—that, at any rate, is how I remember it. Norman's eyes shone as he discoursed on the Southern Californian scene while pointing at the childlike caricatures of other cultures displayed in a ride named "It's a Small World". In my jacked-up mental state I kept wondering what it all meant, leading to feverish discussions about the meaning of "it", and so on.
Compared to Norman's wide-eyed animation, Bruce's soft round face, a little like a painting of a Japanese Buddha, betrayed little. But something in our acid-fuelled experience of this Californian fantasy world sparked an argument about identity, less about the meaning of "it", than about who we were, and where we came from. "We are Americans," cried Norman in a state of great agitation. "We get to make ourselves over. We can be whatever we want." Whereupon Bruce said: "What about thousands of years of Japanese culture? All that can't just disappear. Anyway, when whites look at us, they don't see Americans, they see Asians. We're Asians, whether we like it or not."
There was nothing much I could contribute to this discussion. And perhaps not too much should be made of these earnest attempts at self-definition. But I like to think that on that night, somewhere between The Pirates of the Caribbean and the Jungle Cruise, a seed of my future orientation towards Japan was planted. For it was not long after that, back in Holland, that I had to make up my mind what to study at university. I tried the law for a month or two before deciding it was not for me. I had already dabbled in art history, at the Courtauld Institute in London, where I worked in the picture library and attended lectures on Picasso by the art historian and former Soviet spy Anthony Blunt. One day, while I was working on a picture of a Joan Miró painting, I felt the stale breath of a man leaning over my shoulder, who exclaimed: "Is that art?" A burly figure in a tweed jacket, he was an expert in medieval English church foundations. I concluded that art history wasn't really for me either.
And so I plumped for Chinese. It was different, it sounded glamorous, it might be useful one day, I liked Chinese food, and possibly lodged somewhere in the back of my mind were memories of Aladdin, Disneyland, or that Taiwanese boy in Dude City.
This was in 1971. China was still in the last throes of the Cultural Revolution. Few people bothered to learn Chinese at Leyden University then. Fewer still could have any hope of ever visiting China, which was only accessible to group tours organized by "Friends of the Chinese People." These were not my friends. The department of Sinology, housed in a former lunatic asylum, was tiny. My fellow students could be neatly divided in two groups: dreamers enamored by the distant romance of Maoism, and scholars who wanted to spend the rest of their lives grazing such academic fields as Tang poetry or Han Dynasty law. I did not fit into either category, and was never a happy Sinologist. I spent more time in that first year dancing with Chinese boys at the DOK disco club in Amsterdam than I did on classical Chinese. The sensual allure of "the East", first glimpsed in those Indian friends in London, was more evident on the DOK dance floor than in the Analects of Confucius.
China seemed impossibly remote, an abstraction really, like a distant planet. And the modern texts we had to read, culled from Communist Party publications like Red Flag, or the People's Daily, were so deadened by the wooden jargon of official rhetoric, such a sad degradation of the concise beauty of classical Chinese, that my interest in contemporary China soon ran dry. One of the worst insults to the traditional economy of the written Chinese language was the way sentences would run on and on, as though they were literal translations from Karl Marx's German. And the heavy-handed sarcasm owed more to the official Soviet style than to anything in the Chinese rhetorical tradition.
Then two things happened to steer me in a different direction. I saw a movie by Francois Truffaut, entitled "Bed and Board" (Domicile Conjugal). The story was relatively simple. A nice young man in Paris, named Antoine, played by Truffaut's favorite actor and alter ego Jean-Pierre Léaud, has just got married to Christine, a nice French girl (Claude Jade). She is already pregnant with their first child. One day, on a job for an American firm, Antoine meets Kyoko, the daughter of a Japanese business client: Willowy, with long shiny black hair, dark eyes set in a pale moon face, dressed in an exquisite kimono, Kyoko, acted by the famous Pierre Cardin model Hiroko, shimmers on the screen like a mysterious Oriental fantasy.
And that is exactly what she turns out to be: a mirage. Antoine is hopelessly smitten by her silky beauty and her strange and graceful manners: little paper flowers that open in glasses of water to reveal her amorous sentiments for Antoine, and similarly exotic refinements. Christine, who has had her baby by now, realizes that Antoine is cheating on her. For a while Antoine can't help himself, but in the end the dream begins to pall. He and Kyoko have nothing to say to one another. Paper flowers and sweet accented nothings are no longer enough. He longs for the familiar bourgeois certainties of Christine. The Oriental hallucination fades. Antoine comes down to earth. Husband, wife and baby son get back together again on solid French terrain.
