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...
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