Buruma, Ian 1951-

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BURUMA, Ian 1951-


Born December 28, 1951, in The Hague, Netherlands; son of Sytze Leonard (an attorney) and Gwendolyn Margaret (Schlesinger) Buruma; married Sumie Tani, April 31, 1981. Education: Leiden University, M.A., 1975; Nihon University, College of Arts (Tokyo, Japan), 1975-77 (graduate student in Japanese cinema).


Agent—Robert I. Ducas, 9 West 29th St., New York, NY 10001.


Writer. Documentary filmmaker and photographer, Tokyo, Japan, 1977-80; Far Eastern Economic Review, Hong Kong, cultural editor, 1983-86; Spectator, London, England, foreign editor, 1990-91; Wissenschaftskolleg, Berlin, Germany, fellow, 1991-92; Woodrow Wilson Center, Washington, DC, fellow, 1998-99; St. Anthony's College, Oxford, England, Alistair Horne visiting fellow, 1999-2000; Bard College, Annandale-on-Hudson, NY, Luce professor of democracy, human rights, and journalism, 2003—.


(With Donald Richie) The Japanese Tattoo,

Weatherhill, 1981.

Behind the Mask: On Sexual Demons, Sacred Mothers, Transvestites, Gangsters, Drifters, and Other Japanese Cultural Heroes, Pantheon (New York, NY), 1984, published in England as A Japanese Mirror: Heroes and Villains of Japanese Culture, J. Cape (London, England), 1984.

Hong Kong: Great Cities of the World, Formasia (Hong Kong), 1984.

God's Dust: A Modern Asian Journey, Farrar (New York, NY), 1989.

Playing the Game (novel), Farrar (New York, NY), 1991.

(Author of introduction) V. S. Naipaul, A House for Mr. Biswas, Penguin (New York, NY), 1992.

The Wages of Guilt: Memories of War in Germany and Japan, Farrar (New York, NY), 1994.

The Missionary and the Libertine: Love and War in East and West, Faber (London, England), 1996, Random House (New York, NY), 2000.

Anglomania: A European Love Affair, Random House, 1998, published in England as Voltaire's Coconuts, or, Anglomania in Europe, Weidenfeld & Nicolson (London, England), 1998.

Bruce and Norman Yonemoto: Memory, Matter, and Modern Romance, Fellows of Contemporary Art: Japanese American National Museum (Los Angeles, CA), 1999.

(Coauthor, with Bonnie Richlak) Noguchi y la Figura: Museo de Arte Contemporaneo de Monterrey, Febrero-Mayo 1999: Museo Rufino Tamayo, Junio-Septiembre 1999, El Museo de Arte Contemporaneo de Monterey, Instituto Nacional de Bellas Artes, Museo de Arte Contemporaneo Internacional Rufino Tamayo (Mexico), 1999.

India: A Mosaic, New York Review of Books (New York, NY), 2000.

Bad Elements: Chinese Rebels from Los Angeles to Beijing, Random House (New York, NY), 2001.

Inventing Japan: 1853-1964, Modern Library (New York, NY), 2003.

(With Avishai Margalit) Occidentalism: The West in the Eyes of Its Enemies, Penguin Press (New York, NY), 2004.

Contributor to periodicals, including the New York Times, New York Review of Books, New Republic, New Yorker, Guardian, London Observer, and Asia.


Ian Buruma is an astute international writer of political and cultural commentary on Asian countries. His body of work includes regular essays in such journals as the New York Review of Books, numerous books analyzing historical and sociological events of Asian society, and a work of fiction. According to Akash Kapur, writing in the Atlantic Unbound, the Dutch-born Buruma is a "subtle commentator and a smooth stylist with an often striking turn of phrase." Kapur added, "Like the best travel writers, [Buruma] has a sharp eye for detail—except that, more an intellectual cartographer than an explorer of geographies, he trains his attention on the cultural signposts and psychological landscapes."

