Nick Bornoff: Writer who recorded with wit and vivacity the sexual mores of Japanese society

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The Independent Online

Nicholas Bornoff "has established himself as nothing less than the Odysseus of Japanese sex," wrote Elisabeth Bumiller, reviewing his book Pink Samurai in the LA Times in 1991. A Londoner with Jewish, French and English blood in his veins, Nick was a product of Hornsey Art School during its radical 1960s heyday followed by film school in Paris before he arrived in Tokyo during the white-hot years of the economic boom.

Japan's contradictions and peculiarities have fascinated many gaijin over the years, but no one has examined the nation's soft underbelly as closely as he did, nor described it half as vividly and wittily. While supporting himself working for an advertising agency, and later reviewing films for an English-language daily, he allowed himself to be carried off into every curious byway of Japanese eroticism, delighted to discover a country that, despite a century of feverish westernisation, had yet to absorb the idea that sex was sinful. The Japanese were polymorphously perverse, he noted, yet because their minds were not contaminated by the notion of sleaze they retained a sweet innocence, however hideous, strange or deplorable their behaviour might seem through western spectacles.

A Gonzo journalist after the manner of Tom Wolfe and Hunter S Thompson, he led the appalled yet fascinated reader into the recesses of a "soapland", a massage parlour in Kawasaki, where "a rather thickset doll of a woman in her early thirties" bathed and massaged him then treated him to a "lather dance" culminating in an hour of "amazingly skilled oral and manual sexual massage".

Uniquely among westerners writing about sex in the Orient, he retained his ironical eye without ever giving way either to mockery or prurient condemnation. He wrote of the experience as one might review a newly opened restaurant. "While there is absolutely no pretence of emotional involvement to keep the customer coming back for more," he noted about his Kawasaki hostess: "There is none of the terse French 'Dépèche-toi mon cheri,' or the whining British 'I ain't got all day.' If a job is worth doing to the Japanese, it's worth doing properly; Shirahama wouldn't even think of counting the cracks in the ceiling."

Praised as "gripping and witty" and "entertaining and fascinating" inThe Independent, Nick ventured where few of us would care to follow: intothe pungent world of Japanese coprophilia, for example, where he retained his poise in a way that would do credit to a reporter under fire in the Hindu Kush. Treating the delicate subject of the communally administered enema, he wrote, "By gulping the wastes voided from the object of his desire, the masochist signifies his utter submission ... The stripper ... crawls backwards around the stage, proferring her posterior to ritual postulants like a cat on heat..."

Nick Bornoff was one of a handful of westerners in Japan during those years – others included the manwho could be described as his mentor, Donald Richie, the celebrated American expert on Japanese film and much else, who came to the country after the war and never went home,and their mutual friend Ian Buruma – who, while never surrendering their critical faculties, found unique qualities of stylishness and melancholy among the trashy ephemera of modern Japanese life.

After 11 years in Tokyo, Odysseus finally came home to London with his beautiful and devoted wife Masami, with whom he had a son, Corin. He continued to write about Japan while beguiling his friends with his sharp style – dark shirts, thin ties, leather jackets, Chelsea boots – his caustic humour and his collection of antique opium-smoking equipment. He and Masami, a graduate in textiles and ex-window dresser for a top Tokyo department store, created a succession of homes where her design flair married with his love of curious kitsch. His fondness for the higher culture of Japan was reflected in a later book entitled Things Japanese (2002). When the fancy took him he would pull down his guitar and play the blues as if he had just dropped in from Mississippi.

The diabetes that plagued him for years forced him into a life of almost monastic austerity which he endured with surprising good humour, considering his prior devotion to the life of the senses. But though he settled down in London, it was his Tokyo years that defined him: England was always too judgemental and literal-minded to be very amusing by comparison. He described himself in a letter to a friend as "one who has no sense of roots and [is] prone to the difficulties inherent in being simultaneously at home anywhere and nowhere at all".

Reviewing Pink Samurai in The Independent on Sunday, Hugo Williams was on to something when he wrote: "Bornoff reminds me of one of those ageing Regency bucks marooned in the Victorian era, who looked back on their youth as on some Golden Age." Yet he retained to the end his ability to stare awful reality in the face with his large blue eyes, and find something bizarrely funny about it. In the last stages of cancer, he remarked to a friend, "I look like something that's escaped from the mummies room at the British Museum!"

Peter Popham

Nicholas Bornoff, writer: born London 28 September 1949; married 1984 Masami Hatta (one son); died London 30 October 2010.

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