Grove Press
Grove Press
Grove Press

Turning Japanese

Memoirs of a Sansei

by David Mura

“In his memoir Turning Japanese , the poet David Mura brings an intriguing perspective to the New World quest for enlightenment from this ancient and ascendant culture, being himself a sansei–a third generation Japanese-American . . . Drawing on his own history of repressed racial self-consciousness, Mr. Mura is quite good on the sexual politics of race. . . .His general observations on the landscape and customs can be fresh and revealing . . . Ultimately, Mr. Mura seems to have acquired a sense of ease, and of inspiration–like a man who has discovered a fertile atoll in mid-Pacific.” –Jay McInerney, The New York Times

  • Imprint Grove Paperback
  • Page Count 400
  • Publication Date January 17, 2006
  • ISBN-13 978-0-8021-4239-9
  • Dimensions 5.5" x 8.25"
  • US List Price $20.00

About The Book

Called “a dizzying interior voyage of self-discovery and splintered identity.” (Chicago Tribune), award-winning poet David Mura’s critically acclaimed memoir chronicles how a year in Japan transformed his sense of self and pulled into sharp focus his complicated inheritance. Mura is a sansei, a third-generation Japanese-American who grew up on baseball and hot dogs in a Chicago suburb, where he heard more Yiddish than Japanese. Turning Japanese chronicles a quest for identity with honesty, intelligence, and poetic vision, which stands as a classic meditation on difference and assimilation and a valuable window onto a country that has long fascinated our own.Turning Japanese was a New York Times Notable Book and winner of an Oakland PEN Josephine Miles Book Award, this new edition includes a new afterword by the author.

Visit David Mura’s website at http://www.davidmura.com/

Tags Literary


“There is brilliant writing in this book, observations of Japanese humanity and culture that are subtly different from and more penetrating than what we usually get from Westerners.” –The New Yorker

“In his memoir Turning Japanese , the poet David Mura brings an intriguing perspective to the New World quest for enlightenment from this ancient and ascendant culture, being himself a sansei–a third generation Japanese-American . . . Drawing on his own history of repressed racial self-consciousness, Mr. Mura is quite good on the sexual politics of race. . . .His general observations on the landscape and customs can be fresh and revealing . . . Ultimately, Mr. Mura seems to have acquired a sense of ease, and of inspiration–like a man who has discovered a fertile atoll in mid-Pacific.” –Jay McInerney, The New York Times

“Turning Japanese reads like a fascinating novel you can’t put down . .

. The strength and eloquence of Mura’s book resides in his ability to capture and speak to the Japanese-American experience across generations, and perhaps, more importantly, to present the tools and insights for people across cultures and ethnicities to examine, re-examine and reclaim their sense of history and identity. In this way, Mura’s story is a universal one, and one that is accessible to everyone, even those whose experience in the U.S. is not that of a person of color.” –Sheila Muto, Asian Week

“Turning Japanese is an important contribution to our knowledge of Japan and an engaging memoir in which Mura writes candidly of his life, his passions and his desire to find clarity in his ancestral land. He tells of battles with his father that go to the heart of the conflict between an older generation desperate to assimilate and a younger generation anxious to discover itself . . . The stories he tells–about a political demonstration, learning to dance, a night of drinking with Japanese friends–are vivid and revealing.” –Michael Shapiro, New York Newsday

“[Mura] paints a portrait of Japan that is rich and satisfying . . . a refreshingly kindly and tolerant study, a powerful antidote to the venomous anti-Japanese mood that seems, distressingly, to be seizing some corners of the American mind.” –Simon Winchester, Conde Nast Traveler

“A dizzying interior voyage of self-discovery and splintered identity . . .his detailed examination of the shifting, non-unitary, infinitely adaptable Japanese self–more concerned with the roles it plays than with essence or individuality–probably defines for us a future mode of personal existence on an increasingly crowded planet.” –Joseph Coates, Chicago Tribune

“Compulsively readable.” –Ken Mochizuki, Northwest Nikkei

“Turning Japanese is a combination of poet’s notebook, psychiatrist’s journal and travelogue. Mura’s writing is sparkling and highly perceptive. His books is a fascinating look at modern Japan and at the age-old dilemma of the stranger in a stranger land.” –The Kansas City Star