In Behind the Mask: On Sexual Demons, Sacred Mothers, Transvestites, Gangsters, Drifters, and Other Japanese Cultural Heroes, Buruma looks at the fantasy life of the Japanese and its relationship to their society at large. A country whose people are characterized by tight conformity and obsessive etiquette, Japan is also notorious for its violent entertainments and lurid erotica. Buruma suggests, according to Nation reviewer Joan Mellon, that "the extremes of sex and violence in the popular culture of these meek, mild, kind and forbearing people are the result of aggressive impulses so rigorously suppressed in daily life that they have been driven into fantasy." Discussing Behind the Mask in the New York Times Book Review, Dorinne Kondo observed that Buruma "writes with graceful vigor, and his years of residence in Japan have fostered an intimate knowledge of Japanese popular culture." Washington Post Book World reviewer Liz Dalby remarked, "Ian Buruma proves to be a highly polished reflector of Japanese culture himself in this imaginative and entertaining account." Commending the author's "sharp, unsparing reflections on the underside of Japanese society," James Kirkup stated in the Times Literary Supplement, "[ Behind the Mask, ] and not the standard guidebooks, is what the tourist who wants to see the real Japan… should pack in his flight-bag."

God's Dust: A Modern Asian Journey is a collection of essays based on Buruma's travels throughout Asia. Loosely organized around several themes, God's Dust presents a glimpse into several Asian societies and offers fresh observations on the conflicts that exist there. One of the most frequent clashes concerns what happens to ethnic identity when it meets Western ideas of modernization and social progress. James Fallows, writing in the New York Times Book Review, found three essential virtues in these essays: Buruma's creation of convincing, accurate dialogue; his "fair-mindedness, which in practice means his willingness to criticize all societies with equal gusto"; and his ability to choose evils worth complaining about. These attributes help make God's Dust "well worth reading."

Buruma expands his focus beyond Asia in The Wages of Guilt: Memories of War in Germany and Japan. Buruma began this work in an effort to learn more about Japan's memories of World War II and whether this had any relation to the subsequent growth of Japanese nationalism. His exploration led him to research Germany's memories as well. He believes that each country has its own symbols of the war, representing its collective consciousness. For Japan, there is Hiroshima, and the victimization of innocent citizens; for Germany, there is Auschwitz, a repository of German guilt. Neither country, however, has fully come to terms with its wartime past, Buruma concludes, citing Germany's inability to fully acknowledge and thus atone for its guilt, as well as Japan's denial of the atrocities its soldiers committed against citizens of Korea and China. Buruma acknowledges that neither country is what it was in the 1940s, and his conclusion is far from pessimistic. "What Buruma offers in not an absolution," noted Serge Schmemann in the New York Times Book Review, "but a faith that there is no fatally or permanently flawed nation, that societies can be restored to health through openness and time." Elizabeth Beverly further stated in Commonweal: "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,… is seriously important; it bears witness to that intention."

In The Missionary and the Libertine: Love and War in East and West, Buruma again presents a collection of essays about modern Asia. As with God's Dust, the range of topics is wide, covering such subjects as contemporary novelists and politicians, sexuality, and Hiroshima. Although a reviewer for the Economist noted that at times it seems as if the link between the essays is "a bit forced," Alev Adil commented in the Times Literary Supplement that "the diversity of Buruma's cultural references and the wit and the acuity with which he uses them makes these essays refreshingly entertaining and intelligent."

In addition to his nonfiction about Asia, Buruma has also written a novel, Playing the Game, called a "curious hybrid of genres" by Michael Gorra in the New York Times Book Review. Told primarily through one long letter, Playing the Game relates the story of Ranjitsinhji, an Indian prince who excels at the British game of cricket. "Playing the game" refers both to the ability to play the sport as well as to the ability to act British. John Banville in the New York Review of Books described Playing the Game as "one of those novels that flow through the mind cool and savorless as water yet leave behind a tenacious silt. Certain scenes in it, certain notions, even, will stay with me for a long time."

