A Tokyo Romance: A Memoir

A Tokyo Romance: A Memoir

A classic memoir of self-invention in a strange land: Ian Buruma's unflinching account of his amazing journey into the heart of Tokyo's underground culture as a young man in the 1970'sWhen Ian Buruma arrived in Tokyo in 1975, Japan was little more than an idea in his mind, a fantasy of a distant land. A sensitive misfit in the world of his upper middleclass youth, what he...

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Title:A Tokyo Romance: A Memoir
Author:Ian Buruma
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Edition Language:English

A Tokyo Romance: A Memoir Reviews

  • Tosh

    Over the years, and especially going back and forth from Japan, I have read many books by fellow Americans and some British citizens on their time spent in Japan. A lot of them are crap. The ones that stand out are the ones that wrote about Japanese cinema and literature. The girls or guys who went there to get a job as an English teacher are usually not that interesting, but alas, those who are devoted to a specific Japanese artist or thinker, then yes I very much enjoy that type of book. There

    Over the years, and especially going back and forth from Japan, I have read many books by fellow Americans and some British citizens on their time spent in Japan. A lot of them are crap. The ones that stand out are the ones that wrote about Japanese cinema and literature. The girls or guys who went there to get a job as an English teacher are usually not that interesting, but alas, those who are devoted to a specific Japanese artist or thinker, then yes I very much enjoy that type of book. There are two writers that I love when they write about Japan - Donald Richie and the other fellow is Ian Buruma.

    Buruma wrote a fascinating book called "Behind the Mask," which is an excellent book on some of the darker elements of Japanese literature and the arts. His new book "A Tokyo Romance: A Memoir" accounts for his time spent in Japan to study cinema, but mostly the theater arts of Kara Juro, an avant-garde playwright, with his theater group in Tokyo. Similar to temperament but not precisely in style as Terayama Suiji. Buruma knew both men, and it's his unique point-of-view, due that he was a foreigner, being involved with Kara's theater group. A lot of foreign writers have written about the oddness of one being part of Japanese society, or living in Japan, and finding it alienating. But then again I think that's the nature of the Western fellow or girl. We're raised to be apart than together, and therefore lies the situation of such countries in Asia and elsewhere.

    What makes this book unique for me is that I share Buruma's interest in the Japanese arts, and spending time there as well, I can identify in what he writes about, in regards of living there and appreciating the same sort of artists/writers. Also, the book is full of fascinating figures, some know and some entirely new to me. Donald Richie is a writer I know quite well through his writings in various articles (mostly in the Japan Times) as well as reading his books on Japanese cinema. His Journals are without a doubt, the classic work by him. He is a guy who knew everyone from Ozu to Mishima, and also a gay man living in Tokyo. His insights into the Japanese culture, but also his somewhat detached views are excellent observations of life around him. In that sense, he reminds me of Paul Bowles' travel writing. Buruma shares the same interest as Richie, and is also, a fantastic prose writer. His commentary on Richie, who sort of led him through Tokyo when he first arrived, is a fascinating tour of the metropolis. The second personality of interest is the Actress Yamaguchi Yoshiko. She started her career during the war years making a propaganda film in China, where she was identified as a Chinese actress. But alas, no, she's Japanese and eventually went on to star in the American Film "House Of Bamboo" directed by Sam Fuller. The book doesn't mention it, but she was also married to the artist Isamu Noguchi. Yamaguchi eventually became a member of the Japanese parliament for 18 years and had a TV show where she focused on and interviewed such characters as Mao, Idi Amin, and Kim Il-sung.

    "A Tokyo Romance" is a book full of fascinating people, and Buruma himself is interesting because he is also an individual who is half-Dutch and half-English, so he's very much a bi-cultural, or maybe at this point, since he lives in New York City now, a tri-cultural figure. With his background, he has an understanding of what it's like to be in a culture that is very singular in focus and design. A classic book on Japan, but also a rare text in English on the world of Terayama and Kara Juro.