“This intimate memoir of a third-generation Japanese-American’s foray into the land of his ancestors is more than a colorful travel journal. And it is more than the story of one man’s search for his cultural place in the world when for the first time he is surrounded by faces all looking like his. Poet David Mura has made his first book something rarer–a brutally honest, beautifully written meditation on art, race, country, sexuality, and marriage, and ultimately on his longest journey, the exploration of himself as a man . . . This book is the powerful record of all he saw and experienced [in Japan], written with a poet’s eye and a memory for what was never there.” –Joyce Howe, Berkeley Express

“Turning Japanese is an honest, thought provoking portrait of a young man who happens to be a very interesting fellow. He has somehow absorbed the experience of three generations of Japanese-Americans, and, as this book shows, made it his own. He returns to the land of his ancestors in search of a “lost center” within his soul and describes all this with a poet’s sensibility and an unfailing eye for irony. . . . it is a fine work.” –Kunio Francis Tanabe, The Washington Post

‘stories and books about individuals returning to the land of their ancestors are quite common and almost routine. But David Mura’s book, Turning Japanese, manages to stand out in the crowd. In the end it is the fundamental honesty of Mura that makes his autobiographic work on his visit to Japan so compelling . . . Books like these are important because they open doors, start new discussions, bring about fresh air in what has been a locked-room subject . . . Any Sansei who has visited Japan will relate to the subject matter and any person of color who has looked in a mirror and wondered why he didn’t fit in with the majority in America will want to read this work for its insight.” –Chris Komai, Rafu Shimpo: The Los Angeles Japanese Daily

“On its surface Turning Japanese is a memoir of a year [Mura] and his wife Susie spent in Tokyo on a creative artist exchange fellowship. After reading a few pages one comes to see that Mura’s narrative is of richer material. Woven tightly in with a poet’s vivid impressions of a stunningly modern Japan are threads of the sansei experience, both collective and intimate. The book is a really an admirably frank account of a sansei’s efforts at forging a viable identity, a definition, not only for himself but, ineluctably, for an entire lost generation of Japanese Americans.” –H.Y. Nahm, Transpacific

“In reading Turning Japanese, one sees David Mura embark on a journey, unveiling many subtle and important revelations about his own cultural identity and what his one year in Japan allowed him to discover . . . [The book] is quickly paced and always compelling. Part IV, concerning a visit from Mura’s parents from the United States is especially moving . . . In the first memoir by a Japanese American of this generation, Mura has provoked and addressed some hard questions about “turning Japanese.”” –Sharon Hashimoto, The International Examiner

“Born in Chicago, raised as a provincial Midwesterner, Mura takes us on a sometimes dream-like journey through the land of the Rising Sun–a land that’s as foreign to him as to most non-Asians . . . Slowly Mura confronts his internalized racism and grows angry toward the American melting pot that boils away any other culture than its own. Not only does Mura uncover what it means to be Japanese, but what makes an American.” –Ellen Krout-Hasegawa, Los Angeles Weekly

“Turning Japanese is a sensitive meditation on the experience [of Japan] . . . Mr. Mura never manages to package his tangled reactions as neatly as some readers might hope. But his world has clearly widened, and his honest probing of self and society makes enticing reading.” –S. Keith Graham, Atlanta Constitution

‘mura’s intelligent and well-written account of his experiences reveals that a hyphenated American, however alienated from the mainstream culture, is an American still.” –Charles Soloman, Los Angeles Times

“The heady drafts of this book are indeed his tale-spinnings and meditations, and there is genius in the divagations of his thoughts as they drift towards contemplations of the past, to ramblings on literary histories, both Japanese and Western, to questions of personal identity and his relationship to white America. . . . Like Petrarch, he writes with grace and simplicity of style; like Augustine’s, his imagination is capable of sustained rococo meditation; like Sei Shonagon, he is possessed of a finely tuned wit. Yet, it his confrontation of painful, personal and racial conflicts that makes this work unique and inspires his most compelling writing . . . Mura’s book is a saga from a post-existentialist perspective that might serve as a contemporary guide to perplexed world travelers and displaced persons who have not so much lost secure identities and homelands as the abiding need–perhaps classical and outmoded–to maintain them . . . His Turning Japanese is an extraordinary contribution and a necessary book for our richly complicated time.” –Garrett Hongo, Manoa

