Ian Buruma 1951-
Dutch journalist, nonfiction writer, essayist, travel essayist, and novelist.
The following entry presents an overview of Buruma's career through 2002.
A respected journalist and multilingual international traveler, Buruma has earned distinction as an incisive commentator on Asian popular culture and contemporary politics, particularly in Japan. Behind the Mask (1984), published as Japan's booming economy attracted renewed Western interest in Japanese society, was hailed as an insightful study of that nation's gender and cultural archetypes. Likewise, God's Dust (1989), in which Buruma challenged stereotypical views about Western influence on Eastern cultures, was praised for revealing the complexity of Asian self-identity and the impact of Western consumerism on the East. Buruma has also examined the impact of World War II on the national consciousness of Germany and Japan in The Wages of Guilt (1994), European attitudes toward Britain in Anglomania (1999), and the post-Tiananmen Square lives of Chinese dissidents and other South Asian radicals in Bad Elements (2001).
Buruma was born in The Hague, Netherlands, to Sytze Leonard Buruma, a Dutch attorney, and Gwendolyn Margaret Schlesinger, a Briton whose parents were the children of German-Jewish refugees who immigrated to England in the late nineteenth century. Buruma's childhood in postwar Holland, where the Germans were still vilified as enemies, and his exposure to English culture through his grandparents is recounted in several of his works. Buruma's interest in Japan was piqued as a student when he saw a Japanese theater group performing in the Netherlands. After studying Chinese literature at Leiden University in Holland, where he earned a bachelor's degree in Chinese in 1975, Buruma moved to Japan. He studied Japanese film, performed with a Japanese traveling theater troupe, and worked as a journalist and editor for the Far Eastern Economic Review from 1983 to 1986. He married Sumie Tani in 1981. Buruma's interest in Japanese culture was reflected in the 1984 publication of Behind the Mask, which was published in Britain as A Japanese Mirror. After traveling extensively in several Asian countries, Buruma published God's Dust, essays based on observations made during his travels. Beginning in 1990, after relocating to London, Buruma worked as foreign editor for the news magazine The Spectator, though he resigned from the position the following year. He is also a regular contributor to the New York Review of Books, the London Observer, and Asia.
Buruma's work focuses primarily on Asia, exploring themes of duality and conflict both within Asian societies and between Eastern and Western culture. Much of his nonfiction was originally produced for publication in periodicals, and the style is journalistic rather than academic, characterized by first-hand observation, interviews, and personal anecdotes written in an engaging fashion. In Behind the Mask, Buruma examines recurring motifs in Japanese entertainment, focusing on a key paradox of Japanese society: the polite, proscribed, ritualistic daily life of the Japanese and the prevalence of extreme violence in Japanese popular books, film, and television. Six of the chapters focus on women, five focus on men, and two explore effeminate men and masculine women. According to Buruma, the mother figure—tragic and self-sacrificing—serves as the dominant female icon in Japanese film. Men are either infantilized by women or represented as hardened gangsters to be admired for their personification of Japanese manhood. Buruma contends that this paradox is influenced by Japan's native Shinto religion, which reveres the strong female mother, associated with the masses, and Buddhism, imported centuries ago by the Japanese upper class. God's Dust—based on Buruma's travels in Burma, Thailand, the Philippines, Malaysia, Singapore, Taiwan, South Korea, and Japan—examines Asia in transition. The conflict stems from the idea that the industrialized, urban West has corrupted the idealized, village-based society of the East. Buruma disputes this simplistic theory, while acknowledging that Western influence has spurred changes in Asia. He argues that the East often embraces aspects of the West while retaining fundamental elements of its native culture. Buruma also draws attention to several Asian dictators, including Lee Kuan Yew in Singapore, Ne Win of Burma, and Ferdinand Marcos of the Philippines, whom Buruma interviewed with his wife, Imelda, and whose former home Buruma visits, noting the deposed Marcos' affinity for Western-style consumption. Playing the Game (1991) is Buruma's only published work of fiction. In this novel, Buruma's preoccupation with cross-cultural conflict is represented by Colonel Sir Kumar Shri Ranjitsinhji. This character, based on real-life Indian prince Ranjitsinhji Vibhaji who was maharaja of Nawan̄agar from 1907 to 1933, became famous in England and British India as a world-class cricket player and flamboyant man about town. Popularly known as Ranji, he was a progressive ruler who developed seaports, railroads, and irrigation facilities in the city. The title refers both to the game of cricket and Ranji's effort to find acceptance in British society. Written primarily in epistolary form, Buruma reconstructs and reimagines Ranji through the persona of an unidentified narrator who is researching his life. The reader comes to know Ranji through a long letter written by him to his friend, the cricket player C. B. Fry, and through the narrator's encounters with friends and acquaintances.