Buruma turns his attention to his native Europe with Anglomania: A European Love Affair, a book in which he assesses Europe's seeming fascination with England. Part Dutch and part English, Buruma is the appropriate candidate for such a task, and he weaves a discussion that features vignettes of various famous Anglophiles, from Voltaire to Theodor Herzl and Kaiser Wilhelm II. Buruma also puts himself into the mix, examining his own experiences with England and questioning whether the island's integration into the European community will necessarily mean a loss of cultural identity for the British. A contributor for Publishers Weekly called Buruma a "fine writer with a sense of how the personal is not just political but also historical." Robert Persing, writing in Library Journal, noted that the historical biographies Buruma employs range from the "amusing" to the "tragic," but that the prose "really blossoms" when Buruma turns the lens on himself and his Anglo-German grandparents. Booklist's Margaret Flanagan also had praise for the book, terming it a "historically significant scrutiny of Anglophilia." And writing in the National Review, Christopher Hitchens felt that Buruma's book "could hardly be any better. It is learned and witty and serious all at the same time."

From Europe and England, Buruma's attention shifts back to Asian topics with Bad Elements: Chinese Rebels from Los Angeles to Beijing. Buruma travels from the United States to Taiwan, Singapore, and Hong Kong, eventually making his way into China itself and the capital, Beijing, interviewing exiles, dissidents, and rebels of all stripes who have stood up to the Chinese government. In doing so, such people demonstrate, according to Buruma, the desire of Chinese the world over to live in a democracy. Writing in Time International, Susan Jakes called Buruma's work a "detailed map of the international landscape of Chinese heterodoxies, an encyclopedic Who's Who of troublemakers that is engagingly anecdotal, often surprising and deeply insightful." Buruma meets with former leaders of the Tiananmen Square movement in the United States, some of whom are still involved in politics and others of whom have moved on to Wall Street or religion. More individual stories follow, tracing the Chinese diaspora back to Beijing. "Buruma is at his most engaging as he moves deeper into China," commented Judith Shapiro in the New York Times Book Review. Colin Thubron, reviewing Bad Elements in the Spectator, found that Buruma finally puts a face to what has been a "remote figure," the Chinese dissident. For Thubron, these dissidents "emerge as remarkable but often deeply flawed" individuals. Through the interviews, Buruma also manages to portray alternatives to Chinese centralism, as in Hong Kong, recently reunited with the mainland. Cyberspace, Buruma shows, is another major challenge to such an authoritative regime. Thubron concluded that this "wise and imaginative work—at once so sympathetic and so critically alert—could scarcely have been attempted by anyone but Buruma." Similarly, Warren I. Cohen, writing in the Los Angeles Times, felt the book was "elegantly written" with "piercing insights," and a contributor for Publishers Weekly noted that Buruma's narrative is "as elegant as Chinese calligraphy and as potent as Chinese wine." It would be difficult to imagine a Westerner having any comprehension of China, the same reviewer felt, "without first reading this book."

Modern Japan comes into focus in Buruma's 2003 title Inventing Japan: 1853-1964, a "short but taut narrative," according to Booklist's Bryce Christensen. This "cool, informed historical primer," as a critic for Kirkus Reviews described the book, chronicles Japan's history from the days of the shogun empire through Westernization, military build up, the destruction and defeat after the Second World War, and to the creation of a wealthy democracy in the immediate postwar world under the rule of Douglas MacArthur. These investigations begin with Commodore Matthew Perry's arrival in 1853; intended to open the island to trade, Perry's visit had a "darker" meaning, as Christensen noted. In his book, Buruma demonstrates how Perry's naval mission helped to eventually end the shogunate rule and bring in the Meiji Restoration. However, this reform ultimately led to imperial growth; Japan took on and conquered competitors in the region, including China in 1895 and Russia in 1905, victories that set them on the path to world war later in the twentieth century. Christensen further found Buruma's concise history an "excellent introductory study." The Kirkus Reviews critic went on to call the book a "highly nuanced explanation of how a hybrid national polity and culture was created." Writing in the New York Times Book Review, Christopher Benfey commented that the "story Buruma tells is largely one of missed opportunities for the 'sickly child' of Japanese democracy." Merle Rubin, writing in the Los Angeles Times, called the work an "admirably concise overview" and one that "provides a good sense of the varied facets of Japanese political life and thought." And reviewing the same work in the Spectator, Jonathan Mirsky thought that it "eloquently describes Japan's progression form a seemingly closed country… to 1964," when it staged the Olympic Games and "rejoined the world," as Buruma wrote in his book.



