Ian Buruma

Ian Buruma is the author of a book on Japanese cultural heroes, Behind the Mask. He is the cultural editor of the Far Eastern Economic Review.


Ian Buruma, 9 March 1995

Three episodes, three wars:

Dr Ishii gets away with it

Ian Buruma, 9 June 1994

The story of Lieutenant-General Ishii Shiro and his Unit 731 should stand as a warning – not so much against human wickedness, about which little can be done, but against gullibility. Unlike his German colleague Dr Mengele, who was a bit of a hack, Dr Ishii was a respected scholar in his field – which was military medicine, or more specifically, biological warfare. Despite his reputation for being an arrogant operator and a noisy brothel man, Ishii managed to impress some of the leading figures of the Japanese medical profession in the Twenties. He made his name by devising a water filtration system to prevent epidemics. It is said that he demonstrated the effectiveness of his invention to Emperor Hirohito by urinating into his filter and inviting the Emperor to drink the result. Ishii’s filter was perhaps the doctor’s only benign contribution to mankind.’


Ian Buruma, 13 May 1993

David Gower was this year’s most popular victim, the English underdog, the handsome knight sacrificed by knaves. But good news is at hand: the hero has announced a brilliant season full of runs. In the tradition of General MacArthur, David Gower has announced his return. I hope he succeeds. But success is not the only thing that makes a hero. I have a nagging suspicion – no more than that – that his current popularity has something to do with his having been pulled down a peg. The humbling whiff of failure never goes amiss in an English idol. Gower’s return, at any rate, will be heralded as a return of class.’

Hamlet and the Bicycle

Ian Buruma, 31 March 1988

The Meiji period: 44 years (1868-1912) of ‘Civilisation and Enlightenment’, of steam-trains, long-nosed barbarians, crystal chandeliers, fancy-dress balls and wars fought in Hungarian cavalry uniforms. There is something highly theatrical about the ‘modernisation’ of Japan, which began with a dazzling (words like ‘dazzling’ always come to mind when discussing Meiji) crash-course in Western culture and ended in a defensive re-evaluation of traditions that would never be the same again.

Soul to Soul

Ian Buruma, 19 February 1987

Is the Japanese Prime Minister, Nakasone Yasuhiro, a racist? Or must we read his recent remarks about the superior intelligence of a monoracial society like Japan, and unlike the United States, in context, as his defenders claim? If so, in what context? The physical context was a seminar for the Japanese equivalent of the Young Conservatives. Nakasone’s statements were clearly not meant for foreign ears. He probably didn’t mean to offend American blacks and Hispanics, although he obviously did, which showed a curious degree of insensitivity for a man who prides himself on being an international statesman. But perhaps the fact that few Japanese quarrelled with the content of his remarks tells us something important.

What’s going on? the Netherlands

Peter Mair, 14 December 2006

Theo van Gogh was murdered while cycling through Amsterdam on his way to work on the morning of 2 November 2004; it was probably no coincidence that this was also the day when George W. Bush was...

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Italy has just come to the end of another referendum campaign. Two general elections ago a new system of voting was introduced. Instead of the extreme form of proportional representation in force...

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Uniquely Horrible

Michael Howard, 8 September 1994

After the First World War Germany was compelled by the victorious Allies to accept full responsibility for the war, and in consequence to pay all the costs. In spite of the work of Fritz Fischer...

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Making faces

Philip Horne, 9 May 1991

What do coincidences mean? As I was reading Nicholas Salaman’s elaborately-patterned historical paranoia novel The Grimace, in which all the women the cracked narrator encounters are...

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Japanese Power

Richard Bowring, 14 June 1990

At the last triennial meeting of the European Association for Japanese Studies in late September 1988 the major talking-point was the extraordinary outburst of anti-Japanese feeling which in...

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