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. 

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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

This was one of the only books I've struggled to get through in this program. Make sure you take time to focus on it...

I was disappointed in this book, so much so that I did not finish it. I was hoping it would be written in more of a Japanese literature style, rather than the revelations of a life I was not interested in reading about. The author’s lifestyle, which may fascinate many, was sadly abhorrent to me.

You really have to “find time” to focus on reading this novel. Great accuracy easy make a far from light read in romance.

I couldn't get into this book at all. I thought maybe putting it down for a month and trying again would give me a different head space, but it was just as bad for me then. I doubt I'll even attempt it again.

Unfortunately, I just couldn't get into this book. I was really looking forward to reading this book based on the blurb, but within the first few chapters, I just couldn't get into it. So many names I could hardly keep up and I felt like I needed to have a notebook beside me just to write them down to reference back. Maybe I will try again another time.

Interesting read for anyone interested in Japanese modern culture. Very inside baseball. Difficult to follow with and get into with such minute details. Good academic source. Melissa Ocala, FL

I picked up this book because of my own recent interest in Japan. I'm not familiar with the era, the art scene, or indeed any of the many many people being namedropped in the book, but that's what makes it appealing - it's a journey into what is to me an alien subculture filled with strange and fascinating characters.

I was really excited to read this memoir, but as much as I wanted to like it, the memoir just didn't grab me. I kept trying to stay focused, but days and days passed, and I clearly wasn't making any progress, until I finally abandoned this book only a fifth of the way in. I try NOT to abandon books I get access to from First to Read, but this just wasn't for me.

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. Summary 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. Main Character: 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. Plot: 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. What I Liked 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. What I Didn’t Like 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. Overall 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. Acknowledgements: I received a free copy of this book from Penguin First To Reads, in return for an honest review.

After reading a chapter of this book, I find that I am just not interested in it. I loved the idea of it from the description, but I find the prose a bit scattered and morose. I do not plan to continue. I appreciate receiving the early copy.

Thank you for this advance reading copy. I really wanted to like this book, but it didn't keep my interest. I did complete it but the story seemed to jump around and was at times difficult to follow. I enjoy this time period and reading about Tokyo. While this book wasn't to my taste, it may be wonderful for other readers.

As a Japanese historian, I was very interested in this memoir, But as soon as I started reading, I was put off by this privileged white guy who sort of fell into Japan. I have met far too many people like this author, and I just couldn't bring myself to go deeper in his story. Not for me at all.

A nostalgic, quietly detached rumination on anxious youth and first loves, which preserves a certain youthful tendency to exploring and collecting. Buruma preserves the snapshots and his slow, elegant prose provides a nice glimpse into how our selves, our preferences and characters are constructed through experience from our first, chaotic and naive impulses and ambitions; how wanting to be a type of person leads haphazardly to become someone who is and is not what we pretended. A Tokyo Romance presents a memory of cultural and transcultural learning and a catalogue of experiences chased and remembered with no judgment or weariness. It also reminds us how we can preserve our notes and reconstruct, not unlovingly, our past selves.

I received an ARC of this book from 'First to Read', the description provided was exciting, particularly since I had the opportunity to spend some time in Tokyo in 1976 and later in 1983. While I was neither 'artistic' nor 'sensitive', there were many descriptions which resonated in my memory. I enjoyed the book which brought back several scenes that I had forgotten. It also made me rather envious that my stay did not have the same level of encounters. I would give the book four stars.

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.

This is a memoir about a "gaijin" (a white person) in Japan in the late '70s. I was surprised at the contemporary films, theater, and art scene described (at times reminiscent of what I've read about the Andy Warhol scene at the Factory in its outrageousness). Ultimately everything had a foreign feel, but what resonated for me was the attempted immersion into another culture described in this book. Thanks to First to Read- Penguin Books USA for the free copy of this book.

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.


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