Buruma again addressed the differences between East and West in The Wages of Guilt, in which he compares the legacy of World War II in Germany and Japan. Both countries suffered defeat and committed atrocities during the war. However, in Japan, Buruma finds a markedly different national zeitgeist concerning the war than he found in Germany. He constructs his argument by traveling through both countries, interviewing public figures and private citizens, visiting memorials and museums devoted to the war, and studying the war through the film and literature of each country. Buruma finds a sense of great national guilt in Germany, whereas Japanese citizens, in contrast, express little or no remorse. Moreover, Buruma notes that the Japanese maintain a prevailing sense of victimhood as a result of the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Buruma ultimately proposes two key factors in these disparate responses: Germany's government was totally dismantled and its leaders tried for crimes against humanity, while Japan's emperor was allowed to continue his rule; and Germany's crimes during the Holocaust were much more horrific than Japan's acts of war. The Missionary and the Libertine (1996), a collection of essays—many of which previously appeared in the New York Review of Books—covers an eclectic variety of topics, including the Seoul Olympics, Pakistan's Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto, Singaporean politics, anti-Japanese racism in Michael Crichton's novel Rising Sun, and the work of Japanese authors Jun'ichuro Tanizaki and Mahoko Yoshimoto. Buruma posits that values currently considered Asian in nature are found in Western literature—and vice versa. The title of Buruma's volume refers to the yin and yang of sexual impulses, the prevalent stereotype of the repressed West and the dissolute East. Anglomania, published in Britain as Voltaire's Coconuts, examines the concept of Anglophilia—an affinity for England and English culture—as manifested by disparate representatives of Continental Europe. Buruma presents biographical sketches of famous Anglophiles who took refuge in England, notably Voltaire; the English title of Buruma's book alludes to Voltaire's notion that English democracy could be transplanted to revolutionary France, as coconuts could be cultivated in non-tropical climates. Along with his own meditations on the nature of Englishness and the German passion for Shakespeare, Buruma provides studies of Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Karl Marx, Theodor Herzl, Giuseppe Mazzini, Pierre de Coubertin, Kaiser Wilhelm II, and others. The narrative is interspersed with autobiographic recollections in which Buruma discusses his patriotic English grandparents and his own early Anglophilia, which he shared with other Dutch youths. In Bad Elements, Buruma examines the state of the democracy movement in China more than a decade after the 1989 Tiananmen Square uprising. Buruma's investigation, informed by interviews with exiled Chinese political activists and former student leaders, reveals the bitter infighting that persists among Chinese dissidents and juxtaposes the travails of agitators in China with their counterparts in Singapore, Taiwan, and Tibet.
Buruma has received nearly unanimous praise for his astute, interesting studies of Asian culture and society. Critics have often noted his dual Dutch-British parentage, his facility with various languages, and his expansive knowledge of literature and history as distinguishing features of his unique personal perspective. His intimate understanding of the Far East, acquired through extensive first-hand engagements, has also earned him a reputation as an expert in Asian studies. Reviewers have praised Behind the Mask for providing a Western audience with an accurate portrait of the Japanese cultural psyche. God's Dust has been similarly appreciated for Buruma's insightful commentary on the intersection of Eastern and Western culture in Asia. In these works, as well as The Wages of Guilt, The Missionary and the Libertine, Anglomania, and Bad Elements, Buruma has earned respect for his intelligence, penetrating analysis, and engaging writing. Buruma's effort at fiction in Playing the Game, however, has received mixed reviews, with some critics lauding his historical re-creation and portrayal of cultural conflict and others finding the subject arcane, uninteresting, and unconvincing. Though a journalist rather than an academic, Buruma has been highly regarded for his significant contributions to the study of modern Asia. Reviewers have consistently commended Buruma's effort to dismantle Western misconceptions about the East, as well as his exploration of historical memory and the currents of national identity in both the East and West.
Behind the Mask: On Sexual Demons, Sacred Mothers, Transvestites, Gangsters, Drifters, and Other Japanese Cultural Heroes (nonfiction) 1984; published in the United Kingdom as A Japanese Mirror: Heroes and Villains of Japanese Culture
God's Dust: A Modern Asian Journey (travel essays) 1989
Playing the Game (novel) 1991
The Wages of Guilt: Memories of War in Germany and Japan (nonfiction) 1994
The Missionary and the Libertine: Love and War in East and West (essays) 1996
Anglomania: A European Love Affair (nonfiction) 1999; published in the United Kingdom as Voltaire's Coconuts: Anglomania in Europe
Bad Elements: Among the Rebels, Dissidents, and Democrats of Greater China (nonfiction) 2001
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SOURCE: Wintle, Justin. “A Pinch of Aji No Moto.” New Statesman 107, no. 2761 (17 February 1984): 23-4.