  • Adriana

    Buruma spent several years in Japan experiencing all he could about the post-war, avant-garde theater scene in Tokyo. It’s incredibly interesting to get such a privileged view of the somewhat crazy and hyper-cultural counter culture of Japan in the 70s, even more so when it comes from an outsider/foreigner who managed to luck into some very rare opportunities. Every troupe and individual worth mentioning in the time period is someone Buruma either interacted with in private or met in highly pers

    Buruma spent several years in Japan experiencing all he could about the post-war, avant-garde theater scene in Tokyo. It’s incredibly interesting to get such a privileged view of the somewhat crazy and hyper-cultural counter culture of Japan in the 70s, even more so when it comes from an outsider/foreigner who managed to luck into some very rare opportunities. Every troupe and individual worth mentioning in the time period is someone Buruma either interacted with in private or met in highly personal situations. It’s astounding, he even mentions that he was getting a special pass to intrude due to what he terms as a foreigner’s privilege to participate without being expected to know the complicated dance most Japanese interactions require.

    It might be incredibly subjective and painted over with time passing by, but it was fantastic to able to share the privileged view this foreigner got.

    The one thing I will say in the negative is that, while the telling of the tale necessitates the continual name dropping that happens in the pages of the book, it did get to be a bit much when you’re “introduced” to the 20th person in the chapter. It doesn’t really take away from the experience, but it did annoy me.

  • Jim Coleman

    Exceptional meditation/memoir of the author's years in Japan in the mid-70's, mostly as a student. Do not look to this to help you understand Japan or the Japanese. Such understanding would come obliquely, as the author examines his "otherness" vis-a-vis both the Japanese and Westerners as well.

    Buruma has a Dutch father and an English mother. His mother brought him up with a lot of English traditions which led to his feeling apart in Holland. There are also feelings of sexual ambiguity even befo

    Exceptional meditation/memoir of the author's years in Japan in the mid-70's, mostly as a student. Do not look to this to help you understand Japan or the Japanese. Such understanding would come obliquely, as the author examines his "otherness" vis-a-vis both the Japanese and Westerners as well.

    Buruma has a Dutch father and an English mother. His mother brought him up with a lot of English traditions which led to his feeling apart in Holland. There are also feelings of sexual ambiguity even before he arrives in Japan with a Japanese wife. They separate and eventually come back together at the end, but there is very little in the way of description of this relationship, other than to note his wife did not feel comfortable in Japan and was glad at the end to return to England.

    Otherness, what it means to be a gaijin (whitey) in Japan is central to the concern and reflection. Beautifully written, and well read by the author (enjoyed as an audio book).

    Highly recommended, especially if you've spent some year abroad, either as a student or an ex-pat.

  • Stephen Durrant

    This memoir is both a poignant account of Buruma's romance with Japan, a romance that both succeeds and fails, and also a compelling "insider" account of 1970s Japanese avant-garde culture, particularly the theater of Juro Kara. Buruma confronts an old problem with insight and sympathy--the inability of the gaijin, however much energy he might pour into the effort, to ever be accepted in Japan as anything other than an exotic outsider (so-called "gaijinitis"). Ironically, he argues, the more ade

    This memoir is both a poignant account of Buruma's romance with Japan, a romance that both succeeds and fails, and also a compelling "insider" account of 1970s Japanese avant-garde culture, particularly the theater of Juro Kara. Buruma confronts an old problem with insight and sympathy--the inability of the gaijin, however much energy he might pour into the effort, to ever be accepted in Japan as anything other than an exotic outsider (so-called "gaijinitis"). Ironically, he argues, the more adept one becomes at the language, the more problematic and even embarrassing one becomes for the Japanese. Although Buruma decries the insularity of the Japanese, he remains understanding: "No matter how hard you might behave as a Japanese, you will never be Japanese. Some foreigners find this painful. But you cannot blame the Japanese for failing to comply with the illusions of foreigners." Buruma describes some of these illusions as he writes of his gaijin acquaintances, including the great Japanologist Donald Ritchie. I have seen similar illusions in my waiguoren friends in Taiwan, and have surely held some myself during my four years in that country, but the type of exclusion one can experience in Japan is, i think, a bit more rigid and direct than what one encounters in the Chinese world. I should end by noting and applauding how honest and self-revealing Buruma's memoir appears to be. So many autobiographical accounts are more an effort at hiding than revealing (I am even tempted to define autobiography as "a written work in which one lies about oneself"). This book, much to Buruma's credit (and courage) seems actually to tell the truth . . . hard to do unless one is a saint, which none of us are.

