Justin Wintle (review date 17 February 1984)

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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 from having to take account of an alien code, an alien logic, and sometimes as both. But then the Japanese have had their fair share of bifurcation to contend with as well. On the one hand there has been a steadily growing corps of Japan enthusiasts, beginning with the amiable Lafcadio Hearn and continuing through to Roland Barthes, whose Empire of Signs (trans. 1982) must surely rank as the number one example of stupefaction disguised as literature; and on the other hand, since the war at least, there has been no shortage of people willing to castigate the Japanese as a higher form of yellow peril. For both parties perhaps Japan's sin has been her success.

A Japanese Mirror is an audacious, compelling and entirely readable attempt to get to grips with the paradoxes, even if it is not particularly scholarly (the index is execrable), and even if it does pander, in the manner of nearly every other cultural assessment of Japan, to the quest for national identity which the Japanese are so expert at packaging for foreign as well as domestic consumption. By mixing fairly conventional sociological, anthropological and psychological arguments, borrowed largely from such worthy predecessors as Ruth Benedict and Ivan Morris, with his own brand of hard-hitting, and just occasionally scabrous, journalism, Ian Buruma achieves, if not a balanced synthesis, at least an entirely contemporary view of a complex and important society. And, although the scope of his book is limited, I can think of no other account that will tell the reader so much in so little space.

Just how different are the Japanese? And why are they so different? At the heart of these difficult questions is that old bogey, the dichotomy between nature and nurture. Are the idiosyncrasies of Japanese society to be explained by its past? Or has history itself been supplied with a novel kind of raw material?

My own view is that the differences, such as they are, should be treated as no more and no less than historical concomitants. Recently attempts have been made to show, for example, that the Japanese brain is not like other brains. But the thesis which this kind of research endeavours to validate ignores the overwhelming, if mainly silent, evidence. The fact that the Japanese are able to interact with the rest of mankind in all the essential ways (linguistically, sexually, commercially), at least when they want to, should rule against any notion that they are a different species either of homo sapiens or of nation. A different variety maybe, but then aren't we all? To suggest that Japan is a special case in some way is at once pretentious and trivial, a clear instance of barking up the wrong bamboo pole.

Buruma I think recognises this. If he is finally to be classed among the enthusiasts (his conclusion that the Japanese are intrinsically a gentle people is as incongruous as it would be if applied to any other division of humanity), he is not above taking what he sees and hears with a pinch of aji no moto. And seeing and hearing are important elements in his prismatic book. For while much of the ground that he covers will be familiar to anyone acquainted with the literature of Japan, at least equal space is given over to summarising modern Japanese cinema, theatre and other recreational facilities, such as the stylised brothels in Tokyo where the girls are dressed as airline hostesses, tarzan janes or hospital matrons.

What is attempted, and in large measure achieved, is a reconciliation between the new downmarket cultural forms to be found in the big cities and traditional values as exemplified in the classics. Where the picture is incomplete is that, while Buruma is good at spotting Western influences at work within the native idiom, he fails sufficiently to acknowledge that the major entertainment listings, including networked television programming, may contain anything up to 75٪ foreign (mainly American) product. Thus, while he quite rightly draws our attention to Tora-san (Mister Tiger) as a homespun variant of Charlie Chaplin (with, for my money, a fortuitous dollop of Marty Allen), and tells us that his bi-annual films, released at New Year and Bon, are important events in the national calendar, he doesn't really indicate that the arrival of Star Wars or David Bowie are greeted with equal if not greater excitement. Samurai and yakusa movies provide a counterpart to cowboys and gangsters, but because they are recognisably genre pieces local audiences almost certainly give them less attention than Buruma warrants.

His book is subtitled ‘Heroes and Villains of Japanese Culture,’ but this tells only half, and precisely half, the story. Whereas Morris, in his most generalised survey (The Nobility of Failure, 1975), focussed attention on ritual suicide, Buruma goes straight for the jugular: sex. And a very elegant job he makes of it. Sexual roles, he tells us, are differentiated in broad alignment with the characters of the gods in Shinto mythology, Shinto being the one religion in Japan which has not been in part at least imported. These deities, and especially Amaterasu the Sun Goddess and Susanoo her darkling brother, are sometimes orderly, sometimes unruly, but can never pretend to be an embodiment of morality. On the contrary, in the key myths, their behaviour is distinctly amoral—unless (and this seems to be an important aspect of Japanese behaviour) being ‘true to your feelings’ can be classed as a form of morality. Indeed, as far as Amaterasu and Susanoo are concerned, they exemplify fairly universal patterns of sibling rivalry at its adolescent phase. We are dealing therefore, Buruma tells us, with a society in which absolute moral values are not present ab initio.

The siblings, closely involved in the creation story, between them preside over the country. From this Buruma extrapolates a simple but effective shape for his thematic narrative. Half the book is about the Japanese woman, and half about the Japanese man, in their various guises, with a bridging chapter on both-way transvestitism. In line with the legends, Amaterasu has decidedly got the upper hand over her brother, and so it should come as no surprise that Japan is woman-dominated. Indeed it would seem that the Japanese are even more hung up about their mothers than the Italians. But if there is a clear-cut precedent for the passivity of the modern salary-man (computer coolie?) in Susanoo's repression, when he breaks out he does so with a sadistic vengeance. Thus it is that the tough guy has a much longer pedigree in Japan than he does in the West, where, pace Hercules, the Christlike gentleman was the ideal hero at least until the mid-19th century.

In the absence of Jove or Jehovah anything may happen, and in Japan it usually does. But there are strong restraints as well, and here Buruma is less illuminating. If most women do not run amok à la Amaterasu at her most tempestuous, then that is because of effective behavioural codes. But while these are sometimes described, there is no clue as to their origin. To what extent are they indigenous, to what extent are they supplied by Buddhist and Confucian precepts? Buruma does not tell us, nor does he go sufficiently far into the business world which, trade being what it is, is what we really need to know about. Nonetheless, A Japanese Mirror, with its rich and sexy anecdotage, is an engaging, at times disturbing read, not least because its author, having derived his framework from the gods, knows when to pull a screen on them.

Edward Seidensticker (review date 13-20 August 1984)

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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.

Of the thirteen chapters, six are about women, five are about men, one is about mannish women and womanish men, and one is a conclusion and summary with the title, not a little ironic, “A Gentle People.” Rather different Japanese emerge than those whom the cheerleaders have made us aware of. They are much impelled by emotions and by “sincerity” and not greatly concerned with the rational faculty, and they are scarcely interested at all in morals. Once I was sitting with an American friend who had long been in Japan. On the television screen before us was the spectacle of students tearing the most honored university in the land to pieces. “This country has never had any defenses against sincerity,” said my friend. It was a very good explanation for the remarkable scene, and the best explanation for the fact that the students among this “gentle people” have been violent as have the students of no other land.

Buruma describes and he theorizes. Perhaps inevitably, the description is more effective than the theory, some of which is interesting but not entirely convincing. This is true of one point which he makes early and repeatedly, and which is basic: “that the contrast between the native, Shinto-inspired popular culture and the more aristocratic, Buddhist-inspired aesthetic is so strong that one could almost speak of two separate cultures.” A page later we are informed that the rulers of the land made people “behave according to imported codes, which they did not really share.” This does not seem an adequate explanation for either the hedonistic or the puritanical elements in Japanese culture. The military chronicles of the Middle Ages reveal that a stern code governed the behavior of rustic warriors who cannot possibly have been indoctrinated by a hedonistic court. Moreover, it was during the Tokugawa or Edo Period that Japanese society came closest to totalitarianism, and the stern code of the Edo merchant was not externally imposed. It had very deep roots in mercantile culture. Nor is Buruma correct to blame a foreign cult, or give it credit, for the earliest Japanese pornography. Surely pornography is a product of sophistication, which takes many forms. The permissive Mediterranean cultures have it, and so do the repressive cultures of the north. All through the ages the Japanese, not as classes but as individuals, have been queer combinations of the repressive and the permissive.

Buruma also makes much of the Japanese view of moral absolutes, or rather the lack of absolutes. “Morality is [for the Japanese] very much a matter of time and place and nothing is absolute,” he writes early in the book. It may be so, and then again it may not. We must be sure what we mean by such complex, suggestive words as “morality” and “absolute.” At the very least, the Japanese sense of loyalty, crucial to the economic miracles we keep hearing about, approaches both absoluteness and morality. So does the sense of kin responsibility. In any event, these are arguable matters which have a way of eluding generalization.

Buruma's descriptions of low-brow movies and “comic” books and the like, however, are uniformly lively, amusing, and to the point. There is, for instance, running commentary on the plots of the hahamono, the “mother things,” as he calls them, of the cinema. It could be intrusive, and it is not. Mothers are cause for sentimentality the world over, but in few places can tragic mothers be more conspicuous than in the Japanese popular entertainments. There was an actress, now deceased, who so excelled at hahamono that she was known as “the mother of Japan” (and not, be it noticed, the sweetheart). Her most celebrated vehicle, A Japanese Tragedy, had in it far less bite than Dreiser's American one.

And how she suffers! She is thrown out of her husband's house by her brother-in-law and she slides lower and lower down the scales of poverty until finally she has to suffer nightly humiliation as a barmaid in a vulgar seaside resort. For the children she will do anything.

But are they grateful? Of course not. They despise her. … The poor, sacrificing mother of Japan has no choice but to do what poor, sacrificing mothers always do in these cases: she jumps in front of the nearest oncoming train.

On the masculine side, there is a cult of babyishness and purity, which dovetails nicely with the cult of the tragic goddess-mother. In the movies the good guys and bad guys are not cops and robbers or cowboys and Indians, but gangsters of unsullied Japanese purity and those who have been tainted by foreign viruses. That there is a strong coating of nationalism, even chauvinism, over all this, should be quite apparent—one can see why the Koreans do not much want the Japanese back. Of a high school baseball tournament which occurs semi-annually to purify the land, Buruma observes: “… no wonder that the present chairman of the High School Baseball Association let it be known that it is ‘official policy’ not to let foreign reporters into the ground. Presumably they would sully the holy purity of the event.”

These and many other delights await the reader of Buruma's book. In the first quotation above, he seems to be saying (or do I misread him?) that none of the material he treats is “to be despised.” Some of it, though, is downright loathsome. What he calls “comics” are an example. There is very little trace of the comical in most of them. When I was a child we called the colored Sunday supplement “the funnies.” These might well be called “the uglies” or “the ouchies,” so filled are they with cruelty and the least lovable of people. Among those which I find most repellent is an exceedingly popular one about a motherly prostitute. She comforts mama-lorn boys by cuddling them against her breasts and between her thighs. In one episode a colleague of whom she does not approve is murdered in a most brutal and gory way. Of this she does approve. The colleague was not motherly enough. She was lustful.

Selecting somewhat different elements from the same popular genres, one might come up with a different view of the Japanese mother and father, for instance, than the Blondie-Dagwood combination which Buruma offers. One might, indeed, find the terrible, tyrannical father and the victimized mother. I sometimes wonder if Blondie might not in fact be responsible for the Japanese convention of the weak father and the strong mother. She has been a great success in Japan, and Japanese commercial artists do not at all mind revealing themselves as derivative. Observing families in the park on Sunday afternoons in Japan, I do not myself see the bored nonentity of a father whom Buruma seems to see. I see them trying rather hard and doing rather well—and it is not easy to arouse the respect and affection of one's children when one has a single afternoon a week on which to work at it.

There can be no question, however, that Japanese women love to mother and Japanese men love to be mothered. I have known Japanese men who, with their wives indisposed and unable to serve, have seemed unable to find the way to the front door. Similarly, we have the pretty boy at the center of the movie and television screen, not very masculine, a bit of a sissy even, but idolized. Since women are the ones who sit all day at the screen and buy the products it purveys, we may say with confidence that it is they who love these pretty creatures, so kawaii (which we may render as “darling”), so ideal for cosseting.

Buruma makes the Japanese look somewhat silly. Very well; all of us are in some respects silly. Since Japanese popular culture is so different from ours, the elements of silliness emerge more conspicuously. Buruma is the first to undertake a systematic treatment of the dirty, sentimental, and yes, silly side of Japanese culture. Because it is there, and because it is important, it should not be neglected, however the dealers in “international understanding” may feel. He has done his work well, and indeed with restraint. And what might he have done with Japanese popular music, which he scarcely mentions? The lyrics represent the worst kind of self-pity, the treacly kind, and the accompaniment sounds like a computerized accordion playing minor variations on the same insipid themes for hours and hours and hours. And how very much more he could have written about television. Japanese television prides itself, rightly, on technical excellence, but the content is base; and, because no country in the world is more television saturated, a great many better things, such as literature, are suffering.

Caroline Moorehead (review date 27 October 1989)

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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.

The son of parents from two different countries, who has lived a third of his life in Asia, Buruma has always been fascinated by other people's loyalties. His quest, then, was to look at people facing the problems that faced Europe 100 years ago, with the difference that Europe shaped its own modern world, while Asia is having one thrust upon it, and to try to decide whether it is better for these countries to reject modern trends, or accommodate themselves to them.

In Burma, Ian Buruma found decay and a rampant black market; in Thailand, violence and a return to Buddhist fundamentalism; in the Philippines an unhealthy obsession with America; and in Japan a glittering fashionableness, summed up for him by a novelist as having the shiny, stylish surface of a “crystal.”

His most enjoyable report is on Singapore, a country in the sterile, suffocating grip of Lee Kuan Yew, a man so obsessed with dirt of any kind that he forced the former President Devan Nair to undergo a medical inspection for skin diseases before allowing him to use the presidential swimming pool.

Even so, Ian Buruma lets him off lightly. He touches on the story of the 22 young Singaporean professionals—lawyers, businessmen, human rights workers—who were suddenly arrested two and a half years ago, roughed up and made to appear on television to “confess” they were plotting a Marxist coup, but then not tried. But he does not go on to say that two of them are still in solitary confinement and may remain there indefinitely, like Chia Thye Poh, a former Member of Parliament who has been in jail for the last 24 years, on indefinitely renewed detention orders, and who has never been either charged or tried.

One of the problems Buruma had to face and, hardly surprisingly, could not solve, was how to cope with the speed with which the modern world is moving. Since he passed through them, Burma has descended into a revolt, Japan has had a number of political scandals and Marcos is dead.

This is not an easy book, perhaps because it is at heart a book of politics and historical analysis, disguised as a travel book. Buruma's interests are scholarly and, without his particular knowledge of the economic and social structures of these eight countries, much of what he writes is extremely dense. Places and people, unfamiliar and crammed together, merge. For the general reader, what Buruma excels at, on the other hand, are quick sketches of incidents and encounters.

There is, for instance, the account of his interview with the Marcos's in their house in Honolulu six months after they left the Philippines. Marcos was solemn and affable; Imelda ate chocolates, sang American show tunes of the 1940s and, giggling, told him that it was better to have all those shoes in her cupboard than a lot of skeletons. In the Philippines itself, he visited one of Marcos's country houses, and came upon dozens of rusting golf carts; he was told that they had once been used to transport the guests to the funeral of one of the President's granddaughters, who was buried in a nearby lake.