“[Mura’s] engrossing memoir includes piquant descriptions of Japanese life . . . His discoveries also lead him to reflect on his childhood, issues of assimilation and racism, his relationship with his white wife, and the dark, raging side of sexuality. An eloquent account of a catharsis that illuminates both personal and societal aspects.” –Donna Seaman, Booklist

“Poet David Mura’s first book of prose is also a book of hope. For this gifted American of Japanese descent, for this disconnected young writer from Minneapolis who suddenly finds himself in the middle of Tokyo circa 1984, Turning Japanese is, first of all, nothing if not a triumph of the human spirit over the prejudice, shame and self-doubt about growing up in white America. For all its depth, for all its burning passion to get at the soul of things Japanese or Asian, one need not be a frequenter of sushi bars to appreciate its insight. With the skill and precision of a samurai poet, Mura’s double-edged prose captures the reader early on, taking him along on a haunting journey of self-discovery where cross-cultural armies of ideas East and West clash like the Titans in our heads.” –Michael Harrelson, Creative Loafing

“This is an important book for our time. David Mura’s memoir is about what it means for an Asian-American to become, or to turn, Japanese, and in its subtle analysis of self-identity and self-containment, family secrets and sexual trauma, it touches a wound that all of us have, even if we have not felt it as keenly as the author has. To this subject he brings a poet’s feeling for language and a clear analytic eye. We need to know, right now in America, what this fine book has to tell us.” –Charles Baxter, author of First Light and A Relative Stranger

“From the beginning I know this is an eye I can trust. There is such sweetness here, such honesty in his explorations of a country, a family history and of himself as a man. Japan, the river, now flows through my life as well, more familiar and at the same time, more alien than before. Which is as it should be, for Mura knows how to balance these many and complex opposites, the result of which is a peaceful ambiguity. And, like all good art, it is made even more poignant and powerful by what is left out.” –Judith Guest, author of Ordinary People and Second Heaven

“Painfully honest, acutely political, David Mura’s memoir dismantles and reconstructs with passionate self-scrutiny what it means to be Japanese and American, to be male and female. He gives us the instruments to examine who we are.” –Gretel Ehrlich, author of The Solace of Open Spaces and Heart Mountain

“This intimate memoir reads like a novel you can’t put down. It’s a book about transformation and reclamation, about looking in the mirror and seeing through the complexities of racial and cultural identity. Mura wrestles with images of self, sexuality, politics, marriage and heritage. He dances, remembers, worries, protests, engages and is changed. He has given us his humanity and artistry in an enlightening and courageous book.” –Patricia Weaver Francisco, author of Cold Feet and Village Without Mirrors

“Turning Japanese is many things: a year in Japan accounted with the intimacy and care of a grandson, as well as the wonder and tension of the outsider; it is an active contemplation of what it means to be different, to be the same, of the repression of heritage, and the identity that manages to slip through one’s generations nevertheless. David Mura’s memoir moves one to remember our own long lost origins, to recognize the junctures we turned from outsiders into insiders, how precarious and illusory any such status can be, but in turn, how open we might be to the possibilities of a world community.” –Mary La Chapelle, author of House of Heroes

‘david Mura confronts his ethnicity, his family and his sexuality with a poet’s eye, an analyst’s mind and a son’s heart. His journey to Japan becomes a rich, lyrical journey into the self.” –Peggy Orenstein, managing editor, Mother Jones


“Coming home at last
At the end of the year
I wept to find
My old umbilical cord.”
–Matsuo Bash”

“And we have the feeling that the hero lived all the details of this particular night as annunciations, as promises, or even that he lived only those details that were promises, blind and deaf to everything that didn’t belong to his adventure. We forget that the future was not yet there; the man took his walk in a night empty of premonitions, a night that offered him its monotonous riches indiscriminately, and he did not choose among them.”
–Jean-Paul Sartre, Nausea

For more than a week after I came back from Japan, I would find myself collapsing several times a day. The heat had lingered into September, and the house of our friend Kathleen wasn’t air-conditioned. But this weakness wasn’t due to the heat.

