Turning Japanese

When I taught at NAU, I had a colleague in Anthropology whose father was Navajo and mother was German-American. She’d grown up on the rez. She told me a story about a student telling her, “You’re so lucky. You have a culture. I’m just white.” She told him, “You have a culture, too. It’s Wal-Mart and McDonalds.” One time she confessed to me her deep desire to go to Germany to tap into that side of her heritage. I often think of the conversations I had with her, snippets like these, because they encapsulate the conundrum of trying to understand what “American” means and raises questions like: When does our history start? Where? What’s so obvious it becomes invisible? Who’s included and who’s left out?

I haven’t quite found the answers, but I do read a lot of books that investigate these questions. The most recent—and one of the best—I’ve read is MariNaomi’s Turning Japanese.

Turning Japanese is a graphic memoir that covers a couple of years in the life of Mari, a young woman born to a European-American father and a Japanese mother. In 1995, 22-year-old Mari moves from San Francisco to San Jose with her boyfriend, Giuseppe. She gets a job working in a hostess bar. The clientele are mostly Japanese or Japanese-American businessmen. Her job—along with the other hostesses—is to make the bar a fun place for the men. The hostesses sing karaoke; they chat with the guests and laugh at the guests’ jokes; they encourage more drinking. Mari sees this as a chance to reconnect with her Japanese side. She studies the language intensely. She befriends her Japanese co-workers. She talks to her evasive mom about their cultural background. This culminates in Mari and Giuseppe moving to Japan for three months, where Mari works at a hostess bar in Tokyo and visits family in a town on the southern coast.

Because the plot of this memoir is so familiar—a lost American returns to her ethnic homeland to connect to her roots—Turning Japanese could go wrong in so many ways. It could romanticize or exoticize Japan the way so many American novels and films have. It could treat the Japanese as mysterious, mystical and other-than “Westerners.” It could be a series of hard lessons that teach Mari how American she really is. It could follow any number of morality tales. Perhaps most dangerously, because this is a graphic memoir, it could read like someone’s slide show from their vacation. Instead, MariNaomi presents a collection of stylishly-illustrated vignettes that speak to gender, ethnicity and language as a series of obstacles that we learn from or fail to overcome. These obstacles are exacerbated by Mari’s job and by her travel.

Hostess work, as MariNaomi presents it, is complicated and painful. Hostesses are not sex workers. They are not strippers or prostitutes or porn actresses. They do not engage in physical acts for money. Still, they are expected to put up with a great deal of sexual harassment at work—far more than your typical server or bartender has to withstand. MariNaomi shows the manipulation, the humiliation and the blurred boundaries of the job well. As I read through her series of work nights, I wanted to quit her job. I didn’t want to stop reading. I just wanted to read about her in a different place, doing different things. I felt suffocated by her job, and I appreciated when the memoir went into other areas where I could breathe more freely.

Similarly, MariNaomi allows us to feel Mari’s and Giuseppe’s isolation in Japan. Mari becomes semi-fluent in Japanese, but she still misses words. As readers, we miss the same words. She struggles to get over the gaps in language and culture. The trip is poignant for her, just not in ways that I would expect it to be. She connects with her family and her roots somewhat. She grows and changes a bit. Mostly, she struggles. Toward the end of her time in Japan, she does have a deep, paradigm-shifting experience. The surprise of this experience is one of the pleasures of the memoir, so I don’t want to give away what happens.

In the end, Turning Japanese doesn’t settle the questions I raise above about what it means to be an American. Still, at a time in our history when “American” is being defined more and more as a conservative, gun-owning, white, heterosexual man, a memoir like Turning Japanese becomes an urgent and necessary voice to add to the conversation.

Sean Carswell is the author of the 2016 short story collection The Metaphysical Ukulele and five other books. He is an assistant professor of writing and literature at California State University Channel Islands. www.seancarswell.org.

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