These scenes, and many others like them, are most enjoyable. But they do not provide the answers to Buruma's initial set of questions. Somewhere along the lines of this intelligent, provocative, interesting book, those threads have been lost.

Richard West (review date 11 November 1989)

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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 Taiwan?.’ He is steeped in the history and the literature of these countries, almost all of which he has read in the native languages, and he has complemented this by conversations with writers, scholars and, less frequently, politicians.

The book is, thank goodness, free of the trivial anecdotes that publishers often demand of travel writers (‘the funny things that happened to me on the bus to Bangkok’), but sometimes Mr Buruma steps quite forcefully into the story. In Japan, he became the only foreigner in a theatre group performing absurdist plays, in one of which he was cast as Midnight Cowboy, disguised as a Russian agent. After the last performance in Kyoto, the usual drunken party ended in bloodshed, as the producer, Kara Juro, banged a saké bottle against the nose of a film actor, then hurled a heavy glass ashtray at his Korean wife.

At this point Mr Buruma was overcome with feelings of European chivalry, and shouted at the producer, ‘Don't throw things at women.’ He adds rather sadly:

Kara never forgave me. I had betrayed his expectations. By breaking the code of expected behaviour, by challenging the leader to his face, by standing up, however absurdly, as an individual, by claiming to speak out for higher principles, by suddenly behaving like a Westerner, I had betrayed Kara, betrayed the group. Just an ordinary foreigner after all. I had been given the chance to be Japanese and I blew it.

There is a word Nihonjinron, meaning defining Japaneseness, which has now grown into a national enterprise, almost an industry, producing hundreds of books, thousands of articles, TV programmes and radio talks. In his essay on Nihonjinron in this book, Mr Buruma has space for only a few, though brilliant insights on a nation which wants to be at the same time unique and universal, eastern and western, ancient and modern. For instance, the Sino-Japanese War of 1895 was described by the Japanese Foreign Minister as ‘a collision between the new civilisation of the West and the old civilisation of East Asia.’ To one who long ago gave up trying to comprehend the Japanese, it comes as a consolation to learn that Nihonjinron defeats them as well.

Some of the contradictions of Japan have passed to her former colonies. In South Korea, Ian Buruma encountered fury as well as bewilderment. The historian Professor Pak pointed at pictures of ancient rocks, shards, holy trees and other relics, then called them, ‘Korean, all uniquely Korean.’ He had found similar relics in Japan, which proved that Japanese culture came from Korea.

Ian Buruma found still more cultural confusion in Taiwan, which had been colonised by the Japanese under the name of Formosa, then occupied in 1949 by the Chinese army of Chiang Kai Shek, after the victory of the Communists. Although Japan had made Formosa a model colony, with European buildings, schools, hospitals, roads and electricity better by far than anywhere in China, the present rulers of Taiwan either reject or ignore the Japanese past. Japanese culture, still in western disguise, prevails in Taiwan:

The coffee shops with their quasi baroque, partly French château, partly Alpine Swiss interiors, where teenaged girls eat spaghetti and chocolate parfaits. … Like the colonial buildings, they are Japanese fantasies of Europe and America transformed to Taiwan. They are forms of modern kitsch twice removed from their source, and thus they almost defy interpretation. What to call it? Japanese modern? Asian baroque?

Ian Buruma says that the racial theories justifying western colonialism—the White Man's Burden—survive in the east from Malaya and Singapore to Japan, while long discarded in the west. Both Dr Mahathir of Malaysia and Lee Kuan Yew of Singapore denounce the decadent modern Britain while praising the old imperial rulers. In Singapore, Mr Buruma was told by the first President Devan Nain, of when George Brown had gone there as Foreign Secretary. After listening to a harangue from Lee on the laziness and degradation of modern England, Brown is alleged to have answered: ‘Harry, you're the finest Englishman, east of Suez.’

The chapter on the Philippines could well be expanded into a book on that sad and lovely country, torn between the Malay, Spanish and North American cultures. Ian Buruma understands the Filipino fascination with martyrdom, from José Rizal, shot by the Spaniards in 1896, to Ninoy Aquino, shot by the Marcos police in 1983. He saw how Marcos enhanced his power and reputation by taking the pre-hispanic title of Maharlika, ‘big phallus.’ The chapter includes a macabre but hilarious talk with Mr and Mrs Marcos in exile in Honolulu.

In his preface, Ian Buruma challenges the received ideas that eastern cities are westernised, and eastern people more spiritual than the materialistic westerners. He is on the side of modernity, technology, liberalism and reason, and quotes with approval Macaulay's attack on those like Southey who wanted paternal government based on religion. Like many Spectator writers these days, Mr Buruma is rather against the countryside: ‘The ideal, pristine village always was a fantasy. In the real world the traditional village was dirt poor and fraught with cruel social discrimination.’

As it happens, I disagree with almost all Mr Buruma's views and opinions, but only occasionally does he let these interfere with his judgment. Writing of Thailand, he underestimates the extent to which the Thais in the countryside and the small towns loathe Bangkok, crass industrialisation and above all deforestation. Feeling runs high at present. Again I think Mr Buruma underestimates the spiritual force of the revolution that ousted the Marcos couple. He ends his account of that country, suggesting that nothing can change for the better, the Communist threat will remain, and that all Mrs Aquino's efforts are founded on make-believe. Yet James Fenton, who used to take a similar pessimistic view, wrote recently in the Independent Magazine that things were looking up for everyone but the Communists. It offers food for thought that the two most spiritual countries in east Asia, Thailand and the Philippines, are now the two most flourishing.

J. L. Carr (review date 13 April 1991)

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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 Cardus would have been exercised to conjure up.

The novel's epigraph should have been ‘Let me not to the marriage of true minds admit impediment.’ But the interior quote from Ramchandri Gandhi would have been just as apt—‘A batsman only has one life. But there is the possibility of a reincarnation in a second innings.’ Perhaps that would have been more apt: after all, I take this novel to be Ranji's second innings.

Lately there has been a revival of resurrectionary fiction. And, as William Shakespeare understood, a fictive reconstruction has much to be said for it. For its author can rely upon his inadequacies being not just repaired but improved by an audience reading between his lines what should have been there and is not. (A playgoer or reader who recalls veni, vidi, vici is the more likely to be affected by a despairing Et tu, Brute).

There are drawbacks, of course. For instance, it would not do to trundle centre-stage too well-documented a person such as the Duke of Wellington (who wrote 700 known letters to Mrs Arbuthnot) or one of the sleeping partners in the Bloomsbury Industry. Nor would Margaret Thatcher be a sure-fire choice: too lifelike a waxwork is likely to affront a beholder's fixed opinions and, anyway, she might sue. Neither would it be wise to attempt anyone already rebuilt by Mr Holroyd: there is really nothing left to say.

Mr Buruma has recognised these pitfalls and, for his purpose, Ranjitsinhji is a near perfect choice. For, although many of us know his cricket career down to the silk shirt sleeves buttoned at the wrists, beyond that he fades into as glamorous a haze as his late-cuts and leg-glides. But we want to know more. Why did he not marry Miss Scott? Why did he buy a castle in Ireland where it is forever raining? And did he maintain a zenana and, like his friend Patiala, wear plus-fours on daily inspections of his ladies? This may seem prurient curiosity. But fame has its price. Three thousand runs in a single season! One might as well forbid speculation on how Mr Fry coped with the equally extraordinary Mrs Fry.

Playing the Game opens shakily. Its narrator knows that his terms of reference are to convince a reader that if something is in print it must be true. Time capsules are scattered to establish verisimilitude—(‘Well I'm dashed,’ ‘top-notch,’ ‘You're a brick.’ Sir Edwin Lutyens, Paderewski, Gandhi, The King-Emperor and Mrs Fry (as an honorary Beaufort Hunt whip) are rolled on-stage. Still I dickered on the brink of disbelief. Then, describing young Ranji's caning by his English headmaster for not playing the game,

Mr Macnaghten slumped in his chair … a ghostly pallor had come over his normally florid features, his beard hung down in matted strands, his eyes looked at me beseechingly …

he pulls himself together. It is the only convincing example of the rightness of corporal punishment I have ever read, for, from then on, Mr Buruma never looks back. He settles down to making the unbelievable ring true.

And, by Jove, he pulls it off. I am a notable unbeliever. But from p. 75 onward, if Mr Buruma says it happened, it happened. Even that cricket match near Simla played in drag when the bearded Maharajah of Patiala dressed as a nun, Ranji as Mary, Queen of Scots, the MP for Grantham as a milkmaid and a giggling Baden-Powell trips over his Queen of Sheba skirts and is run out.

Indeed, why should we not believe Mr Buruma? We have never doubted Mr Cardus.

Matthew Engel (review date 19 April 1991)

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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 that most mysterious of ages: the day before yesterday.

The peculiarities of his life have exerted an undying hold on modern writers. This is the third book in the past eight years. After Alan Ross's broad-sweep literary biography, Ranji: Prince of Cricketers (Collins, 1983) came the far more investigative Ranji: A Genius Rich and Strange by Simon Wilde (Kingswood Press, 1990). Now Ian Buruma has reworked the story as fiction [in Playing the Game].

Buruma is a rather good journalist who has written with distinction on Asia. He has produced a first novel with many incisive passages: a Flaubert's Parrot of a book, according to the blurb, which interposes a thinly disguised narrator's quest through India to find Ranji with a long autobiographical letter to Fry. There might be almost as many interpretations of Ranji as of Hamlet. Buruma's prince is an outsider to be compared to Disraeli and Oscar Wilde: dandyish, humorous, sensitive, simpático, put-upon and ultimately embittered. Very possibly, he was.

Unfortunately, Buruma is far more of a journalist than he is a writer of imaginative fiction. His made-up characters are too readily identifiable; and when his world departs from known truth, he is irritating rather than illuminating. When he has Gandhi bowling to Ranji in a school match, to no real dramatic purpose, the only recourse is to reach for the biographies and find out whether it might have happened. If it did, it is a Buruma exclusive.

But there is something far worse. The author has suffered the greatest journalistic setback of all: he has been scooped. Simon Wilde, dealing with the facts, happens to have come up with a far better story. It was well-known that, while the succession to Nawanagar was in dispute, he was short of cash. Wilde, after painstaking use of primary sources unusual in such a traditionally slapdash genre as cricketing biography has portrayed a very different man: conniving, dishonourable and perhaps downright dishonest

His most fascinating discovery, at which he only hints, was that Ranji and A. C. MacLaren, captain of Lancashire and England, were up to something that was absolutely not Playing The Game: “It seems clear that sometimes they were not averse to conducting themselves in the fashion of E. W. Hornung's fictional character Raffles, the cricketing burglar.“

Now there is a novel waiting to be written. Until someone writes it, cricketing fiction will remain a sadly depressed area. The only time I have found it carried off successfully is in J. L. Carr's A Season in Sinji, a book which is about life, rather than just cricket. Like the game itself.

Benny Green (review date 1 September 1991)

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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 cricketers, who threw sumptuous shooting parties, who flaunted his jewels, and who made countless speeches at countless London dinners, where, under the drifting cirrus clouds of cigar smoke, he told the English what they wanted to hear: that India would always be loyal to what was once laughingly known as the Mother Country.

It is a pretty tale to which the entire population of Britain always has subscribed—until just the other day, when Buruma had the atrocious luck of seeing the mild-mannered ironies of this, his first novel, upstaged by a new startling biography of Ranji, just released in England (Ranji: A Genius Rich and Strange by Simon Wilde), which paints a very different portrait.

It seems that the real Ranji was only a pretender to the throne of Nawanagar who acquired the succession through long years of ruthless intrigue and lying; there are even faint suspicions that he may have been behind the assassination of his chief rival for the crown. As for his triumphal march through English society, Ranji left the road strewn with bad debts and outraged creditors, begging letters and misleading statements. To do Buruma justice, at the end of the long letter purportedly written by Ranji to an old friend, there are one or two delicate intimations that the great prince may have been not much more than a great ponce, but the effect is not to clarify but to smudge all the important issues.

Buruma no doubt thinks he has written a comic book, a gentle, affectionate spoof at the expense of a man who tended to take himself too seriously and whom posterity has taken as sort of a mystic visitation from the pages of Kipling. If this is so, then his judgment is sadly at fault, particularly with reference to the Gilbertian events surrounding Ranji's time as representative of the Indian princes at the League of Nations. Here is one of the great comic set pieces of modern imperial history, and the author ruins it by pretending it was all a joke.

When Ranji went to Geneva, he took with him his cricketing comrade and close friend, Charles Burgess Fry, soccer player, cricketer, one-time holder of the world long-jump record, gifted academic and classical scholar, novelist, parliamentary candidate, the very flower of the Corinthian tradition. Fry was serving as Ranji's secretary and speech-writer when a convocation of Albanian bishops, touting for a monarch, offered Fry the throne of their country if only he could find £10,000 a year to buttress his regality with a touch of opulence.

At first, Ranji pledged the money, and posterity always has assumed that he later withdrew the offer because he valued Fry's company too highly to sell him off to a bunch of Albanian clerics. The latest biography tells us that Ranji could no more have found £10,000 than he could have bought an eye to replace the one he lost in a shooting accident. But just for a moment, with an English hero about to ascend a foreign throne, life took on the contours of an iridescent Ruritanian bubble. No richer farce ever found its way into the footnotes to the history of the British Empire. This is what Buruma makes of it, when he puts these words in Ranji's mouth:

The Bishop, far from being an Albanian man of the cloth, was in fact my jeweler in Geneva, whose knowledge of emeralds and diamonds rather surpassed his acquaintance with Albanian affairs. I hope you can forgive me for my little jest.

And I hope we can forgive Buruma for his.

It would be interesting to know what audience he hoped to find. The knowledgeable student of cricket history may well lose patience, as I did. Those who care nothing for the game, and know even less, may be bored if they are English. But what is really very puzzling is why anyone should have assumed that American readers would be able to make anything of it. I assume that their bewilderment in the face of the cricketing life will be roughly akin to my own as a child when taken to see a dreadful Gary Cooper film in which he portrayed a star baseball player who dies prematurely.

The writing is elegant in some places, but what use is elegance when it is inscrutable? The problem of selling cricket to Americans was illustrated to perfection two generations ago when P. G. Wodehouse planted one of the characters in Piccadilly Jim, an American tycoon with a social-climbing wife, at a big cricket match. The poor mutt is not only unable to understand what the cricketers are doing but cannot even make sense of the reports of the game in the following day's newspapers. I fear that this may well be the dilemma faced by American readers of Playing the Game. You have to know about cricket history to follow it, and if you know about cricket history, you wouldn't wish to follow it.

Not only has Buruma written the wrong book but he has published it in the wrong continent.

Elizabeth Beverly (review date 20 May 1994)

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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 many Japanese and Germans share a common conviction that they, as national powers, cannot and should not be trusted. They cannot trust even themselves.

Memory. War. National identity. Moral integrity. Guilt. Self-trust. These are some of the massive, ungainly, fundamentally important issues that inform Ian Buruma's latest book: The Wages of Guilt. It is a book marked by exceptionally rich material, including interviews with politicians, protestors, petty bureaucrats, aging veterans, artists. It also includes analyses of films and novels, soap operas and textbooks. Buruma visits museums and war memorials, sites of former destruction, and of postwar architectural disarray. His is a roving and inclusive mind, turning to the landscape, following leads, pausing to listen carefully to the people he encounters. The heart of his book lies in its multivocality; the pages brim with the excitement of Buruma's acute curiosity, and his impulse to gather evidence for his inquiry.

