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A Tokyo Romance: A Memoir

3.45  ·  Rating details ·  564 ratings  ·  83 reviews
A classic memoir of self-invention in a strange land: Ian Buruma's unflinching account of his amazing journey into the heart of Tokyo's underground culture as a young man in the 1970's

When Ian Buruma arrived in Tokyo in 1975, Japan was little more than an idea in his mind, a fantasy of a distant land. A sensitive misfit in the world of his upper middleclass youth, what he
Published 2018 by Penguin Audio
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Mar 29, 2018 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: books-bought
Over the years, and especially going back and forth from Japan, I have read many books by fellow Americans and some British citizens on their time spent in Japan. A lot of them are crap. The ones that stand out are the ones that wrote about Japanese cinema and literature. The girls or guys who went there to get a job as an English teacher are usually not that interesting, but alas, those who are devoted to a specific Japanese artist or thinker, then yes I very much enjoy that type of book. There ...more
Lyn Elliott
As a young man, Ian Buruma lived in Japan for several years , exploring the fringe worlds of theatre, film and performance art, where erotu, grotu and nonsensu prevailed (erotic/porn, grotesque and nonsense) prevailed.

He hung out with actors, joining them on tour, eating, drinking, visiting sex clubs – all part of the life of the Tokyo under-life that he wanted to explore. There was more than enough detail for me of his and the group exploits, though those interested in the inner workings and te
Mar 24, 2018 rated it it was ok  ·  review of another edition
I was prepared to love this book and looked forward to a trip down memory lane since I was also in Japan during the time period Buruma is writing about. But it's more of a brag about his own youthful sexual exploits and unless you have a really strong interest in Japanese cinema, a lot of this is old hat and just another gaijin in Japan story.
There were moments when he did express some deeper and more interesting thoughts so the book is not a total loss. But mostly I just thought, "this again."
Stephen Durrant
Apr 21, 2018 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
This memoir is both a poignant account of Buruma's romance with Japan, a romance that both succeeds and fails, and also a compelling "insider" account of 1970s Japanese avant-garde culture, particularly the theater of Juro Kara. Buruma confronts an old problem with insight and sympathy--the inability of the gaijin, however much energy he might pour into the effort, to ever be accepted in Japan as anything other than an exotic outsider (so-called "gaijinitis"). Ironically, he argues, the more ade ...more
I frequently point out my disgust at my fellow Westerners in Bangkok, and the many grotesque variations thereof, and my occasional slippages into their tendencies, and well, looks like Buruma's done something not too different for Tokyo. He tries to integrate himself into Japanese society while at the same time appreciating the impossibility of such a task, and in doing so, has produced a phenomenal memoir of his years abroad and what that meant in the tumult of the 1970s, and the world was tryi ...more
Jim Coughenour
Mar 13, 2018 rated it it was ok  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: memoir, japan
An unfinished book that regularly reappears on my bedside table is The Donald Richie Reader: 50 Years of Writing on Japan, or its alternate, The Japan Journals: 1947-2004. Richie arrived in Japan in 1947 and ended up enjoying the rest of his life there – the journals, writings on Japanese cinema and culture (not to mention, The Inland Sea), never lose their charm for me. Richie appears in the first sentence of Buruma’s new book, and I was guilty of expecting a modulation of the same, the insider ...more
Michelle Curie
I picked this book up in a bookshop in Tokyo, where I went for a couple of days. The place is so different to what I am used to and as a young European woman it's rare to find yourself as an outsider while not feeling uncomfortable in the slightest. It did make me want to find out how other people felt in a country to special and yet strange.