It is a charming film, not Truffaut's very best perhaps, but wise and funny. I suppose the idea was to warn the viewer not to be taken in by exotic fantasies; true depth of feeling can only be found with people who have a culture in common. Transcending the borders of language and shared assumptions will result in disillusion.
I'm afraid that I refused to get the message. I fell in love with Kyoko. I wanted a Kyoko in my life, perhaps even more than one. How happy I would be in the land of Kyokos.
More than twenty years later, when I was living in London, I received an invitation to be part of a jury at a modest film festival in France. And there, among my fellow jury members, was a stylish middle-aged Japanese lady dressed in a kimono with a discreet pattern of pink cherry blossoms on a pale blue background. Hiroko, the former Pierre Cardin model and star in Truffaut's film, was now the wife of a grand French fashion executive. I told her how I had once fallen in love with her. She replied in her soft tinkling voice: "Ca m'arrive souvent", you're not the first one to say that.
It must have been around the time I first set eyes on Kyoko, in 1972 or 3, that I first saw a performance of Terayama Shuji's theater group Tenjo Sajiki at the Mickery Theater in Amsterdam. Mickery, located in a former cinema, whose art deco fixtures were left intact, was for some years a Mecca of avant garde theater from all over the world. The young Willem Defoe performed there with Theater X, and later the Wooster Group. There were groups from Poland, Nigeria, as well as most of the artistic capitals of the West. One of the more memorable visits was by a drama workshop formed by convicts at St. Quentin prison in California (young women queued up around the block to meet the ex-cons). I used to go to Mickery regularly, hanging out, as was customary at the time, with the actors in the café after their performances.
Tenjo Sajiki, meaning the cheapest seats in the theater, or "the Gods" in English, was from Tokyo. The founder and director, Terayama Shuji, an aloof but charismatic figure dressed in dark suits and blue high-heeled denim shoes, was a poet, playwright, essayist, novelist, photographer and filmmaker, who functioned as a kind of Pied Piper in Tokyo, gathering around him a shifting retinue of runaways, misfits, and eccentrics, who acted as living props in his surreal theatrical fantasies. Terayama's plays and movies owed something to various Western influences—a bit of Fellini here, Robert Wilson there—but far more to Japanese fairground entertainments, carnival freaks, striptease shows, and other forms of theatrical lowlife.
Seeing the Tenjo Sajiki for the first time was like squinting through the keyhole of a grotesque peep show full of extraordinary goings on. I had never seen anything remotely like it. It brought back old memories of magic boxes, lit from the inside, full of strange objects I had concocted with a child's morbid imagination.
The first play I witnessed at the Mickery in 1972 was entitled Ahen Senso, or Opium War. Less a coherent story than a series of tableaux, Opium War was staged outside the theater, as well as inside, where the public was led by a succession of guides into different rooms, decorated with old Japanese movie posters, blown up details of erotic woodblock prints, lurid comic books, and props that seemed to have been lifted from a 1920s whorehouse. Naked girls were displayed in a variety of peculiar poses, and ventriloquists in chalky kabuki make-up spoke through dolls dressed like Toulouse Lautrec while being whipped by a female dominatrix in a black SS cap reciting a Japanese poem. Kimonoed ogres from ancient Japanese ghost stories mingled with men in women's make-up wearing World War Two uniforms. One naked man had Chinese characters tattooed all over his body. A beautiful young girl in a purple Chinese dress cut the head off a live chicken. The air of violence and the fact that at certain times we were boxed into metal cages caused an older man in the audience to panic; it reminded him of his incarceration in a Japanese POW camp as a child. During a performance in Germany, members of the audience had accidentally been set on fire. There were rumors of fistfights between actors and public, which fitted Terayama's vision of theater as a kind of criminal enterprise. All this was accompanied by music, sometimes soft and seductive, sometimes deafening and faintly sinister, a mixture of Pink Floyd-like psychedelic riffs, prewar Japanese popular tunes, and Buddhist chanting, composed and performed by a longhaired man in a top hat named J.A. Caesar. It was deeply weird, over-the-top, largely unintelligible, perversely erotic, rather frightening, and totally unforgettable.
After the performance the petite young actors gathered in the café. But since only a few of them spoke broken English, the barrier between performers and public was barely breached. They were dressed like hip young Westerners—jeans, leather jackets, boots, velvet pants. But some also wore wooden Japanese geta and padded Japanese kimono jackets. The Tenjo Sajiki seemed to be from a world that was at once familiar, or at least recognizable, and utterly strange. I knew that I had witnessed a theatrical fantasy, but I still thought that if Tokyo was anything like this, I needed to join the circus and get out of town. Going back to the leaden prose of Red Flag or the Confucian classics was a letdown after Terayama Shuji and his troupe. To Tokyo, I thought. As soon as possible.