During a first encounter with the book, this enthusiasm and richness, while not totally satisfying, are perfectly compelling. The basic topics around which the book is structured—the perception of the Gulf War, the question of atrocities, the role of the Allies in shaping peacetime consciousness, the outcome of war trials, the use of memorials and museums—and Buruma's intention to cover each country responsibly, keep the reader busy. But still there is the sense of being on a somewhat giddy tour with an extremely knowledgeable guide who would love to sit down and discuss, really discuss, what he's just shown you, but gee whiz, look at the clock! It's time to load the bus and be off! The resulting sense of rushed inconclusion is ultimately unnecessary and disturbing.

For me, this hurriedness focuses a rather disarming attention on Buruma himself, on his intentions and will. Clearly, he inhabits his text fully: not only has he structured it, but he keeps reminding the reader of his physical presence. He goes drinking in Japan, suffers from the heat in China, is moved by the Warsaw ghetto, and watches laughing Japanese school children pass by memorial shrines. This willful reminder of self, far from being annoying, is deeply welcome. I had the sense of being taken by the hand into conversations and realms of memory where I could not otherwise venture. I am there because of him. But once there, Buruma seems unwilling to commit himself to an expansive and illuminating discussion of the place to which he has led me. Maybe I should be smarter, and not require his reflections to help me shape my thoughts. Or maybe he wants me to sharpen my own thinking the way I would in an ideal museum.

In one uncommonly opinionated and welcome paragraph, Buruma permits himself to hold forth on such a museum, one in which objects are arranged according to ideas so that many stories may be evoked, one in which “conflict, debate, interpretation, reinterpretation—in short, a discourse without end” may arise. Maybe Buruma wants simply to set me free within the pages of his book so that I can draw my own conclusions, the way I would in such a museum. A laudable impulse, I admit, but also a trick that I can recognize, since I am smart enough to grasp that a reader's only way to the “objects” in a book-museum is through the author's own words.

Or maybe Buruma assumes that almost any intelligent reader should think as he does, should, automatically and without much reflection, adopt his own brand of rationalism based on a belief in constitutional patriotism, a mistrust of “simple religious impulse,” an ability for peoples of different backgrounds to reach similar conclusions, and a conviction that political arrangements can alter “mentality.” Naturally, many of us would want to share at least some of this clear thinking. (Believe me, I read closely to glean these few markers of Buruma's belief system.)

Maybe, maybe, maybe. The problem is: I shouldn't be spending my time trying to comprehend Ian Buruma, I should be spending my time trying to comprehend war. And I believe that someone like Buruma can help me, although I suspect that he and I differ in some fundamental ways.

I think that I believe in the power of culture in a way that he does not. When, for instance, he visits the “Peace Museum for Kamikaze Pilots,” near Shire on the southern tip of Kiths, Buruma is, as many Westerners would be, shocked and angered (my word, not his). He is dismayed by the “phony ideals” and “cloying sentimentality” that sent young men to self-immolation. And he comments with some surprise that, even today, the keepers of this peace museum seem to miss the point that these young men were exploited, that they participated in “an utter waste of life.”

Perhaps many of us would react in like manner, but when we do, we miss the point, because one cannot excise Kamikaze death from a culture in which suicide has a deep, rich history bound to honor and right action. Military propaganda may have heightened the fervor of participation; yet the cultural mechanism not only to justify suicide, but also to celebrate it, has been firmly in place for centuries in Japan. I think that to underestimate the power of culture, to allow a political overlay to obscure ancient ways of knowing and describing the world is not simply discourteous; it is dangerous.

In the same way, Buruma seems to underestimate the urgent, compelling power of religious belief. To view this power only from a secular point of view tends to reduce religion or spiritual expression to a partisan impulse, mandated either by the temporal leaders of an external “church,” or by the implanted “conscience.” The problem with this simple political explanation is that it allows people who do not experience religious zeal to remain ignorant of the might that such zeal can wield. People who converse with God or with Higher Beings are capable of acts of incalculable goodness as well as those that promote horror.

To pretend that we live in a world in which the deep elaborations of culture and the calling of spirit do not determine the life course of millions is to begin to forget our capacity for compassion. Buruma in his openness, decency, inclusiveness, and intelligence represents many of us who inhabit a new “world” culture, dependent on technologies over which we have little control; we speak various languages, and read in order to expand our awareness, we pass in and out of each other's countries, and aim for at least some mutual understanding. We believe that if we amass enough evidence, we can get at some truth that will make life better for everyone. We are more or less religious, more or less aware of culture at work.

And we live in a world in which war is endemic, if not always eruptive. Buruma's book did free me to contemplate the meaning of this low-grade ongoing war which smolders as racism, as hatred of difference, which seems to be with us “for good.” As long as we watch one another carefully and account for ourselves, I believe we stand a chance of continuing with decency. But through Auschwitz and Hiroshima we have come to know that the old-fashioned “gentlemen's agreement” war, one which closes borders and mandated secrecy, has no place in a world whose technologies can slaughter millions with mindless efficiency. I agree with Buruma; there are no “dangerous peoples,” but there are “dangerous situations.” We must learn to avoid them if we intend to survive. Which is one reason that Buruma's book, though inadequate in some ways, is seriously important; it bears witness to that intention.

Barry Gewen (review date 6-20 June 1994)

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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: August 6, when Hiroshima was destroyed by the atomic bomb, and August 15, when Tokyo surrendered. He was brought full circle upon discovering that the foundations of modern Japanese nationalism were laid in 19th-century Germany. “I began to notice how the same German names cropped up,” he says, “Spengler, Herder, Fichte, even Wagner. The more Japanese romantics went on about the essence of Japaneseness, the more they sounded like German metaphysicians.” The similarities between Germany and Japan, and the differences, prompted Buruma to examine the way World War II is remembered by the two nations most responsible for starting it.

The author's technique in The Wages of Guilt is to follow his nose wherever it leads him. There are no sustained arguments here; the book is descriptive, discursive, and occasionally meandering. Buruma visits Auschwitz, Hiroshima and Nanking, along with small towns like Passau and Hanaoka. He talks to a wide range of people, from an East German school-teacher who has been forced by reunification to relearn the history of the War from a non-Communist perspective, to the Christian Mayor of Nagasaki, who was shot and almost killed by Right-wing fanatics for questioning the Emperor's wartime role. Buruma offers chapters on textbooks and on monuments. He digresses to discuss the use of the word “atrocity” in Japanese and to meditate on the aims of education. Sometimes he roams rather too far afield, or goes on a bit too long, but for the most part he is a remarkably sensitive and acute observer: humane in his receptivity to individual experience, unforgiving when he detects overcooked sentiment or emotional falseness.

He is at his best in his description of a kamikaze museum on the island of Kyushu. The building's official name is the Peace Museum for Kamikaze Pilots, and a sign at its entrance declares that the dead airmen “wished for the restoration of peace and prosperity.” Maybe they did, Buruma thinks, though “it was not immediately clear to me how they contributed to it.” He wanders among the torn uniforms and damaged airplanes, the old photographs of laughing boys about to die, and final letters to families and loved ones. The banality and inauthenticity of their phrasing notwithstanding, he finds the letters “almost unbearably moving.”

The museum seems to produce the same effect on visitors as the Vietnam Memorial in Washington does. People weep or fall silent. The atmosphere is quasi-religious, prayerful. But Buruma is firm in his conclusion: “The tragedy is not just that the suicide pilots died young. Soldiers (and civilians) do that in wars everywhere. What is so awful about the memory of their deaths is the cloying sentimentality that was meant to justify their self-immolation. There is no reason to suppose they didn't believe in the patriotic gush about cherry blossoms and sacrifice, no matter how conventional it was at the time. Which was exactly the point: They were made to rejoice in their own death. It was the exploitation of their youthful idealism that made it such a wicked enterprise.” Then comes Buruma's kicker: “And this point is still completely missed at the Peace Museum today.”

It is not the only point about World War II that is missed in modern Japan. Everywhere Buruma traveled and in most of what he read and saw, he found an avoidance of responsibility, an unwillingness to face up to facts. Insofar as there is discussion in Japan about the War, it is debate with an airy, unreal quality. On one side are Leftists, who oppose militarism of any kind and preach the pacifist message that all wars are evil. Against them are ranged Rightists and “revisionists,” who contend that the War was a noble struggle for national survival, that Japan was no worse than other combatants and perhaps, in its spirit of honor and sacrifice, better. Between the quarreling factions stands a silent majority (the Rape of Nanking is not mentioned in high school textbooks), or a muddled one (the head of the kamikaze museum believes both that wars are bad and that the pilots he celebrates were noble and brave).

How different was the situation Buruma encountered in Germany. There, it appears, people cannot do enough to remember. Textbooks invariably present pictures of the Holocaust and quote extensively from Nazi documents. High school teachers are advised to spend at least 60 hours a year on the Third Reich. Monuments to the victims are erected out of what the author calls “a neurotic fear of amnesia,” and camps are maintained as shrines and museums.

Although few German novels, plays or films deal directly with the Holocaust, Buruma insightfully observes that this is due not to avoidance but, rightly or wrongly, to a kind of esthetic fastidiousness, a reluctance to trivialize or sentimentalize an inexpressible horror. (He also notes that German writers and filmmakers have a deeper problem: It strikes them as inappropriate to identify in their work with the victims, yet they do not want to identify with the perpetrators.) In every other form the War is a living presence. It “was not only remembered on television, on the radio, in community halls, schools, and museums; it was actively worked on, labored, rehearsed. One sometimes got the impression, especially in Berlin, that German memory was like a massive tongue seeking out, over and over, a sore tooth.”

The Germans are openly coming to grips with their past, Buruma says, because they are able to distance themselves from Hitler and his regime. The Nazi period is generally seen as a terrible excrescence, a temporary interruption in a historical stream of Western civilization and humanism that includes Goethe, Beethoven and Kant. Identification with Western liberal values gives the Germans a moral vantage point, an ability to shed a burden without ignoring it, to reclaim the past without being overwhelmed by it. Thus they can in good conscience celebrate resisters to Nazism like Count von Stauffenberg, the man who led the plot to murder Hitler, despite the fact that resistance groups represented only a small minority of the German people.

This perspective is certainly a valid one, and possibly necessary for the sake of Germany's national sanity. As Buruma remarks: “If identification with historical figures is to be encouraged, it is surely better to identify with Count von Stauffenberg than with, say, Heinrich Himmler.” Nevertheless, uncomfortable doubts are bound to linger. The past is less detachable than Buruma feels it is, and there is another way of viewing Germany's history that makes its own claims on us. Buruma quotes the Polish film director Andrzej Wajda: “Germany will continue to mean, among many other things, Auschwitz. That is to say: Goethe and genocide, Beethoven and gas chambers, Kant and jackboots. All this belongs indelibly to the German heritage.”

Japan, in any case, cannot perform the same distancing operation on its history. The wartime government did not represent a break with the nations's past, either culturally or politically. As Buruma notes, there were no exiled writers and artists who could return after the War to become the consciences of the country, no Japanese Thomas Manns or Alfred Döblins.

And Japan, he continues, was never really a fascist state—racist, yes, but not fascist. The official head of government was, as always, the Emperor; if anyone should have been charged with personal responsibility for the War, it was he. Yet at General MacArthur's insistence he was retained to provide the very continuity that now serves to confound understanding. To many in Japan, “as long as the Emperor lived, Japanese would have trouble being honest about the past. For he had been formally responsible for everything, and by holding him responsible for nothing, everybody was absolved, except, of course, for a number of military and civilian scapegoats.” No wonder the majority of Japanese today prefer silence.

Buruma is not done, however, and by digging deeper he emerges with what I think is his shrewdest observation: The Germans and the Japanese have responded differently to World War II because they are dealing with different wars and different crimes. Ironically, the Germans are better able to acknowledge their past because the atrocities committed in their name were greater. What the Germans remember, and memorialize, are the genocidal horrors of the Holocaust. When former Nazis are tried in Germany, it is for crimes against humanity, not war crimes. But there was no genocide in Japan; the Japanese did not commit crimes against humanity.

They did, to be sure, commit plenty of war crimes: Women were forced into sexual slavery; Chinese were treated as subhuman; as many as 300,000 civilians were massacred when Nanking fell. After the War, the Americans tried some leaders for atrocities, or at least for condoning them. The problem is that these trials give every appearance of having been “victor's justice,” the revenge that conquerors exact upon the conquered. The Americans were highly selective in choosing the culpable. Not only did the Emperor escape, but perhaps more damning still, the doctors who conducted experiments on humans were allowed to go free in exchange for sharing their findings.

Finally, no one ever tried the winners for their own war crimes, a fact that is not lost on the Japanese. For them, a list of Allied atrocities would begin with the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. One does not necessarily have to agree with that to grant the larger point, or to understand why memories of the War in Japan contain so many ambiguities—ambiguities that are troubling not just for them but for us.

William H. Gass (review date 24 June 1994)

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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 II, or the Holocaust itself, then perhaps it may be that even the children of the guilty are guilty, that groups are guilty, that races, nations, languages should bear the blame (the victims are guiltiest of all), or if you wish to go that far, that man himself—man's cruel character and evil nature—is at fault.

With so much that is painful to remember, our period is one in which forgetting is fundamental; yet, paradoxically, we occupy a time when most news travels in a flash, and bad news in a blink. To cover our ears and comfort our conscience, we have learned to make noise, for in the din our attention can wander.

In this examination of the very different ways in which Germany and Japan have dealt with the legacy of World War II, Buruma makes clear and distinct the voices that compose this babble. By moving back and forth between the tender memory centers in these countries—Auschwitz, Hiroshima, and Nanking—and by concentrating on the courtroom with its judgments and defenses, the schoolroom with its textbooks and official explanations, and the museum with its “educational” displays, he allows us to distinguish one excuse from another, to catch an accusation here, a confession there—through the usual stages of denial, explanation and counterclaim, sordid and shameful recollection, recognition and acceptance. But he also permits us to review, like a regiment, long ranks of resentment, to listen to blame played as if by a brass band, to observe how the Left's wings flap from side to side to keep the Right's from flight, while the Right's wings fold to bring the whole bird down. Like a technician, he separates the sounds so we can hear the huckstering of horrors, too, as countless anxious interests try to clear the air, clean the slate, escape or confront that demon—truth—while making a profit, gaining an advantage for their policies, justifying the punishments they are about to inflict on their enemies, maintaining their moral superiority and fond self-regard.

To follow the fate of the memories of atrocity and defeat in Germany and Japan, Buruma monitors the media, does his local history homework, attends the theater, reads novelists, visits sites, memorials and museums, and conducts numerous interviews with as many participants and whistle-blowers and apologists as will speak to him. He draws them out wonderfully, often with painfully paradoxical results, as was the case with Azuma Shiro, an 81-year-old veteran of the Japanese Imperial Army who had come forward to embarrass the regime with an account of the behavior of Japanese soldiers during the Invasion of China. Women were raped as a matter of course, and then killed lest they bear witness rather than bastards; rape, after all, was against military regulations. Since Azuma was suffering from a venereal disease at the time, he abstained, a restraint whose point might pass many of us by in view of the murders which concealed the crime. One has to wonder, as well, if the women might have been spared their lives had the army had no such rule against rape, but rather had advised its soldiers to have fun, fornicate and bring shame to the families of their enemies, as the Serbs seem to have intended.

