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Exploring Japanese Identity as a Hostess in Illegal Expat Bars

When artist and writer MariNaomi was in her 20s, she decided she needed to understand her Japanese heritage. In her new graphic memoir "Turning Japanese," she documents all the cultural confusion—and misogynistic karaoke customers—that followed.
Photo courtesy of 2nd Cloud

After spending her childhood and teenage years living in the predominantly white town of Mill Valley, California, artist and writer MariNaomi yearned to be closer to her Japanese heritage. Fresh out of a long-term relationship, she relocated to San Jose to embark on a mission to understand Japanese culture—without her mother as a translator. Working in illegal hostess bars and briefly moving to Japan, MariNaomi learns what it means to be other—a Japanese American in Japan and a Japanese American in America—and she documents the experience in her new graphic memoir, Turning Japanese.


MariNaomi's struggles to deal with sexism of the service industry and the Tokyo subway system provide commotion in the story; in her time working as a hostess, she bonds with other employees over their strange shared experience: the need to slip off a wedding ring, karaoke's ego-boosting powers, and the inescapable attention of affectionate customers. But the real force of the book—and of all MariNaomi's books—is her ability to pinpoint the subtleties of relationships. In Turning Japanese, she not only charts her need to connect with her heritage, but also how this need affects her relationships with her family and friends. Her mother's apprehension, her new boyfriend's eagerness to accompany her to Japanthe book shows that chasing a better understanding of yourself can lead to a better understanding of those around you, too.

Also the founder of the Cartoonists of Color and Queer Cartoonists databases, MariNaomi has been published in places like BuzzFeed, PEN America, and the LA Review of Books. But her skill at portraying relationships can be traced back to her first book, Kiss & Tell, which is billed as "a romantic resume, ages 0 to 22." Whether she's telling a story about being physically pushed toward a potential paramour by her middle-school best friend or picking up a Denny's waiter who happens to be a male model, her strength in characterization shines through, as does her simple drawing style. In advance of the publication of Turning Japanese, we talked to the artist about artistic growth, dropping out of high school, and the horrors of working service jobs as a woman.


Photo by Fiona Taylor

BROADLY: In Turning Japanese, you document your relationships, both with people and with your Japanese heritage, as well as your difficult jobs. You never mention art, though. Were you interested in drawing at this time?
MariNaomi: It's funny, because I've always been a doodler, but I didn't start drawing comics until a couple months after the story [represented in Turning Japanese] ends. I'd always wanted to be a novelist; it never occurred to me to write about my own life, but by the time that book happens, I'd started reading comics. The impetus for me to start making my own was after I read this one comic by Mary Fleener. That, for some reason, flipped my switch; I thought, I can do this—this seems like fun! I started and I never stopped.

In one of your comics, you mention dropping out of high school, but I also read that you went to college. What did you study in college?
I didn't feel very challenged in high school. I was a pretty good student, I actually have two sets of report cards—one where I got all As except for in PE (I got an F in PE), and the next semester I got all Fs because I just didn't go. I was a good student when I tried, but I don't really like school; they blanket-teach everyone the same thing. So I quit school. I took a test—it wasn't a GED—and I got the proficiency. I set out on my own to self-educate and read a lot of books. By the time I reached college age, I thought I would give it another go, because I [had] heard it was better than high school. I really didn't find that to be the case; I only took a couple classes and then I quit.


Turning Japanese recounts experiences from 20 years ago. Do you find distance important when creating autobiographical work?
It's certainly helpful. There's a certain rawness that you can get if you write something down right away, but to make it an interesting story, you really have to step back to see what the greater picture is. That's kind of difficult to do when you're in the middle of it. When I was living those experiences, there was a little part of me—even though I didn't write memoir and I had no intention to—[that] thought, Well, even if this job goes horribly wrong, maybe I can get some good material out of it for a book someday.

At that point I was just thinking about the hostess job; I wasn't thinking about all of the identity issues that come up in the book, going to the motherland and stuff like that. It was very focused on this funny job. At the time, the job was so boring and tedious that once I was in the middle of it, I never thought I could write a book about it—I just wanted to forget [it]. But much later I saw a bigger picture. I realized that I was doing [the job] for a bigger reason, that it tied in with my family, and the narrative started to come out more. [Time] also helps clear out emotional baggage I might have, where I might [have been] tempted to be petty or self-hating or hating other people. I feel like that's all stuff that happens in the moment, but I let go of that stuff over time, especially stuff from my 20s.