I can't remember what other advice I was given by the man in Amsterdam, apart from staying away from Donald Richie's crowd. Nor did he divulge why Richie's company was so reprehensible. Despite my air of knowingness, I was still a callow youth ("You don't know much about people, do you?" said a Franco-Vietnamese fashion designer, after he picked me up at the DOK disco, where he had bragged about an affair with Alain Delon). But I knew enough to suspect some homosexual rivalry, some fit of social pique. I didn't care: to Tokyo!
What astonished me about Tokyo on first sight in the Fall of 1975 was how much it resembled a Tenjo Sajiki theater set. I assumed that Terayama's spectacles were madly exaggerated, surreal fantasies in a poet's feverish mind. To be sure, I did not come across ventriloquists in 19th century French clothes being whipped by leather-clad dominatrices. But there was something theatrical, even hallucinatory, about the cityscape itself, where nothing was understated; representations of products, places, entertainment, restaurants, fashion, and so on, were everywhere screaming for attention.
Chinese characters, which I had studied so painstakingly at Leyden University, loomed high in plastic or neon over freeways or outside the main railway stations, on banners hanging down from tall office buildings, on painted signs outside movie theaters, or nightclubs known as "cabarets", promising all manner of diversions that would have been hidden from sight in most Western cities. In Tokyo, it seemed, very little was out of sight.
Donald Richie, I later learned, did not read Chinese or Japanese script, luckily for him, as his friend, the eminent scholar of Japanese literature Edward Seidensticker once remarked, a little tartly: the gracefully painted, or luridly neon-lit characters, many of them of very ancient origin, looked beautifully exotic, as long as you didn't know what they signified: commercials for soft drinks, say, or clinics specializing in the treatment of piles (surprisingly common in Japan).
The visual density of Tokyo was overwhelming. In the first few weeks I just walked around in a daze, a lone foreigner bobbing along in crowds of neatly dressed dark-haired people, taking everything in with my eyes, before I learned how to speak properly or read. I just walked and walked, often losing my way in the maze of streets in Shinjuku or Shibuya. Much of the advertising was in the same intense hues as the azure skies of early Autumn. I realized now that the colors in old Japanese woodcuts were not stylized at all, but an accurate depiction of Japanese light. Plastic chrysanthemums in burnt orange and gold were strung along the narrow shopping streets to mark the season. The visual barrage of neon lights, crimson lanterns, and movie posters, was matched by the cacophony of mechanical noise: from Japanese pop tunes, advertising jingles, record stores, cabarets, theaters, and PA systems in train stations, and blaring forth from TV sets left on all day and night in coffee shops, bars, and restaurants. it made J.A. Caesar's background music to the Tenjo Sajiki plays seem almost hushed.
I did not delve into the thick of Japanese life immediately. For several weeks, before looking for an apartment with my girlfriend Sumie, I stayed in a kind of buffer zone, a cultural halfway house. A British relative, named Ashley Raeburn, was the representative of Shell in Japan. He lived with his wife, Nest, in a huge mansion in Aobadai, a plush hilly district high above the tumult of the main commercial hubs of the city. Behind the house was a wide sloping lawn, kept green in all seasons, where we played croquet on Sundays. The sound of sprinklers reminded me of my childhood in The Hague. Ashley was driven to his work in a Rolls Royce. Food was served at the long chestnut table, polished to a high sheen, by one of the uniformed staff, summoned after each course with a bell. The contrast with the city I took in with my eyes and ears during the day could not have been greater. As long as I stayed with Ashley and Nest, Tokyo was still a spectacle, a kind of theater, from which I could retreat every evening into the quasi-colonial opulence of Aobadai.
The only glimpses I got of a strictly Japanese world in Ashley's mansion were entirely "below stairs", as they used to call it in grand English country houses. Sitting by the fire with Ashley and Nest, cradling an after dinner whisky, while discussing Japan and the Japanese, was comfortable enough. But I preferred having endless cups of green tea in the kitchen, trying hard to straighten out my broken Japanese with the chauffeur, a jokey ex-policeman, or the cook, and the ladies who served us at dinner. Being given rides in the Shell Rolls Royce made me feel conspicuous and was a slight embarrassment. But my preference for below stairs was less a matter of reverse snobbery, than a desire to penetrate the mysteries of Japan. If I was to fit in, I had better learn fast. It was in the kitchen that I received my first lessons in linguistic etiquette, how to use different forms depending on who I was talking to. The chauffeur and the cook could address me in familiar language, since I was much younger than they were. But I had to address them in more deferential terms. Not just idioms, but personal pronouns, and even verb endings change according to age, gender and social status. This essential part of the Japanese language is not only hard to master at first, but becomes increasingly important as one's skill improves. One difficulty I faced was that I spoke feminine Japanese by mimicking my girlfriend, which made me sound a bit like a simpering drag queen. And I would soon learn that the more fluent one became in Japanese, the more jarring slips in etiquette would sound to the native ear. Since my Japanese was still quite basic, my infelicities at Aobadai were forgiven.