And who is more guilty: the bureaucrat who signed the order, or the camp guard who herded the allegedly infested to the showers? Is it praiseworthy to have distanced yourself from your acts by letting George do it when what George does is to assault a helpless naked woman in the mud she will be murdered in? Is it more villainous to have fashioned a fine blade, or to have used it to decapitate an enemy? To have pondered the most efficient way to burn stacks of bodies, or to have stacked and burned them according to the most efficient way? To have bottled nerve gas or invented it? To have flown the Enola Gay or chalked some braggish insult on the side of the Bomb?

Questions … questions … how they continue. Are the books I read before I marched patriotically off to battle to be blamed? Are authoritarian parents part of it? Love of church or country? Is romantic music responsible? Obscurantist philosophy? A feudal history? And there is always the runaway consequence of unbridled power. Guilty all, maybe, Cain included, though not guilty equally or in the same way.

Anyway, the war is over, the camps are closed, the soldiers have come home, from the homes they've burned, to happy hearths and loving wives. Normality needs to be restored. Pride needs to be regained. Why dwell on the disagreeable? Let us go forward into a financially fine future.

The Wages of Guilt is dotted with vivid accounts of the hatred and harassment endured by both Germans and Japanese who have persisted in the pursuit of unpleasant truths.

But Buruma does not exonerate even these truth seekers, for he understands how condemning people can turn into a great sport. Hoist on a newly won piety, we can hide our own bad acts behind the crimes of others. The responsibility for our presently unpleasant state lies elsewhere than ourselves: A ruler we once thought divine is to blame; a general of unimpeachable character and skills proved cowardly and stupid; a weapon of unheard-of horror did us in; and we were, of course, lied to by everybody. The East Germans pulled this off perfectly for a while, calling themselves Communists and continuing to live like Nazis.

Well, it must not happen again. We shall rub every nose in it. It must never be forgotten. Remember the Maine, the Alamo, Pearl Harbor. War crimes trials are of great educational value, because they bring the truth to light and let it be known. They do? Or are they forums of propaganda—vindictive, self-serving and self-righteous? Who is to try whom, anyway? Do any deserve to escape whipping? Put Dresden with Hiroshima and add Nagasaki to the pot, and you get deeds about as dastardly as deeds get. Perhaps we can trade our imp of Satan for your Instrument of the Devil, even-steven? Who's to blame if all of us are?

The first generation (who were involved in it and dirtied by it) desires to forget. Destroy the camps, clean up the countryside, rebuild the cities, fail to mention this or that when telling its story, if its story has to be told at all. The second generation, however, wants to remember. The children do not wish to be soiled by the sins of their—for the most part—fathers. Perhaps a camp can become a museum; perhaps a ruined church can serve as its own memorial stone; perhaps classes in former crimes can be held, movies shown, days of devotion set aside. During one of those moments of memory, however, consider why Hegel invented the dialectic. After “forget!” after “remember!” comes “revise!”

A new lawn would look nice around the crematorium. Not everyone was evil, either: How about the heroic resistance? There have been holocausts before. Remember what the Romans did to Carthage? We need to recruit better Buchenwald girl guides. After all, Buchenwald is an East German shrine where many a Communist martyr died. It is also a camp the Soviets kept open until 1950 in order to punish a fresh set of enemies. We deny, for the time being, that the Imperial Japanese Army forced Korean women into prostitution. We also deny the existence of Chinese slave labor in Japan, and if there were such camps they were necessary, and if the Chinese were badly treated, it was because they tried to run away. These “truths,” which the Left has so heedlessly embraced, disgrace the memory of our glorious soldiers and sailors, especially the Kamikaze pilots, whose sacrifices should never be vilified, even if they were in vain, and even if there is no special realm where they now recline in comfort. You think we were bad, what about you guys?

Our guide Buruma is not without his opinions, but what makes him exemplary in this regard is his ability to see the strengths as well as the weaknesses in varying points of view. Nor does he wag his finger and say “shame” all the time. He is mapping our maneuvers, noting the secret reasons for our public principles, understanding the hazards of honesty as well as its urgency. To escape the blame the pain, the pursuit of Furies, the mind will make excuses, contrive a rescuing metaphysic, rewrite history as though it were a play being tested out of town, and place on its face a melancholy look, or one of ignorant innocence, whatever will seem to work. Perhaps it will do to appear serenely indifferent, or to assume a studious and calm concern as though examining sickly plants. Failing that, murder more or go mad.

You accuse me of leaving the toilet seat up? Well, you never turn off a light. You Yanks want to bring up a few rapes by aggrieved and frightened Japanese soldiers when your country cindered an entire city with one bomb.

If most of us are eager to evade blame, why are a few so willing to accept it? Mea culpa is not the name of a red convertible. But suppose I wish to call myself a German because I think in that way I can bring Bach and Goethe, Dürer and Brahms, nearer to my soul. Does Himmler move in too, with all his friends? One tongue tastes sour and sweet with equal ease: The language of Heine and Hitler was the same, if not their style of speech. If I wish to claim the glories of my culture and argue that they live on to some degree in me, how much of the other, the it, must I admit I also am? The desire on the part of many liberal young Germans to face the truth of their history, to resolve that it, in any form or version, shall not happen again (fine as these sentiments do indeed seem), nevertheless suggests that tribalism still holds them in thrall, and that nationalism still pulls at their sleeve.

Similarly, if one treats the Holocaust as a part of the course of history, then it loses its almost holy status; it will have causes and explanations, and these can bear the blame and become its justification. On the other hand, if the Holocaust is regarded as unique, inexplicable, then nothing prepared its coming; no one can assure us it will not occur again; it is like a counter-miracle; and who can be blamed for being caught up in such an unnatural catastrophe and swept away?

Ian Buruma's book is a catalogue of such quandaries. Offering no solutions, making no predictions, it simply gives us a picture of the moral climate. While Buruma's focus is war crimes in Japan and Germany, moral climates travel the globe. There are brief periods of arrogant heyday followed by oppressive humidity, disillusion, shame and gloom. He concludes on a cautiously hopeful note, which I wish I could qualmlessly enjoy.

I firmly believe that an ideal life would be one lived without illusions, but disillusionment also grows old. We tire of being wise and of constantly creeping to conclusions. We weary of being sane and seeing life as a long slow slide of sorrow. So former lies are likely to be welcome once again, in their fashionable and glossy get-ups. Goat glands couldn't make us feel better than injections of fresh falsehood. Give us a moment to throw a little ritual dust in our eyes; then we'll sally forth to live a little, mouth slogans, raise Cain, sin some and get in trouble.

John Grigg (review date 16 July 1994)

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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 overthrown and a new start made, whereas in Japan continuity was maintained in the person of the emperor. (In Germany there was the further difference that for 45 years the country was divided, physically and ideologically, though with both parts rejecting Nazism from their opposite standpoints). All but a small minority of Germans regard the Hitler period as a terrible aberration in their history, if not as the triumph of bad elements in their national tradition; and in taking this view they are fully supported by the letter and spirit of the law. In Japan, however, the Shintoist mystique that inspired the country's attempt to dominate Asia survived the war and has remained a potent force in the minds of rulers and people, despite a superficial change to constitutional monarchy and democracy.

Germans in the mass were convinced by the Nuremberg trials that the Nazis had caused the war and, above all, committed unspeakable crimes against humanity. Though justice was mocked by Soviet representation on the tribunal, Nuremberg nevertheless succeeded as a combination of history seminar and morality play. Twenty years later the Frankfurt trial, conducted by Germans, of officers and guards at Auschwitz, affected German opinion even more deeply, Buruma says; and a subsequent trial in Düsseldorf had a similar impact. But the author thinks there should be a limit to the Germans' sense of national guilt for what Hitler & co. did:

To assume that Auschwitz was caused by some awful flaw in the German identity, just as a streak of collective German genius produced Goethe and Brahms, is to perpetuate a kind of neurotic narcissism.

(In the GDR the genocide of Jews was played down, because Nazism was treated as an extreme manifestation of capitalism, the underlying evil which, according to the party line, was still alive and well in the Federal Republic. The prevailing cult was of Communist heroes rather than of the ethnic victims of Nazism).

The Tokyo trial of Japanese leaders immediately after the war failed to transform popular attitudes as Nuremberg did. For a start, Emperor Hirohito, in whose name all the alleged crimes had been committed, was not among the accused. He had not even abdicated, like the German Kaiser in 1918, but was still the head of state and, as such, the symbol of a régime most of whose servants remained in place. In addition, the trial itself was even more of a travesty of justice, in the strict sense, than Nuremberg. The all-powerful MacArthur expedited the proceedings against Yamashita, the man who threw him out of the Philippines, so that the death sentence on Yamashita was pronounced on the anniversary of Pearl Harbor, and he was hanged ‘before two dissenting opinions had arrived from the Supreme Court.’

Until recently, most Japanese felt little, if any, contrition about the war, and the few who did, and ventured to express it, encountered official as well as unofficial hostility. The general feeling was that Japan's war in Asia was a war against white domination, in which the outstanding atrocity was committed by the Americans, in using the atom bomb against Japan. The cult of Hiroshima, whether as a shrine to Japanese sacrifice in the war or as sanctifying Japan's postwar commitment to peace, is either way xenophobic. The monument to 20,000 Korean forced labourers who died at Hiroshima has been deliberately kept outside the Peace Park, where the cenotaph to the Japanese victims stands. Moreover, Buruma tells us that one reason why the Japanese have been so much less concerned to establish Nagasaki as a cult centre is that the atom bomb there ‘exploded right over the area where outcasts and Christians lived,’ while ‘the rest of the city was spared the worst.’

In December 1988 the Christian mayor of Nagasaki, Motoshima Hitoshi, suggested that Hirohito, then dying, should bear responsibility for the war. He was dismissed from his post, and early the following year, after the emperor's death, was shot in the back and nearly killed. Yet over the next few months he received more than 300,000 letters of support,

from housewives, old-age pensioners, army veterans, high school students, office clerks, peace activists, film directors, university professors etc,

and Buruma cites this as evidence that Japanese attitudes to the war may at last be changing. Among other encouraging signs he mentions the opening of two new war museums, ‘stressing Japanese aggression,’ in Osaka and Kyoto, and a recent television documentary on the wartime massacre of Chinese slave workers at Hanaoka, which was shown nationally and awarded a prize. On the other hand, an old soldier, Azuma Shiro, ran into a lot of trouble when, after 50 years' silence, he authenticated as an eye-witness the wholesale massacre of Chinese by the Japanese army at Nanking in 1937. And only two years ago he admitted to Buruma that it was still impossible to tell the truth with impunity in Japan.

In her book The Chrysanthemum and the Sword (first published in 1946), Ruth Benedict draws a distinction between Christian ‘guilt culture’ and Confucian ‘shame culture,’ suggesting that the Japanese will never accept war guilt as the Germans have done. Buruma regards the distinction as ‘mechanistic’; not entirely false, but subject to too many exceptions on both sides. Besides, he considers that guilt and shame are not all that easy to distinguish. ‘Is the exaggerated philosemitism of certain Germans a matter of personal guilt, or national shame?’ His conclusion is impartial and, on the whole, optimistic. In Germany and even Japan, he feels, politics have changed in such a way as to keep dangerous tendencies under control. Readers may feel that his optimism on the second count contradicts much that he has said in the book—though obviously Japan is now far less of a danger than totalitarian China, where politics have not changed at all. Yesterday's victims are so often tomorrow's scourges.

Herbert P. Bix (review date 27 July 1994)

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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 same, there are analogous features in the way the two peoples have remembered them.

Essentially, the Germans have developed a democratic polity and subjectively acknowledged their Nazi past. They appear more willing to publicly apologize for the criminality of their fascist state than the Japanese, most of whom do not remember their lost war as one of aggression. In Buruma's view, the (West) Germans have done a better job of acknowledging the enormities of their history and are less likely to have nostalgia for their old partnership with Japan since they no longer see “their own purported virtues” of martial spirit, racial purity, self-sacrifice, and discipline reflected in the other.

To explain this difference, as well as the generational gap in remembrance within Germany and Japan, Buruma sampled opinion from many people in both countries. In a work of unusual reach, he touches briefly on war-crimes trials, economic miracles, and the role of the Allies. But he mainly concentrates his analysis on the literary record—popular movie scripts, television dramas, famous works of fiction—together with the visual remains and representations of the past, in order to see how the Third Reich and militarist Japan are really remembered.

Buruma focuses on three events that have left the deepest scars on the collective memories of Germans and Japanese and, since the 1980s, have been central to their search for new national identities: Auschwitz, an annihilation camp that symbolizes the German genocide of the Jewish people; the Nanjing massacre, symbol of Japan's war on China; and the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, which many Japanese regard as the site of their “martyred innocence”—a symbol of “absolute evil, often compared to Auschwitz.”

Buruma believes that a “different Germany” perpetrated the crimes of extermination that Auschwitz denotes. He argues that it is unwise for the post-1968 generation of Germans, grandchildren of the perpetrators, to feel accountable and troubled by the issue of national identity—and thereby incorrectly implies that it is possible to omit the past from any formulation of identity.

Hiroshima evokes his reflections on the “tension between its universal aspirations and its status as the exclusive site of Japanese victimhood.” Buruma points out how leftists and liberals use the Nanjing massacre to express guilt and shame at Japanese militarism and the emperor cult. Revisionists then respond by denying that war atrocities ever occurred.

Unfortunately, Buruma pronounces both the Nuremberg (1945-46) and Tokyo (1946-48) trials historical failures and repeats the arguments of their detractors. He cites approvingly the initial British position, rejected by President Roosevelt, that the German leaders should have been summarily executed. He also endorses the stigma of vengeful “victors' justice” which Nazi defenders used to impugn the legitimacy of the trials. Strangely, Buruma believes that Nuremberg and the later trials of German war criminals did not “necessarily serve the truth” because the Allies sought to teach “a moral history lesson” to the Germans.

But if Nuremberg is to be criticized, these are surely the wrong reasons for doing so. Had Churchill been given his way, the principles of international law would not have been advanced and those in the present day who deny the Holocaust would not have to contend with massive proof of German criminality.

The Tokyo trials also had their shortcomings and left unexplained the political responsibility of the Japanese people for criminal acts against Chinese, Koreans, and the occupied peoples of Southeast Asia. Above all, they failed to indict Emperor Hirohito who had played the key leadership role throughout the war.

Since Hirohito never apologized for the crimes committed in his name, most of the population found it difficult to believe that they had done anything wrong, other than to have lost the holy war. Yet here too, except in the most formal sense, Buruma's charge of “victors' justice” is superfluous to the critique of the trials. The emperor, and many other “moderates” whom the US supported, participated secretly and indirectly in selecting most of the military men who stood trial in Tokyo.

