A Tokyo Romance by Ian Buruma

A Tokyo Romance

Ian Buruma

With his signature acuity, Ian Buruma brilliantly captures the historical tensions between east and west, the clash of conflicting cultures, and the dilemma of the gaijin in Japanese society, constantly free, yet always on the outside. 

Start Reading….

Read Excerpt Now


Sign me up to receive news about Ian Buruma.

Place our blog button on your blog to let people know you are a member of this great program!

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's

When 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 longed for wasn’t so much the exotic as the raw, unfiltered humanity he had experienced in Japanese theater performances and films, witnessed in Amsterdam and Paris. One particular theater troupe, directed by a poet of runaways, outsiders, and eccentrics, was especially alluring, more than a little frightening, and completely unforgettable. If Tokyo was anything like his plays, Buruma knew that he had to join the circus as soon as possible.

Tokyo was an astonishment. Buruma found a feverish and surreal metropolis where nothing was understated—neon lights, crimson lanterns, Japanese pop, advertising jingles, and cabarets. He encountered a city in the midst of an economic boom where everything seemed new, aside from the isolated temple or shrine that had survived the firestorms and earthquakes that had levelled the city during the past century. History remained in fragments: the shapes of wounded World War II veterans in white kimonos, murky old bars that Mishima had cruised in, and the narrow alleys where street girls had once flitted. Buruma’s Tokyo, though, was a city engaged in a radical transformation. And through his adventures in the world of avant garde theater, his encounters with carnival acts, fashion photographers, and moments on-set with Akira Kurosawa, Buruma underwent a radical transformation of his own. For an outsider, unattached to the cultural burdens placed on the Japanese, this was a place to be truly free.

A Tokyo Romance is a portrait of a young artist and the fantastical city that shaped him. With his signature acuity, Ian Buruma brilliantly captures the historical tensions between east and west, the cultural excitement of 1970s Tokyo, and the dilemma of the gaijin in Japanese society, free, yet always on the outside. The result is a timeless story about the desire to transgress boundaries: cultural, artistic, and sexual.

Advance Galley Reviews

I was intrigued by the description Penguin offered when putting this book on offer, but unfortunately I did not finish this. What I thought it was about and what it actually is are very different and as a result I just couldn't focus and my interest waned. While this book did not keep my interest, I think for the right person, they will enjoy this book.

I have always wanted to visit Japan. This book was an interesting take on their cultur and they dynamics that exist within. I have never been so I am not sure if those things still are present. Most of the information is from 70's, so it is unclear if it remains that way or not. I enjoyed the book none the less. Thanks for the opportunity to read.

I'm not sure how I feel about this memoir. Although I strongly relate to the author's attraction to an exotic culture, a lot of the novel is a little too seedy for me; a little too much of shock for shock's sake....except with the addition that it's "exotic Orientalism", too. As a film and art nerd, though, I love the name-dropping that goes on. It's strange to me that you can live a whole life without every meeting anyone that you'd class as noteworthy, but other people practically trip over the greats of history just going out for coffee.

