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The department of Sinology at Leiden University, Netherlands, did not attract a lot of students in the early 1970s. Perhaps it was the inauspicious surroundings — it was housed in an old lunatic asylum — or the ponderous teaching material, leaden with Chinese propaganda, which professors foisted upon their pupils. Be it as it may, there was little to inspire and even less to retain the interest of a 20 year old who, not sure about his career, had chosen the faculty for no better reason than a professed taste for Chinese food and an awareness that a familiarity with the language might one day “be useful.”

Unsurprisingly, that student — Ian Buruma — quickly got bored. A distinguished career as a journalist, writer and public intellectual, one largely dedicated in its early years to interpreting and exploring connections between East and West, could have been aborted before it even began. But a chance encounter with Japan, particularly the surreal theater of Shuji Terayama, then one of the leading lights of the avant-garde, changed everything. In “A Tokyo Romance,” a candid and introspective memoir of the six years he spent in Japan in the late 1970s and early ’80s, Buruma recalls how seeing Terayama’s troupe in Amsterdam felt “like squinting through the keyhole of a grotesque peep show, full of extraordinary goings-on.” It might have been just a fantasy, but “if Tokyo was anything like this,” Buruma thought, “I needed to join the circus and get out of town.”

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