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Japanese-American Limbo : TURNING JAPANESE; Memoirs of a Sansei, By David Mura (Atlantic Monthly Press: $19.95; 384 pp.)

April 28, 1991|Karl Taro Greenfeld | Greenfeld was born in Kobe, Japan, of a Japanese mother and an American father. He grew up in Pacific Palisades and currently resides in Tokyo, where he is managing editor of Tokyo Journal

For second- and third-generation Japanese Americans--Nissei and Sansei--returning to Japan can be frightening, educating and enlightening. For Japanese-American writers, that experience is essential to understanding how our cultural heritage differs from that of other American writers.

We came of age in America, often of middle-class and upper-middle-class backgrounds. And though we stood out in class pictures and Little League team photos as the only Asian faces, culturally we identified with America. But when the self-consciousness of adolescence fell away, we became curious about why our Japanese-American family was different. We became curious about our nation of origin: Japan. The big question lingers for Japanese Americans, both as people and as writers: In what ways are we Japanese and in what ways American?

Sansei poet David Mura in "Turning Japanese" tries to understand himself, his family, his heritage and his writing--in other words, his entire being--during a year spent in Japan on a U. S./Japan Creative Artist Fellowship.

David Mura himself, product of a Jewish suburb of Chicago, had "insisted on my Americanness, had shunned most connections with Japan and felt proud I knew no Japanese." Combine this with statements such as "I have always been terrified of travel. . . . 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,' " and you have a Japanese-American better suited for a trip to the Chicago Metropolitan Library than to Japan. "I wanted to read about the world. But go there? Never."

But go there Mura does, accompanied by his Caucasian wife Suzie. He studies butoh , a form of radical Japanese dance, becomes fascinated by Noh, fraternizes with some radicals and writers and struggles to learn Japanese. (Mura doesn't seem to care that discos and hostess bars probably are more relevant to understanding contemporary Japan than are Noh plays or Kabuki.) He is in a cultural wonderland, trying to sort out and appreciate Japan; through that sifting, he discovers himself.

Mura, in his wide-eyed gawk at Tokyo, successfully captures some subtle nuances of the Japanese-American experience in Japan, particularly the unfamiliar feeling of fitting in visually with the majority for the first time in his life. Meanwhile, Suzie, who has completed her medical internship in the United States, is unable to find professional satisfaction in Japan, as most male Japanese doctors and researchers look at her--because of her race and gender--as a novelty rather than a colleague.

But it is in flashback sequences of his childhood that Mura's writing takes on a poignancy and terseness lacking in the Tokyo chapters. He outlines honestly the struggles that Japanese-Americans face when dating Caucasian women. All teen-age boys are awkward around girls; put a racial spin on that and imagine the acne-inducing stress that further handicaps minorities when they want to date white women.

Those like Mura, the children of the interned, have their own unique emotional baggage. In their parents there is a constant reminder that their race is enough to justify total disenfranchisement and forcible removal and worse. So the trip to Japan can be a search for the nation where they do fit in, where, if there is another Manzanar, they won't be sent because they are the majority this time. But too often, for the Japanese Americans, they discover that here too they are not accepted. In Japan they may not be discriminated against because of race but instead for other reasons: poor Japanese- speaking ability, un-Japanese mannerisms, or simply because here, too, they are viewed as foreigners.

Perhaps we don't fit in either nation, America or Japan. That is the greatest dilemma of all, particularly for the intellectual. Before Mura arrived in Japan he was preoccupied by Western literary culture--Foucault, Benjamin, Sontag, etc.--but as his year in Japan draws to a close, he discovers he can never be a writer like them because his own intellectual tradition, genetically and verbally, is not purely Western: "I can't just write like a white American writer; I'm not John Updike; I can't write about four white people talking about their divorce at the table. . . . That sort of despair doesn't interest me."

Like a generation of Jewish writers who were liberated by the vernacular voices of Saul Bellow or Phillip Roth, David Mura has realized his own voice must organically reflect his upbringing in a household where imperfect English was spoken. That is the Japanese-American writer's only hope in literature for what American trade negotiators demand in business: a level playing field. We can't write like descendants of New England Puritans or Jewish immigrants, Mura suggests, but we can write like Japanese Americans. And that writing, encompassing both how we are Japanese and American, will be a significant voice in American letters.

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