The casual post-election talk of expatriation in the past few weeks coincided with the appearance in New York City of the writer Donald Richie, whose elegant considerations of Japan, where he has lived for over a half-century, have made him a bard of sorts of expatriate life. A long and distinguished line of gaijin, from Ulysses S. Grant to Somerset Maugham to Bill Murray, have been drawn to Japan-a country that, Mr. Richie has said, “gently teaches the foreigner to keep his distance.”
But Mr. Richie is one of the few Westerners who never left, and recently he published a chronicle of his years abroad, The Japan Journals: 1947-2004. During that period, as Japan went from war-razed backwater to post-industrial superpower, Mr. Richie himself became an institution. The screenwriter Paul Schrader once called him “the Commodore Perry of Japanese film history.” Mr. Richie has written books on everything Japanese, from its tea gardens to its tattooing culture. Last month, the emperor awarded him the Imperial Order of the Chrysanthemum, Japan’s highest order of chivalry.
Lively at 80 despite a heart attack and bypass surgery one year ago, Mr. Richie possesses the square-jawed, well-groomed look of a prosperous Hollywood gangster from the 40′s. Mr. Richie comes from a small town in Ohio called Lima. “I couldn’t get enough air in Lima,” he said over supper at an East Side restaurant. In 1947, he was hired as a typist for the Allied Occupation in Japan. “I could see that the further away I got from Ohio, the wider my horizons got,” he said. “And it seemed that if I got to the farther end of the world, then all the restraints that I resented would disappear.”
In the 50′s and 60′s, Mr. Richie developed a reputation among the literary and artistic set as someone to call on in Japan. He became a one-man way station, tour guide and flophouse for the likes of Lincoln Kirstein and Truman Capote, Cecil Beaton and Sacheverell Sitwell.
“There wasn’t anybody else there then,” he said. “I was a sort of cicerone in Tokyo for a time. I never aspired toward this, and sometimes I did it with ill grace. I knew things had gotten out of hand when a British journalist from Tatler called up and asked to speak to the Harold Acton of Tokyo. But the kind of people who came over then are not the kind of people who come over now. They tended to be more or less famous people-there wasn’t mass tourism back then. Isherwood would tell Spender, and Spender would tell Alberto Moravia, and Moravia would tell someone else.”
Mr. Richie, for his part, had his own friendly guide to Japan, the Japanese novelist Yukio Mishima. The two had met in graduate school at Columbia, and their friendship continued in Japan, where Mishima became an increasingly eccentric national celebrity.
“Mishima was obsessed with the peccadilloes of the famous in ancient times,” Mr. Richie said. “We had a sort of trade-off where I taught Mishima Roman history and he took me to his gym and taught me how to bench press.” Eventually, Mishima-displeased with the direction of modern Japan-began assembling his own samurai army of ultra-nationalist sculpted young men. He’d invite Mr. Richie to watch them drill on the roof of the National Theatre. Mishima’s cadets ultimately followed their leader in a mass ritual suicide, disemboweling each other with swords. (Twelve of them died, including Mishima.) “These boys in their Cardin-designed uniforms!” Mr. Richie marveled. He recalled dinners at the Mishima household: “Yukio would bring out a famous sword when foreigners came over. Then he’d invite them to disembowel themselves. Everyone would laugh.”
When Mr. Richie first arrived, Japan was a strange place for an American. Tokyo’s downtown had been leveled by Allied bombs. “Signs were posted forbidding us to fraternize with the local population,” Mr. Richie said. “We weren’t allowed to ride the subways or go to the movies or whorehouses or kabuki. I could get along O.K. without whorehouses and kabuki, but I had grown up with movies-Norma Shearer was more dear to me than my mother.”
Mr. Richie began sneaking into the movie theaters. “The theaters were always absolutely packed-standing room only,” he said. “I’d be looking over people’s heads, smelling rice sweat and camellia pomade, which all the men wore in their hair. I couldn’t understand the plot, but I still remember that smell.”
Soon Mr. Richie could follow plots well enough to land a gig as a movie critic for The Pacific Stars and Stripes. By the time he was 24, he was sitting on the set of Drunken Angels, watching Akira Kurosawa direct Toshirô Mifune.
Mr. Richie still sees three or four movies a week. He takes pains not to appear reactionary, but a quick survey indicated a largely dim view of modern cinema. (Anime: “A series of pen-and-ink boxes with circles running through them.” Kill Bill? “An inside joke. A kind of frat party. You have to be initiated so that you know you’re not supposed to throw up over the violence, but to laugh. It’s like all manga films: You don’t have to feel.” Lost in Translation? “A nice little sitcom.” The young Japanese director Kore-Eda? “He lets the camera linger,” Mr. Richie said admiringly. “So much tact!”)
On his way back to the hotel, Mr. Richie recalled running into a group of hip Japanese teenagers on his way to a video store in the East Village. Mr. Richie had addressed them in Japanese. “They just stared at me,” he said. “The last thing they wanted to do was speak Japanese.”
After a week-long round of dinners and parties and seeing old friends, Mr. Richie, for his part, said he was anxious to get back to Tokyo. “I’ve got a pad I really like, and I miss it,” he said. “I like the combination of beautiful nature and feral nighttime activity. I don’t like to be inside things; I like to be outside things. If I were Japanese, I wouldn’t stay in Japan for five minutes.”
“I’m a trisexual,” says my friend Frank.
“What’s that?” I asked.
“Have you ever heard that quote: ‘There are three sexes: men, women and thin women’? Well, I sleep with all three.”
“And which do you prefer?”
“If I preferred one, I wouldn’t be a trisexual!”