Read more: When Suicide Is Off the Table: A Funny Memoir of Depression

Was it difficult to revisit certain sections of the narrative?
A little bit, not too much. Compared to Dragon's Breath, which [was] my last book, no. In that book I was dealing with difficult subjects involving death of people I love and people I didn't love. Definitely there were a lot of feelings in Turning Japanese, but they were so old and so resolved. I can't remember having to just put it down at any time, which happened a lot with Dragon's Breath and other comics I've done that are emotionally difficult.

In Turning Japanese you recount a move from San Francisco, to San Jose, to Japan, and then back to San Francisco. Do you think a certain place is better for you creatively?
Hmm… I was really miserable and bored in San Jose, and that's when I started doing comics. Maybe that helps!

You founded two databases, one for cartoonists of color and one for queer cartoonists. What's the importance of artistic community to you?
There are so many reasons it's important, and I'm doing it more than just for community—that's just a small part of why. I just think it's important for something like that to exist. I grew up without ever seeing anybody like me in person, or on TV, anywhere. I felt really unique in a good way and in a bad way. It's a hot topic right now, and I don't feel like I can articulate it any better than anyone else is.


As someone who's worked service jobs since I was just short of 14, I'm familiar with a handful of the experiences and feelings of lapsed feminism you describe in Turning Japanese. Do you think there's a way to put a stop to small sexist interactions like this without larger changes?
Out of all of the customer jobs, I certainly got harassed the most at [the hostess bar I depict in Turning Japanese], but I also felt the most empowered in that way. If someone crossed a line, it was OK for me to say that they were crossing a line, whereas in a regular restaurant I feel like you're just not allowed to [say that] unless you're outright assaulted. It really just sucks to be a woman in the customer service industry always. I can't imagine that ever changing in my lifetime.

While your work is autobiographical, it never seems diary-esque or scrambled because of your clean drawing style. How did you develop it?
From 19 years of trial and error! I think when I had really tight deadlines I started looking for ways to express more with fewer lines, thinking it would go faster. It didn't, really. For example, when I'm mapping out a page and it has just a few lines on it or just a face or whatever, oftentimes I'll draw out the whole scene beforehand, and I'll pare it down to what I think is really important. So I kind of failed at figuring out how to do it faster, because apparently the only way to do it faster is to do more and more and naturally get faster.


I wasn't able to cut corners, but I was able to figure out a storytelling technique that I think works even better than what I was doing before. Sometimes I think it is appropriate to have a lot on a page—I do have some very busy pages every once in a while. But if I'm using a lot of white space, I'm usually trying to get the feeling of loneliness or creepiness across; it's often me playing around with a mood. I arrived there by looking for something else.

Do you feel that your outlook changes when you approach work for publications instead of work specifically made for a book? Do you feel less willing to be vulnerable for work that is exclusively for online?
I'm always pretty vulnerable—the only difference is if I know something's going to get published and I know it's going to be soon, I freak out a little. I don't think the output is affected by that at all. It's just me being neurotic.

In 2011 you toured with the feminist spoken-word and performance art collective Sister Spit. What type of work did you perform on tour? How did you get involved?
I lucked out—someone dropped out of the tour last minute and I'd done readings with Michelle Tea before, and I guess she remembered some stories I did. One reading that didn't end up in Kiss and Tell, and she was interested in that. It just so happened that [Kiss and Tell] was being released right then, so I was just reading from my book at that point.

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How do you think your work changes when it's performed lived rather than read, in a sort of intimate way, from a book?
I'm not self-aware [enough] to know. I'm just trying to get through it without throwing up.

I've occasionally seen work of yours that is mostly writing and only peppered with drawings. Would you ever consider doing a book like that, rather than one that's entirely made up of comics?
[With Turning Japanese], I set out to write a novel. I wrote it, but it was a lot shorter than I thought it would be. I'm pretty happy about it, I think it's an interesting concept. I sent it to my agent and he said he liked the concept and that it was good, but he asked me how I would feel about adding pictures! It's funny because when I set out on this crazy ride, the whole point of it was to be a novelist, and I thought I could maybe still do that. But maybe the images are just in my blood or just expected by people. When [my agent] said that, part of me was deflated, but a part of me saw that [the book] would be improved by visuals.

I don't feel everything needs to be in an image, and some stories work better if you're not showing things. If you look on my website, there are a couple of links to essays that I've done without any drawings. They're just stories that scratch a different itch. I feel like the stories where I'm using more words, I was experimenting with the form at that time. Each story will tell me how it wants to be told.