It was as if the muscles inside my limbs were turning to jelly, as if soporific drugs were slowing the blood flow to my brain to a trickle, my thoughts to the haze of unconsciousness. I’d try to make it to the bedroom. The bedspread and walls were white, a Vermeer reproduction hung on the wall, the curtains were lace. And the room seemed foreign and familiar, like a tomb, like the women you sleep with in dreams. The bed oddly far away, like a mirage.
Jet lag? Perhaps. But the vertigo I felt seemed to come not just from the spinning of the earth but from a sense of hovering above the earth, from the very unreality of the country I had thought was my home.
I sat on the deck with a book on my lap, opened my eyes an hour later to the same page, a fly buzzing at my wrist. The sunlight off the lawn was blinding, the spaces between the houses immense, the sky an unbelievably wide expanse of blue. Where were the crowds, the small, cramped spaces of Tokyo? Susie, my wife, called from St. Paul to say she’d found a lead for an apartment. Her voice seemed to come from the depths of the ocean. The static on the line seemed the roar of the waves. I put on a tape, the score for Kurosawa’s Ran. The Noh flute calmed me, then made me edgy, as if I’d forgotten something. I saw some figure, some body, move near the window. Kathleen was at work, the house was empty. Her children had grown up and moved away. She was our surrogate mother. We’d returned like wayward children.
I pulled out the things I’d brought home from Japan. Journal entries, letters, a few poems. Programs, magazines. Photos. I mooned over them, wondered what the people in the photos were doing, worried about what would become of the pages, whether I’d ever be able to shape them into a coherent whole. The novel looked ragged and unfinished, like the hull of a ship rotting on the beach.
Once, I made the mistake of going to a shopping mall. It was the middle of the week, the walks were almost empty. A few baby strollers, the mothers pale, the clothes white and casual, loose around their bodies, their infants with bonnets or bare fuzzy heads. The stores were like warehouses, a stage set waiting for actors. I stopped in the chain bookstore. There was nothing there to read. I found a novel by Mishima–The Sailor Who Fell from Grace with the Sea.
I pulled out the sumie brush and ink, set them on the Formica kitchen table, spread the tissue-thin paper. I could not quite recall how the waterfalls were made. I thought briefly of practicing my standing meditation, but the idea of getting to my feet seemed a mythical task. The heat had hit ninety-five. I could feel the Japanese words slipping like droplets of sweat from my brow.
“I know,” said Susie. “It was hard for me too when I got back. But it’s not that bad now. You’ll get over it.”
The thing was, I did not want to get over it. This disequilibrium was like a cold you caught from a brief affair, the only proof of your passion.

