In "The Honorable Visitors," Donald Richie has combed through the writings of illustrious visitors to Japan, collecting their overall impressions and quoting their original writings as much as possible. Richie makes a difference between visitors, such as General Grant, and residents, such as Lafcadio Hearn. This book is interested only in the traveler's tales. The list of visitors is honorable indeed, ranging from early Meiji-era folks such as Victorian travel writer Isabella Bird, former US President Ulysses S. Grant, true romance novelist Pierre Loti, humorist Henry Adams, to literary figures of various ages such as Rudyard Kipling, Aldous Huxley, Jean Cocteau, William Faulkner and Truman Capote. Some oddballs such as Charlie Chaplin also contribute. All came to Japan with expectations. All saw Japan through their own particular perspectives. Perspective is what is really being offered in "The Honorable Travelers." People react strongly to Japan, and many seem to find wildly opposite discoveries and adventures. The Victorian travelers brought their snobbery and sense of important superiority. Later travelers came seeking the Japanese "other," only to find disappointingly that Japan was just a real place with real human beings. As a somewhat long-term resident in Japan, I found the book both sad and enlightening. Sad, in seeing the colonial abuse of people such as Pierre Loti, who bought a girl for $20, married her and then left her behind solely so that he could write a scandalous, racy novel of loose-moraled Japan and her exotic women. Enlightening, in that I can see some perspectives in myself, from when I first came to Japan, or in the faces or friends and family who visit. People still come like Loti, seeking an exotic love affair with a Japanese woman, giving little thought to her as a person. People still come like Kipling, allowing the country to be what it is, without bias or worship. Given of what I know of Japan today, I tend to wish it's past and present had more Kiplings and fewer Lotis. While quite tiny in size, good for a weekend read, "The Honorable Visitors" is an important book for those willing to look at Japan from many angles, and from many insights.
Richie's glimpse of a handful of famous foreigners and their trips to Japan from the late Tokugawa right up to the post-war period. It is well written, extremely informative and easy to read. Richie not only describes the reactions of various foreigners to Japan but also expertly weaves in various themes that serve to bind the individual tales into a comprehensive whole. Unfortunately, the book contains no footnotes and is thus frustrating for the more serious reader.