Ian Buruma Critical Essays

Introduction

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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).

Biographical Information

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.

Major Works

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.

Critical Reception

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.