The Hipster Hasid
Long past midnight one recent Thursday at Sputnik, a sleekly appointed bar on the outskirts of old Bedford-Stuyvesant that caters to artsy arrivistes, Abraham Schwartz, the bushy-bearded lead singer of the rock band the Jewce, donned a pair of wraparound shades and launched into an amped-up rendition of “Moshiach,” a popular Yiddish tune. Heads bobbed. Wallet chains swung. The drummer’s sidelocks flew. Mr. Schwartz, who wore a yarmulke and traditional Hasidic garb-white shirt, suspenders, long black jacket-held the microphone with both hands, belting out the lyrics with an abundant passion. The spiky-haired crowd forgave his imperfect pitch.
When the song was finished, Mr. Schwartz leaned in toward the audience and aped an Elvis-style drawl: “Thankyouverymuch.” He waited a beat and gave a rock-star yelp. “YEOW!”
Someone in the crowd shouted, ” Mazel tov!”
Since Mr. Schwartz, a former yeshiva student, formed the band last spring with three friends from the neighborhood, the Jewce’s shows have developed a cult following among the hipsters who have migrated to neighborhoods along the G-train corridor. The playing is ragged, the repertoire limited. (A few Jewish standards, some unlikely covers-”Down Under” by Men at Work, “Milkshake” by Kelis-interspersed with occasional Yiddish-inspired freestyling.) But the music is almost beside the point.
An estimated 165,000 Hasidic Jews live in New York City, insulated by their strict observance of dietary laws, their language and a culture that seldom mixes with gentiles. There’s no telling how many hipsters-almost as insular in taste and lifestyle-have moved in among the Hasidim in neighborhoods from Williamsburg down to Borough Park.
Borough Park is home to the largest single Hasidic community. “The Jewish lifestyle and the rock ‘n’ roll lifestyle aren’t very compatible,” Mr. Schwartz said recently, over plates of falafel at Shwarma King, a popular kosher restaurant in Borough Park. Though a few have pulled it off-most prominently guitarist Yossi Piamenta, “the Hasidic Hendrix”-it’s hard to get by without Friday and Saturday gigs. “Plus there’s the drugs,” Mr. Schwartz added.
On this night, a Thursday, the Shwarma King was packed with bearded men, many wearing round-brimmed beaver hats, socializing late on the night before the Sabbath.
“As a community, we stick together. There’s the goyim, they lead their lifestyles …. And this is our lifestyle. And that’s it: You’re a Jewish person, this is what you’re destiny is, this is what you do-the laws and all the theology.”
Mr. Schwartz has lived in Borough Park his whole life. His father is a mashgiach, an inspector who keeps food-processing plants and restaurants up to kosher standards. His mother is a makeup artist. He said he was always intrigued by “other cultures and other lifestyles,” but it wasn’t until about a year ago that he started branching out. A friend asked him to meet for a drink at Sputnik. “I liked the atmosphere, and I came back again-and again, and again,” he recalled. Back in Borough Park, he looked like everyone else. At the bar, he was exotic.
Bartenders befriended Mr. Schwartz. Girls flirted with him. At one gig, a shapely young actress modeled a Jewce T-shirt. (“Shalom, motherfucker,” it read, in a Hebrewish-looking font.) For a Halloween party, he dressed up as Jesus Christ, complete with a large wooden cross. As a smoke machine billowed and Curtis Mayfield played, he performed a striptease, getting down to a pair of sheer black bikini briefs.
Besides fronting the Jewce, Mr. Schwartz also maintains two blogs, is compiling a book-a traveler’s guide to profanity around the world-and, in his spare time, is working on various inventions, which he will only say are “bathroom-related.”
“This is all hard-core,” he said, using a favorite word, as he drove a Ford Thunderbird down 13th Avenue past a Judaica store, a kosher ice-cream parlor and a synagogue that’s open 22 hours a day. It was after midnight, and Mr. Schwartz had just gotten out of an hours-long Talmudic study session. During the day, he works in retail; most nights, he gets four hours of sleep or less. (He catches up on the Sabbath.)
If Mr. Schwartz and his bandmates are pushing the boundaries of that destiny, they’re not doing it carelessly. Two members of the Jewce asked not to be identified by name for this article, and Mr. Schwartz asked that The Observer not print certain details about him, such as his job, his age and the name of the yeshiva he attended. A few Borough Park friends have seen his shows, but they don’t understand, Mr. Schwartz said.
“They were like, ‘That was some crazy stuff you did over there. I don’t know why you’re doing it.’”
Mr. Schwartz says his antics are all in fun-though he admits he has moments of doubt about why the hipsters enjoy his act so much.
“We’ve spoken about it within the band: Are they coming because it’s good music, or are they coming because it’s a gimmick?” he said. “I know the other ones in the band, they’re a little bit worried that they’re more being laughed at than people enjoying [the music]. But for myself, I say: ‘Either way.’ Obviously, when people laugh with you, it’s a lot better. But- ehhhhh.” Mr. Schwartz shrugged and tilted his head. “It’s who I am. I accept it.”
If he ever had to choose between his music and his community, Mr. Schwartz said, he knew which one he’d pick.
“If it came down to it, these are my people, my friends I grew up with over here,” he said. “It’s home, after all.”
At a Web log called The Sneeze, editors have spent the last year and a half collecting obnoxious schoolyard rhymes from around the world. They’ve dubbed their effort the Global Schoolyard Rhyme Project. A sample, from Denmark:
Hvis og hvis min røv var spids
Og fuld af limonade,
Så måtte du min ven slikke
Den til ballerne blev flade.
If or if not my butt was pointy
And filled with lemonade,
Then you my friends could lick it
Until my buttocks were flat.
Follow NYO Staff via RSS.