Roaming around Tokyo by day, I thought of my culture shock when I first saw Los Angeles, that sense of being on a huge movie set, quickly built and quick to come down, with its architectural fantasies of Tudor, Mexican Moorish, Scottish Baronial and French beaux arts. It was a shock because I had never seen such a city before. Accustomed to the solidity of historic cities in Europe, I was both fascinated by LA and a trifle smug, as though growing up in a more antique environment conveyed some kind of moral superiority. Tokyo, like many postwar Asian cities, with their ubiquitous billboards and strip malls, owed a lot to the Southern Californian model, but Tokyo's density—the crowds, the noise, the visual excess—made LA seem staid in comparison.
One particular coffee shop sticks in my mind as a typical example of the city I first saw in the mid-1970s. It was called Versailles, located underground, near the east exit of Shinjuku station, one of the largest transportation hubs in Tokyo. To get there you had to go down some steep concrete steps, with the noise of advertising jingles from a famous camera store still ringing in your head. All of a sudden, there you were, in the drawing room of an 18th century French chateau, with candelabras, marble walls, gilded Louis XIVish furniture and the sound of baroque music. Naturally, everything was made of plastic and plywood. People spent hours in this ersatz splendor, smoking, and reading comic books, while listening to Richard Clayderman tinkling Eine kleine Nachtmusik. Versailles was demolished a long time ago, as were most coffee shops of that time. There might be a Starbucks there now, or a restaurant offering a fusion of Japanese and northern Italian cuisine.
Much of what I first observed in 1975 had been built in the 1960s, when the economic boom was gathering speed. Nothing much older was to be seen, apart from some temples and shrines, and a few early 20th century brick buildings that survived firestorms and bombs. Tokyo had been modernized along Western lines in the late 19th century, half destroyed by an earthquake in 1923, and reduced to miles of rubble by American bombs in 1945. The sixties was a great period for cheap fantasy architecture. After years of austerity following the ruinous war, there was a hunger for real, but mostly still imaginary luxury. Few Japanese in those days had the means to travel abroad, and so a make-believe abroad was built in Japan to cater to people's fantasies, hence the Louis XIV cafés, or the German beer halls, or a well-known short-time hotel, named the Queen Elizabeth 2, built in the concrete shape of an ocean liner, complete with recorded fog horns.
The first Disneyland to be built outside the US was in Japan, in 1983, not far from Narita International Airport. Donald Richie once wrote that there was no need for one, for the Japanese already had a Disneyland called Tokyo. The non-residential areas of the city certainly had the ephemeral air of a theme park. Richie's admirer, Christopher Isherwood, the British novelist who had made Los Angeles his home after living in Berlin before the war, wrote the following words about his adopted city: "What was there, on this shore, a hundred years ago? And which, of all these flimsy structures, will be standing a hundred years from now? Probably not a single one. Well, I like that thought. It is bracingly realistic. In such surroundings, it is easier to remember and accept the fact that you won't be here, either."
There is something very Japanese in this sentiment, the quiet acceptance of evanescence. I quoted Isherwood's words at the memorial for Norman Yonemoto, who died in Los Angeles in 2014.
I think Isherwood would have liked Tokyo in the 1970s. The wartime gloom had made way for frenetic hedonism. But above all, the sense of illusion would have appealed to his penchant for Oriental mysticism, the idea of constant evanescence. There is nevertheless an important difference between Tokyo and LA. History does not run deep in LA, whereas Tokyo, or Edo as it used to be called, was already a small castle town in the 12th century. In the 18th century, Edo was the second largest city in the world, after Beijing. So the plastic-fantastic Tokyo I encountered in 1975, with its motley collection of pastiche buildings, owing something to many parts of the world, albeit in a much altered form, was built on deep layers of history.
