The Real Meaning Behind Turning Japanese By The Vapors

When it comes to popular songs, generally the lyrics are straightforward and unambiguous. Lizzo's "Good as Hell" is about women taking charge of their own happiness; nothing more, nothing less. Three decades earlier, Mötley Crüe left little ambiguity about the meaning of "Girls, Girls, Girls" (hint: it's about going to strip clubs); and three decades before that, The Crests unambiguously sang about a girl celebrating her 16th birthday ("Sixteen Candles").

However, in some cases, the meaning of a song is less than clear. Sometimes the lyrics are vague and ambiguous, like The Eagles' "Hotel California." Other times, popular culture has assigned a meaning to the song, despite the band insisting that it's about something else (or at least, not about what the public thinks it's about). For example, Bruce Springsteen's "Born In The USA" is not a patriotic anthem, but a protest song, according to Mental Floss. And the Beatles' "Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds" is not about the drug, LSD -– at least, John Lennon kept insisting that it wasn't, according to Rolling Stone.

The Vapors' 1980 hit "Turning Japanese" definitely falls into the category of songs that aren't about what you think they're about. Still, there are a few fan theories.

'Turning Japanese' is about what a lot of songs are about

For decades, fans have been convinced that The Vapors, a New-Wave act out of England, wrote a song about masturbation. That's certainly the consensus of contributors who provided their interpretations to Songfacts. Similarly, music historian Jon Kutner suggested on his blog that there's an element of ugly stereotypes about Asians in the lyrics, writing, "Turning Japanese [supposedly] refers to the Oriental facial expression people pull at the moment of climax."

The one man who can say for certain what "Turning Japanese" is about is the man who wrote the song, David Fenton. As he told Songwriting in 2021, he had the melody, he said, but he needed lyrics. Then in the middle of the night, he woke up and "had that 'turning Japanese' line, so I wrote it down and fell asleep again," he said, adding, "it could have been anything! It could have ended up as Turning Portuguese."

The song has nothing to do with Asians or facial expressions. And it certainly has nothing to do with "self-love." 

Fenton said, "It was weird when people started saying it was about masturbation. I can't claim that one!" 

As for what "Turning Japanese" is about, Fenton says it's simply a love song about a relationship that ended. All he was left with was a photograph of his beloved, and an empty feeling.