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Times Literary Supplement: Ian Buruma’s “A Tokyo Romance”

Last year, Ian Buruma succeeded Robert Silvers as Editor of the New York Review of Books. The long journey that brought him to that position began in his native Netherlands and passed, for six years from the mid-1970s to the early 1980s, through Japan. Though he went there in his early twenties, the period constituted something more than a youthful detour: “Japan was the making of me”, he declares towards the end of his new memoir A Tokyo Romance. He launched his writing career – which has widened in geographical and historical purview over the decades – by interpreting Japanese culture for a Western readership.

Buruma’s contribution to the tradition of the Westerner-in-Japan memoir marks the first essential addition since John Nathan’s Living Carelessly in Tokyo and Elsewhere a decade ago. “Nathan lived in Tokyo in the glorious 1960s, where he had distinguished himself far more than I ever had”, writes Buruma. But despite considerable accomplishments – becoming Tokyo University’s first American student of Japanese literature, translating Yukio Mishima and Kenzaburò Òe – Nathan was always haunted by “the possibility that I possessed the wherewithal to distinguish myself only as an exotic foreigner in an insular island country”.

The even-tempered Buruma has fewer bouts of self-doubt and despair to relate, but his experience in Japan has much in common with Nathan’s, including directing a trilogy of television documentaries about Japan for broadcast in his homeland. Nathan took as his subjects an urban family, a rural family, and the samurai film star Shintaro Katsu; Buruma chose the Japanese army, a Yamaha motorcycle factory worker, and a young woman’s intensive training to become a department-store “elevator girl”. At first, Buruma confesses, “I watched this spectacle with the sniggering attitude of a typical Westerner, reaching for the clichéd image of Japanese as human robots. But Hiroko was very far from being a robot. Hers was a performance, and she took pride in it”.

Read the whole thing at the Times Literary Supplement.