A Tokyo Romance is the account of Ian Buruma, who went to Tokyo in 1970 where he experienced the theatre and film scene first hand. Back then, Tokyo was li
I’ve travelled several times to modern Japan, I adore the country, so I appreciated the perspective of the country in the time that Buruma writes about, the 1970’s. It is a fascinating account of some of the avant-garde creatives of the era, and is set to a good pace. However, the let down of this is, unfortunately, that the writer himself anchors the interesting parts of Japan around his inability to do anything interesting at all. I suppose it is one way of reflecting on the way a gaijin’s exp ...more
More than a memoir of a six year stint in 1970's Japan this is a book on Avent Guard cinema and theater in with an emphasis on dark, bizarre and seedier sides of the culture. Alongside interesting insights into the culture and its place in it as a stranger, there are also a lot of fetishization (which he is aware of) and a lot of descriptions of misadventures in sleazy dives. Readers with feminist consciousness will find here many red flags, however if you are interested in an introspective acco ...more
Matt Simpson
Jul 24, 2019 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Read this while travelling through Japan and really enjoyed it. It offers a simultaneously broad and detailed examination of Japanese culture from a foreigner’s perspective, using experimental Japanese theatre as it’s starting point. Do not be put off by its supposed focus on Japanese theatre and film; I had no prior knowledge of these subjects and found the book engaging throughout as they are often used as a springboard into a more holistic discussion of Japan. The proliferation of Japanese lo ...more
Patrick McCoy
Ian Buruma is one of my favorite public intellectuals due to the variety of subjects he explores in his writing, Asia and Europe, religion and history among other others. However, he cut his teeth in Japan and that is where I first came across his writing in the fascinating Behind the Mask, which had some interesting insights into Japanese culture-particularly literature and film. So I had somewhat high expectations for this memoir, A Tokyo Romance (2018), that were not met. That being said ther ...more
Daniel Warriner
Jul 29, 2019 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
A Tokyo Romance (2018) is Ian Buruma's memoir of his six years in Japan. He moved to Tokyo in 1975 when he was 23 and studied cinema at Nichidai in Ekoda, then met author and film historian Donald Ritchie, director Akira Kurosawa, Yoshiko “Shirley” Yamaguchi, and a hodgepodge of other artists and avant-garde theater performers as he refined his spoken Japanese. Buruma covers an array of topics, including the "role" of the gaijin in Japan and also immersion of the outsider into Japanese culture ( ...more
A great source of reading ideas for me these days is the weekly NYTimes Book Review "By The Book" column where I was first introduced to Ian Buruma who I hadn't heard of before. The idea of this book resonated with me as my wife and I spent two years in Japan. Buruma was attracted to Japan by the Japanese cinema and spent much of his time there among some of the most radical, innovative theatrical producers and movie directors in the country at the time (the mid-1970s). Can't say that I could re ...more

I liked some parts of this, namely the ones where the author forgets about himself, stops being hyper-conscious of his oh-so-exotic surroundings, and just describes the people he saw and/or mixed with. The descriptions of various experimental theatre troupes and little seedy places and shows are especially interesting.

The reflections on Japanese society and culture are surprisingly predictable and masculine-oriented, though. Japan is “a society to which a foreigner could never belong, even if he
Stephen Douglas Rowland
Uninspired. And at least 60% of the material here can be found in other (better) books by Buruma.
Jim Coleman
Apr 04, 2018 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Exceptional meditation/memoir of the author's years in Japan in the mid-70's, mostly as a student. Do not look to this to help you understand Japan or the Japanese. Such understanding would come obliquely, as the author examines his "otherness" vis-a-vis both the Japanese and Westerners as well.

Buruma has a Dutch father and an English mother. His mother brought him up with a lot of English traditions which led to his feeling apart in Holland. There are also feelings of sexual ambiguity even befo
Aug 01, 2020 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
A memoir from Baruma about the six years he spent in Tokyo in the late 70s when he was in his 20s. Confession: among the Japanese playwrights, poets, filmmakers, etc., that he writes of working with/knowing during this time I knew of almost none of them. So honestly on the whole, this wasn't that interesting in that sense, but what I did like is just getting a slice/picture of that time in one's life before picking career/settling down when you can kind of do anything and particularly if you're ...more
Gayle Zawilla
West meets East and past meets future in this somewhat self-indulgent retrospective into the “gaijin” author’s foray into the creative, if sometimes seedy, underground culture of 1970s Tokyo. It reads like an ethnography in parts, which I guess it is. I was given an advance copy courtesy of LitHub First Readers’ Club Book Giveaway (thank you).
Mar 02, 2018 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Buruma spent several years in Japan experiencing all he could about the post-war, avant-garde theater scene in Tokyo. It’s incredibly interesting to get such a privileged view of the somewhat crazy and hyper-cultural counter culture of Japan in the 70s, even more so when it comes from an outsider/foreigner who managed to luck into some very rare opportunities. Every troupe and individual worth mentioning in the time period is someone Buruma either interacted with in private or met in highly pers ...more
Fascinating tale, memoir. It starts off with a privileged baby boomer from Holland, albeit his mother is a Jewish woman from a England whose brother was John Schlesinger, director of the iconic 1969 film Midnight Cowboy. The description of the upheaval of the 60s was interesting mainly because it showed how similar the scene was in Europe and US. The author is drawn to Japan, having a Japanese girlfriend, where he remains for six years.

