2019-01-10 / Opinions

Book Review

A Tokyo Romance

I an Buruma is a writer and editor of the New York Review of Books. That identification matters because as one reads A Tokyo Romance, a memoir, one wonders if he’s going to amount to something one day. This is his 11th publication, so obviously, he made it.

Dutch-born, he had lived in Paris and London, but was attracted to Japan because of his interest in Japanese theater and playwrights. Asia had not been part of his education, though people had returned to the Netherlands from experiences in Indo-China before World War II. He went to Japan in 1975 as a film student.

“The visual density of Tokyo was overwhelming. In the first few weeks I just walked around in a daze, a lone foreigner bobbing along in crowds of neatly dressed darkhaired people, taking everything in with my eyes.”

Gradually, as he learned to speak and read Japanese, he met and was befriended by many interesting characters, especially in the theater. The general environment continued to fascinate him. Tokyo (or Edo as it used to be called) was already a small castle town in the 12th century. Very few buildings were meant to last forever, unlike the cathedrals of Europe, and of course much had been destroyed in bombing during the war.

Many of his new acquaintances found him as exotic as he found this new culture. “Hovering on the fringes was where I liked to be,” but he did party with his theater friends and even performed a few times, not necessarily successfully. He was intrigued by the erotic fantasies that were prevalent in Japanese art at the time.

He found time to explore the world of tattooing which was not “respectable” then, but was widely sought by his friends. He continued to be an outsider, probably because “Japanese nerves were still sometimes raw.” He turned from his film studies to photography and earned enough to stay on after his student days. He made three documentaries, and his first book was based on his articles about Japan, illustrated by his own photos. He says now that “Japan was the making of me.”

A look at a very different time and place, Tokyo Romance is available at the Mary Willis Library.

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