Literature Review, 2003
9 Pages, Grade: B
In his book Turning Japanese . Memoirs of a Sansei, David Mura writes about his one year long stay in Japan, the country of his ancestors. He talks about how this experience has changed his view on his own country, the United States, and Japan. He writes in a postmodernist way, juxtaposing fragments of text dating back to different points in time. Some were written during his actual stay in Japan, with several pieces looking back at his and his family’s past, and some were written after his stay when putting together his novel. The former look back at the United States from Japan, the latter look back to Japan from the United States. Postmodernism is also an element in so far as the author uses a lot of irony and as it becomes clear how futile his efforts of finding his own identity are. In this existentialist search for who he is, Mura jumps back and forth in place and time. However, I had the feeling that the insights he arrives at with his writing are derived from only very few passages. In other words, these insights are framed by many useless pieces of text which kind of made me feel lost in a nebulous sphere in between the past and the present, Japan and the United States.
Apart from this stylistic point of view, his use of language was another point that left me dissatisfied. Japanese terms are treated very inconsistently: sometimes they are italicized, sometimes they are not. I think he tried to italicize them only the first time he mentions them but some of the words remain italicized throughout the book. Moreover, personally, I do not consider this the right way of treating Japanese terms in an English text. In not continuing to italicize these words, they suddenly seem to belong to the English language. This appropriation of language is very similar to the frequent use of foreign language terms in normal print, making them appear to be words of the English language, such as “spiel” (p. 233). This imperialistic notion of using language is, moreover, obvious in the use of “the West” for “the United States” and in Mura saying he “returned” to his grandfather’s village, even though he has never been there before. In all of these instances he uses the language of imperialist America. What startled me also a little was the use of Japanese words, sometimes not even translated, when equivalent English terms could have been easily used, or the use of Japanese between Mura and other Americans. Both instances gave me the impression he wants to show off his newly acquired skills (which do not take him far even by the end of his stay for he still frequently needs an interpreter).
Finally, I want to mention that in the whole novel nothing seems to happen, i.e. action is almost completely lacking. And, last but not least, Mura includes some direct quotations but misses out on giving the sources the quotations were taken from (s. p. 218).
Throughout the book, there are passages where Mura simply compares the United States and Japan (s. pp. 138 & 271). However, in a context where he belongs to the majority because of the way he looks, he suddenly realizes the differences between himself and his wife. This is kind of strange since Susie seems to integrate more than he does – even though this integration is due to curiosity of people based on her gender and race. What is striking in this constant but normal comparison of the United States and Japan is the fact that Mura, even though he identifies (or wants to identify) with Japan, persistently uses the United States as a standard. This is, for instance, the case when he says “Tōkyō university, the Harvard of Japan” (p. 18). I am not saying he should be blamed for this, for it is a mere consequence of his upbringing in American society, but I think he should have contemplated his point of view a little more when writing his novel. No matter how hard he tries to pass for a Japanese, he will always be a Japanese American.
Before getting further into my critique of Turning Japanese, I want to address some positive aspects that Mura needs to be praised for. He does mention many things that are true about the Japanese American family life, culture and history. He talks about key issues, such as immigration, the issei, the nisei, internment (and the internees reluctance to speak about their experience to their children), the controversy about internment, Fred Korematsu’s battle in court, relocation, etc.. During his stay in Japan, he learns a lot about Japanese Americans, he realizes the psychological impact of racism in the United States (s. p. 22), and he sees the ironies of their history (s. p. 52). In addition to adequate accounts concerning Japanese Americans, he also observes many true things about Japanese culture and the Japanese people (even though, as I will mention later, he stereotypes them quite frequently). One point is especially important here: the Japanese love of syncretism. In Japan, in many spheres of
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