“I arrived in Tokyo,” Ian Buruma writes in his new memoir, A Tokyo Romance, “when I was still unformed, callow and eager for experience. Japan shaped me when the plaster was still wet.”
A Tokyo Romance is the story of a young man who comes of age artistically, professionally, and sexually. In his mid-20s, Buruma was feeling suffocated by his somewhat pampered life in the Netherlands. One night, he saw an experimental Japanese film and was blown away. He went to live in Japan from 1975 to 1981, working as a photographer, filmmaker, and arts writer. He was in for some eye-opening experiences.
Buruma, 66, brings A Tokyo Romance to the Free Library at 7:30 p.m. Thursday. He’s a true cosmopolitan, Dutch-born but British-German-Jewish. For years, he’s been a leading writer on history, culture, and the arts. Last year, he became editor of the august New York Review of Books, only its second editor ever. He spoke to the Inquirer by phone from New York, about East and West, his Tokyo years, what “acceptance” means, and why openness may be our best defense.
Can you describe the Ian Buruma who came to Tokyo and compare him to the Ian Buruma who left?
As in every coming-of-age story, you begin with illusions, and gradually the scales fall from your eyes. I probably thought, like many people who go to Japan full of enthusiasm, that one could find a sense of belonging there, but that in the end proves impossible. That’s probably the most profound lesson. That didn’t mean I didn’t make friends; more that it made the whole idea of “belonging” more relative.
What made my position then so interesting, in retrospect, was that there were very few young Westerners around at the time who took an interest in modern Japanese movies and film. And many Japanese youth were reaching out to other cultures. Every door was quickly opened. People were as curious about me as I was about them. It was a time of experimentation, ferment, pushing the boundaries.
At least superficially, Japanese culture is based on respect and observation of intricate social proprieties. Yet, as you document in A Tokyo Romance, the extremes – the pornographic imagination, sadomasochism and cruelty as art, the fascination with Western trash and camp – flourish there, more than many Western readers might imagine.
One is linked to the other. Yes, it is a society that lays great store on respect and manners, but people need an outlet. And that outlet was in artistic expression and popular culture. And violent impulses are expressed that way, too. The hoped-for transformations of the late ’60s and early ’70s never happened, so, to some extent, political rebellion turned to cultural rebellion, and what seems to be a very polite society goes together with enormous eccentricity.
In the end, a sense of belonging doesn’t happen, and you leave Japan. You now live in New York. To what degree do you feel accepted In New York?
New York is a city of immigrants and people who come from somewhere else. That’s why I am comfortable here: The idea of the native-born is an absurdity in this city. That’s the main difference between New York and Tokyo. Tokyo is a huge metropolis, but, granting that the Chinese population living there has grown recently, still, Tokyo is not a place where people from all over the world come to try to make it. New York is.
As for acceptance in Japan, it’s not as if you can never be personally accepted as a friend, or as a family member (which I am). It’s that, no matter what you do, there will always be a great ethnic and cultural distinction between the Japanese and everyone else.
What’s it like being editor of the New York Review of Books? Some folks want it to skew younger and more diverse. What’s happening now to bring on those changes?
It’s a lot of fun. One of the most gratifying aspects of it is working with much younger editors who are very bright, and I learn a lot from them. We’ve already had some success with diversity. We’ve had a lot of new writers, more women than before, more African American writers, and so on. The bottom line is that always, you have to get the best – and that’s perfectly compatible with a more diverse publication.
In your book Taming the Gods, you argue that in the West, our best protection against radical Islam, or radical anything, is the absorbent, pluralist nature of our culture.
It’s not just America. It’s the nature of any open, liberal society. I grew up between the two countries that most exemplified it, the Netherlands and Britain. A liberal democracy can’t function without pluralism. In a truly liberal democracy, the legitimacy of a government does not depend on everyone having the same beliefs. It depends on that government operating honestly and well on behalf of all. You don’t always live with people whose beliefs you share, but you’re all still part of the same society.
So … what do you think of Brexit?
I think of it with enormous dismay. One of the saddest things for me in the last few years is to see how the two countries that came out of World War Two as flawed but great examples of liberty – Britain and the United States – both seem to be committing suicide in a way, turning their backs on everything they fought for in the war.
Ian Buruma, 'Tokyo Romance'
7:30 p.m., March 15, Free Library of Philadelphia, Central Parkway Branch, 1901 Vine Street. Admission: $15. Information: 215-567-4341 or freelibrary.org.