[In the following review, Wintle praises A Japanese Mirror, calling it an “engaging, at times disturbing read.”]
Much has been made of Japan's isolation. Western commentators, brought up in the meta-community of Christian states, are inevitably impressed by the long periods in Japan's history when, to all intents and purposes, the country had no contact with the outside world. And yet when contact has occurred the effects have been decisive, even traumatic. Buddhism, Confucianism, Chinese and Americo-European culture have each had a critical and lasting impact. For a people who constantly return to an ideal of national purity the Japanese have been curiously vulnerable to outside influences.
It is not then isolation of itself so much as isolation combined with episodic cultural invasion which, I suspect, explains many of the peculiarities of Japanese society, and which sets up just the kind of permeating ambivalence that makes writing about Japan at once enormously exciting and deeply frustrating. And the Japanese themselves do everything they can to exacerbate the challenge. ‘I am Japanese’ is a phrase that recurs again and again in their conversation with foreigners, offered sometimes as an apology, sometimes as a declaration that the speaker is somehow absolved...
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SOURCE: Seidensticker, Edward. “Japan Kink.” New Republic 191, nos. 7-8 (13-20 August 1984): 40-2.
[In the following review, Seidensticker compliments Buruma's commentary on Japanese culture in Behind the Mask.]
Ian Buruma has written a lively book [Behind the Mask] about what we may call the dirty side of Japan, more interesting to some of us than the pretty side that has been so much more widely publicized by the Japanese information services and by those of us who write about Japan. In his preface Buruma says that his book
is an attempt to draw a picture of the Japanese as they imagine themselves to be, and as they would like themselves to be. … I shall try to show the products of a more popular, more collective imagination: films, comics, plays, and books catering to the taste of the maximum amount of people, and thus often the lowest common denominator. This is not always the best art, though it is certainly not to be despised, but it is often revealing of the people at whom it is aimed. Because of this, I have devoted more space to the raunchy, violent, and often morbid side of Japanese culture than to the more refined and delicate forms with which we are familiar in the West.
Buruma is the first to describe at length this side of the Japanese nature, and we must be grateful to him.
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SOURCE: Moorehead, Caroline. “Asia's Crisis of Identity.” New Statesman and Society 2, no. 73 (27 October 1989): 33.
[In the following review of God's Dust, Moorehead commends Buruma's anecdotal sketches but finds shortcomings in the book's “dense” scholarly passages and Buruma's failure to answer his own guiding questions.]
Do McDonald's hamburgers and Dynasty make the Thais less Thai and the Japanese less Japanese? This question, how a country becomes modern without losing its sense of identity and culture, fascinated Ian Buruma long before he sat down to write this book [God's Dust]. On his many travels round the east he had grown increasingly irritated by the clichés that seemed to pursue him wherever he turned: that third world cities have been so westernised that to find the true east you have to go to the countryside, and that the material west and the spiritual east are clearly juxtaposed. In time, his irritation became such that he set himself to chart Asia's crisis of identity.
He took a year to do so. Starting in Rangoon, he moved on to Thailand, the Philippines, Malaysia and Singapore, Taiwan, South Korea and finally Japan. His plan was to give “an account of the dilemmas, the cultural confusion, the needless searching for meaning and national identity that go on there.” This was his intellectual aim. He had a second, personal one....
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SOURCE: West, Richard. “Cultural Confusion in the East.” Spectator 263, no. 8420 (11 November 1989): 54-5.
[In the following review, West compliments Buruma's writing in God's Dust, though he acknowledges that he disagrees with “almost all Mr Buruma's views and opinions.”]
Some four years ago, I read in the New York Review of Books an article on the Philippines of such originality and depth of understanding that I immediately wanted to know some more about its author, Ian Buruma. He turned out to be a young Dutch scholar of oriental languages who had already published what my informants called the best modern book on Japan, and now lived in Hong Kong. Having since read more of his articles, in The Spectator among other places, I waited eagerly for this new book [God's Dust] of travels in search of the character and cultural identity of Burma and Thailand, the Philippines, Malaysia and Singapore, Taiwan and South Korea, two former Japanese colonies, and lastly Japan itself. This book turns out to be quite simply superb, and Mr Buruma has now established himself as the finest western interpreter of the east.
Although Mr Buruma no doubt subsidised his travels by writing for magazines, these essays are not journalistic in the sense of telling us what is going on now. The question he wants to answer is not, for example, ‘Whither Taiwan?,’ but ‘Whence...
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SOURCE: Carr, J. L. “Extra Coverage without Being Caught Out.” Spectator 266, no. 8492 (13 April 1991): 33-4.
[In the following review, Carr offers a positive assessment of Playing the Game.]