What the dominant representations of World War II will be in Germany and Japan in the next century cannot be foretold. But the roles these two nations play hereafter on the world stage is certain to be tied to how they analyze their past failures and what and how they remember.

Glyn Ford (review date 19 August 1994)

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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 to become a “normal” country that can take its rightful place on the world stage: a country that, as the second most powerful economy in the world, can become a member of the UN Security Council and, most controversially, a country with the world's third largest defence budget which can send military forces to serve abroad. Both of these books, in their different ways, address this issue. …

Yet is Japan so unique? The Wages of Guilt details the evasions in both Germany and Japan. Ian Buruma has looked deeply into how the vanquished and their children have tried to come to terms with their history. For some in Germany, there is only room for a cigarette paper between Nazi Germany and Stasi Germany. The Communists, after all, had used Buchenwald for the first five years after the war as a camp for Nazis. Thousands died there and were buried in mass graves.

Germany committed the crime of omission. Too many said nothing and too few resisted. But at least, in Nuremberg, crimes against humanity were punished. Japan, in contrast, endured what was seen as victor's justice. In Japanese eyes, it wasn't Nanking, the Bataan death march or the bridge on the River Kwai that attracted punishment. Rather, it was losing. The Tokyo war crimes tribunal was choreographed to airbrush Hirohito out of the picture. Then Admiral Tojo put a foot wrong, saying “none of us would dare to act against the Emperor's will.” A week later, he recanted, saying the emperor had opposed the war even after hostilities had commenced.

The Japanese crimes, and General MacArthur's mistakes, were overshadowed by the mushroom clouds of Hiroshima and Nagasaka. Yet reading Buruma makes it clear that we cannot expect to keep Japan and Germany feeling guilty forever. After two generations, they must be released from quarantine, to become normal countries.

If we want a Japan or a Germany with few military forces, we should argue from general principles, not their specific cases. To do otherwise is to create a German problem for the future, and a greater likelihood of Harvey's Japan. The cure may be worse than the disease.

Nader Mousavizadeh (review date 19 June 1995)

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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. In his new book, Ian Buruma probes the sources of that outer silence and the inner turmoil that it conceals. His subject is the psychological debris of historical remembrance; and while his fine book reads like a travelogue, the destinations acutely rendered are the national identities of two peoples at war with the past.

For this difficult journey, Buruma is an ideal guide. He grew up in a small Dutch town in the aftermath of German occupation, and he is one of the most incisive students of Asia writing in English. Over several months in 1991 and 1992, Buruma visited museums and monuments in Germany and Japan, spoke to politicians, museum curators, intellectuals and dissidents, officials and citizens, asking about their memories of the war. He recounts the respective public debates about the war in clear, almost clinical prose, setting out the opposing sides in the battle for the memories of the future. For that is what is taking place between the revisionists and the liberals in Germany and Japan: a battle for the view of the war that will inscribe itself on the minds of generations still to come.

The Wages of Guilt is arranged in alternating chapters about Germany and Japan, with Buruma occasionally comparing monuments or debates, and rarely passing judgment on the rectitude of remembrance. He states early on that one object of his account is to evaluate the conventional wisdom on how the two countries see the war: that the Germans have gone to extraordinary lengths to face the evil of their Nazi past, while the Japanese refuse to accept any blame for the war and prefer to see themselves as victims of “the worst sin committed in the twentieth century,” as one liberal-minded Japanese intellectual describes the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The testimony of his book does little to alter this conception. In many ways, it confirms the worst stereotypes about Japanese historiography, and in more complicated ways supports the belief that Germany has found a way to live honestly with its past.

The Japanese portrayed in The Wages of Guilt do not seem even to be talking about the same war. To hear it from the vast majority of those in Tokyo and Hiroshima with whom Buruma spoke, the Pacific War was a struggle of the valiant and brave Japanese for national survival, and for the liberation of Asia from Western colonialism. The Japanese armies committed no atrocities greater than those common to all wars. The Rape of Nanking is a fiction devised by Westerners and Chinese seeking to undermine the honor of the Japanese war effort. And Hiroshima is equaled only by Auschwitz in the annals of evil. In this account, the Enola Gay absolved Japan of any status other than victim. In the pantheon of comparative victimology, Japan reigns supreme.

Buruma is careful not to dismiss the increasingly absurd narratives with which he is presented. He wants rather to explore their consequences for Japanese politics and Japanese culture. And he is also mindful of including the views of those for whom Japan's history is slightly more textured, and who acknowledge its wartime crimes and peacetime lies. “The Japanese people do not trust the self-defense forces,” a government official tells Buruma, addressing Japan's constitutional promise to renounce war as a right, “because they cannot trust themselves as Japanese. This is why they need the constitution to block security efforts.” That this is the minority view is made manifestly clear by Buruma's painstaking interest in the dissenters and the ostracism that they have faced at every turn.

Nowhere can the dissonance between myth and reality in Japanese historiography be gauged better than in the treatment of Nanking and Hiroshima as equal emblems of victimhood. Nanking is the great accusation, Hiroshima the great atrocity. The Rape of Nanking took place in December 1937, when Japanese troops after months of hard fighting captured their greatest prize, the capital city. Over a period of almost two months, Japanese soldiers raped and murdered in an orgy of violence, killing between 200,000 and 300,000 men, women and children. The sheer savagery of this assault is difficult to convey, though no method of murder seems to have gone unexplored. This is how a typical Japanese textbook describes the “event”: “In December [1937] Japanese troops occupied Nanking.” A footnote (a footnote) is added: “At this time Japanese troops were reported to have killed many Chinese, including civilians, and Japan was the target of international criticism.”

It does not seem an overly anxious comparison to wonder how the world would react if German textbooks read as follows: “During the war, Germany occupied Poland,” adding in a footnote that “German officers were reported to have interned and killed many Jews, and Germany was the target of international criticism.” Of course, as Buruma details at length, the conquest of Nanking was a part of a military campaign, not an end in itself; but the elimination of Nanking from modern memory seems no less surreal and ugly than the more familiar forms of Holocaust denial. And the denial does not end there. When Ishiharo Shintaro, a popular politician and author of the recent chauvinist classic The Japan That Can Say “No,” was asked in an interview about the massacre, he called it “a lie,” “a story made up by the Chinese” as part of a campaign by “aliens and alien countries, who use history for the sake of propaganda.”

It would be comforting to believe that the Japanese abuse of memory is simply an excess of extreme conservative revisionists. But it is among the liberals and the leftists, the pacifists and the modernizers, that the obsession with Hiroshima rules, and in this grim fact Buruma finds the most damning testament to Japan's political immaturity. From the ruins of that most ghastly act of war, the Japanese have built a new ethic of innocence, a primal virtue of victimhood that admits of no guilt, and that, in Buruma's phrase, dissolves Japanese sins in the sins of mankind. It is the argument to end all arguments. And so Hiroshima teaches not the costs of aggression or militarism, but a puerile pacifism that suffers criticism of Japan only as part of a condemnation of war in all its forms.

Thus Japan is transformed into the martyr and the missionary of the modern world, and the Japanese become the unique victims of nuclear war and universal apostles of peace. There is little room in this construction for moral or historical nuance. The slightest doubt can topple the entire artifice. The faintest hint of guilt becomes mortal wound. And this is one of Buruma's real insights: in Japan there occurred no clean break, no “Zero Hour,” as the Germans somewhat sunnily call their own postwar beginning. This political continuity, perfectly represented by the unbroken reign of Hirohito as emperor, insured that “a defense of Japanese identity often is a defense of the old regime.”

The story of Ienaga Saburo is instructive about the tenacity with which the past is bound up with the present in Japanese history. Ienaga is the author of a widely used history textbook which, soon after its publication in 1952, was censored by the government for being too “one-sided.” His crime was to note the Nanking massacre, and to mention the rapes and the medical experiments by Japanese soldiers in Manchuria. He appealed to the courts for freedom of expression, and he was still appealing his case when Buruma visited him in 1992. Consider Ienaga's use of the term “aggression” to describe Japan's war in China. The ministry of education's censors found the word, well, unflattering, and made the following suggestion:

Aggression is a term that contains negative ethical connotations. In the education of the citizens of the next generation it is not desirable to use a term with such negative implications to describe the acts of our own country. Therefore an expression such as “military advance” should be taken up.”

“The suggestion,” as Buruma dryly notes, “was duly taken up.”

A historian such as Ienaga had no choice but to comply, and Buruma suggests another reason for the lack of criticism in Japanese literature: the institutional absence of independent thought and scholarship about the war.” [T]here are very few modern historians in Japan. Until the end of the war, it would have been dangerously subversive, even blasphemous, for a critical scholar to write about modern history. The emperor system, after all, was sacred. … And even now, modern history is considered by senior historians to be something best left to journalists.“Alas, history, in these hands, has become a tired drill of half-baked excuses and marginal explanations, all in the service of the Japanese nation, pure and brave and exemplary, and bound only by bonds of occupation to a Western culture from which nothing can be learned.

Revisionism and resentment, the twin sentiments of a nation still uneasy with its past are in evidence in Germany as in Japan, and yet there is a vast gulf separating the agony of the Germans from the apostasy of the Japanese. It is largely a gulf between truth and falsehood. This is not to say that there aren't Germans who wish for a different resolution to the issue of war-guilt. In one of the most illuminating chapters of his book, Buruma tells the story of the young Richard von Weizsacker, who appeared at the Nuremberg trials in defense of his father, who had been the chief civil servant of Hitler's foreign ministry:

He is said to have turned to a friend and to have remarked, in his best Wehrmacht officer style, that they should storm the court and release the prisoners. The friend, rather astonished, asked why on earth they should do such a thing. “So that we can try them ourselves.”

Apocryphal though it may be, this story reveals the intricate and inextricable links between pride and penance in Weizsacker's—and Germany's—labor of remembrance. About the fact that the young Weizsacker truly wanted a trial, a German trial, at which the Nazi leaders could be found guilty and sentenced, there can be no doubt. If Ienaga Saburo's story is emblematic of the absence of Japanese war guilt, Richard von Weizsacker's story is emblematic of how resolutely, and how painfully, official Germany has accepted its burden for the Nazi crimes.

The image of the son condemning and defending the father is an apposite metaphor for Germany's struggle with its past. With two qualifications, however. Weizsacker's father was not a Nazi and he played no part in the Final Solution. And more importantly, as president of the Federal Republic for ten years, Weizsacker confronted rather than evaded the hardest questions of what and when the Germans knew of the unspeakable crime committed in their name. In his epochal speech to the German Parliament on the fortieth anniversary of the end of the war, a speech that remains one of the most noblest confessions of modern history, Weizsacker said:

[W]ith every day something became clearer, and this must be stated on behalf of all of us today: May 8 was a day of liberation. It liberated all of us from the inhumanity and the tyranny of the National Socialist Regime. … Today we mourn all the dead of the war and the tyranny. In particular we commemorate the 6 million Jews who were murdered in German concentration camps. … Hitler had never concealed his hatred from the public but made the entire nation a tool of it. … Who could remain unsuspecting after the burning of the synagogues, the plundering, the stigmatization with the Star of David, the deprivation of rights, the ceaseless violation of human dignity? Whoever opened his eyes and ears and sought information could not fail to notice that Jews were being deported. There were many ways of not burdening one's conscience, of shunning responsibility, looking away, keeping mum. When the unspeakable truth of the Holocaust then became known at the end of the war, all too many of us claimed that they had not known anything about it or even suspected anything. … It is not a case of coming to terms with the past. That is not possible. It cannot be subsequently modified or made undone. … We must understand that there can be no reconciliation without remembrance.

Though he mentions Weizsacker, Buruma does not dwell on this speech and, more curiously, discusses only in passing Germany's Historikerstreit, the historians' dispute that in the mid-1980s embroiled Germany's leading intellectuals in a debate over the uniqueness of the Holocaust. This omission is owed, perhaps, to Buruma's preference for cinematic and anecdotal evidence. He focuses on Germany's “inability to mourn,” a concept popular among psychologists of the 1960s and 1970s, on the differences between remembrance in the GDR and the Federal Republic, and on the role of monuments in maintenance of memory. But as Buruma himself makes abundantly clear in his accounts of Japan, it is precisely among the historians that the most influential battles over memory are fought. An account of German remembrance that ignores those same battles, particularly since they have played a much greater role in German political and intellectual life, is not only disappointing on its own terms. It also contributes to a sense of optimism about Germany's struggle with history that is not entirely justified. After all, as recently as a few weeks ago, the questions posed by the Historikerstreit were resurrected by German conservatives concerned with the “one-sided” nature of the anniversary celebrations of V-E Day.

Originating in a discussion about the uniqueness of the Holocaust, the Historikerstreit grew to encompass a definition of the Nazi era's place in world history—whether it should be seen in context, compared and contrasted, relativized, in short, or whether it must be seen as a singular, unprecedented and inimitable act of human cruelty. Those who sought to lessen Germany's burden advanced strategic justifications for Hitler's expansionist foreign policy, and offered the excuse of self-defense against Stalin's “Asiatic Barbarism” for the extermination of the Jews. Among the revisionists in the debate, Michael Sturmer, a historian then serving as Helmut Kohl's “historical adviser,” offered a revealing explanation for the debate:

Loss of orientation and the search for identity are brothers. But anyone who believes that this has no effect on politics and the future ignores the fact that in a land without history whoever supplies memory, shapes concepts, and interprets the past will win the future.

It is a common conceit—not only of the right but also of the left—that there is such a thing as “a land without history.” For both sides in the debate, this innocence of history permits the illusion that the postwar beginning not only represented political renewal, but also created a void of culture that demanded a narrative. While a “Zero Hour” of sorts did take place in (West) Germany with the founding of a liberal, Atlantic constitutional ethos—what may be called a Drang nach Westen—it did not make the Nazi era any more or less a part of German history. And this is a dilemma for both revisionists and liberals, neither of whom will have anything to do with the German past as it was.

The left wants to relieve modern Germany of its ties to tradition, to rely instead on what Jürgen Habermas has called “constitutional patriotism.” This is the common, careful hope of good liberals throughout Europe that a civic nationalism of social affiliation rather than ethnic allegiance can banish the ghosts of the past and anchor modern citizenship in a democratic spirit. The past thus becomes merely an evolutionary stage from which the present has developed, and with which it has nothing in common.

The right will have none of this escape from the national self, and is equally unwilling to treat the past as a “secular” matter, to use Buruma's term. If the Nazi era is but one of many forms of totalitarianism in our century, if its crimes are common to all aggressive nations, then “Zero Hour”—the total rejection of Germany's fascist past at the end of the war—becomes a moment of simultaneous “liberation and annihilation.” This was the premise of a letter titled “Against Forgetting” recently published in the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung and signed by more than 300 leading conservatives. Seeking a “nationalism of normality” these writers and politicians seek a different kind of remembrance than that commonly associated with the Nazi era. What ought to be commemorated on May 8, they said, was the “expulsion by terror, oppression in the East, and the partition of our country,” insisting that “a view of history that ignores or represses this reality, or that compares it to other realities cannot be the basis for the self-understanding of a self-confident nation.” Again the battle for history, again the anxiety about the self-esteem of the eternal penitent.

