Oblivious Living Part 1.5: "Turning Japanese" by The Vapors

MP3 – “Turning Japanese” by The Vapors
Lyrics – “Turning Japanese” by The Vapors

There is one other well-known song on this volume of Living in Oblivion, but this closes out the compilation’s opening five-song salvo of hits, and it’s a doozy. This is the third song of this collection to clock in around 3:42, and I’m starting to think that’s the perfect length for a pop song.

The phrase “one hit wonders” gets overused at times, as the minor achievements in a band’s history get lost to time, and it becomes easier to tell their story with a slur. But in the case of The Vapors, it’s apt. The album that followed the single was not well-received, and the second album even less so.

But the single goes down like a caramel of the perfect consistency. VH1 logged it at #36, which is a shame. It’s a damn sight better than “Stumblin’ In’” by Suzi Quatro. I feel pretty confident in saying this even though I haven’t ever heard “Stumblin’ In’” or even heard of it. Not to mention that I can name two other Suzi Quatro songs, both of which were hits in England, which ought to eliminate her from the list, even though they weren’t hits here.

ANYWAY, there’s not much to say about the song in totality. On its face, the song is about a guy who misses his girlfriend, but somehow gets by on a very evocative piece of photography, and well-developed forearms. The chorus is merely a twist on the old warning that abusing oneself might cause blindness (or conversely, the warning most mothers gave that if you made a certain face long enough, it would freeze that way). But if you dig a little, some interesting bits emerge.

First, “Turning Japanese” is yet another example of the “racism can be funny” school of the 80s. I’m not going to get all ranty here, because I think it’s kind of funny, in a way. Look at the following examples:

* The song “Turning Japanese” wherein a English pop band compares the squinty look one supposedly gets when masturbating to the facial features of Japan.

* The movie Soul Man wherein a white guy pretends to be black in order to get access to scholarship money, intended for an African-American student.

* The song “Illegal Alien” by Genesis wherein Phil Collins puts on the worst accent this side of Speedy Gonzales and sings of the difficulties of getting a green card.

And nobody batted an eye. It’s just amazing what people were getting away with in popular culture at the time.

On matters less serious, there’s this often misheard lyric:


Everyone around me is a total stranger
Everyone avoids me like a cyclone ranger

Several sites on the Internet will try and tell you that line is “psyched Lone Ranger,” but they’re wrong. Think about it: that line makes no sense. First, why would the Lone Ranger be “psyched?” And even if he was, why would this cause people to avoid him?

“Aw shit, Lone Ranger totally wants to go down to the Hitching Post and check out this sale on masks and kerchiefs. He will not shut up about it. Just avoid him, if you can. He’ll get distracted and then go back to trying to convince you that Zorro’s a pussy.”

Also, there’s an old movie called The Cyclone Rangers, about a bunch of cattle rustlers, who try to put their thieving ways behind them. So it makes more sense that the song would be referring to mistrustful horse thieves, though I’ll grant you it’s a bit confusing as to why a band from Surrey would be referencing an obscure American western.

Finally, has anyone else ever realized this song is totally a letter from some creepy serial killer-type guy in prison? The lyric where he mentions putting up a million of his beloved’s picture in “his cell?” The bit about photographing her from the inside? The references to cattle rustling and self-love? Come on!

In any case, I still enjoy it so long as I can keep the Buffalo Bill images out of my head.

2 comments for “Oblivious Living Part 1.5: "Turning Japanese" by The Vapors

  1. Anonymous
    August 14, 2009 at 11:43 pm

    Now, I haven't seen it, but from everything I've read, the bit about the “psyched Lone Ranger” line comes from this: it was printed in the lyrics sheet from the original vinyl album. Also, it was printed on the lyrics included with the CD. Now, perhaps the Vapors got it wrong, and they really meant it your way.

  2. October 15, 2009 at 8:04 pm

    Lone Ranger — LONE. Think about it. Think about the freaking title of the song. Think hard. It will make sense.

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