  • Gayle Zawilla

    West meets East and past meets future in this somewhat self-indulgent retrospective into the “gaijin” author’s foray into the creative, if sometimes seedy, underground culture of 1970s Tokyo. It reads like an ethnography in parts, which I guess it is. I was given an advance copy courtesy of LitHub First Readers’ Club Book Giveaway (thank you).

  • Charlie

    A great source of reading ideas for me these days is the weekly NYTimes Book Review "By The Book" column where I was first introduced to Ian Buruma who I hadn't heard of before. The idea of this book resonated with me as my wife and I spent two years in Japan. Buruma was attracted to Japan by the Japanese cinema and spent much of his time there among some of the most radical, innovative theatrical producers and movie directors in the country at the time (the mid-1970s). Can't say that I could re

    A great source of reading ideas for me these days is the weekly NYTimes Book Review "By The Book" column where I was first introduced to Ian Buruma who I hadn't heard of before. The idea of this book resonated with me as my wife and I spent two years in Japan. Buruma was attracted to Japan by the Japanese cinema and spent much of his time there among some of the most radical, innovative theatrical producers and movie directors in the country at the time (the mid-1970s). Can't say that I could relate with much of the book...while his various experiences were interesting, this reader didn't find much meaning or lessons from those experiences. However, the last chapter of the book (Chapter 11) is quite interesting. In it Buruma reflects on the difficulty (impossibility?) for a non-native visitor (gaijin) to be taken seriously by an inner-directed country such as Japan. He makes an interesting comparison to E. M. Forster's "A Path to India" as an illustration of the challenges inherent in cultural connections, but that Japan in the 1970s represented an even deeper challenge to him and other westerners he knew there.

  • Sara

    I was prepared to love this book and looked forward to a trip down memory lane since I was also in Japan during the time period Buruma is writing about. But it's more of a brag about his own youthful sexual exploits and unless you have a really strong interest in Japanese cinema, a lot of this is old hat and just another gaijin in Japan story.

    There were moments when he did express some deeper and more interesting thoughts so the book is not a total loss. But mostly I just thought, "this again."

    I was prepared to love this book and looked forward to a trip down memory lane since I was also in Japan during the time period Buruma is writing about. But it's more of a brag about his own youthful sexual exploits and unless you have a really strong interest in Japanese cinema, a lot of this is old hat and just another gaijin in Japan story.

    There were moments when he did express some deeper and more interesting thoughts so the book is not a total loss. But mostly I just thought, "this again." It could have been so much more....

  • Jim Coughenour

    An unfinished book that regularly reappears on my bedside table is

    , or its alternate,

    . Richie arrived in Japan in 1947 and ended up enjoying the rest of his life there – the journals, writings on Japanese cinema and culture (not to mention,

    ), never lose their charm for me. Richie appears in the first sentence of Buruma’s new book, and I was guilty of expecting a modulation of the same, the insider

    An unfinished book that regularly reappears on my bedside table is

    , or its alternate,

    . Richie arrived in Japan in 1947 and ended up enjoying the rest of his life there – the journals, writings on Japanese cinema and culture (not to mention,

    ), never lose their charm for me. Richie appears in the first sentence of Buruma’s new book, and I was guilty of expecting a modulation of the same, the insider/outsider’s view of living in Japan in the 1970s.

    In this respect the book is a slight disappointment, lacking the force and focus of Buruma’s other writing (most of which I read as it turns up in various literary journals). The “romance” never quite gets off the ground, and the chapters on his picaresque involvement with various outré theatre troupes would be interesting only to an aficionado. Buruma seems to have had a terrific time during his Japanese sojourn (I was frequently impressed), but little of the fun filters back to the reader.

  • Sam Law

    This is a memoir, by the editor of the New York Review of Books, which takes us largely to his life in Japan, between 1975 and 1981.

    A restless, bored, middle-class youth in the Netherlands, Buruma felt that he never fit in to his own society, that he was always on the fringes, the outsider looking in. He travels to Japan, where he explores both his emerging self, and the Japanese film and theatre culture.

    The author Ian Bu

    This is a memoir, by the editor of the New York Review of Books, which takes us largely to his life in Japan, between 1975 and 1981.