Colonel Sir Shri Ranjitsinhji, Jam Saheb of Nawanagar, Prince of the (Mysterious) East, English folk-hero with diamond tie-pin in I. Zingari tie, a pocketful of Cartier gold eggs and, under his belt, 3000 runs, (av. 87) and a salute of five double-centuries in the Indian-summer of '99. Not Sir Walter Scott, not even Sir Bulwer Lytton opened a novel with more lustrous a hero. Why, even my father had heard of him.
And Mr Buruma's narrator [in Playing the Game], spotting that he is onto a winner, hurries off to develop this splendid theme.
He crosses an ocean, a sub-continent, a desert, to a bedroom in a decaying palace, notes its rack of fossilising cricket bats, the empty parrot cage, half-a-dozen glass eyes, a heavily framed oil-painting of bathing boys by Sir Edward Tuke, R. A … and an odd smell. (The truth? Decaying already?) An attendant whispers; an envelope changes hands. And out tumbles a wad of paper tied with a Cambridge blue silk ribbon. They are those lost letters from Ranji to his god Charlo, C (Charles) B (Burgess) Fry (3000 run, av. 75, and six successive centuries in the Sussex summer of '01.) The bundle fills in biographical details which even Neville...
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SOURCE: Engel, Matthew. “A Dandy at the Crease.” New Statesman and Society 4, no. 147 (19 April 1991): 36.
[In the following review, Engel criticizes Playing the Game, noting that Buruma is “far more of a journalist than he is a writer of imaginative fiction.”]
Consider this: a Rajput princeling, deprived of his rightful inheritance by palace intrigues, emerges into fin-de-siècle English society as the most graceful and exciting cricketer of his time. The stuff of fiction, perhaps? Except that the story is true, or trueish. Kumar Shri Ranjitsinhji of Cambridge University, Sussex and England (later His Highness Shri Sir Ranjitsinhji Vibhaji, Jam Sahib of Nawanagar) really existed (1872-1933), unless, as Sir Neville Cardus surmised, “he was perhaps a dream, all dreamed on some midsummer's night long ago.”
Ranji was a late Victorian exotic, as English as Graeme Hick but far more fascinating. By every account (although there is, alas, no videotape to let us judge) he was one of the greatest and most imaginative stroke-players cricket has ever seen: possibly the inventor, certainly the pioneer of the leg glance; friend and contemporary of the late-Renaissance man C B Fry, both in cricket and later at the League of Nations; and a chap who slid with apparent ease between Home Counties country houses and his own backward, 13-gun state. He is a mysterious figure from...
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SOURCE: Green, Benny. “The Ponce of Players.” Los Angeles Times Book Review (1 September 1991): 3, 7.
[In the following review, Green offers a negative assessment of Playing the Game.]
Ian Buruma's Playing the Game, an epistolary biography masquerading as a novel; is a honeyed account of the life of that dazzling orchid in the English imperial garden, His Highness the Jam Saheb of Nawanagar, Col. Shri Sir K. S. Ranjitsinhji. The English sporting public, dispensing with the Oriental flummery, dubbed him Ranji, and Ranji he has always remained.
Until he stepped onto the playing fields of Queen Victoria's last years, there had never been any such thing as an Indian cricketing virtuoso, for the English modestly assumed that because they had invented the game, it would remain forever their own private preserve. In Ranji's day, cricket was assumed to be white, English and Christian. Ranji was born brown, Indian and Hindu. What compounded his sins was that his style of play was as alien as his origins, hence the remark of one of his exasperated contemporaries: “He never played a Christian stroke in his life.”
Buruma, who starts out as a cricketing chronicler under the grave handicap of being Dutch, has written the conventional story of Ranji's life, portraying a garish grandee who scattered gold cigarette cases and guinea pieces among the professional...
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SOURCE: Beverly, Elizabeth. “A Tale of Two Peoples.” Commonweal 121, no. 10 (20 May 1994): 28, 30.
[In the following review, Beverly praises Buruma's intelligence and compelling interests in The Wages of Guilt, but finds flaws with Buruma's lack of focused analysis and reflection.]
Several years ago, Ian Buruma, a Dutch-born journalist and essayist living in England, with well-established ties to Japan, decided to learn more about Japanese memories of World War II, and the relation of these to a resurgence in Japanese nationalism. It appeared that many Japanese, embracing Hiroshima as a symbol, saw themselves most centrally as victims of Allied aggression, not as guilty perpetrators of a brutal war themselves. They still placed a high value on self-sacrifice for the sake of the nation, discipline, racial purity, and other attributes that the Japanese had in common with the Germans during the war.
When Buruma went to Germany, he discovered that many Germans felt deeply uncomfortable about their national past, embarrassed by those attributes the Japanese continue to embrace and from which they benefit economically. For Germans, Auschwitz had become the symbol of the war, and the collective memory, with some variations between East and West Germany, tended to be driven by guilt. Despite the apparent differences in self-image between these former allies, it seemed to Buruma that...
