“A Tokyo Romance: A Memoir” by Ian Buruma— Tokyo’s Underground Culture

Buruma, Ian. “A Tokyo Romance: A Memoir”, Penguin Press, 2018.

Tokyo’s Underground Culture

Amos Lassen

Ian Buruma arrived in Tokyo in 1975 with little idea of anything about Japan, other than it having been a faraway place. Ian was a sensitive misfit. He was an upper middleclass guy who longed for raw adventure like he had seen in theater performances in Amsterdam and Paris and he had been particularly influenced by a Japanese troupe made up of runaways, outsiders and eccentrics and directed by a poet. He thought that if Tokyo was anything like the plays, he had to be there. He found Tokyo to be “a feverish and surreal metropolis where nothing was understated, and everything shouted for attention—neon lights, crimson lanterns, Japanese pop, advertising jingles, cabarets, and PA systems.” It was a city He encountered a city in the midst of an economic boom where everything seemed new except for the temple or shrine that had survived the firestorms and earthquakes that had leveled the city during the past century. History remained in fragments in Japan where he found wounded World War Two veterans in white kimonos. He saw the seedy old bars and the narrow alleys where street girls had once ruled. But Buruma’s Tokyo was a city going through radical transformation. His adventures in the world of avant garde theater, with carnival acts, fashion photographers, and moments on-set with Akira Kurosawa, caused him to go through his own radical transformation. As an outsider, he was unattached to the cultural burdens placed on the Japanese and so he experienced true freedom.

 “A Tokyo Romance” is a portrait of a young artist and the city that shaped him. Buruma “brilliantly captures the historical tensions between east and west, the clash of conflicting cultures, and the dilemma of the foreigner in Japanese society who is constantly free yet always on the outside. This is a story about the desire to transgress cultural, artistic, and sexual boundaries.

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