I am a Sansei, a third-generation Japanese-American. In 1984, through luck and through some skills as a poet, I traveled to Japan. My reasons for going were not very clear.
At the time, I’d been working as an arts administrator in the Writers-in-the-Schools program, sending other writers to grade schools and high schools throughout Minnesota. It wasn’t taxing, but it didn’t provide the long stretches needed to plunge into my own work. I had applied for a U.S./Japan Creative Artist Exchange Fellowship mainly because I wanted time to write.
Japan? That was where my grandparents came from, it didn’t have much to do with my present life.
But then Japan had never seemed that important to me, even in childhood. On holidays when we would get together with relatives, I didn’t notice that the faces around me looked different from most of the faces at school. I didn’t notice that my grandfathers were in Japan, my grandmothers dead. No one spoke about them, just as no one spoke about Japan. We were American. It was the Fourth of July, Labor Day, Christmas. All I noticed was that the food we ate–-futomaki, mazegohan, teriyaki, kamaboko–was different from what I liked best–McDonald’s, pizza, hot dogs, tuna-fish salad.
For me Japan was cheap baseballs, Godzilla, weird sci-fi movies like Star Man, where you could see the strings that pulled him above his enemies, flying in front of a backdrop so poorly made even I, at eight, was conscious of the fakery. Then there were the endless hordes storming G.I.’s in war movies. Sometimes the Japanese hordes got mixed up in my mind with the Koreans, tiny Asians with squinty eyes mowed down in row after row by the steady shots of John Wayne or Richard Widmark. Before the television set, wearing my ever-present Cubs cap, I crouched near the sofa, saw the enemy surrounding me. I shouted to my men, hurled a grenade. I fired my gun. And the Japanese soldiers fell before me, one by one.
Of course, by the eighties, I was aware, as everyone else was, of Japan’s burgeoning power, its changing image–Toyota, Nissan, Sony, Toshiba, the economic, electronic, automotive miracle. Rather than savage barbarism the Japanese were now characterized by a frightening efficiency and a tireless energy. Japan was a monster of industrialization, of huge, world-hungry corporations. Unfair trade practices, the trade imbalance. Robot people.
But none of this had much to do with me. After all, I was a poet.
So, when I did win the fellowship, I felt I was going not as an ardent pilgrim, longing to return to the land of his grandparents, but more like a contestant on a quiz show who finds himself winning a trip to Bali or the Bahamas. Of course, I was pleased about the stipend, the plane fare for me and my wife, and the payments for Japanese lessons, both before the trip and during my stay. I was also excited that I had beat out several hundred candidates in literature and other fields for one of the six spots. But part of me wished the prize was Paris, not Tokyo. I would have preferred French bread and Brie over sashimi and rice, Baudelaire and Proust over Bash” and Kawabata, structuralism and Barthes over Zen and D. T. Suzuki. At least I had studied French in high school. And having grown up next door to Skokie, Illinois–the land of perpetual spring, a Rosenbloom on every corner–I knew more Yiddish than Japanese.
I had always been terrified of travel. In college it took me till my senior year to move to a new dorm. I’d lived in Minneapolis since then. My only other trip outside the country had been two weeks on an island off Cancun; my reaction to that trip was an astonished “I spent two weeks out of the country and did not die.” I feared places where ordering a meal would be a chore. I liked knowing directions and streets, not having to refer to a map wherever I went. I loved my friends; with strangers I was always uneasy and quiet, almost rude. A true landlocked Midwesterner, I wanted to read about the world. But go there? Never.
This contradiction remained. Much of my life I had insisted on my Americanness, had shunned most connections with Japan and felt proud I knew no Japanese; yet I was going to Japan as a poet, and my Japanese ancestry was there in my poems–my grandfather, the relocation camps, the hibakusha (victims of the atomic bomb), a picnic of Nisei (second-generation Japanese-Americans), my uncle who fought in the 442nd. True, the poems were written in blank verse, rather than haiku, tanka, or haibun. But perhaps it’s a bit disingenuous to say I had no longing to go to Japan; it was obvious my imagination had been traveling there for years, unconsciously swimming the Pacific, against the tide of my family’s emigration, my parents’ desire, after the internment camps, to forget the past.
Susie had none of my misgivings about our trip. After two years of a pediatrics residency, after weeks when she’d sometimes work two days straight on two hours’ sleep, she was eager for a break. Her father was a world expert on public health and had been one of the first American medical officials to visit Russia after the war, to visit the People’s Republic of China; he had taken her family on trips through Europe and imparted to his daughter a love of foreign places and exotic foods. For years, she had found my reluctance to travel stifling; just as she had converted me from a diet of pizza and hamburger to a range of the world’s cuisines, she kept hoping she could inject some nomadic impulse into my rooted Midwestern bones. Perhaps the trip to Japan would accomplish that.
And so she read eagerly through the travel books, notching the pages, making lists of places we would visit. She talked of the temples in Kyoto, of various festivals, of how she might take up tea ceremony, study shiatsu (acupressure), learn about the Japanese medical system. She left book after book on Japan by our bedside–all of which I ignored. While I was in New York studying Japanese at Columbia, she sent me articles on Japan, and after she joined me in the city, we argued when I wanted to see a film by Fassbinder or jazz in the Village rather than go to the Asian Cultural Society or to see Kabuki at the Met. It was she who arranged our tickets, she who dragged me shopping for the huge canvas hockey bags we were to use as luggage, she who had packed up our tiny bohemian apartment in the university section of Minneapolis.
This tension between us lasted until we left. After three days visiting my brother in L.A., having stayed up late the previous night talking, I packed at the last minute and planned on sleeping most of the flight. On the plane, Susie was nervous, excited. She wanted to go to the World’s Fair at Tsukuba immediately after we arrived. I said maybe, annoyed at her tendency to make plans. Maybe we’ll be too tired to do anything, I said. We argued briefly. Then I nodded off. My nervousness and excitement had gone inward, into somnolence. Over the next few hours, I dreamed of Mozart, Salieri, the images of Amadeus that flickered on the screen when I opened my eyes. I forgot where I was going. I was reading a book on Sartre, sentences about the lack of plot in Nausea, a new conception of action and event, dialogues stemming from the French Resistance. And by the end of the fourteen-hour plane ride, as we tumbled out into the terminal at Narita, I was exhausted and exhilarated. Frightened. Astonished that all the faces at customs looked like mine.