Books

Ian Buruma’s ‘A Tokyo Romance’ captures the beating heart of avant-garde Japan

by Martin Laflamme

Contributing Writer

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.”

A Tokyo Romance: A Memoir, by Ian Buruma.
256 pages
PENGUIN RANDOM HOUSE, Biography.

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.”

Landing in the Japanese capital in 1975 was a bit of a shock. “The crowds, the noise, the visual excess” — everything seemed over-the-top. Those who had experienced the artistic ferment and social unrest of the 1960s were lamenting the best years were already past. But the world Buruma describes is anything but staid. Photographers Nobuyoshi Araki, Kishin Shinoyama and Daido Moriyama, whose night classes Buruma sometimes attended, were still in their 30s and pushing their medium into new territory. In film, “roman porno,” “the favored genre of leftists who were disillusioned by the failure of political activism” in the previous decade, was in full swing and attracting some of the best new talent and even established directors such as Nagisa Oshima. Everywhere, “the seedy, the obscene, the debauched, the bloody, the smelly, all that permeated the arts scene.” This was a far cry from the polished world of the tea ceremony and flower arrangement, but it was part of a worldwide trend which, Buruma explained in an email interview with The Japan Times, expressed itself in Japan as a “rebellion against a rather stultified high culture — kabuki, noh and so on — and an equally stuffy modern tradition of imitating European high culture.”

It was heady and seductive stuff, and Buruma jumped right in. Following Terayama’s vision, he gravitated toward experimental theater. He met and drank with Tatsumi Hijikata (1928-86), the father of butoh, who he woefully failed to impress; he “wriggled and contorted and squatted” with the dancers of Dairakudakan, the troupe of Akaji Maro, and even appeared in one of its cabaret — until he messed up the tiny part he was given. It was with Juro Kara, however, a mercurial playwright, actor and the founder of Situation Theatre, that Buruma developed the longest and most meaningful relationship.

Kara’s inner circle operated as a close-knit family redolent of a yakuza gang. At its center was Kara himself, a man with “a volcanic energy […] that was attractive and a little alarming,” and his Korean-Japanese wife, Reisen Ri, who could also be temperamental. Surrounding them was a colorful cast of equally intense actors. Tempers sometimes flared and brawls were not uncommon, particularly after the pack had drunk a few mizuwari (diluted whiskey or shōchū) too many on one of its regular nocturnal excursions.

Buruma’s role in the group was never entirely clear. At times, he was made to feel part of the family. On other occasions, as a foreigner speaking fluent Japanese, he was looked upon as a kind of trained monkey. Nevertheless, he grew close to Situation Theatre. When Kara wrote “Tale of a Unicorn” in 1978, he carved a small role for Buruma. When the play hit the road, with the theater pitching its signature red tent in parks or along river banks across the country, Buruma followed. Every night, wearing “a ridiculous cowboy hat,” he briefly appeared on stage as Iwan the Gaijin, a character who “might be a Russian but who claims to be the Midnight Cowboy,” and was chased on stage “by a marching band of the Narnia Volunteer Corps.” It did not make much sense and to this day, Buruma is still unsure what it was all about. But such was the surreal world of Juro Kara.

From the moment he set foot in Japan, Buruma was almost fully immersed in the local culture. He lived “in a middle-class suburb […] surrounded by noodle shops, Shinto shrines, public bathhouses, and old wooden houses with bonsai gardens.” He had affairs with local girls — and a few boys — and became part of an expansive circle of creative types. He began writing, including film critiques for The Japan Times, and toward the end of his sojourn, he secured his first book contract. “Japan,” he writes, “was the making of me.”

And yet, Buruma never fully committed to any person or any cause. Like his great mentor Donald Richie, a man who loved “sitting on (his) perch unassailable, observing the world from a distance,” Buruma remained on the margins, a voyeur “neither in nor out, neither one thing nor another.” He ascribes this attitude to his background “growing up between two cultures,” the son of a Dutch father and a British mother, an experience which made him, he writes, “a natural observer.” We should be thankful he grew into one of the most perceptive witnesses of our times.