“A Tokyo Romance: A Memoir” by Ian Buruma

A Tokyo Romance: A Memoir, Ian Buruma (Penguin Press, March 2018) A Tokyo Romance: A Memoir, Ian Buruma (Penguin Press, March 2018)

A Tokyo Romance is a memoir of living in Japan from 1975 to 1981 that immerses the reader in a world of avant-garde theatre and film. It serves as an interesting look at a time when Japan, not China was taking the world by storm. The author, Ian Buruma, currently editor of the New York Review of Books, meditates on living in Japan as a foreigner and how to approach being a perennial outsider. For Buruma, the experience is liberating and Japan is a catalyst for finding his own artistic voice.


The are various ways of coming to terms with the gaijin status, some more enervating than others. One can simply enjoy the privileges without the illusion of being anything but an outsider. In some ways, that is the easiest options and most likely to lead to a kind of serenity.


Buruma begins studying Chinese at Leyden University in Amsterdam. However, the Analects of Confucius and modern texts taken from communist publications fail to inspire him. After seeing Terayama Shuji’s play “Opium War”, he decides on Japan as an escape from his staid middle-class Dutch existence. One can perhaps understand why: “Opium War” certainly sounds interesting:


Naked girls were displayed in a variety of peculiar poses, and ventriloquists in chalky makeup spoke through dolls dressed like Toulouse-Lautrec while being whipped by a female dominatrix in a black SS cap reciting a Japanese poem.


There is more to come: Buruma’s descriptions and analyses of the ero, guro, nansensu—the erotic, the grotesque and the absurd of the Japanese art world gives this memoir its impetus.


Once in Tokyo, the twenty-three year old Buruma studies film and falls under the influence of American critic, Donald Richie, who has escaped his own middle-class hell in Ohio for the relative tolerance of homosexuality in Japan. Taking Richie, who has been in Tokyo for decades, and his orbit as an example, Buruma is able to reflect on living in a country where you remain a gaijin no matter how long you stay or how well you understand the place. As he adapts to Japan himself, the author formulates a nuanced take on a culture uncomfortable with outsiders who try to understand it.

Beyond Richie’s detached and dry expat world Buruma moves onto a number of pursuits including photography, journalism, translation, dancing and acting. Hanging out with local artists he manages to enter the wet Japanese world of social connectedness and direct involvement. One of his initial attempts to make friends leads him to visit the house of a vaudeville actor, an albino, known as the Human Pump. The Pump’s act is to swallow an orange goldfish followed by a yellow one, then regurgitate one or the other depending on the audience’s choice. Unfortunately for Buruma, who is ever in search of the bizarre, the Human Pump’s home life is nothing more than ordinary.

Buruma eventually finds a niche for himself as the gaijin in an acting troupe.

The author eventually finds a niche for himself as the gaijin in the acting troupe of Kara Juro. He impersonates Hitler in one play and in another becomes the the Midnight Cowboy. Incidentally, Midnight Cowboy, the Hollywood movie, was directed by Buruma’s uncle John Schlesinger. After the bizarre theater pieces are done, booze-fuelled fights between actors are related to the reader blow by blow. The author also trains in Butoh dancing, another take on the Japanese grotesque, where near-naked dancers writhe on stage covered in white rice flower. Given his wanderings in a Japanese world of the (often) naked and (always) weird, Buruma comes to some convincing conclusions on Japanese attitudes to sex and decorum.

With Kara Juro, Buruma visits New York where they stay at a rundown Chelsea Hotel with slugs climbing up the wallpaper. Kara is uncomfortable in New York and rarely leaves the hotel. He is also a man suspicious of Japanese who speak English or French too well, to him they are trying to be something that they are not and are as such inauthentic. Buruma, using Kara and others as case studies, investigates the complicated issue of bridging the cultural divide between Japan and the West and makes a number of interesting comments:


I, too, found Westerners who showed off their fluent Japanese annoying, even though, not unfrequently, that show-off would be me.


The book is illustrated by striking black and white photographs of actors, dancers and tattoo artists taken by the author. Buruma did not make notes about his experiences at the time, but the narrative is detailed and immediate. Revisiting his adventures of forty or more years ago, he is tolerant and amused by his younger self, but perhaps some of the emotional depths felt have dulled with time. The book as a whole is an intriguing insight into the development of a young artist inspired by various subcultures in Japan in the 1970s.

Frank Beyer's writing has appeared in the LA Review of Books, Anak Sastra and Headland Journal.