Turning Japanese

Third-generation Japanese American David Mura's 1991 book Turning Japanese: Memoirs of a Sansei is his recollection of a year he spent in Japan. We share many similar experiences in North America and in Japan, but he has a poet's way with words and expresses impressions and insights much more eloquently than I ever could.

-- Tadaaki HIRUKI 17 October 1999


"This disequilibrium [is] like the cold you caught from a brief affair, the only proof of your passion." (p. 7)

"... swimming the Pacific, against the tide of my family's emigration, my parents' desire ... to forget the past." (p. 9)

"I feel a wave of happiness coming over me, a calm and combustive joy, a stamping of the feet in my soul, a smile and a voice that says, You are unnoticeable here, you have melded in, you can stand not uttering a word and be one of this crowd, and in each job in this country there is someone who looks like you ... you are no longer budgeted by your color, parceled out to certain jobs, certain places of non-power, certain ghettos of the aesthetically backward and unappealing, of the dull and downtrodden, of the inarticulate and the invisible." (p. 42)

"... odd little facts about the Japanese would come up and I would pounce on them as minor epiphanies of identity ... I realized I wasn't a freak; I was simply Japanese." (p. 47)

"The seeming distance of social relations [in Japan] seems a relief to me. In my family we did not touch each other, we did not hug, and I wonder whether that was a carryover from Japanese culture. In what ways have I had to make cross-cultural adjustments without even knowing that I was doing so?" (p. 58)

"I feel like an imposter, afraid of being discovered, my lack of Japanese exposed." (p. 60-61)

"[I realized that] in order to understand who I was and who I would become, I would have to listen to voices ... of Japan, of my own wayward and unassimilated past. In the world of [Western] tradition, I was unimagined. I would have to imagine myself." (p. 77)

"I had less gaijin licence -- the freedom of foreigners in Japan to break the rules, a freedom that comes from the Japanese assumption that foreigners do not know the rules. It didn't matter that I too was a foreigner. I didn't look like one ..." (p. 83)

"... thoughts in English shuttling in my brain, silently marking me off from the others around me." (p. 155)

"Paradoxically, Japanese beliefs helped the [Nikkei] assimilate ... Their assimilation was an acting out of a Japanese proverb that reinforces the group: The nail that sticks up gets hammered down. Assimilation was a way of not sticking up. Is it any wonder that the next generation would inherit, instead of Japaneseness, a sense of shame?" (p. 218)

"I find myself feeling a sense of rightness ... because of the traces of the culture that were handed down to me from my parents, despite their efforts and mine, to deny it; such traces have made me feel here a sense of ease ... an intuitive feel and pleasure in Japanese culture ..." (p. 293)

"... the paper on which my aunt wrote down in characters the names of my grandfather and grandmother ... is water-stained, crumpled, the characters fading into each other, blurring their lines. I carry their names ... names I cannot read." (p.354)

"Japan for me is a land of lost connections, missing what I was supposed to see, and yet always knowing that I am seeing something which strikes me, which I will always remember, which I have never seen except in dreams. So often, though, the significance remains occluded, lost, the connection to the past impossible and inpenetrable." (p. 356)

"An impossible knowledge. Does culture ordinarily form a net of remembrance, a safety guard against forgetting? Does it provide the individual with at least some clues, some vague outlines, from which to discern his family history? All I have are these doubts and feelings of loss, these questions which pull me on, step after step, a dance of folly. Over and over, knowing it is futile ..." (p.358)

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