Before he was widely known in North American scholarly circles, Ian Buruma was ubiquitous on the English-language shelves of Asian bookshops. Whether in a dusty second-hand book stall in Thailand or a fastidiously upscale bookseller in Tokyo, in the early 2000s Buruma seemed to be one of the few English-language authors whose books were consistently accessible.
The first time I read his work — while riding on a long, hot, overcrowded train ride across Japan at peak festival season, crammed onto the floor of an economy-ticket train carriage — I realized why. More than simply informative (which they are), his work is somehow also deeply comforting. Buruma’s books tend to operate on two registers. On the first, he offers fascinating cultural commentary and insights, often grounded in the arts. Whether analysing obscure Japanese film, contrasting German and Japanese war guilt, or comparing western and Asian literature, Buruma has his pulse on popular culture and what it has to say about the society that produces it.
But at the same time, there’s something deeply personal and universalistic about Buruma’s writing; a study in the abstract which resonates on multiple levels. He doesn’t preach, doesn’t lecture, and always acknowledges the multiplicity of possible perspectives without sliding into the rudderless waters of postmodernism. For someone struggling to understand their outsider status — particularly for westerners living in Asia — his work is underscored with a gentle sense of ‘I understand…and here’s maybe a way for you to understand it too.’
Buruma has, deservedly, finally achieved recognition in the West as well. His work has expanded to include fiction, the complex engagement between Islam and the West, and western cultural production. He’s currently editor of the New York Review of Books. And now, more than 40 years after first setting foot in Asia, he’s produced a fascinating memoir of his early years living in Japan in the mid-’70s.
Like much of his work, Buruma’s memoir is fascinating on two levels. First, it brings to life a particular slice of Japanese artistic experience. Buruma arrived at the tail-end of a post-war generation that was either dying or leaving Japan, and which had both created tremendous artistic innovation as well as embodied that initial creative entanglement between Japan and the West. He met two of the greats who had spent many years translating the two cultures for each other: Donald Richie and Edward Seidensticker. He did not meet Yukio Mishima (the troubled and brilliant playwright and novelist who was by then dead, having killed himself in a dramatic seppuku following a tragi-comedic effort at a coup d’état), but he met many of those who had been close to him.
Much of the book follows Buruma’s experiences with the Japanese theatre community. Witnessing Japanese theatre had sparked his interest in the country back in his native Netherlands, and while in Japan he immersed himself in the world of experimental and avant-garde theatre. He spent some time working and even performing with Maro Akaji’s Butoh troupe, as well as Kara Juro and his avant-garde Situation Theater. He dabbled in film and photography. He caught the tail-end of a tremendous era of Japanese artistic and cultural change, and his memoir serves as an opportunity to sketch out impressions of some of the figures of the period. It humanizes characters — Richie in particular — who are today mostly only known as the deans of a previous generation of English-language scholarship on Japan, but whose lives were eminently more dramatic and fascinating than the dry tomes they’ve left behind (many of them, as Buruma discusses, were queer exiles from the still legally homophobic western world).
His impressions of the people and the period are sketched colourfully and with a light touch, and offer a pleasant and personable first-hand survey of the period and some of its artistic doyens.
Ultimately, however, A Tokyo Romance is about the challenge, and impossibility, of cross-cultural immersion. Buruma’s chronicle, taken as a whole, is one of his repeated failures to be accepted by the Japanese. As long as he accepts his status as an outsider — a ‘gaijin’, in Japanese — he’s granted a certain place and status: a westerner on display, whose Japanese linguistic ability affords him a certain trophy-like uniqueness. But time and again, he spoils his delicate position by either forgetting his outsider status, or struggling to transcend it.
More than simply a tale of culture clash, Buruma brings to bear his typically insightful powers of analysis to engage in profound self-reflection on the experience. He astutely recognizes the many different ways in which westerners come to terms, willingly or unwillingly, with their perpetual outsider status in Japan. Some of them come to embrace it with a sort of pride; rejecting the slightest effort to engage culturally, becoming a sort of belligerent if obnoxious foreigner. Others embrace it with serenity; the sensitive and observant foreigner type, soaking it all in. Either requires an ability to accept being an outsider; for many gay exiles who wound up in Japan, they were already well accustomed to seeing themselves as outsiders in their own society. “For living in a society, to whose customs and norms one is not expected to conform, gives the outsider a radical kind of autonomy. But the point of this is not to rebel against the norms of the country one has chosen to live in, but of those one has left behind,” Buruma writes.
Buruma’s perspective, like those of the other westerners he discusses, comes from an outsider status that was deeply inflected with privilege. Other foreigners living in Japan — Koreans, Filipinos, Chinese, Brazilians — would doubtless have a very different experience of being outsiders. White westerners experienced an outsider-ness which granted them considerable privilege. This, of course, is changing: “[G]aijin don’t enjoy the same radical autonomy they once did,” Buruma writes. “Strangers are no longer quite so strange in Japan. Along with prejudice against gaijin, their privileges have shrunk. More and more, residents of Japan are expected to do as the Japanese do. And this is the way it ought to be.”
“And yet…” he concludes, this change is not entirely a sea change. Despite globalization, and Japan’s apparent conquest of global culture through sushi, manga, Pokemon, and J-Pop, “Japan still is an insular nation, not much understood in the rest of the world. This opens up great opportunities to a writer, who knows Japan even a little bit, for so much still needs to be explained.”
Buruma built his career on the basis of his time in Japan — his early essays and books on Japanese culture are still among the best out there, particularly in terms of his analysis of literature, film and popular culture. Buruma, one of the world’s few truly great remaining proponents of liberalism, brings to his work a deeply honest, slightly self-effacing reflexiveness which offers tremendous insight into the challenges of cross-cultural engagement in a way many scholars today shy away from. Readable and accessible, his work is a reminder of the importance of exploring the awkward moments of culture clash, of confusion, of hurt sensibilities and rejection. In A Tokyo Romance he turns his insightful analysis inward, and produces a masterpiece of cultural commentary which is at once a deeply compelling survey of the artistic history and culture of a particular time and place; and simultaneously serves as a timeless observation on the elusive struggle to communicate and achieve mutual understandings across cultures.