Buruma, Ian, Inventing Japan: 1853-1964, Modern Library (New York, NY), 2003.


Booklist, April 15, 1999, Margaret Flanagan, review of Anglomania: A European Love Affair, p. 1510; June 1, 2000, Hazel Rochman, review of The Missionary and the Libertine, p. 1810; November 15, 2001, Mary Carroll, review of Bad Elements;Chinese Rebels from Los Angeles to Beijing, p. 544; January 1, 2003, Bryce Christensen, review of Inventing Japan: 1953-1964, p. 838.

Commonweal, May 20, 1994, Elizabeth Beverly, review of The Wages of Guilt, p. 28.

Economist, June 15, 1996, review of The Missionary and the Libertine, p. 8.

Kirkus Reviews, August 15, 2001, review of Bad Elements, p. 1182; December 15, 2002, review of Inventing Japan, pp. 1814-1815.

Library Journal, April 1, 1999, Robert Persing, review of Anglomania, p. 116; March 15, 2000, Harold M. Otness, review of India: A Mosaic, p. 116; July, 2000, Ali Houissa, review of The Missionary and the Libertine, p. 122; September 1, 2001, Peggy Spitzer Christoff, review of Bad Elements, p. 207.

Los Angeles Times, April 14, 2002, Warren I. Cohen, review of Bad Elements, p. R4; February 10, 2003, Merle Rubin, review of Inventing Japan, p. E15.

Nation, November 10, 1984, Joan Mellon, review of Behind the Mask; January 23, 1995, p. 103.

National Review, July 26, 1999, Christopher Hitchens, review of Anglomania, p. 55.

New York Review of Books, November 21, 1991, John Banville, review of Playing the Game, pp. 27-29.

New York Times Book Review, September 16, 1984, Dorinne Kondo, review of Behind the Mask; July 9, 1989, James Fallows, review of God's Dust, p. 10; August 4, 1991, Michael Gorra, review of Playing the Game, p. 11; June 26, 1994, Serge Schmemann, review of The Wages of Guilt, p. 3; December 16, 2001, Judith Shapiro, review of Bad Elements, p. 11; February 9, 2003, Christopher Benfey, review of Inventing Japan, p. 15.

Publishers Weekly, March 1, 1999, review of Anglomania, p. 50; June 19, 2000, review of The Missionary and the Libertine, p. 66; September 24, 2001, review of Bad Elements, p. 76.

Spectator, November 11, 1989, p. 54; April 13, 1991, p. 33; July 16, 1994, p. 31; April 20, 1996, p. 36; May 18, 2002, Colin Thubron, review of Bad Elements, pp. 41-42; September 27, 2003, Jonathan Mirsky, review of Inventing Japan, pp. 59-60.

Time International, January 14, 2002, Susan Jakes, review of Inventing Japan, p. 49.

Times Literary Supplement, March 9, 1984, James Kirkup, review of Behind the Mask; April 26, 1996, Alev Adil, review of The Missionary and the Libertine, p. 36.

Washington Post Book World, May 6, 1984, Liz Dalby, review of Behind the Mask.


Atlantic Unbound,http://www.theatlantic.com/unbound/ (September 27, 2000), Akash Kapur, "Ian Buruma's Roving Essays on the East-West Divide Are at Home with Cross-Cultural Nuance and Irony."

Globalist,http://www.theglobalist.com/ (October 21, 2003), biography of Ian Buruma.*