If this begins to sound eerily similar to the pronouncements of Japanese revisionists, one must still recognize that the nationalists of normality are in the minority, that their views in no way dominate Germany's interpretation of the past. What is more troublesome, in a society not quite comfortable with a wholly secular identity, is the naivete on the part of the left and the liberals, those for whom the criminals were criminals and remembrance is the hope for forgiveness. For they are staking the future on the power of materialism to replace myth, and society to overcome community. This has been the hope of all liberals when faced with the furies of nationalism: that its tribal appeals could be harnessed and its excitements disarmed by the quotidian comforts of the modern welfare state.

This is not an altogether illusory vision, and it has the been the quiet achievement of European liberalism to have kept its efforts at internationalism one step ahead of a nationalist backlash. But it has done so with careful attention to the need for national identity and singularity, avoiding the temptation to banish or to delegitimate heterogeneity altogether. The cosmopolitan Buruma counts himself proudly among the civic nationalists (“I like the idea of constitutional patriotism”). And so, in embarrassment or in distaste, he insulates himself against the noises of nationalism, and looks elsewhere for German remembrance.

Buruma comes to the subject of German guilt with an empathy that is surprising for someone who grew up viewing the Germans as enemies. “When I say Germans,” he observes, “I mean just that—not Nazis, but Germans.” For him, the hypothetical dilemma is not one of complicity, but one of opposition. Would he have joined the Dutch resistance, or as he puts it, would he have acted like the frightened man who “betrayed to save his life. I fear I would be much like that frightened man myself. And partly because, to me, failure is more typical of the human condition than heroism.”

Armed (or disarmed) with such a sensibility, Buruma approaches the horrors of German conduct during the war with a strange serenity. This is not to say that detachment isn't a necessary quality in a student of the Holocaust, or that Buruma's readiness to admit his fears of betrayal is a weakness. Still, this is a subject that demands, at the very least, engagement. And for anyone wishing to explore the “forest of German history,” as Simon Schama has called it, aloofness is an inadequate armor. In a brilliant chapter on Anselm Kiefer in Landscape and Memory, Schama draws a distinction between “innocent scouts” and “woodland exorcists” among those who enter the forest of German history. The innocents are those for whom the myths of the German pasts are anathema, subjects only for closet fascists and irrational populists incapable of critical distance. Kiefer, by contrast, has braved the political furies and rejected the idea that Nazism was an “aberration” in the history of German militarist authoritarianism. Rather, “he forces together culturally acceptable elements of the German heroic and mythic tradition with its unacceptable historical consequences.” He has embraced, rather than fled, the dark and mythic roots of German culture in order to repudiate them.

But Kiefer's brave and proper path is not available to those children of the Enlightenment whose fear of the forces of belonging leaves them helpless before those forces when they appear, as they do again and again, to embarrass a shallow rationalism. Schama asks pointedly if there is a way of taking myth seriously without being taken in, if it is not too dangerous to leave myth to those for whom myth is the only reality:

So how much myth is good for us? And how can we measure the dosage? Should we avoid the stuff altogether for fear of contamination or dismiss it out of hand as sinister and irrational esoterica … ? Or do we have to ensure that a cordon sanitaire of protective irony is always securely in place when discussing such matters?

“A cordon sanitaire of protective irony” is a good description of Buruma's tone in his otherwise important book. There is, in Buruma's prose, a drive to deflate, a wish to expose false symbols, an intolerance of inherited dreams and ideals. It is, at its best, a search for moral and ethical precision, but it results, too often, in precision without spirit. Memory, history, a nation's collective consciousness are all intangibles of identity, intangibles not easily reduced to a peripheral place in the construct of civic nationalism.

The idea that “constitutional patriotism” will suffice to sustain groups or individuals is an illusion. Identity may be a danger, but spiritually and historically it is an inevitable danger. And the liberalism without soul will be the liberalism most vulnerable to those for whom soul is everything.

Martin Vander Weyer (review date 20 April 1996)

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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 Books, all related to Asia except for chapters which discuss the lives of Wilfred Thesiger and Lord Baden-Powell. But these two missionary types happen to fit well with the theme which Buruma has chosen to highlight the relationship between West and East (including, for this purpose, Arabia and Africa) seen in terms of sexual impulses, repressed or released.

In the traditional version of that relationship, the muscular, rational Europeans were possessed by ‘the idea of the Orient as female, voluptuous, decadent, amoral—in short as dangerously seductive.’ They wanted to conquer the East in order to quell sinful urges in themselves, but often it conquered their souls instead. In his introduction, Buruma quotes Arthur Koestler in The Lotus and the Robot on the ambience of Japan: ‘an erotic flicker like the crisp sparks from a comb drawn through a woman's hair—a guilt-free eroticism which Europe has not known since antiquity.’ The image has resonance for anyone who has sensed the power of that particular kind of Eastern electricity.

The ways in which the Japanese express their sexuality, first explored in A Japanese Mirror, are developed here in essays on some of the country's modern cultural icons. Buruma does not think much of Mishima Yukio, an exhibitionist whose ritual suicide was ‘little more than the pathetic act of a very gifted buffoon.’ The work of the novelist Yoshimoto Banana he finds to be ‘the stuff of great Japanese poetry and absolute kitsch.’ He has more time for Oshima Nagisa, director of Ai No Corrida, ‘perhaps the only intelligent hard-core porno movie ever made,’ but he sees Oshima's career as a passage ‘from student activism to pornography to show-business dandy: not a bad summing up of post-war Japanese culture.’

This sense of underlying decay in the most developed of Asian societies provides a counterpoint to other interesting themes: the way in which the traditional roles have recently been reversed, so that the West now sees the East as economically muscular, while the East sees us as slothful and incurably devoted to pleasure. and the falsehood of ‘Asian values’ as promulgated in places like the ‘nanny state’ of Singapore. Buruma thinks that the social control demanded by Lee Kuan Yew and Malaysia's Dr Mahathir Mohamad is just a way of replicating the colonial order: ‘the white man's burden has been covered with a Confucian sauce.’

All of this is written with piercing intelligence and an eye for curious detail, and yet the book is not as satisfying as A Japanese Mirror or God's Dust, Buruma's 1989 account of travels around Asia. It is, after all, a collection of journalism written over a decade, not all of which connects with the theme of ‘missionaries and libertines.’ Fully developed, it would have made a very good book whilst the section on Indian writers and intellectuals, for example, has the makings of another.

And the length of the essays is restricting: Buruma writes better when he has room to be more expansive and personal. He keeps himself well in the background, but it is interesting to learn that he was first captivated by the thought that ‘Japan looks sexy’ while watching an avant-garde theatre group in Amsterdam in 1971. Though I don't think it says so here, he went on to spend several years as a filmmaker and actor in Japan before turning to writing.

He is a journalist to be read for his considered ideas rather than his stylistic flourish, but he occasionally captures a vivid image: the last days of Hong Kong, for instance, symbolised by ‘a great bulldozer crushing a mountain of fake gold watches … until there was nothing left but dust.’ Of Tokyo, Buruma writes, ‘It is cacophonous, relentless, often irritating but it is not inhuman and it contains a peculiar kind of poetry … for which some writer will feel the deepest nostalgia,’ and he hopes that writer will express his nostalgia with wit and style. But he could do it himself: the intellectual framework is all here, it just needs more flesh on the bone.

Stephen Howe (review date 17 May 1996)

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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 all-embracing and almost as meaningless as race, is employed to the same ends. …

Buruma's collection of essays [The Missionary and the Libertine], mostly written for the New York Review of Books, is far more popular in style, more centred on the present. Its general line, though, is very similar to Goody's. Buruma ranges across swathes of Asia and the Pacific, with brief excursions into Arabia and Africa via Wilfred Thesiger and Baden-Powell. His core concerns, as in much of his previous writing, are with Japan.

Buruma enjoys tracing the external influences on things often claimed to be culture-specific. Thus, where he finds Japanese writers celebrating “unique” national traits of homoerotic sensuality or aggressive masculinity, he emphasizes how much they draw on Oscar Wilde or Friedrich Nietzsche. And he underlines just how changeable the cultural stereotypes of east and west have been. If many Japanese, Singaporeans and Koreans now see westerners as lazy, amoral and decadent—and themselves as hardworking, puritanical and family-oriented—then these are mirror-image reversals of earlier transcultural perceptions, of how “we” once saw “them.”

Both Buruma and Goody [in The East in the West] focus on European and Asian cultural forms; both emphasise their similarities. How far, though, could Goody's demonstration of east-west unities across Eurasia be extended beyond it? Can the same story be applied to ancient Africa, or (less likely) to the pre-Columbian Americas? Goody implies not. In previous books, he suggested that shared developments in literacy, cuisine and the fascinatingly symptomatic culture of flowers can be found across Eurasia but not in sub-Saharan Africa, nor in the New World. Does it follow that capitalism, industry—the whole bundle of things we call modernity—could never have emerged among the states of West Africa or the Aztecs?

Goody does not say and only a few other scholars have addressed the subject. Instead, debate has hung up on issues that presuppose Eurocentric assumptions, like the possible African influence on Classical Greece, or on completely stupid questions—like the skin colour of the ancient Egyptians.

Daniel Britten (review date 19 March 1999)

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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 free man” written on their heads, but complained that “no country—its civil liberties notwithstanding—is further removed from democracy than England, and more eager to curry favour with the aristocracy, or mimic its flash and dazzle.”

There are, however, those who adopt England and its culture for more serious political or religious reasons. One of the most interesting chapters in Buruma's book describes a night in February 1854, when a group of political exiles gathered in London to celebrate the anniversary of George Washington's birth. They included Mazzini, Garibaldi, Herzen, Kossuth and Worcell. The only one not invited was Karl Marx, whose faction was known as the “sulphurous gang.”

Marx was one of many 19th-century revolutionaries who quivered with frustration at the inability of the British working class to protest against their conditions, displaying his contempt when he referred to them as “thick-headed John Bulls, whose brainpans seem to have been especially manufactured for constables' bludgeons.”

Even Voltaire, an arch-Anglophile who predicted that one day English laws of liberty could be transplanted to other nations as easily as coconuts from India, lamented the link between freedom and vulgarity. He singled out the English press as a matter of particular concern, telling a friend “'tis great pity that your nation is overrun with such prodigious members of scandal and scurrilities!” Would that he could read today's newspapers.

Voltaire, like many other Anglophiles, was more in love with the idea of English freedom than with its reality. Having boasted of introducing Shakespeare to France, for example, he spent much of his life denigrating Shakespeare on the grounds that he was too eager to entertain a popular, and therefore vulgar, audience. As Buruma says, his objection to Shakespeare drives straight to the heart of the meaning of English liberty, since that vulgarity was “the result of the very liberties, commercial as well as social, that he professed to admire.”

Buruma, on the other hand, appears to have no qualms about appealing to a wider audience, and does so with gusto, packing his book with spicy anecdotes. As a former foreign editor of the Spectator, he tells an amusing story about sitting in the editor's office discussing a forthcoming issue on the death of Rajiv Gandhi. Having mentioned several well-known journalists in Delhi, he is interrupted by the red-headed deputy editor (presumably Simon Heffer), who bellows, “Enoch! Enoch's always frightfully good on India.”

But while Buruma may have found the Speccie a little too dilettante for his own tastes, he still appears to adhere to its ethos of putting good writing first and serious analysis second. Indeed, he confesses to anxiety about becoming wrapped up in what he calls “great balls of intellectual wool” over the question of what Englishness is. This is a pity, since his breadth of reading might have offered more profound insights into the question of what role England—or Britain—should take in a future united Europe. Too often he skates around the surface of the subject, providing us with a set of caricatures which amuse, but which belie the context in which they existed.

In a discussion, for example, about the German adoption of Shakespeare as a national icon in the 18th century, in which the great German philosopher Herder played a significant part, Buruma informs us stentoriously that Herder “was not a political thinker.” Can this be the same Herder who, in 1788, wrote a study on the problem of German fragmentation, entitled “Idea for the First Patriotic Institute for a Common German Cultural Identity”?

Similarly, Buruma underestimates the importance of English culture in creating a British political entity. “Englishness,” he blithely insists, “is a romantic, not a political concept,” whereas, “The idea of Britain … is a political one. The United Kingdom is defined not by a race, a culture or a religion, but by laws and institutions, which have worked reasonably well to safeguard individual liberties.”

He is aware of the complexities of this question, as he demonstrates in a chapter about the confusion of England with Britain. He points out that much of the “English thinking” so admired by the French philosophes flowed, in fact, from Edinburgh, and that the romantic image we have of Scotland, epitomised by films such as Braveheart and Mrs Brown, was partly fostered by a monarchy desperate to escape the intrigues and backbiting of the English court. Nevertheless, the idea that British institutions have successfully safeguarded individual liberties may be rather hard to swallow for the parents of Stephen Lawrence, or those Scots and Welsh people who are currently arguing for independence.

Perhaps one of the most surprising gaps in Buruma's book is that he barely mentions the influence of the American and French revolutions on British politics in the past two centuries. What is particularly fascinating about American influence is that it persists today in the sphere of neo-liberal economics, with all the resulting drawbacks. Whether Britain decides to join Euroland or not, though, it will continue to face the problems of whether unification guarantees social harmony. The trouble with unity is that while it may give you greater power on the global stage, it does not necessarily give you the concomitant freedom. Buruma's very readable book prompts a number of intriguing questions about the idea of freedom. My only wish is that he had attempted to answer more of them.

Niall Ferguson (review date 17 May 1999)

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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 English as much as they loathe the Americans. But these developments have not retired Buruma's subject. Quite the contrary: in seeking to trace the historical roots of this now quite general Anglophilia, Buruma is onto something interesting.

This is a book rooted in its author's own history. Half-Dutch on his mother's side and educated in Holland, Buruma was introduced to Anglophilia by his paternal grandfather, who was the son of a German-Jewish immigrant. Attracted to England by Billy Bunter and the Beatles in almost equal measure, the young Buruma at some point took the decision to Anglicize himself completely. The proof that he had achieved this came in 1990, when he was appointed foreign editor of The Spectator, a magazine that evolved during the 1980s into the house journal of Thatcherite “Young Fogeys.” They were, you might say, the English Anglophiles, even if the object of their affections was the England of at least a century ago.

Like so many continental Anglophiles, however, Buruma found that his admission to the inner sanctum was an apotheosis marred by self-doubt. Was he really at home in this oak-paneled parody of a Senior Common Room? Was it the weight of his tweed jacket that was making him perspire, or the fact that the man inside it wasn't quite English enough? Or was it the ghastly realization that his colleagues had feet of clay inside their delightful handmade brogues? “In the end I felt ill at ease with young people who had never thought of trying anything else, who had walked only on well-trodden paths, whose main aim was to conserve the system in which they had got on, and who looked at any alternative with amused contempt.”

Buruma drew the line when one of his colleagues suggested the arch-imperialist Enoch Powell as a possible contributor on the subject of Indian politics in the aftermath of Rajiv Gandhi's assassination—not a bad bit of whimsy by Spectator standards, but the last straw for Buruma. This, then, is Buruma's theme: the ambivalence of Anglophilia. Each of the book's fifteen essays explores the particular problem that, while it is easy to love the English (especially from afar), it is harder to consummate that love—or even to be certain that one's love is reciprocated.

