A Tokyo Romance
by Ian Buruma
Penguin Press

4/5 stars

Ian Buruma may have started his academic life as a Sinologist, but it is Japan, he writes, that “was the making of me”. A Dutchman (with a British mother), he arrived in Tokyo in 1975 eager for experience, and in his six years there he studied its people and culture, allowing him to begin explaining Japan to the rest of the world.

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His mentor, Donald Richie, who introduced Japanese cinema to the West, helped with connections, although just being a Westerner gave our young subject unusual access to luminaries, especially in film and theatre (among them filmmaker Akira Kurosawa, in whose 1980 movie Kagemusha, both men appeared as Portuguese missionaries).

The pair had met through John Roderick, a veteran American reporter who spent part of the war in China with Mao Zedong’s Communist guerillas. Just as Buruma vicariously enjoyed the escapades of Richie (who loved discussing his gay sex life), readers should delight in this sepia-toned snapshot of Tokyo at a specific time, through the lens of a gaijin (foreigner) who, like Richie, doesn’t fight his outsider status.

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Japanophiles will know Buruma from his classics, Inventing Japan (2003) among others. They will want to add A Tokyo Romance to their collections.

The Secret of Our Success
by Joseph Henrich
Princeton University Press

4.5/5 stars

Humans are a cultural species and “it’s better to be social than smart”. Understanding that, says Joseph Henrich, is key to understanding why we are so different from other animals.

We are these “puzzling primates” who have thrived not because of innate intelligence, but the collective brains of our communities: we learn from others and are social creatures dependent on culture (practices, tools, beliefs, and so on, acquired while growing up). And the larger the societies in which we live, the more technologically sophisticated we are.

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Henrich’s sweeping study, which shows how cultural and genetic evolution drive each other, sustains the interest of readers with thought-provoking findings, presented in readable fashion. The Secret of Our Success argues that humans are great learners, although we also have to learn on faith: we don’t necessarily need to understand everything (food-processing techniques, for instance), but natural selection weeds out those who fail to learn.

Henrich has us looking afresh at human nature and social norms, marriage among them. Ethnic groups in China’s Yunnan and Sichuan provinces have thrived for a millennia without husbands or fathers, he writes, despite the central government aggressively introducing their own preferred marriage norms.