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Memoir Review: A Tokyo Romance by Ian Buruma

by Aleen @ Lampshade Reader

I voluntarily reviewed an Advance Reader Copy of this book.

This book may be unsuitable for people under 17 years of age due to its use of sexual content, drug and alcohol use, and/or violence.

A Tokyo Romance

Memoir Review: A Tokyo Romance by Ian Buruma
by Ian Buruma
Published by Penguin Press
on March 6th 2018
Genres: Memoir
Pages: 256
Format: e-book
Source: First to Read
Purchase: Amazon
Rating: 4 Stars



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 longed for wasn’t so much the exotic as the raw, unfiltered humanity he had experienced in Japanese theater performances and films, witnessed in Amsterdam and Paris. One particular theater troupe, directed by a poet of runaways, outsiders, and eccentrics, was especially alluring, more than a little frightening, and completely unforgettable. If Tokyo was anything like his plays, Buruma knew that he had to join the circus as soon as possible.

Tokyo was an astonishment. Buruma found a feverish and surreal metropolis where nothing was understated—neon lights, crimson lanterns, Japanese pop, advertising jingles, and cabarets. He encountered a city in the midst of an economic boom where everything seemed new, aside from the isolated temple or shrine that had survived the firestorms and earthquakes that had levelled the city during the past century. History remained in fragments: the shapes of wounded World War II veterans in white kimonos, murky old bars that Mishima had cruised in, and the narrow alleys where street girls had once flitted. Buruma’s Tokyo, though, was a city engaged in a radical transformation. And through his adventures in the world of avant garde theater, his encounters with carnival acts, fashion photographers, and moments on-set with Akira Kurosawa, Buruma underwent a radical transformation of his own. For an outsider, unattached to the cultural burdens placed on the Japanese, this was a place to be truly free.

A Tokyo Romance is a portrait of a young artist and the fantastical city that shaped him. With his signature acuity, Ian Buruma brilliantly captures the historical tensions between east and west, the cultural excitement of 1970s Tokyo, and the dilemma of the gaijin in Japanese society, free, yet always on the outside. The result is a timeless story about the desire to transgress boundaries: cultural, artistic, and sexual.

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To sum up A Tokyo Romance in one sentence would be: One man’s obsession/love for Tokyo and all things Japanese.

Ian Buruma’s fascinating memoir about his life in Japan in the 70s was like a glimpse into the past. A past that I would not have even imagined. My thoughts of Japan now is the Manga, Sailor Moon, anime, Kawaii world. But a seedier Japan existed (and for all we know, still exists).

To be honest, I did not know what to think about this novel. With the ins and outs, ups and downs of one man’s life, I was wondering why I should care about it. The cheery cover belies the depth of the actual memoir, and it’s not all sunshine. Not only does Buruma delve into his own character, but those of the various people that he comes across. From his many acquaintances and friends. The further I read the more interested I became. Not just Buruma’s life, but in those around him.

The main focus on this memoir would be Buruma’s love of Japanese theater. The old fashioned movies are what inspires him to actually move to a different country with language and cultural barriers.

“Perhaps that is what excited me most about Japan, which was still no more than an idea, an image in my mind: the cultural strangeness mixed with that sense of raw humanity that I got from the movies”


We all wish we could live in a different country. The common misconceptions we get are all from TV and movies. I will be the first to admit that I’ve fallen for them. Buruma fell for it and overtime he became disillusioned to the fact he would not quite fit in no matter if he learned the language or not. He would always be the foreigner or “Gaijin” as the Japanese put it. His constant need to integrate made it even more obvious to the fact that he was indeed not Japanese and could never full be accepted.

“Transcending the borders of language and shared assumptions will result in disillusion.”


I will not delve too much into what he sees in Japan. An overall theme of sexuality is played out throughout the whole story. Some eyebrow raising moments for sure. Maybe even too much of a certain aspect that really wasn’t necessary to know about. But then again, most of the things he sees are live performances and he was into theater and movies.

Overall, it was interesting. Some parts I just glossed over because I couldn’t connect with it.

About Ian Buruma

ian buruma author photo

Ian Buruma was educated in Holland and Japan. He has spent many years in Asia, which he has written about in God's Dust, A Japanese Mirror, and Behind the Mask. He has also written Playing the Game, The Wages of Guilt, and Anglomania. Buruma is currently a fellow at the Woodrow Wilson Institute for the Humanities in Washington, DC.


Have you read any memoirs? If so, which one stood out to you the most?

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Carole @ Carole's Random Life in BooksAleen @ Lampshade ReaderVellum VoyagesKimberly @ Caffeinated ReviewerMary Kirkland Recent comment authors

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Carole @ Carole's Random Life in Books

I don’t think that I have read anything quite like this book. It would be nice to learn more about Japan. I am glad you enjoyed this one, Aleen!

Vellum Voyages

Its so good when you can read something out of the norm isn’t it? This sounds really interesting!

Kimberly @ Caffeinated Reviewer

Not sure if my comment went to spam or gremlins ate it. I know very little about Japan aside from what I learned in American history books and of course culture things like Manga and Sailor Moon. Great pick Aleen!

Mary Kirkland

It does sound interesting even if it’s not my type of book.

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