The palimpsest that is modern Tokyo still shows traces of its past, in the layout of the streets, for example. But history mostly lives on in historical memory expressed in popular culture, as myth. Even the very recent past was steeped in legend in Tokyo. Just a few years into the new decade, the sixties were already remembered in a haze of nostalgia for youthful rebellion and experiment. "You should have been here then", the old hands would say. Ah, the student demos in 1968, the underground theater performances at Hanazono Shrine, the "happenings" near Shinjuku station, where the local hippies known as futenzoku ("crazy tribe") hung out, the early movies of Oshima Nagisa, the posters by Yokoo Tadanori, Shinoyama Kishin's photography, the foundation of Butoh dance by Hijikata Tatsumi.
By the time I arrived, the futenzoku had moved on. You were more likely to encounter the last mutilated World War Two veterans in white kimonos and wooden limbs playing sad wartime ballads on accordions at Shinjuku station than hippies strumming guitars. Some would say that the party came to a neatly timed end in 1970 with the suicide of Mishima Yukio, the flamboyant novelist who staged his violent samurai death by slitting his stomach surrounded by his uniformed band of handsome young militiamen after a failed coup d'état at a military base in the middle of Tokyo. In fact, cultures don't end so much as mutate. By 1975, the rebels of the previous decades, including Terayama Shuji, had become respected figures, were given prestigious prizes, and invited to international festivals.
Perhaps it is the speed of destruction and construction in Tokyo that evokes nostalgia. There was always a "then" that was sorely missed. Not so very long ago the entire city was made up of canals and wooden houses, which regularly went up in flames in firestorms called the "Flowers of Edo." Very few buildings were meant to last forever: no great stone cathedrals. The monumental is not part of the Japanese style. History in Tokyo is only visible in fragments: a ruined nobleman's garden here, a rebuilt Shinto shrine there, or a tiny bar, now sadly forsaken, where Mishima once held court.
Donald Richie was a young reporter for the Stars and Stripes army newspaper when he wandered around the streets of Asakusa in 1947, just two years after they had been flattened in American bombing raids. Flanking the Sumida River in the plebeian east end of Tokyo, Asakusa had been the liveliest popular entertainment district in the city for about a hundred years, filled with movie houses, burlesque theaters, cafés and bars, brothels and dance halls, street markets and temple fairs. Asakusa was the setting of Kawabata Yasunari's earliest stories about gangsters and showgirls in the Roaring Twenties. This was the widely lamented period of "Ero, Guro, Nansensu" —erotic, grotesque, absurd.
Richie climbed the old Subway Tower building in Asakusa together with Kawabata, who was dressed in a simple winter kimono. Neither could speak a word of the other's language. All they could do was point at the shabby knocked together landscape of early postwar Tokyo. Richie would mention the name of a character in one of Kawabata's early stories and the writer would smile wanly and point to a place where he imagined them to have lived. The destruction of his city did not seem to have fazed Kawabata; it lived on in his imagination.
In the 1960s, one of Terayama Shuji's favorite experiments was to perform his theatrical spectacles in the streets. Throw Away Your Books, Come Out in the Streets was the title of one of his most famous plays. He wanted to break down the barriers between artistic performance and the performance of daily life. His actors, kitted out in costumes from different periods—1920s vamps, 19th century dandies, 1960s futenzoku—mingled with the crowds, shocking people out of their normal routines. The Tenjo Sajiki was not the only theater troupe in those days to try and infuse real life with fantasy. The difference with similar experiments in Paris, or New York, or Amsterdam, was that in Tokyo there was less of a barrier between fantasy and reality to break down.
There was nothing exotic about Nihon University College of Arts, or Nichidai for short, where I was supposed to be studying cinema. The buildings, probably erected in the late 1950s or early 1960s, were so nondescript that I cannot remember what they looked like. Ekoda, where the campus was located, was a sprawling suburb of wood and stucco houses, with a narrow shopping street festooned with plastic flowers winding its way to the station on the Seibu Ikebukuro line.
In fact, I never studied cinema at Nichidai very seriously. The professors were mostly cordial men who had never made a film in their lives, but had stayed on to teach after they graduated from the school themselves. The dean was a fussy bureaucrat who spoke and dressed like the branch manager of a middling bank. His connection to the movies, if any, was tenuous.
But one professor did leave a lasting impression. His name was Ushihara Kiyohiko, a tiny gentleman with a wet toothy grin who must have been in his early eighties. He spoke a great deal about Charlie Chaplin, his idol, whom he had assisted in Hollywood for a time in the 1920s. He called him "Chapurin-sensei". More than once the old man acted out the Tramp in front of the class taking mincing little steps and twirling an imaginary cane, while explaining camera angles. After he returned to Japan from Hollywood in 1927, Ushihara went on to specialize in tear-jerkers (known in Japan as "three-handkerchief films"), soaked in nostalgia for bygone eras when life was more traditional, simpler, warmer. Love of Life was one of his successes, which earned him the nickname "Sentimental Ushihara". He later made a few films in another genre called "supotsu mono", or "sports films", about baseball heroes and the like——Japanese movie genres used to be like Tokyo coffee shops, catering to jazz lovers, classical music buffs, or rock fans, carefully categorized in terms of taste.