    A restless, bored, middle-class youth in the Netherlands, Buruma felt that he never fit in to his own society, that he was always on the fringes, the outsider looking in. He travels to Japan, where he explores both his emerging self, and the Japanese film and theatre culture.

    The author Ian Buruma. This book is his memoir of his time spent in late 1970’s Japan, which then was experiencing massive economic growth and also a counter-culture that seems to leave the US hippy ‘60’s in the shade. Sex (of any persuasion, and at any level of porn or degradation), violence, outlandish and outrageous theatre, anything and everything (and anyone) was available.

    Buruma is a self-confessed outsider, both in his native Netherlands, and wherever he seemed to travel. He comes from a privileged background, a solid middle-class upbringing in The Hague. “Hovering on the fringes was where I liked to be”. He has a deep desire to explore, both other cultures and his own sexuality, and eventually gets switched onto Japan through a viewing of Domicile Conjugal, a film showing a young Parisian man falling in love with a beautiful and haunting Japanese woman, then in Amsterdam seeing an avant-garde piece of Japanese Kabuki theatre.

    He subsequently enrolled as a cinema student in the Nihon university, in Tokyo. Tokyo is finally being rebuilt after World War II, and it is the essence of plastic-fantastic.  The world he dives into is on a different planet to the stereotypical view of Japanese society. Everything moves at a giddy pace, the art/cultural scene is extreme (for example live chickens being killed during performances, toilet-cubicle sex, various forms of depravity being acted (?) out, etc.), and Buruma is determined to immerse himself in this world, which is allowing him the personal freedom to experiment and explore, which he felt was unavailable to him at home.

    Having a famous uncle in John Schlesinger (Academy Award winning director of Midnight Cowboy) was certainly no hindrance in Buruma's getting involved in the surreal Japanese film and theatre culture. He dates both men and women, and seems to sleep with most of them. He had part-time jobs, probably the most notable being a photographer’s assistant to Magnum photographers, which allowed him again a privileged level of access in society.

    Buruma spends most of his time out of the classroom, mixing with as wide a range of playwrights etc. as he can, taking full advantage of his friendship with ex-pat Donald Richie (famous American film historian), even though Richie tells him that, as a gaijin (“foreigner”) he will never truly belong or be accepted.

    Buruma attempts a short film (which fails to impress), then gets the call to appear in a butoh play. I cannot forget the image conjured up of the author dressed only in a scarlet jockstrap, posing as a body-builder. [He fails to catch the bikini-bottom clad dancer at the end of the scene, to everyone’s embarrassment]. Nor can I forget another production which involved a labyrinth, drag queens, flying meat, and the author dressed in a leather cowboy hat, while shouting “I am the Midnight Cowboy!”.

    This latter play was directed by Kara Juro, with whose troupe the author went on tour. Buruma intervened in a fight between the director and his wife, which caused Kara to shout at him “You are an ordinary gaijin after all”. Richie’s warning had come true – in spite of his deep immersion, the tall, white actor was only ever going to be on the outside, looking in, not truly accepted. This outburst probably started him thinking about leaving Japan, as unlike his mentor Richie he had no reason to fear the customs and norms of his own society. What Buruma did fear was catching "gaijinitis", obsessing over imaginary sleights against his ethnicity.

    It must be noted that the author wasn’t totally alone out there. He had a Japanese girlfriend for the 6 or so years he was there, whom he both arrived and left with (she became his wife before they left), and was able to use her family home as a bit of a safe-haven from the madness.

    Getting a window on a Japanese sub-culture I had never known about.

    The writing was good, and very descriptive, and as an outsider the author has a very good eye for detail.

    The privileged view we get of the turbulent scene, with the author being honest about his successes and failures.

    The constant name-dropping tended to take away a little from the flow of the memoir.

    There was at times too much detail about the local films, which would really be of interest only to a select group, and not a general readership.

    For all the descriptions of behaviour, and art, and life, etc., the author is reticent about his own inner life, and feelings about his experiences. The romance element is hidden, to a large degree.

    I found this book somewhat interesting but of course, being a memoir, largely self-indulgent. It is not a book I particularly enjoyed, and felt it too long for the subject matter (see the comment above re the level of detail). It is essentially a foreigner abroad story, without (for me) any deep insights into cultural differences, and norms etc.

    I received a free copy of this book from Penguin First To Reads, in return for an honest review.

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