Buruma begins with Voltaire. In Britain, his book is nicely titled Voltaire's Coconuts, alluding to Voltaire's observation that, just as coconuts take time to ripen in Rome, so English laws and liberties would take time to be adopted in France. Voltaire's point was that eventually they could. As Buruma shows, however, he did not like English liberties in practice half as much as he liked them in theory. Voltaire's England turns out to have been the England of his imagination: an anti-France rather than a real country. In the same way, Goethe's love of Shakespeare had more to do with a German reaction against French classicism than a genuine Anglophilia: the aim was to reinvent Shakespeare as a Gothic genius. “Shakespeare my friend,” enthused Goethe on the day he had designated “William's Day” (October 14, 1771), “if you were with us today, I could live only with you.” This Sturm und Drang Shakespeare, of course, has his analogue in today's Oscar-winning Will.

As the Bard might have said, some are born Anglophiles, some achieve Anglophilia, and some have Anglophilia thrust upon them. Anglophilia was clearly thrust upon that generation of continental revolutionaries—Marx being the most famous—who were forced to emigrate to England after the failure of the 1848 revolutions. As the grandson of Queen Victoria, however, Kaiser Wilhelm II belongs firmly in the first category of born Anglophiles. Here Buruma makes good use of the researches of John Roehl, the Kaiser's biographer. Told ad nauseam by his mother to prefer liberal England over militarist Prussia, the young Wilhelm staged one of the most historically significant of all teenage revolts by rejecting the former and embracing the latter. In 1940, a pathetic and moribund exile in Holland, he rejoiced at the impending “Last Judgment on Juda-England.”

By contrast, and it is an important contrast, Anglophilia was achieved, faute de mieux, by Theodor Herzl. A born and bred Germanophile, Herzl would never have turned to England, or indeed to Zionism, if he had not first been snubbed by his anti-Semitic Pan-German chums and ignored by the Kaiser himself (not to mention the Rothschilds, though Buruma does not quite see the significance of this). The growing appeal of England to continental Jews rejected by the lands of their birth is the other big theme of Buruma's book: his own great-grandfather, and Isaiah Berlin, and the architectural historian Nikolaus Pevsner all appear as exemplars of it. Despite flickers of suspicion (to which Buruma is very sensitive, especially when aired by such haughty critics as David Watkin, the anti-Pevsner of Peterhouse), the English—including those on the political right—have generally reciprocated the sentiment. Buruma notes that Margaret Thatcher had a Jewish pen friend in the 1930s, who passed through Grantham when her family quit Nazi Vienna for South America. Was this the origin of her Germanophobia, which was so much in evidence in 1989?

To some readers, it must be said, some of this will be familiar. Buruma is digging in ploughed fields. Still, he has a genius for digging up unlooked-for gems. I had not realized that Herzl was such an ardent Wagnerian, nor that the overture to Tannhäuser was played at the opening of the Second Zionist Congress in 1898. It is also good to learn that fashionable French hostesses in the 1760s served their guests English-style roast beef. And I liked Buruma's quotation from that wonderful old fraud Prince Pückler-Muskau, who came to England to find a rich wife in 1826, about “the constant intrusion of the [English] newspapers into private life.” There is a lightness in the way Buruma wears his learning which is very appealing.

My main quibble is that the book is long on anecdote but short on analysis. The classic pitfall of any discussion of Englishness is to confuse it with Britishness. As a Scot, I speak with feeling on this point. Now, Buruma is not so naïve as to miss the point that a great deal of German Anglophilia (in the nineteenth century and today) was in fact Scotophilia: what they really loved were the ideas of Adam Smith and David Hume, or the Highlands as repackaged by Walter Scott. (Prince Albert is the classic example, and being made to wear a kilt was part of Wilhelm II's childhood trauma.)

But this is only part of the story. Buruma misses a trick by omitting from his account the crucial phenomenon of Scottish Anglophilia, an increasingly rare condition from which I am proud to suffer. Since James Boswell, no one has worked harder at turning little England into Great Britain than the Scotch Anglophiles, and the apparent decline of the species in these days of generalized Celtic nationalism—or at least their loss of self-confidence—is an important phenomenon, which at least deserved a mention. It is all too easy to forget, post-Braveheart, the contribution of Scottish writers such as Walter Scott and John Buchan to the development of an authentically British culture. Without the Scots' aptitude for commerce, engineering, emigration, and military ruthlessness, there would have been no Great Britain, and no British Empire.

Nor does Buruma adequately explain why so many continental Anglophiles did not become Americanophiles. When Garibaldi, Mazzini, Kossuth, Ledru-Rollin, and Herzen dined together to celebrate George Washington's birthday in 1854, why were they dining in London, and not in Washington itself? Was England simply handier for launching the next European revolution? A fuller discussion of Tocqueville's views on the relative merits of Britain and America might have helped. Tocqueville was always keen on the idea that the British aristocracy was a defender of liberty against the pretensions of the centralizing, sometimes egalitarian state. In America, he saw a similar role being played by the many religious sects. Given the choice between aristocratic England and sectarian America, the more cheerful revolutionaries (such as Herzen) tended to opt for the former.

Even more regrettable are Buruma's attempts to give what is a fine work of cultural history some immediate contemporary relevance. There are too many forced parallels between nineteenth-century European attitudes to England and present-day attitudes to the United States. For example: “Just as the global appeal of Hollywood movies has something to do with the nature of America, the universal appeal of Shakespeare's plays tells us something about the society in which they were created.” This is otiose. Still, these lapses aside, Buruma has written a deeply intelligent book that is a pleasure to read. Above all, he has a nicely oblique, understated sense of humor. Perhaps it is that—the subtle intimation that life and the human universe are really rather droll—which sets the fully-fledged Englishman apart from the mere Anglophile.

John Lukacs (review date 6 June 1999)

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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 as it often was, and having elements of an unrequited love, and yet manifest among diverse peoples and all kinds of classes (especially the upper-middle.) I am very loath to quote myself, but at least in two of my books, some of them written decades ago, there appear sentences such as “[t]he history of Anglomania is yet to be written.” I meant Anglomania in general, not in particular (there exist a few worthy studies about Anglomania in France in the 18th century, which was the first overall appearance of that phenomenon). And now here is Anglomania, a book not by a historian but by a fine writer whose understanding and erudition, meaning his knowledge of literature and of people and of a fair amount of history, are first-class.

Yet it is only an hors d'oeuvre, a kind of tasty introduction to a vast and profound topic. And the title given by its American publishers is deceiving. Ian Buruma's book is a series of portraits, sometimes brilliant ones. That is why the proper title of his work should have been “Anglophiles.” (The bibliographical information on the back of the title page indicates that the original, and probably English, title of the book was “Anglophilia.” Even that would have been good enough; but Random House evidently chose to hype it.) This is no quibbling: In his first chapter, Buruma explains that he is writing about Anglophiles (and occasional Anglophobes) but not of Anglomania. And he does this very well, moving from Voltaire and Goethe and Schlegel and the Shakespeare cult in Germany to all kinds of paragons of Anglophilia, some of them unexpected. There is also Kaiser William II, who was a sorry mix of a love-hate relationship for England and the English, the only Anglophobe principal in the book. Much of the book, perhaps as many as four or five of its 15 chapters, is devoted to the 19th and 20th century affection that Jews in Europe had for England (in America the Anglophilia of, say, Ralph Lauren or of the New York Review of Books are later, more superficial phenomena), including portraits of—well, almost—entirely anglicized Jewish refugees or émigrés in England.

All of this is very telling, and even illuminating. But a history or even a summary sketch of Anglophilia it is not. Of course that is a very large topic, ranging from the Orleanists in France to Argentine polo clubs, from the anglicized Huguenots in England to the Spanish intellectual “Generation of '98,” from the Hungarian Count Szechenyi who undertook to reform and rebuild an entire nation about 170 years ago by adopting English institutions and practices to foreign masters of the English language such as Joseph Conrad and admirers of British standards such as the Indian writer Nirad Chaudhuri—and the adoption (too often mistaken) of a mass of English words and phrases into every European language. (One example: the Russian word for railroad—vokzal—was simply taken from Vauxhall Station in London in the 1840s.) Such examples are endless.

But, on many an occasion, Anglophilia had powerful and even dramatic consequences in the very movements of states—for the benefit of England and, yes, for the cause of liberty in the history of the world. During World War II, for example, Anglophilia (and Germanophobia) transcended Right and Left (it motivated millions, and often their governments) across the globe and inspired people during their darkest hours. (Conversely, in France, after its worst defeat, the common thread that tied all of Marshall Pétain's supporters together was not fascism or Germanophilia but Anglophobia.)

In any event, Anglophilia was not merely a political or ideological but a cultural preference. As Buruma understands, it was well-nigh inseparable from the ideal of the gentleman. Yes: More than 200 years ago the ideal of the gentleman began to replace the ideal of the nobleman. (Not so long ago I read the memoirs of an old-fashioned conservative diplomat, writing about the Emperor Franz Joseph, whom he had once met, enumerating the qualities of this monarch of the oldest imperial and royal family in Europe, and the best thing he could say about Franz Joseph was that he was a “gentleman.”)

And what will replace the gentleman? And what will be the relation of England to Europe? Buruma does not know. Neither do I.

Albert Hobson (review date January 2000)

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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 habit of wiping the slate clean every fifty years, getting rid of old customs, and, often, of people associated with them. Only Britain has had an un-violent history since 1660, and since then has added layer on layer without getting rid of the old. Voltaire recognised that British liberty depended on law, and thought that law could be transplanted—like coconuts. It is a pity, by the way, that Mr Buruma has little to say about Ireland.

The author has an essay on Prince Puckler-Muckau, touring England in search of a rich wife. Everyone has a soft spot for the Prince after realising that he is Count Smorltork in Pickwick, and this essay simply makes him seem more lovably absurd, perhaps, if one were his creditor.

In the next generation, Ian Buruma comes into his own in describing the mid-nineteenth century political exiles who flocked to London—Kossuth, Garibali, Mazzini, Ledru-Rollin, Marx and Herzen among them—saying what they made of England, and what England made of them. It was in London that they came to realise that their cause was one, and that European ‘solidarity’ must be their ultimate aim. No the themes of English political thought is deep suspicion of European unity, plus a quiet determination to have none of it and to thwart it where possible in the name of the Balance of Power.

The nineteenth century was, of course, an unusual period: the first industrial revolution had made England, for a couple of generations, top dog. Her navy built to the Two-Tower Standard and her Empire could generate armies that made her unbeatable in war. As the after-glow fades, we come back to a realisation that England is only one of several important nations, and in Europe plays second fiddle to the leading nation in area, population and economic weight—Germany.

All that takes one to Ian Buruma's most perceptive and vivid essay, on the Kaiser, who missed, by a narrow margin, becoming the most important European of the first half of the century just ended. A reluctant Anglophile, in whose arms Queen Victoria died, this neurotic and physically handicapped man viewed his English relatives, and the English nation, with an equal blend of fascination and dislike. At dinner in Buckingham Palace, he listened to his cousin, George, describe the frustrations of a constitutional monarch nudging and pushing the parties through one crisis after another, unable to do anything while being blamed for everything, and concluded with a satisfied smirk: ‘Well, thank God, I am a tyrant!’ But it was the tyrant who finished in exile at Doorn, rejected by his nation. In 1940, the invading Germans stationed a courtesy guard at the Kaiser's door. When Hitler heard, he promptly took it away again.

Mr Buruma falters on Pevsner. If he thinks that English Perpendicular is ‘simple, solid, squat,’ he's wrong: it is fine-spun and neurotic. Pevsner's great series is not as good as all that, and should be entitled ‘Two-Thirds of the Buildings of England.’ It simply is the best we have, and the man himself was not as loveable as Ian Buruma suggests. All the same, the book as a whole is worth-while and stimulating.

Timothy Tung (review date November-December 2001)

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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 prisoners was no less harsh than in Communist China. Chia Thye Poh, a Socialist member of Parliament accused of being a Communist, was virtually “buried in a tomb” for 26 years—a “narrow cell, about the size of a toilet cubicle” without any light. Others opposed to Lee's autocracy, like Chee Soon Juan, an activist neuropsychologist, and Teo Soh Lung, a lawyer accused in 1987 of involvement in a “Marxist conspiracy to overthrow the government,” had similar experiences.

In Taiwan Bo Yang, an author well-known for his best-selling The Ugly Chinaman, a scathing portrayal of the Chinese qualities he and many other intellectuals loathe, was imprisoned on a desolate island for many years by Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek for “defaming the leadership.” Today, under democratically elected President Chen Shui-bian, who inspires the Taiwanese independence movement, “bad elements” would refer to the aging Nationalists still yearning to return to the mainland.

But the stars of Buruma's investigations, not surprisingly, are those made famous during and since the 1989 Tiananmen Square tragedy (known to the Chinese as the June 4 Affair). Where they are and what they are doing now is indeed illuminating. Here are but a few notable examples.

Chai Ling, the “commander in chief” of the student demonstration whose infamous call for self-sacrifice before quitting the Square received much press attention, is one of many protesters who have turned to capitalist entrepreneurship. She is now the CEO of an Internet company in Massachusetts. Anyone prepared to “work his butt off,” she says, can succeed in the United States. She also believes that with her Harvard MBA and her demonstrated “leadership skills” she could liberate China via the Internet.

Li Lu, Chai Ling's “deputy,” who urged fellow student leaders to reject the advice of Beijing's intellectuals to avoid a bloody confrontation, is now a wealthy hedge fund manager with a 28th-floor office on Manhattan's Madison Avenue. He earned an MBA and law degree from Columbia University.

Wu'er Kaixi will be recalled by millions of television viewers as the pudgy youngster in hospital pajamas who wagged a finger at Prime Minister Li Peng at the Great Hall of the People. He married the daughter of a wealthy Taiwanese businessman and is a late-night disc jockey in Taiwan.

All three are successful, speak colloquial American English, and are described by the author as “slick” or “smooth.” An observation by Wu'er Kaixi may bare a striking truth: “It is hard to kill idealism. But Uncle Sam helped by rewarding extreme pragmatism. The green card is the best way to kill idealism.”

Not all the students, however, went from rebellion to the good life. Wang Dan, who did not flee China after Tiananmen, was jailed for seven years. For health reasons he was permitted to go to the U.S. in 1996, and he is currently studying at Harvard. Neither cynical nor opportunistic, Wang is perhaps the most admired of all the Tiananmen leaders. His is the idealism that has not died. He is running a petition campaign on the Internet to pressure Beijing to revise its verdict on the events of 1989.

Dai Qing, a highly regarded moderate journalist who came to Tiananmen to support the students, eventually urged them to leave the Square while they were ahead. She remains convinced that tragedy could have been avoided if not for irresponsible leaders like Chai Ling, whose “criminal” exhortations persuaded the students to stay put. Refusing to live in exile, she travels to the U.S. frequently to give lectures and receive awards. She is under constant watch in Beijing, but has been able to retain her passport because of her powerful family connections.