Most of my knowledge of Sentimental Ushihara comes from Donald Richie's books. His movies are hard to track down. I did manage to see a fascinating early work heavily influenced by French impressionism, which he had not actually directed, but written the script for, called Souls on the Road (1921). This silent movie about a failed violinist, inspired by Gorky's The Lower Depths, was remarkable for being the first Japanese film to use female actors instead of men impersonating women in the Kabuki style.
I failed to get the full benefit of Ushihara's classes, alas. Even the Chaplin anecdotes, told and retold with unflagging enthusiasm, were only partly intelligible to me, not just because he slushed his words with a great deal of froth, but because my Japanese was not yet good enough to understand what the old man was saying.
The student films I saw were equally hard to follow, but mostly because of the use of slang. One of the stars on campus, whose name I can't recall, was often seen slouching about, always with an entourage of young men, all dressed in black leather jackets and sunglasses, worn day and night. Most of his short films revolved around slouching young men in black leather jackets and sunglasses, who died in scenes of spectacular violence. Women in these student films spent most of the time being abused in one way or another. This invariably involved taking their clothes off. Intrigued, I asked fellow students about these amateur actresses. They assured me that Japanese girls would do this at the drop of a hat for me, because they were like putty in the hands of a foreigner, or gaijin. This was an entrenched and pretty much universal belief in Japan in those days, perhaps going back to the time when Japan was occupied by American troops.
But it is true that the gaijin status had its perks. One reminder of the turbulent 1960s on the Ekoda campus was the library of English-language books, which, curiously for an educational institution, was off limits to the students. The reason, I was told, was that students had occupied the library during one of the big protest demonstrations in 1968, or perhaps 1970. Japanese students were fiercely opposed to the Vietnam War and their own government's complicity in it. Since then, only foreign students were allowed to go into the stacks. As there were only, so far as I could tell, two other foreign students at the art school, the library was effectively vacant.
A large gangly administrator unlocked the library door for me. He had just returned from a vacation in America, and was dressed in full Western gear: boots, a garishly checked Western shirt with silver buttons, and a bolo tie. The library had the musty smell of a place that needed a proper airing. There was one other person there, picking up various books from the shelves. He was clearly one of the two other foreign students. I had met one already, an American named Rich, who insisted on addressing me in Japanese, even when I answered him pointedly in English. I tended to dodge him on campus. The one perusing the stacks, wearing a blue cotton Japanese kimono jacket, was still a stranger to me. His name was Graham, an Englishman. Graham was studying the Noh theater——when he wasn't staging "performances" in Harajuku, dancing along the main thoroughfare in a long white dress with a poet called Shiraishi Kazuko who enjoyed a scandalous reputation (she was rumored to have slept with Muhammad Ali). She, too, had made her reputation in the 1960s.
It soon became evident that almost every book in the English-language section of the library had been the property of one man. His name was scribbled on the title pages of most of the books: Cecil Postlethwaite (or something like that). Next to his name was the date and place of residence: Berlin, 1929, Berlin 1930, all the way to Berlin, 1936, when perhaps things were becoming a little too hot even for Postlethwaite, and the dateline changed to Tokyo, 1937, Tokyo 1938, and so on. I don't know what happened to him during the war. Presumably he was interned as an enemy alien. Or he might have died before Pearl Harbor.
Postlethwaite's literary taste was as specialized in its way as Ushihara's tearjerkers. Several rare first editions of Oscar Wilde's plays, as well as signed memoirs by long forgotten society ladies who had known the great playwright. The complete works of Ronald Firbank. Art books on Greek sculpture. A slim volume, published in Dresden, about nudist culture in Germany, richly illustrated with photographs of athletic young men bathing.
Quite how this collection ended up at the Nichidai library in Ekoda is a mystery. I cannot imagine there would have been much call for these books, even if students had been allowed in. But the slightly stale whiff of prewar pederasty lingering in this dreary suburb of Tokyo appealed to the imagination of Graham and myself. We later rather regretted that we had not pocketed some of the rarer items, before repairing to the classical music coffee shop opposite Ekoda station called Zigeunerweise.