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SOURCE: Gewen, Barry. “Different Wars, Different Crimes.” New Leader 77, no. 6 (6-20 June 1994): 6-8.
[In the following review, Gewen praises Buruma's subtle analysis of Germany and Japan's World War II legacy in The Wages of Guilt.]
[The Wages of Guilt] seems to be a book that the talented journalist Ian Buruma was destined to write. In the Introduction, entitled “The Enemies,” he explains how, as a boy growing up in the postwar Netherlands, he learned to view the people who had over-run his nation a few years earlier as the embodiment of evil. Germans had sent his father away to work in their factories; they had tortured and murdered many of his countrymen; and, of course, they had practically annihilated Holland's Jewish community. Despite strong cultural ties, the Dutch turned their backs on their German neighbors in the 1950s and '60s. “Even in 1989,” Buruma reports, “when I began, for the first time, to travel extensively in Germany, this was considered among my Dutch friends an interesting but slightly eccentric thing to do.”
Buruma spent much of the 1970s and '80s in and around Japan as a student and an editor, and there too he was reminded of World War II, though for a reason that surprised him. The Japanese scarcely mentioned their aggressions. Instead, they focused on their own sufferings. Buruma notes that the Japanese have two War memorial days:...
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SOURCE: Gass, William H. “Who Is to Blame?” Los Angeles Times Book Review (24 June 1994): 1, 8-9.
[In the following review, Gass offers a positive assessment of The Wages of Guilt.]
The shameful memory market, where Ian Buruma's remarkable book [The Wages of Guilt] takes us, has many stalls. Perhaps there has been in the whole of history no more murderous an age, no period more productive of pain—of death, dislocation and despair—than our own century. Our civilization has found new ways to go mad, contrived fresh methods of mass destruction, gone to wars as if wars were parties, and created several calamities to signal that it has outdone nature's most glamorous disasters.
Consequently, like the plume of the Bomb, guilt's contamination grows. Commencing at ground zero, the guilty are, first, those who did it; second, those who ordered it done; third, those who made possible its doing; fourth, those who proposed it; fifth, those who justified it; sixth, those who applauded it; seventh, those who profited from it; eighth, those whose job it was to obscure and deny it; ninth, those who knew about it but did nothing; tenth, those who did not know of it but ought to have known; and if it is the dropping of the Bomb, or if it is the rape of Nanking, or if it is the loss of World War I or...
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SOURCE: Grigg, John. “Fifty Years On, When Afar and Asunder.” Spectator 273, no. 8662 (16 July 1994): 31-2.
[In the following review, Grigg evaluates the strengths and weaknesses of The Wages of Guilt.]
The author of this interesting book [The Wages of Guilt] is of Anglo-Dutch parentage. He was educated in Holland in the 1950s, and was taught there to regard Germans (not just the Nazis) as enemies. In the 1970s and 1980s he spent much time ‘in or around Japan,’ and Japanese is one of his six languages. Fascinated by Japanese attitudes to the second world war, he was struck by the lingering influence of certain notions from 19th- and early 20th-century Germany, including ‘pseudo-scientific racialism,’ which he had reason to believe had become ‘distinctly unfashionable’ in their country of origin. He therefore decided to write about German attitudes to the war as well, and since 1989 has been travelling extensively in Germany for the first time in his life. The result is a comparative study of great subtlety and intelligence. Though Ian Buruma's method is anecdotal and impressionistic rather than analytical, he achieves a fair degree of clarity on most of the issues that matter, while holding one's attention as no cold-blooded analyst ever could.
The key difference between postwar Germany and Japan is, he explains, that in Germany the guilty regime was completely...
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SOURCE: Bix, Herbert P. “How Japan and Germany Remember Their Military Pasts.” Christian Science Monitor (27 July 1994): 13.
[In the following review, Bix summarizes Buruma's historical perspective in The Wages of Guilt and objects to Buruma's criticism of the Nuremberg and Tokyo war trials.]
In 1990, when George Bush opted for war in the Persian Gulf, the governments of Japan and newly unified Germany were criticized in the United States for hiding behind their peace constitutions and providing money but not troops for the allied effort.
The new economic superpowers (so the argument went) had drawn the wrong lessons from their past failures and had resisted American importuning on the use of military force. How reliable could they be in managing future crises when they were so distrustful of themselves? Was it not time for them to separate history and memory?
Journalist Ian Buruma never poses that question directly, though it is the political premise behind his survey of war memories and strategies for linking the present and past in postwar Germany and Japan. In The Wages of Guilt: Memories of War in Germany and Japan, he maintains that the former Axis partners share a deep distrust of themselves stemming from the events of the 1930s and 1940s. Although German crimes have a special nature and the German and Japanese predicaments are clearly not the...