He is involved in the underground art world in Japan, dance,
Sam Law
Apr 13, 2018 rated it it was ok  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: non-fiction, asia, memoir
This is a memoir, by the editor of the New York Review of Books, which takes us largely to his life in Japan, between 1975 and 1981.

Read More Book Reviews on my blog It's Good To Read

A restless, bored, middle-class youth in the Netherlands, Buruma felt that he never fit in to his own society, that he was always on the fringes, the outsider looking in. He travels to Japan, where he explores both his emerging self, and the Japanese film and theatre culture.

Main Character:
The author Ian
Apr 14, 2019 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
“Despite the extraordinary spread of certain aspects of Japanese culture — sushi, manga, Pokémon — Japan still is an insular nation, not much understood in the rest of the world. This opens up great opportunities to a writer, who knows Japan even a little bit, for so much still needs to be explained.” This explains what Ian Buruma is known for, and how I came to hear about this book.

I found this book a treasure, containing nuggets of information so niche — in the field of theatre; culture; avant
Marija S.
This is a memoir. A subjective, peculiar, artsy, anecdotal recollection of the author's youth, a rambling search for outlines of his own identity in a city that de facto does not exist anymore. Anyone picking it up with expectations to be presented with a flattering, familiar picture book of Japan or Tokyo just because of the title is bound to be disappointed.

Having said that, by reading this book, you get a unique chance to immerse into the life of one most unusual characters (just check Ian B
Erika Starkey
Oct 23, 2019 rated it did not like it  ·  review of another edition
It felt like a cross between Ian Buruma's diary and a history textbook. The stories are mildly interesting, somewhat trivial, but nonetheless precious memories of a young man's adventure to the far east. It didn't seem personal enough... I felt like the author was holding back, (or had failed to recall?) a lot of minute details that might add personality or life to these memories. Did he only come across submissive Japanese women, and had never met a single Japanese woman who refuse to yeild to ...more
Books on Asia
Oct 31, 2018 rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: japan
This book was an easy read, and it was well-enough written, giving some interesting insights on Japanese culture and what was happening socially in Tokyo in the late 70's. Ian Buruma lived in Japan for 6 years, but he says he didn't keep a diary and he didn't write many letters during that time. He had only photos and his memory. Perhaps that's why the book seems to be lacking any narrative. The book is more about other people—mainly the literati he hung out with—than himself. Buruma spends most ...more
Ondřej Hojda
Jan 18, 2019 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
"Mimicking Japanese figures of speech, or even adopting the physical mannerisms that go with a language—the bobbing of the head in half bows when speaking on the phone, smiling all the while—sometimes made me feel like an actor in real life. One would like to think that operating in a different culture is enriching. And so it is. But there are moments when the performer in a foreign language feels that he is leaving something of himself behind, or, to put it differently, that the foreign languag ...more
Carla Patterson
Quite interesting to hear about people and places I am familiar with due to my own time learning Japanese language and culture... but also, to read about aspects of the art and theater scene I would never have been aware of. I totally understand the Gaijin disease even though I never lived in Japan (spent a couple of nights in Tokyo on the way to and from Hong Kong, where I lived for a year but that's it). For a while I seemed to be 'Turning Japanese' (as the song says), but it was never going t ...more
Apr 03, 2019 rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
A lot of interesting history around Japanese Cinema of the 70s, and the context around that. Me and all of the other people going to Japan Society screenings will feel more confident reading this book. On the other hand, I do think Mr. Buruma could have been more sensitive or reflective on tourism type activities in Japan. There's a point about 1/3 of the way through the book where he rather uncritically makes the analogy that the desire to have sex with a japanese person (women? mostl ...more
3.5 stars

“You know,” he said, before we parted company at the Hongo subway station, “you have to be a romantic to live in Japan. A person who feels complete, who does not question who he is, or his place in the world, will dislike it here. To be constantly exposed to such a radically different culture becomes unbearable. But to a romantic, open to other ways of being, Japan is full of wonders. Not that you will ever belong here. But that will set you free. And freedom is better than belonging. Y
This isn't a standard memoir because it covers just a short period in the author's twenties. I felt Buruma was pretty unsympathetic to his younger self: he spends a lot of time on episodes where he made a faux pas or embarrassed himself in some way. Perhaps this is the nature of being young and/or foreign in Japan, but I would have enjoyed more insights into the things that he took delight in - for instance, I liked his fond description of the apartment he rents with the very shabby traditional ...more
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Ian Buruma is a British-Dutch writer and academic, much of whose work focuses on the culture of Asia, particularly that of 20th-century Japan, where he lived and worked for many years.

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