A Tokyo Romance: A Memoir by Ian Buruma - review by Christopher Ross

Christopher Ross

Glad to be Gai

A Tokyo Romance: A Memoir


Atlantic Books 244pp £16.99 order from our bookshop

Anyone seriously interested in contemporary Japan, in particular its theatre, cinema and struggles with national identity since the American occupation, will most likely have at some time read Ian Buruma. There are only a few scholars, journalists, critics and commentators writing about Japan in English worth reading, and Buruma is one. So I wondered what I might find in this short book, subtitled ‘A Memoir’ presumably to distinguish it from strict autobiography. Buruma can be very funny: his novel about cricket, Playing the Game, contains an unforgettable character employed by an exceedingly fat maharaja whose sole and unlikely job is, when signalled, to raise a buttock of the prone prince so he might fart more comfortably. There are many comparably improbable images, usually sexual, often harrowing, in this account of Buruma’s six years in Japan, from 1975 until 1981. It might be an unwise choice of gift for your maiden aunt.

Buruma was twenty-four when he arrived in Tokyo in 1975, having by this time rejected a legal career. After acquiring a Japanese girlfriend in Amsterdam, he became interested in avant-garde theatre and cinema (his uncle was the director John Schlesinger) and decided to try his luck in Japan, obtaining a grant to study film at Nichidai in Ekoda. The university library was oddly off limits to all Japanese students, a rule dating from the riots of a decade earlier, but could be freely accessed by innocent gaijin students (or foreigners). Buruma found that almost all the English-language books in the library had been donated by a single Western man in the 1930s. They included first editions of Oscar Wilde’s plays, the works of Ronald Firbank, a book about nudists in Germany, and similar titles all carrying ‘the stale whiff of prewar pederasty’. Buruma, who says that he ‘always felt drawn to outsiders’, speculates that the donor, like many Westerners in Japan and the Far East, was a ‘sexual exile’. Before Buruma left for Tokyo, an elderly Dutch acquaintance had firmly advised him to avoid Donald Richie and his circle of gay expatriates, but he didn’t and quickly adopted the role of apprentice to the well-connected and knowledgeable Richie, a formal relationship in Japan termed senpai–kōhai, or
senior–junior. Richie spoke but did not read or write Japanese and, apart from spending a brief time in New York, had been in Japan since acquiring a job as a young reporter for the US military newspaper Stars & Stripes. Richie had by then become the dean of expatriate cultural commentators and the foremost Western expert on Japanese cinema, counting Kurosawa among his many friends in the film industry. He was also close to Mishima Yukio, which is why I also sought out Richie two decades later. Mishima’s ghost haunts several scenes in this memoir.

A large part of the book is given over to Buruma’s involvement with the Jōkyō Gekijo, or Situation Theatre, formed in 1963 by Kara Jūrō, whose real name was Otsuru Yoshihide. This form of theatre was an attempt to create a uniquely Japanese expression of reality, incorporating the recent pain of national defeat and occupation, as well as the reality of death, suffering and rebirth in the postwar urban environment of downtown Tokyo. It also riffed on the dreamlike memories of Kara and the childhood poverty he had suffered in a demimonde of transvestite hookers, petty gangsters and down-and-outs. It was a theatre of the body, like the dance phenomenon Ankoku Butoh (‘dance of utter darkness’) launched by Hijikata Tatsumi in 1959. The first performance was based on Mishima’s novel Kinjiki (‘Forbidden Colours’). Half the audience walked out on the opening night in shock and disgust as a live chicken was squeezed to death between the thighs of a performer simulating the rape of a boy. Mishima and Richie remained to the end.

Richie also made a short film about Ankoku Butoh, presumed lost, but Buruma came across a copy. It depicts a young dancer being assaulted by a group of delirious men and women in flapping kimonos, who shit, piss and vomit on him before castrating him with a meat cleaver. This sort of thing is classified as ero, guro, nansensu, or erotic, grotesque and absurd, an attempt to explore a hidden and taboo consciousness, which is deliberately both cruel and non-sequential. When talking to Hijikata, Buruma, whose name in its Japanese pronunciation sounds the same as the word for ‘pants’, was told: ‘Pants … you’re a television.’ This seems to have meant that he engaged in merely broadcasting others’ material and ideas and created nothing himself, just reproducing what he encountered. Words are thus suspicious. Only the language of the body can be authentic. And one other thing: you need to be Japanese.

Every gaijin who has learned to speak good Japanese eventually has to confront the question of identity, or what exactly he or she has become. They are not, of course, Japanese and will never be accepted as Japanese. They might be thought unusual gaijin, like my aikido teacher Robert Mustard, a blue-eyed samurai, but especially for the older generation of Japanese who suffered during the Second World War and the US occupation, disparagement and resentment are never too far below the surface. The gaijin foreigner is forever keto, a hairy white thing. Certainly nothing to emulate.

As a Japanese-speaking gaijin, Buruma struggled to make a virtue of his outsider status. Eventually he knew he had to leave, and yet he honestly admits that Japan was the making of him. On the plane flying away from his Tokyo romance, he struggled for one last glimpse of Mount Fuji, which is often swathed in low cloud. Then the captain came on the air and announced that the fabled peak was visible from the other side of the plane. He had been looking through the wrong window.

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