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SOURCE: Ford, Glyn. “Unfinished Business.” New Statesman and Society 7, no. 316 (19 August 1994): 39-40.
[In the following excerpt, Ford compliments Buruma's central argument in The Wages of Guilt.]
After all but half a century of hegemonic rule, Japan is in a state of rapid flux. The old Liberal Democratic Party, Jiminto—in power since the war apart from a Socialist interlude in 1947-48—is no more. A conjuncture of corruption, the end of the cold war and the passage of time has seen an edifice crumble. After two brief opposition administrations of Socialists, LDP dissidents and the rest, we currently have a Tony Benn-style prime minister kept in power by the Jiminto equivalents of Margaret Thatcher and Michael Portillo. No one expects this to last longer than a few months, before it in its turn is replaced.
The past decade has seen the slow emergence of a more outward-looking, self-confident generation of Japanese politicians, bureaucrats and businessmen. They no longer feel constrained by the Great East Asia War or its aftermath. With the collapse of the Soviet Union, America's security umbrella is no longer needed. It has stopped raining.
The front men for the new politics have been Hosokawa Morimoro and Hata Tsutomu. The third man, behind the throne, is a political boss of the old school, Osawa Ishiro. He has found a new faith. He wants Japan...
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SOURCE: Mousavizadeh, Nader. “States of Denial.” New Republic 212, no. 25 (19 June 1995): 40-3.
[In the following review, Mousavizadeh praises The Wages of Guilt, though he expresses reservations over Buruma's ironic tone and detached approach to Nazi atrocities.]
For the Germans and the Japanese of the generations after the Second World War, the memories of war and defeat have been internalized as burdens of identity. But they have not been internalized in the same way. And this difference has had as much to do with how the world has projected that burden as with how those societies themselves have sought to cope with it. For the world, as well as for the vanquished in that war, the object of overcoming remains elusive, and the questions of closure as difficult to resolve as ever. When has a nation paid the price for aggression? What is the historical limit of historical guilt? Can an entire nation be held responsible for the criminal acts of its leaders? And if so, how is that nation to atone for the evil done in its name?
These are among the questions quietly pondered these days by the silent celebrants of the fiftieth anniversary of the end of the Second World War. They are celebrating, the Germans and the Japanese, because the end of the war was a liberation for them, too; but they are celebrating in silence, because speaking at all runs the risk of moral tastelessness....
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SOURCE: Weyer, Martin Vander. “Japan Looking Sexy.” Spectator 276, no. 8753 (20 April 1996): 36.
[In the following review of The Missionary and the Libertine, Weyer lauds Buruma's insight and intelligence but concludes that his journalistic essays lack the depth and reflection of his books.]
The last time I bumped into Ian Buruma was at the Tory Party conference in Blackpool, where he was composing an anthropological sketch of the faithful for the benefit of Guardian readers. The first time I came across his name was in the mid-1980s when I was about to move to Tokyo: A Japanese Mirror, his guide to the modern Japanese psyche as revealed by popular culture, was one of the two books most strongly recommended to me as an introduction to that alien place.
The other, scholars will be horrified to know, was Shogun, James Clavell's brick-sized epic of samurai sword play, and a rattling good read it was too. If Buruma's work seemed a touch less exciting by comparison, it was, on the other hand, a good deal more perceptive. The Dutch-born Buruma is a cool North European intellectual who surveys the steamier aspects of Oriental life with a quizzical eyebrow raised, just as I found him surveying the blue-rinses in the Winter Gardens foyer.
The Missionary and the Libertine is a collection of his essays from the New York Review of...
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SOURCE: Howe, Stephen. “Never the Twain?” New Statesman and Society 9, no. 403 (17 May 1996): 39-40.
[In the following excerpt, Howe evaluates the strengths and weaknesses of The Missionary and the Libertine.]
The idea of a fundamental difference between “east” and “west,” Europe and Asia, has been one of the most constantly renewed clichés of world history. It is at least as old as the Greek-Persian wars of 2,500 years ago, and as new as the febrile US debates about the “clash of civilisations,” the supposed economic threat from East Asia and the political one from Islam.
It has never been clear where Europe ends and Asia starts, geographically or culturally. In one sense, that is what Greeks and Turks, Serbs and Croats, even Russian presidential candidates, fight about. Ian Buruma and Jack Goody are hardly the first to point out the falsity of that edifice of ideas, but in their radically different ways, both cast new light on what is wrong with it.
From Montesquieu to Samuel Huntington, “western” writers have pondered the great divide. The dominant approach has been to start from the assumption of Europe's uniqueness—above all, as sole birthplace of capitalism—and then seek to explain it. A long tradition, by no means defunct, used the categories of race to account for divergent paths. Now the concept of cultural difference, just as...