Postlethwaite was one of those readers who liked to express his feelings in the margins: exclamation marks of agreement, question marks denoting skepticism, and comments, like "rubbish!" or "quite so!" I randomly picked up a book of short stories by Somerset Maugham. One of them was about a British planter in a remote area of Malaya. An old friend from home has come to pay him a visit. They are having a gin and tonic on the veranda at sundown. The friend asks him how he can bear to live in such an isolated spot, where one would almost never meet a fellow white man. The planter replies that this is precisely why he chose to live there. This last sentence was underlined in the book with almost ferocious stress by its owner.
It was not hard to imagine a man like Postlethwaite, an escapee from middle-class England, a sexual exile first in Germany, and later in Japan. There were others like him. Christopher Isherwood had moved to Berlin for similar reasons. Tropical and subtropical places, from Capri to Ceylon, especially in days of empire, were dotted with private Arcadias built by such men who refused to live in puritanical Anglo-Saxon countries where their sexual desires could land them in prison. They often resided in lovely traditional houses in secluded spots, filled with fine furniture and art, with handsome and willing young men to lend a hand when needed.
One of the first people I met in Japan was a figure rather like this, another acquaintance of my gay uncle. John Roderick was a veteran American reporter who had spent part of the war with Mao Zedong's Communist guerillas in the caves of Yenan. After the war, when Western journalists were no longer welcome in China, he based himself in Japan. Roderick was not a handsome man. He looked like a retired sergeant major, burly, with a large jaw, a clipped moustache, and small watery blue eyes peering amiably from a large florid face. His Japanese was rudimentary, but he was not shy, and never short of company.
Roderick lived on a hill overlooking Kamakura, the graceful old capital of medieval Japan, one of the few towns to have escaped the wartime bombings, filled with Buddhist temples and shrines. On top of that hill, he had built his Arcadia: a gorgeous old farmhouse with a thatched roof, dark brown timber floors, ochre mud walls, rice paper sliding doors, 18th century lacquered screens, gilded wooden sculptures of Buddhist deities, precious Edo Period tea bowls, and finely crafted antique chests. The farmhouse had been dismantled in a village in central Japan and rebuilt, timber for timber, by traditional Japanese carpenters. This entire enterprise had been arranged by a young man of extraordinary beauty whom Roderick had spotted some years before at a public swimming pool. They had lived together ever since. Yoshihiro, or Yo-chan, as he was affectionately called, was officially adopted as Roderick's son.
It was through John Roderick that I met Donald Richie, a few months after I arrived. We were both invited for dinner, specifically for this purpose, at the Tokyo apartment of another middle-aged expatriate, an English writer and traveller named John Haylock. He, too, was a sexual refugee, who had lived in a succession of congenial tropical homes, in Baghdad, Cyprus, Thailand, and now Japan, where he taught English literature at a girls' college. Haylock wrote in his memoir, entitled Eastern Exchange: "I felt it was wiser to live in a tolerant land...It was better to be in self-exile than a potential criminal."
John was not very old, in his early sixties at most. I asked him, perhaps a little gauchely, how long he intended to live in Japan. Well, he replied, "I believe I shall die here, which I rather think might be very soon." Talking to John was like shaking hands, metaphorically at least, with the Bloomsbury group; he had been on intimate terms with Duncan Grant and had known Violet Trefusis, Virginia Woolf's lover, in Paris. He also knew Mishima, as did most of Donald's friends. To be able to say "I knew Mishima" was a badge of honor, cherished by literary-minded veterans of the Tokyo gay scene.
So this then was "Donald Richie's crowd", about which the man in Amsterdam had warned me. I felt instantly at ease with them, even though I was hardly a sexual exile myself. My own yearnings were more for the Kyoko I had seen in Truffaut's film than for a Yo-chan, although I could very well see the attractions of both. Like many young men I was in a hurry to make up for lost adolescent opportunities, and hungry for experience. But I was hedging my bets, for I still had a safe haven, a home that minimized my risk.
This temporary home was a six tatami mat room and a four and a half mat bedroom in a rickety apartment building on the Seibu Shinjuku railway line, which I shared with my girlfriend, Sumie, who had returned to Japan just before I arrived. I was glad to leave the luxurious seclusion of my relative's house, where I had spent the first weeks in Japan. We found the apartment after doing the rounds of real estate agents, most of whom were too polite to turn a foreigner down outright. But we had to understand that landlords might be worried that the gaijin-san didn't know the proper way of using a Japanese bathroom, or might give the neighbors a fright, or would abscond without paying. Why, only the other day, there was such a case with an American....