Then there was an older generation of Chinese dissidents. Astrophysicist Fang Lizhi, for instance, was instrumental in stimulating demands for political liberty among students. Criticized for fleeing to the U.S. Embassy in 1989, he is now a professor at the University of Arizona and has largely withdrawn from the public arena.

Liu Binyan, the former star reporter of the People's Daily who was expelled from the Party in 1987 for his fearless exposure of official corruption, has lived in Princeton, New Jersey, since 1988. For some time he edited an English language newsletter offering inside information about China, but it failed to attract much attention.

Yan Jiaqi, once an adviser to the reformist Party leader Zhao Ziyang, was one of the few high level cadre to back the students. He was forced to flee after June 4 and now lives in Brooklyn in relative poverty. He and his wife wrote the first detailed account of the Cultural Revolution.

Wei Jingsheng, who became perhaps the most famous of all exiles when he arrived in the U.S. in 1997 after 15 years of imprisonment, was at one time the unofficial spokesman for his compatriots in bearing witness to Communist brutality. His reputation was challenged when his testimony at a Congressional hearing provoked jealous irritation from fellow witnesses that was recorded by C-SPAN cameras.

Han Dongfang, one of the few nonstudent leaders in Tiananmen Square (he organized China's first worker's union), was jailed until 1992. Allowed to go to the U.S. for medical treatment, he joined many Chinese here in converting to Christianity. At present he lives in Hong Kong and hosts a call-in program for Radio Free Asia aimed at workers on the mainland.

Yuan Zhiming and Xie Xuanjun, two of the three writers of the 1988 television series River Elegy, which played an important role in stimulating student discontent, have similarly turned to Christianity. Yuan, in fact, has become a pastor at a Chinese church in California. The third and best known of River Elegy's writers, Su Xiaokang, reached these shores shortly after the June 4 Affair and lives in Princeton. He is the author of A Memoir of Misfortune, recounting his wife's memory loss in a 1993 car accident. Su has tried Christianity, too, but was unable to find solace in religion.

In a chapter entitled “The Last Colony,” Buruma takes up an altogether different sort of dissenter. He describes lawyers Martin Lee, Emily Lau and others like them (well-traveled, fluent in English, educated in America or Britain) as “Hong Kong patriots.” Their blend of inherent Chinese patriotism with an understanding of Western democracy is a rare find among the rebels, not least among the Tiananmen crowd. Furthermore, as Buruma's designation indicates, the influence of these democrats is largely confined to the former British colony and is not significant in greater China.

Today, neither is the influence of the Tiananmen demonstrators. Twelve years down the road their heroic image has not only faded but China has undergone many changes. In the Special Economic Zone Shenzhen, Buruma notes, a new generation has begun to openly declare that its sole aim in life is to make money and get rich. Even young Tibetans express a yearning to go to the U.S. “to study computer science.” Nobody believes in Communism anymore, the young seem to say. Their disaffection may explain why one finds a significant number of Party members and military officers in the ranks of the outlawed Falun Gong.

This brings me to the two true heroes of Bad Elements. One is the journalist He Qinglian, whose best-selling critique of the new China, The Pitfalls of Modernization, struck a chord with a vast readership before the book was banned. Nobody could argue with her thesis that “China's capitalism is a dangerous hybrid of politics and criminality.” She estimates that under the banner of “socialism with Chinese characteristics,” about 60 per cent of the country's wealth is owned by 1 per cent of the population. Such pronouncements have not endeared her to the rulers. The last I heard, she was forced to leave the country she loves.

Another hero is Zhou Litai, a Shenzhen lawyer who risks his life and livelihood to press the cases of abused workers, often free of charge. Despite his meager income, he also gives shelter to the homeless and unemployed. Zhou's specialty is workers' rights. Like Hong Kong's Martin Lee, he holds that only under the rule of law can people be safe from official bullies. He professes to be neither an activist nor a rebel. China's future may rest on the shoulders of such ordinary citizens.

Colin Thubron (review date 18 May 2002)

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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, inchoate and self-lacerating community, mired in the bickering of political exile. Of the few who have grown successful, exchanging old convictions for the cliches of corporate America, the others insist that they have ‘built their careers on the blood of the Tiananmen victims.’

But others, like Wei Jinsheng (one of the few names familiar in the West) have remained grimly absolute in their beliefs. Bitterly disillusioned with Maoism, Wei became an inflexible advocate of democracy. ‘History shows that there must be a limit to the amount of trust conferred upon any individual,’ he wrote in his manifesto pinned to Democracy Wall in 1978. ‘Anyone seeking the unconditional trust of the people is a person of unbridled ambition.’ Throughout his book Buruma returns to this, as to a touchstone.

Different regions of the Chinese diaspora suggest future models for the mainland: Taiwan, which achieved full democracy in 2000; Hong Kong, still maintaining a delicate half-freedom; and the synthetic culture of Singapore.

On Taiwan, especially, Buruma is astute and informative. Its way of dealing with China is to turn away, to free itself from ‘the awful burden of having to carry [China's] destiny.’ Singapore offers a more forbidding model, combining despotism with opulence. It is the kind of society—a liberated economy, a slave politics—which Western dogma says cannot survive. But it has. It proclaims itself the embodiment of peculiarly Asian values. Democracy and accepted human rights are not among these. Instead the individual is subsumed in the collective: ‘society above self,’ as the slogan goes. ‘Nothing is left for the people to work out for themselves,’ Buruma observes, ‘and consequently nothing feels quite authentic.’ Except fear.

Then there is the Special Economic Zone of Shenzhen, set up by Deng Xiaoping in the 1980s as an experiment in commercial freedom. This turmoil of international finance, rural immigrant industry and ubiquitous corruption may be the place towards which China is heading: a crude version of Singapore. For young Chinese its aura of ‘nowhere’ is a kind of release, a loosening from the ties of home and history.

And a new site of dissidence lies, of course, in cyberspace. By the end of the year, over 30 million Chinese will be online, and however much the government attempts to block illegal servers it cannot make the system watertight. Because the Internet is (or can be) anonymous, to enter it is like delving into a nation's subconscious, filled with paranoia, religious invocation, sexual fantasy, political bitterness. It is a potent disseminator of forbidden news (some information is planted by government agencies) and novices find themselves surfing through a hypnotic maze of opinion and possibility.

Bad Elements raises many questions. Christianity, for instance, runs like a leitmotiv through the book. Why are so many dissidents Christian? There are several answers, or none: Christianity nurturing egalitarianism or individualism, Christianity as freedom, Christianity as trust.

Another, burning question concerns the nature of political change. Dissidents divide between those dreaming of revolution and those favouring gradual reform. Buruma, apprehensively, feels that revolution is the only way. With the example of Gorbachev before their eyes, the Chinese Politburo may feel that slow reform is suicide. And there is a pervasive fear of mass violence.

Buruma knows that communism in China must end. The regime, he senses, gives off the stink of decay. It is living a lie, and compels others to live its lie. ‘We are such a complicated people,’ the Chinese repeatedly tell him, and he interprets this complication—at least in part—as the tension between public face and private knowledge, between what is said to the world and what is locked in the heart. The denial of public truth taints even the most innocent, because individuals are coerced into confirming the system, until, in Vaclav Havel's words, they ‘fulfil the system, make the system, are the system.’

The idea of tyranny, Buruma says, haunted many people who were born in Europe (he is Dutch) just after the end of the Nazi occupation. With his pluralistic distrust of religious certainties or political extremes, he is acutely aware of the human cost of resistance: fractured families, broken futures. There is something skewed, even unhinged, he writes, about a society that encourages raw commercial enterprise, yet stifles all thinking. In such a world, the dissidents—or any intellectuals—become increasingly redundant.

The dissidents' views, of course, are partial ones. As with their old Soviet counterparts, they may be more instructive for the light they shed than potent as an engine of change. Refinements of conscience, in the end, may count for less than economic divisiveness, burgeoning unemployment and rural poverty. So when Buruma leaves the thin air of intellectual dissent for more homespun encounters, there is a sense of returning to earth: when he experiences ‘house Christians’ in Sichuan, for instance, or meets Tibetan villagers who routinely listen in to Voice of America and slip over the Indian border to the Dalai Lama.

Meanwhile, ironies are everywhere. He identifies them in the distortions of capitalism as much as communism. At the first free presidential election in Taiwan he sees a giant float emulating the Titanic. On board stand various candidates in fancy dress, some of them well known ex-dissidents. One is dressed in a white admiral's costume; another is made up to look like Popeye, sucking on his pipe and rolling his eyes.

And while the candidates made faces at the cameras, a group of male dancers in sailor suits and dyed-blond hair gyrated to a song by Madonna. Taiwan, I thought, has finally joined the free world.

This wise and imaginative work—at once so sympathetic and so critically alert—could scarcely have been attempted by anyone but Buruma. It is the fruit of dedicated travel and research, and above all of a mind too stringent to be misled—even by its own hopes.

Richard Gott (review date 10 June 2002)

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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 unusual foreign artists who make their reputation in New York, Buruma has been tamed by the bland and uncritical environment in which he now works. He writes most elegantly, but does so in the style familiar of the paid intellectuals of the Anglo-American establishment. He often appears in the same arena as the likes of Timothy Garton Ash, Michael Ignatieff, William Shawcross, and other members of the transnational literati, who seek to give a pseudo-progressive and internationalist flavour to the prevailing neoliberal agenda of globalisation. “Foreign affairs lite,” the legend on the soft-drinks can might read, “with added Buruma.”

His latest book, [Bad Elements,] which returns to his old haunts, concentrates on China and the Chinese. It is written in the shadow of the student uprising of 1989, symbolised by the occupation of Tiananmen Square and the subsequent slaughter, and the emergence in the 1990s of the Falun Gong, perceived as a millenarian cult with a regime-threatening capacity. Although Buruma has greater ambitions, this is just another of those triumphalist post-1989 books about the imminent end of communism. I have on my desk a mountain of such titles about Cuba: Castro's Final Hour, or Fin-de-siècle Là Havane. More than a decade later, these prophecies look rather premature. It is strange to recall that in January 1989, no one was predicting the end of communism, but by the end of December, the entire world regarded it as a common-place probability.

Buruma senses the particular Chinese phenomenon in his nostrils. While travelling, between 1996 and 2001, he found that “there was an unmistakable stink of political, social and moral decay in the People's Republic, the smell of a dynasty at the end of its tether.” Powerful stuff, which maybe will turn out to be true. Yet it is also possible that China, like Cuba, is made of more durable material. Dynasties are measured in centuries, not decades.

Emerging from the populist imprint of Weidenfeld & Nicolson, Buruma's book serves both to fuel and assuage our western guilt. For we know that China is an important country and that we ought to know more about it, and then along comes Buruma with an easy, intelligent read. Part travelogue and part reportage, the book draws on many years working for the Far Eastern Economic Review in Hong Kong, as well as more recent trips through the Chinese world. If China's communist government collapses in the near future, we will need to know more about it; here, Buruma introduces us to people with whom we are meant to feel we have an immediate rapprochement: the dissidents, the “bad elements” of the title, in the name given to them by the regime.

Ten years ago, Timothy Garton Ash managed to romanticise the eastern European dissidents who paved the way for the mafia-style regimes that now prevail in much of the old communist world. Buruma is obliged to be more realistic about their Chinese counterparts. Many of the people who moved the outside world in 1989, with their brave, imaginative and ultimately foolhardy attempt to change the history of their country, ended up in Paris or California as joyful exponents of capitalist excess. Chai Ling, the minuscule girl with a megaphone who rallied the young crowds in Beijing with her tearful appeals to sacrifice, ended up as the boss of a computer software company in Massachusetts. Her case is by no means exceptional. Defeat and exile can do almost as much spiritual damage as prison and torture.

Yet there is a difficulty with this approach, as Buruma soon finds out and is honest enough to reveal immediately (well, in truth, he knew it already): the Chinese dissidents are not a very likeable bunch, far from homogeneous, given to fratricidal disagreements, often immersed in depression and self-pity. This collective portrait of these people would gladden the heart of any Beijing secret policeman. The rebirth of a post-communist China may eventually come, but it is certainly not to be looked for in this direction.

Buruma is not daunted by this problem. He looks beyond the apparent betrayal, and seeks instead to explain the motivations of the reforming Chinese, to examine the difficulties that they once faced, and continue to face. Betrayal, after all, is common to all societies, as the number of Europe's complacent former Trotskyists from 1968, many of them now in high places (and not just in new Labour), bears witness.

Buruma makes no judgement on the dissidents-turned-capitalist-roaders. He labours to explain their behaviour by describing the indignities of imprisonment and torture that many of them have endured and survived. He is concerned not so much with the problem of failed dissidence as with the more particular difficulty of being Chinese, of bearing that degree of historical weight on your shoulders. Sometimes this may take the form of exaggerated patriotism. At other moments, Buruma makes us aware of the phenomenon of “cultural self-loathing,” the sheer “despair at being Chinese.”

To be Chinese is to inherit a secular faith, a belief—by no means incorrect—in the existence of China as the most significant civilisation in the world, and in the duty of its citizens to play their part in the development of its history. Wu'er Kaixi, one former leader of the Tiananmen rebels interviewed by Buruma, speaks of the “old Chinese intellectual tradition of being responsible for the nation. We thought we could save China.”

This patriotic view is still held by many Chinese migrants who, like the adherents of Islam, are to be found all over the world. Much of the originality of Buruma's book lies in his engagement with Chinese dissidence, not just in what used to be called “mainland China,” but in the many other Chinas that exist today—in the city-states of Hong Kong and Singapore, and in Taiwan and California. Buruma treks through these different Chinas to seek enlightenment. In the United States, he finds Chinese exiles who have become Christians; in Singapore, he meets dissidents who have taken on the oppressive regime of Lee Kuan Yew; in Taiwan, he encounters people who have campaigned for democracy and independence and been imprisoned for their pains; and in Hong Kong, he talks to Emily Lau and Martin Lee, the two opposition figures familiar to British readers for their support for British-style democracy in the colony in the period leading up to July 1997 and the problematic “return” to China. All these very different groups of people have conflicting attitudes towards democracy; they also have differing views about their relationship with China itself.

Buruma, it must be said, is always rather more illuminating about culture than politics. Bad Elements is a brave effort to deal with a difficult subject but, in the end, this book is not very satisfactory. It wanders around China's periphery for too long. Too much irrelevant material is culled from old notebooks, too many unfamiliar characters are hurried briefly on to the stage, and not enough attention is paid to addressing a central theme. The Chinese dynasty may be collapsing (or not), but Buruma leaves us feeling none the wiser about the forces that are bringing about its downfall, or about those that will replace it.

One of the peculiarities of the Chinese dissident outlook—startlingly obvious in the comments that Buruma's interviewees come up with, but unremarked by the author himself—is the complete absence of any reference to caste or class. The Chinese in this book nearly always refer to “the Chinese,” rarely to the workers, the poor, or the peasants. Former generations in Chinese history were similarly oppressed by the weight of the past, but some of them, not least Mao Zedong, tried to understand which elements in the Chinese present might be mobilised to overthrow the ancien régime. The political opponents of the decaying corpse of Mao's revolution, in Buruma's account, seem simply to hope that it will implode of its own accord. A liberal democracy is unlikely to be constructed on such ruins.


Principal Works


Further Reading