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SOURCE: Britten, Daniel. “To England, with Love.” New Statesman 129, no. 4428 (19 March 1999): 45-6.
[In the following review, Britten compliments Buruma's appealing writing in Voltaire's Coconuts, but finds the book lacking in serious analysis.]
Why, asks Ian Buruma in [Voltaire's Coconuts,] his study of Anglophilia in Europe, has Britain “managed to achieve its peculiar equilibrium, based on a combination of social stability and inequality, of freedom and dull conformity, tolerance and provincial smugness, civility and greed”? The question presupposes that Britain actually achieved such a state of civility, since there have been and still are those who dismiss British liberty as a sham, not least certain Scots, Welsh and Irish people. Such dissenters argue that it is precisely because of its conformity and parochialism that England has maintained the illusion of liberty.
Buruma concentrates on those who have, for one reason or another, viewed Britain as a haven from the despotic regimes of its continental neighbours and who have come here because they were allowed the freedom to write what they wanted. They range from the fanatically pro-English Voltaire (who boasted of having introduced the French to English gardens, Shakespeare and Newton's scientific ideas) to the more ambivalent Theodor Fontane, who liked to think that all Englishmen had the words “I am a...
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SOURCE: Ferguson, Niall. “Happy Is England.” New Republic 220, no. 4400 (17 May 1999): 48-50.
[In the following review, Ferguson praises Anglomania, though notes minor shortcomings in Buruma's failure to address Scottish Anglophilia.]
The American Anglophile is a recognizable type. It is usually the Harris tweed jacket that gives him away, or the Savile Row suit. Instead of neat buttons on either side, his shirts have those odd cutaway collars that the English favor. His accent may be more Ivy League than Oxbridge, but every now and then he throws in telling Anglicisms, such as Gatsby's “old sport.” Come to think of it, Fitzgerald's character is the archetypal Angloyank. And all right-thinking Americans should despise such phonies, of course.
American Anglophilia does not feature in Ian Buruma's rich and charming new book, [Anglomania,] though tweed jackets do. Buruma's gaze is directed eastward from England, toward the Anglophiles of continental Europe. When Europeans these days discuss the question of Britain's relationship with Europe, Anglophilia is in fact something of a non-issue. Everyone, it seems, is an Anglophile now. Of course we love the English, say sadly puzzled German politicians; what we cannot understand is why, more than half a century after the end of World War II, the English still hate us. Even the French these days find it hard to loathe the...
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SOURCE: Lukacs, John. “The Cult of John Bull.” Los Angeles Times Book Review (6 June 1999): 2.
[In the following review of Anglomania, Lukacs lauds Buruma's “erudition” and “illuminating” biographical sketches, but asserts that the work represents “a tasty introduction to a vast and profound topic” rather than a definitive history or incisive summary of Anglophilia.]
Anglomania is a book about a truly remarkable—and now historic—phenomenon, which lasted for 200 years or more, and which was a deep seated element in international relations. The accepted use of the term “international relations” is, alas, false: for it deals with the relations of states, rather than of nations. Yet the relations of nations have often become even more important than the relations of states. They are surely deep-seated because they involve the images—including the attractions and the enmities, the sympathies and the antipathies—that nations and peoples have for each other.
The historical study of such relations is relatively recent. And the greatest of such topics is Anglophilia: the extraordinary affection for England, for Englishmen (rather than for Englishwomen), for Englishness and English things—all of this adding up to England's prestige that survived many of its retreats and mistakes and shortcomings—a grand inclination appearing across the globe, illusory...
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SOURCE: Hobson, Albert. “How Europeans See England.” Contemporary Review 276, no. 1608 (January 2000): 48-9.
[In the following review, Hobson argues that Buruma offers a compelling analysis of English culture in Voltaire's Coconuts, calling the work “worth-while and stimulating.”]
I opened this book [Voltaire's Coconuts] with a sinking heart. The title is fashionably silly, in the manner of Flaubert's Parrot, while the subtitle suggests a thesis imperfectly converted into a book. I was, however, delighted to discover that it is urbane, middleweight intellectual fun, which told me a great deal I did not know and ought to have done. It is one of those books that holds up a mirror to the English, written by a cosmopolitan with sufficient detachment and a good literary style, which is needed—because we change quite quickly nowadays. (I recall Renier's influential The English: Are They Human? which did the same job in the 1930s.) Ian Buruma has read a great deal, digested and remembered it, and his ‘sources,’ at the end, is worth reading in itself.
These essays, beginning with Voltaire and ending with Nikolaus Pevsner, are linked by a common theme: Britishness equals freedom, but in a very curious way. Britain, or more particularly England, is like a huge onion, with layer upon layer, each generation adding two or three. Other countries have the...