Writers often return to the subject of their youth that made them what they are. Ian Buruma’s formative period is stranger than most. He deliberately launched himself into the most exotic locale he could imagine to, as he tells us, escape the green lawns and suburban comfort of the Netherlands where he grew up. So in 1975, he moved to study in Japan. His interest was cinema and that launched him into a series of adventures learning about Japan and particularly the bizarre connections between avant-garde film and theatre and the Tokyo underworld of yakuza gangs and seedy cabarets and strip joints. Despite the pose of the neophyte entering this world, Buruma seems to attach himself to some interesting mentors. Film critic Donald Richie, in exile to avoid the problems of being gay in small-town Ohio, offers him advice on living in Japan. He meets Akira Kurosawa and almost gets a bit part in Kagemusha. Much of the last part of the book is spent with playwright Kara Juro when Buruma seems to be fairly well immersed in Japanese theatrical life. A life recounted cannot always be rendered in a linear fashion but many readers will be flummoxed by references to people who then show up 70 pages later as major figures. We first hear of Kara as if he’s as well-known as August Wilson but Buruma’s encounter with him has to wait several more chapters. At two very different points in the book, Buruma explicates his making of a documentary about the training of young women as elevator operators in Tokyo department stores. Such randomness and repetition make it seem as if the manuscript needed a more zealous editor. The most interesting parts are not the grotesques that populate the book but there are plenty of them. We encounter, for example, a tattooist who uses the original, pre-electric needle methods for putting ink beneath the skin and a man who wants most of his body decorated despite the fact that it will mark him as a social outcast. One or two artists Buruma meets finance their high cultural pursuits by performing in sleazy sex shows. The real purpose of the book is explain Buruma’s encounter with Japan. Along the way he makes many interesting observations, telling us, for example, that despite the traditional social obligations and cultural habits, Tokyo in the 1970s was dominated by “cheap fantasy architecture” built in the previous decade. It seemed like a theme park. Elsewhere Buruma emphasizes the resemblance of Japanese politics to performance art. These deep dives into the avant-garde are interesting and often outlandish but ultimately Buruma finds himself unable to assimilate to Japanese life despite his rich experience and linguistic skills. Reading through much of the detail in this book will be awkward for those unacquainted with post-war Japan but it is a rich picture of an exotic and different world from the tradition-bound stereotype of tea and kimonos. And the mass of detail crystalizes in the last chapter when Buruma explains the lessons he learned as a young man in the exotic world of Tokyo in the 1970s.

To sum up A Tokyo Romance in one sentence would be: One man’s obsession/love for Tokyo and all things Japanese. Ian Buruma’s fascinating memoir about his life in Japan in the 70s was like a glimpse into the past. A past that I would not have even imagined. My thoughts of Japan now is the Manga, Sailor Moon, anime, Kawaii world. But a seedier Japan existed (and for all we know, still exists). To be honest, I did not know what to think about this novel. With the ins and outs, ups and downs of one man’s life, I was wondering why I should care about it. The cheery cover belies the depth of the actual memoir, and it’s not all sunshine. Not only does Buruma delve into his own character, but those of the various people that he comes across. From his many acquaintances and friends. The further I read the more interested I became. Not just Buruma’s life, but in those around him. The main focus on this memoir would be Buruma’s love of Japanese theater. The old fashioned movies are what inspires him to actually move to a different country with language and cultural barriers. “Perhaps that is what excited me most about Japan, which was still no more than an idea, an image in my mind: the cultural strangeness mixed with that sense of raw humanity that I got from the movies” We all wish we could live in a different country. The common misconceptions we get are all from TV and movies. I will be the first to admit that I’ve fallen for them. Buruma fell for it and overtime he became disillusioned to the fact he would not quite fit in no matter if he learned the language or not. He would always be the foreigner or “Gaijin” as the Japanese put it. His constant need to integrate made it even more obvious to the fact that he was indeed not Japanese and could never full be accepted. “Transcending the borders of language and shared assumptions will result in disillusion.” I will not delve too much into what he sees in Japan. An overall theme of sexuality is played out throughout the whole story. Some eyebrow raising moments for sure. Maybe even too much of a certain aspect that really wasn’t necessary to know about. But then again, most of the things he sees are live performances and he was into theater and movies. Overall, it was interesting. Some parts I just glossed over because I couldn’t connect with it.

This topic of this book is just not grabbing me. I thought it would be more about the overall culture differences and the influence of western culture on Japan. This is more a memoir of a young man's time in Japan revolving around the film world. This book would a great for a young film student.

I had too many download issues with this book on my ereader unfortunately. It took more than 5 minutes to load the first picture around page 16 and just a few pages later, it wouldn't move on to the next page at all. From what I had read of the story so far, it wasn't really pulling me in so I wasn't that invested in figuring out the technical issues. I was hoping for more of a Tokyo travel guide memoir, but it was more of a coming of age story from what I picked up in the beginning.

Oh, dear, I am sincerely sorry but I just cannot make myself read the second half of this book. The subject matter just does not interest me like I thought it would. The writing itself is excellent and I plan to try a couple of other books by this author but the world of theater, film and odd sex shows in Tokyo of the mid 70’s just does not appeal.

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.


More to Explore

  • Murder in Amsterdam
  • Occidentalism
  • Inventing Japan
  • Year Zero

Copy the following link