Sumie did not really fit in either. Having escaped from the strictures of her childhood home in a provincial Japanese town, she had been in no hurry to come back. Like many young Japanese women, who sought a degree of independence that was not generally on offer at home, she preferred to live abroad. Having decided that she wanted to be in a small country, she had picked Holland more or less at random on the map, gathered up all her savings, and travelled alone by boat and train via the Siberian plains to Europe. She was a tougher person than I was. We had met in a Chinese restaurant in Leyden, where we were both studying and she was working part time to pay the rent.
For a year and a half, Sumie and I shared that apartment in Numabukuro. The elusive Kyokos remained figments of my imagination. We were happy together. But I also felt I was missing out on something. I wasn't ready to settle down, but I yearned for security too. It was easier to live dangerously in a vicarious way, like peering into the opium scented brothels in Terayama's play, or rubbing shoulders with Donald Richie's crowd, which had some of the glamor of my uncle's set in London. Knowingness still came more easily to me than the potential sting of experience. Life still felt more like a performance.
Perhaps it was because of my childhood in a culturally mixed household, or possibly something else in my make-up, that I always felt drawn to outsiders. But outsiders, including Donald Richie's friends, form their own exclusive groups. I could pass, but I would not commit. Hovering on the fringes was where I liked to be, neither in nor out, neither one thing nor another, semi-detached, a born fellow traveller, a male fag hag, an observer in the midst of sympathetic strangers. It was thrilling, but also a way of playing it safe. Perhaps that was why I was attracted to Japan, a society to which a foreigner could never belong, even if he wanted to.
Donald was dressed like a conventional middle class American: light blue jacket, grey shirt, a knitted maroon tie, big black Florsheim shoes. He looked young for his age, which would have been around fifty-three: pink cheeks, brownish hair, large white hands, a boyish Midwestern face that slightly resembled that of Alfred Kinsey, the famous sexologist. The range of his conversation was astonishing: Japanese movie world gossip, Arnold Schoenberg's expressionist songs, Ozu's films compared to Kurosawa's, Jane Austen's late novels. But his main subject, especially when he was addressing me as the newcomer, was the way foreigners lived in Japan.
He pointed out the pitfalls that many gaijin stumbled into: the speed with which infatuation could change into disenchantment, or even peevish resentment, as though Japan were to blame for personal disillusion. He mentioned the "Seidensticker syndrome", named after his friend, the scholar Edward Seidensticker. Ed habitually spent half the year in Japan. When he arrived in Tokyo, he was ready to kiss the ground. Everything was wonderful. Then, once he had more or less settled down, he began to get more and more irritated by "these people", until after six months he was quite ready to go home.
The great mistake, Donald told me, was to think that you could ever be treated in the same way as a Japanese. People would be polite, even warm. Profound friendships with Japanese were perfectly possible. But you would never be one of them. You would always be the outsider, the literal meaning of gaijin. Those foreigners who were foolish enough to resent this could easily develop a full-blown case of gaijinitis, in which every sign of special treatment, whether deferential or contemptuous, was seen as a bitter blow to their amour-propre.
He, Donald, felt entirely at ease as an outsider. The great thing about Japan, he said, was that one was left alone. To be Japanese in Japan was to be caught in an almost intolerable web of rules and obligations. But the gaijin was exempt from all that. He could observe life with fascinated detachment, not being bound to anything or anyone. In Japan, Donald felt utterly, radically free.
For a man of Donald's inclinations this would clearly have been impossible in Lima, Ohio, where he grew up dreaming of escape. But even in New York, where he lived in the late 1960s as the curator of film at the Museum of Modern Art, he still felt constrained. So he came back to Japan just a few years before I met him, not exactly as a sexual exile, but as a man who was convinced that when he first arrived in Japan in the late 1940s he had glimpsed his private Arcadia; a country where he would never be judged as a sinner.
"You know", he said, before we parted company at the Hongo subway station, "you have to be a romantic to live in Japan. A person who feels complete, who does not question who he is, or his place in the world, will dislike it here. To be constantly exposed to such a radically different culture becomes unbearable. But to a romantic, open to other ways of being, Japan is full of wonders. Not that you will ever belong here. But that will set you free. And freedom is better than belonging. You see, here you can make yourself into anything you want to be."
I'm not sure I knew exactly what he meant by this. Much later, he would explain his allegiance to Sartre's existential views on the need to create your own life as an act of will to be authentic. But the image of Donald that night, standing on the opposite station platform, with his pink cheeks and big black shoes, unassailable in the midst of crowds of Japanese, has stayed with me. Perhaps I felt liberated, too. What to make of myself was the question.
 Exhumations, London 1966