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SOURCE: Tung, Timothy. “In Search of an Archetype.” New Leader 84, no. 6 (November-December 2001): 23-5.
[In the following review, Tung offers a positive assessment of Bad Elements.]
The title of Ian Buruma's new book [Bad Elements] is intriguing. Surely he is aware that “bad elements” (buliangfenzi) is a Chinese Communist term applied to all kinds of social malcontents, from political dissidents to common criminals. But his subtitle suggests a broad range of Chinese “rebels” both inside and outside China. Are we then to equate the politically disfranchised in Singapore and Taiwan with those silenced in China or exiled in the West who command the bulk of his attention?
A scholar and much-traveled journalist, Buruma has written extensively on Asia. In this analysis of the revolutionaries and democrats of greater China his facility in Chinese was invaluable, for it enabled him to engage almost every important political dissenter wherever he visited. And he spread a wide net, as if he were trying to determine the archetypal characteristics of the “Chinese rebel,” ignoring the fact that in places like Singapore and Taiwan “bad elements” are not necessarily anti-Communist.
Though the ideological roles were reversed, Buruma finds that under the authoritarian rule of Singapore's former Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew the treatment of political...
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SOURCE: Thubron, Colin. “A Complicated People.” Spectator 288, no. 9067 (18 May 2002): 41-2.
[In the following positive review, Thubron compliments Bad Elements as “a wise and imaginative work.”]
The Chinese dissident, by contrast to the Russian, has generally been a remote figure—there is no Solzhenitsyn, no Sakharov or Pasternak—and the atrocious penal labour camps which scatter the Chinese landmass are still less known than the Gulag.
Ian Buruma's Bad Elements helps make amends. The political and cultural questions which rage through it are vested in characterful men and women with shocking pasts and largely unheroic presents. The author interviewed them during travels over five years until 2001, witnessing, among much else, the handover of Hong Kong, the early Taiwanese elections and the emergence of the Falun Gong. This thoughtful and many-faceted book portrays the dissidents in their bewildering divergence: wilful, contemplative, angry, eccentric. Gazing through their eyes, Bad Elements embodies a way of approaching both Chinese political culture and the Chinese conscience.
The dissidents themselves emerge as remarkable but often deeply flawed. Scarcely one agrees with another. The post-Tiananmen exiles in the USA, especially, accuse each other of tainting the purity of the 1989 martyrdom. They emerge as a rather depressing,...
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SOURCE: Gott, Richard. “Foreign Affairs Lite, with Added Buruma.” New Statesman 131, no. 4591 (10 June 2002): 48-9.
[In the following review, Gott comments that Buruma's prose in Bad Elements is “bland” and less engaging that his previous works.]
The New York art world revives itself periodically by promoting the work of artists from distant locations, from Korea, say, or Japan. These are people who have gone to live in the United States and are familiar with its art practice, yet retain something of the “otherness” of their country of origin. Their work often receives critical acclaim for its “originality.”
Ian Buruma is a comparably exotic figure. A writer given space in the New York Review of Books and the New Yorker—and who now lives in London—he comes from a background that includes the Netherlands as well as Japan and China. He is not particularly radical in outlook, but he introduces ideas and concepts into his reporting that are culled from a far wider range of sources than is usually made available to western readers. The simple characteristic of having a foot (and a mind) in two or three different places of origin (experience doubtless with difficulty acquired) gives him an original voice in the mediocre and often colourless print media of today. His writing on Japan has been especially memorable.
Yet, like many of the...
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Adil, Alev. “The Yellow Man's Burden.” Times Literary Supplement, no. 4856 (26 April 1996): 36.
Adil offers a positive assessment of The Missionary and the Libertine, though notes that Buruma's commentary on culture is more rewarding than his commentary on politics.
Ascherson, Neal. “Put Out More Flags.” New York Review of Books 46, no. 9 (20 May 1999): 12, 14.
Ascherson praises Anglomania, though notes that Buruma does not adequately distinguish between “English” and “British” traits.
Banville, John. “Winners.” New York Review of Books 38, no. 19 (21 November 1991): 27-9.
Banville offers a positive assessment of Playing the Game.
Craig, Gordon A. “An Inability to Mourn.” New York Review of Books 41, no. 13 (14 July 1994): 43-5.
Craig evaluates the strengths and weaknesses of The Wages of Guilt.
Hitchens, Christopher. “Oh, to Be English!” National Review 50, no. 14 (26 July 1999): 55-6.
Hitchens compliments Buruma's prose in Anglomania.
Howard, Michael. “Uniquely Horrible.” London Review of Books (8 September 1994): 9.
Howard offers a positive assessment of The Wages of Guilt.
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