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Turning Japanese is overwhelming but also fascinating

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“I’m turning Japanese / I think I’m turning Japanese / I really think so” —The Vapors

First, there’s a two-page map of the Tokyo subway system. Thick lines—dark grey, grey, light grey, yellowish-orange, orange, faint orange—and thin lines—black, black-and-white, orange, orange-and-white—run and snake here, there, seemingly everywhere. All at once, it’s overwhelming and confusing and alienating and fascinating . . . and the book’s barely begun.

Part diary-like memoir, part travelogue, MariNaomi’s Turning Japanese takes us to 1995 and her job as a 22-year-old hostess in a clandestine Japanese bar in San Jose, followed by her trip to Japan—working at a Tokyo hostess-bar; visiting her grandparents in Fukuoka—with her boyfriend.

The bar scenes and some vignettes (e.g., a woman in Tokyo feeding wild cats rice with chopsticks) build a sense of oddness and cultural difference. There are strange, strong moments of sudden attachment, too—Mari finds herself moved to tears by an old shrine and discovers a favourite pet shop in Tokyo. And then there are the characters ripped out of real life: the Chinese record producer carrying around a picture of him meeting Andy Warhol; the hostess obliged to return to Hiroshima to help run the family business, though her parents abandoned her when she was young.

The art, while a little less punchy in the second half, can still pack a cartoonish wallop, as when Mari reluctantly takes a check-on-a-napkin for $20 000 from a pushy, besotted frequenter of the bar: her eyes dilate, then her heart leaps out of her throat, taking her neck off and popping her eyeballs out . . . but “somehow I managed to keep it together.” Sudden turns in health (a bout of salmonella poisoning) or fortune (mistakenly bringing an expired credit card overseas) can torque-wrench the story, though it lacks ’90s details and a sense of Japan’s curious contradictions. Some episodes are sharper and snappier than others; the narrative can be broken-up, even patchy. But the finale’s achingly bittersweet, as Mari feels two gulfs open up in her life, even as she seems to reconcile herself to never turning truly Japanese. 

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