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The Missionary and the Libertine: Love and War in East and West Paperback – August 14, 2001

4.5 out of 5 stars 4 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews

Amazon.com Review

This collection of essays, drawn mainly from The New York Review of Books, will appeal to readers interested in the Far East, especially Japan. Ian Buruma writes of Europe's very particular fascination with Asia, and makes clear that this is what attracted him, too:
Neither puritanism nor sensuality was ever unique to East or West, yet, on the whole, it is for the latter that Westerners have looked East. There has been a sensual, even erotic, element in encounters--imaginary or real--between East and West since the ancient Greeks. The European idea of the Orient as female, voluptuous, decadent, amoral--in short, as dangerously seductive--long predates the European empires in India and Southeast Asia.
Yet an unexpected reversal has upset this mode of thought. "From the official point of view of China, Singapore, Malaysia, South Korea, and Japan," writes Buruma, "Europe and the United States are now models not of masculine vim but, on the contrary, of decadence, libertinism, and sloth."

The best essay in The Missionary and the Libertine builds off this observation by examining Lee Kuan Yew's repressive Singapore and the "Asian values" debate. Startling anecdotes spring from the page (in this selection as well as the others), such as the employment ad Buruma shares from a Singapore daily: "Filipino. Hardworking. No day off." Buruma is more than just an observer; he's also an analyst. The very concept of "Asian values" rings untrue, he believes, because the phrase "only really makes sense in English. In Chinese, Malay, or Hindi, it would sound odd. Chinese think of themselves as Chinese, and Indians as Indians (or Tamils, or Punjabs). Asia, as a cultural concept, is an official invention to bridge vastly different ethnic populations living in former British colonies." Buruma also writes about Pakistan's Benazir Bhutto, the Philippines' Cory Aquino, V.S. Naipaul, the Seoul Olympics, the debate over the bomb in Japan, and so on. The book is a grab bag of literature and culture, and fans of Buruma will be delighted to have it all packed together in a single volume. --John J. Miller --This text refers to the Hardcover edition.

From Publishers Weekly

Buruma (Anglomania) first became fascinated with the East in 1971 during a Japanese theater show in Amsterdam, and he has maintained this interest ever since. Here, in a collection of essays on the cultural interplay between Asia and the West (several of which first appeared in the New York Review of Books), he discusses topics as far-ranging as Indonesian history and popular Japanese writersAall with ease and dexterity. At their best, as in a piece on Michael Crichton's novel Rising Sun, these essays, which exhibit an old-fashioned, impressive erudition throughout, illuminate the cultures of both hemispheres. Buruma deftly picks apart the common Western paranoid view of the Japanese and compares it to the parallel fear of Americans (and Jews) depicted in a contemporary Japanese book. Along the way, BurumaAwho was educated in both Holland and JapanAdoes not shy from criticizing the East: his compelling essay on the 1988 Seoul Olympics, for example, deftly highlights the rabid nationalism that accompanied South Korea's staging of that international event. In another piece, he lambastes the treatment of gaijin (foreigners) who come East to play Japanese baseball. Sometimes, however, his summing up overgeneralizes, as when he describes Japanese postwar culture as a trip "from student activism to pornography to show-business dandy." (Aug.)
Copyright 2000 Reed Business Information, Inc. --This text refers to the Hardcover edition.
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Product Details

  • Paperback: 352 pages
  • Publisher: Vintage; First Edition edition (August 14, 2001)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0375705376
  • ISBN-13: 978-0375705373
  • Product Dimensions: 5.2 x 0.8 x 8 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.2 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.5 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (4 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,494,772 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Format: Paperback
I found Buruma's collection very absorbing, especially helpful to someone living out East (Hong Kong and Singapore), as I was in the late 90's. The Singapore essay, "The Nanny State of Asia," is an extremely perceptive look behind the official facade of Harry Lee Kuan Yew's police state. If you plan to visit/live in S'pore, the things the locals won't dare discuss with you (out of fear) are dealt with here. Even if you're just travelling from the armchair, this is a well-written and (again) extremely absorbing read.
As someone who lived out East I rank this up with Christopher Lingle's Singapore's Authoritarian Capitalism and Stan Sesser's The Land of Charm and Cruelty (another great essay collection on various Asian countries) as books helpful to the Westerner trying to learn about the region. Buruma's God's Dust has more essays on Asia, including S'pore. For Singapore, I also recomend Francis Seow's A Prisoner in Lee Kuan Yew's Singapore, and Paul Theroux's Saint Jack (a Singapore novel set in the Seventies but (I found) remarkably up to date in the attitudes it records of both locals and expats).
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Format: Paperback
Sceptical of all talk of "asian values" (profound "culture differences" used to justify the denial of human rights), Buruma is a clear-sighted observer of the East. Buruma describes the phases that Western visitors to Japan tend to go through; an initial phase of delight oft succeeded by rage, and ultimately leading to a sort of near manic-depressing rapidly-alternating hatred/love of the East. Buruma, while obviously retaining a great love and respect for Eastern culture combined with a deep scepticism about "asian values", is unseduced by either extreme. The book opens with essays on individual figures, such as Yukio Mishima (it is impossible to take Paul Schrader's 'Mishima' seriously after Buruma's curt dismissal of its portentious bombast) and Wilfred Thesiger (again, one sees this oft-romanticised figure anew, as a misogynistic, rather sinister worshipper of racially pure noble savages) It closes with a section of essays devoted to Japan, on topics as diverse as Michael Crichton's Black Rain, the Hiroshima peace industry, the treatment of black American baseball players in Japan and the continuing echoes of Pearl Harbor.

I have edited this review to reduce the star rating having re read some of the essays and found Buruma's mandarin (small m) worldview a little forced at times.
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Format: Hardcover
Very well documented essays about the East, although most of the articles are treating already out-of-date items. Still they will continue to be essential reading for historians.
In his ironic style, he unveils the lies and double-talk of political and industrial leaders. E.g. Sony's Akio Morita's statement that 'today's Japanese do not think in terms of privilege', while he almost disowned his son, when he wanted to marry a popular singer.
Other targets are Benazir Bhutto, Cory Aquino, Imelda Marcos and most of all the imperious leader of Singapore Lee Kuan Yew.
I recommend nevertheless the autobiography of Yew 'From first world to third', because it is an essential read in order to understand what's happening in China today. Lee Kuan Yew is Jiang Zeming's best friend.
Buruma is a very perceptive observer and reader. His analyses of writers like Yuhio Moshima, Mircea Eliade or Junichiro Tanizaki, or movie directors like Nagisa Oshima or Sayajit Ray are brilliant.
This book is to be put on the same high level as the works of Simon Leys on China.
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Format: Paperback
Buruma has the key to a door I, a newbie Nipponophile, use: cinema. His own personality leaks tastefully into his blend of experience and academics. Just the levels I like! Some of the articles are a little outside my area of interest, but he managed to hook me into finishing them.
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