The Comics Get Serious logo

The Four Immigrants Manga: A Japanese Experience in San Francisco, 1904-1924. By Henry (Yoshitaka) Kiyama. Translated by Frederik L. Schodt. Berkeley, CA: Stone Bridge Press, c1931, 1999. 152p. $12.95. ISBN 1-880656-33-7.

Biography; history

Adults, teens; "historical" images

Another contender for "first graphic novel," likely the first comic book of original material (not reprinted strips) published in the US, and almost certainly the first graphic novel from Japan (though it was published in San Francisco), this unusual book chronicles the adventures of Henry Kiyama and three of his friends--emigrants to the the United States. On the advice of their "seniors," the four men take American names. Henry has come to study art in order to "contribute to the art world back home in Asia." Fred wants to make his fortune as a rice farmer. Frank plans to import and sell Japanese goods. Charlie is "tired of Japan's old ways," so he's going to "study the democratic systems of this republic." All have come to be educated and are considered "schoolboys" despite their age (they're all 19-20). In a series of twelve-panel strips, some of which comprise a larger story and a few of which stand on their own, the four men struggle to realize their dreams. They experience:

  • Quarantine for "bad eyes" (eye infections) before being allowed to set foot on the mainland;
  • Demeaning jobs as houseboys despite their education (complicated by their limited English);
  • Cultural differences, including the construction of American houses as opposed to Japanese ones;
  • Friction between the Japanese and the Chinese immigrants;
  • Friction between rural Japanese and "city boys":
    • Frank and Charlie try to make a few dollars by helping out on a farm but prove inept;
    • Charlie gets a job at a store run by people of the merchant class (he has lofty samurai in his ancestry);
    • Charlie is ashamed by the behavior of the most recent immigrants tramping through the streets with their meager possessions and, later, riding in the same cart that took hogs to market;
  • Reactions from white Americans ranging from condescension to impatience to prejudice to outright hostility;
  • Crime;
  • Gambling (at a Chinese gambling den);
  • The 1906 San Francisco earthquake (where Frank and Charlie get dragooned into digging a women's latrine);
  • Worrying about the education of Japanese children because the California Board of Education wants to bar them from public schools;
  • Their inability to get legal citizenship;
  • A parade featuring President Taft;
  • Bank failures that wipe out their savings;
  • The Panama Pacific International Exposition, and its Japanese tea house and beautiful female servers (Charlie hits on one but gets stuck on a ride when he's supposed to meet her);
  • Investing in Fred's successful rice farm but losing their money when the crop fails
  • Marriage:
    • Fred marries a "picture," or mail-order, bride because it's his "duty to create some offspring," and while he isn't terribly thrilled with his rather... large bride, their marriage is a successful one;
    • Charlie marries a widow with three kids because he thinks she has money and she thinks he has money; still, their marriage is successful;
  • Fighting in World War I: Charlie enlists in order to get citizenship and to do his part to get the Americans to recognize the value of its Japanese population, but after the war his request is still turned down;
  • The Spanish Flu, and wearing masks everywhere;
  • Prohibition, and brewing their own sake (which Charlie describes as "rice milk" to an overly inquisitive cop, who likes the taste so much that he insists on coming back every day for more);
  • Picking pumpkins to make extra money and then being driven out of Turlock, CA, by angry whites;
  • Losing the right to own land (though Fred and his wife now have children to whom they can sign over their farm);
  • Starting a business and having to compete with other ambitious Japanese business owners;
  • Reuniting in 1924 to share their experiences:
    • Charlie and Fred are both proud of their many children, having done their part to increase the number of Japanese overseas;
    • Frank is not doing very well, so he wants to return to Japan to find a bride to bring back and start over; Henry goes with him.

The book has a long introduction by Schodt that sketches the history of this book and his attempts to find a copy and translate it. It was actually written in both Japanese and English, with the Japanese characters speaking Japanese among themselves and English to the Americans (who also spoke English, obviously). What Schodt did was to translate the Japanese into "fluent" English and to leave Kiyama's original "fractured" English in place elsewhere (including in the mouths of Americans). The result is a sort of reverse pidgin that actually works better than it might sound here. The book also reprints the front matter from the original 1931 publication, including introductions by various Japanese luminaries and artists of the period (such as Chiura Obata and Kaname Wakasugi). There are also an afterword about what happened to Kiyama after he returned to Japan; notes and commentary about various historical and social things in the panels (e.g., background on the crisis over Japanese school children; and a bibliography of books about the Japanese immigrant experience and other pertinent titles.

Comics-format biography is at its best when it tells the story of ordinary people, and The Four Immigrants Manga fits that mold admirably. This is a fascinating, amusing, and bittersweet peep into a slice of social history, both American and Japanese, by a man whose determination to tell his story in sequential art format was considerably ahead of his time. So radical was his vision that he ended up having to self-publish his book and was criticized for being too realistic. We of the new millennium are much more appreciative of his work!

The four main characters always come off as individuals: quiet, art-driven Henry; confident Fred; brash Charlie; and good-humored Frank. The latter two drive the book, though Fred reemerges as the successful millionaire farmer about two-thirds of the way through; Henry is a relatively rare sight, presumably distracted by his art studies. (For example, when Charlie encounters Henry at the Exposition, Henry wants to look at the statues, and Charlie slips away to go to the teahouse.)

One thing that really comes through in this book is the strong sense of humor that Kiyama and his friends (and the other Japanese immigrants) kept throughout their struggles. Some of the things that happened to them were really quite terrible, such as when Charlie and Frank were bundled onto a truck at gunpoint and driven out of Turlock with a warning never to return, or when Charlie's request to gain his precious citizenship was denied even after he'd fought on behalf of the U.S. Yet the characters can still dismiss their bad fortune with a wry sentence or even a joke. There is even a bit of self-referential humor, as when Fred reassures a worried colleague that "Not to worry! The cartoonist of this strip'll fix things for you!"

Although Kiyama was quite a competent Western-style artist (several of his life drawings are reproduced within these pages), the art in Four Immigrants was deliberately crude and cartoony, in the style of American cartoons of that period. This was apparently his major nod to the typical comic, and one is reminded of art spiegelman's similar decision to draw simple panels for Maus. (Seems like there might be a paper in this for someone....) Most of the humor in the book is verbal, not visual, but there are a few moments of whimsy here and there, such as the little lovey-dovey animals cavorting in the background while Fred muses on whether to send for a wife.

One minor problem with the book is the time frame. Though we know that events are progressing in a linear fashion, it's not always clear that a considerable amount of time may have passed between stories or even between individual panels. Also, in another minor problem mentioned by Schodt in the introduction, Charlie's father is said to have died in an early episode, but Charlie mentions getting a letter from him much later.

Certain aspects of the book have to be taken in historical context. Everyone makes racist remarks about everyone else: whites about Orientals, Orientals about whites, Japanese about Chinese, Chinese about Japanese, etc. Black and Chinese characters are drawn in the old stereotypically nasty ways (i.e., bulging eyes and thick lips for the former, pigtails and "coolie" clothes for the latter).

As stated earlier, some of the English is the fractured and misspelled stuff originally written by Kiyama. Schodt left it untouched because he hopes readers will "imagine what it might be like to live in a sea of foreign language and to appreciate the charming bilingual format in which Kiyama's book was originally written." For me, the device worked, and it adds to the "alternative" air of the entire project. However, readers unaccustomed to the comics format will likely be baffled by it. As well, the art will be offputting to readers who go for the slicker modern manga--which is a shame, because this book is considerably more interesting than most of today's overdrawn translated manga.

Recommended for anyone interested in Japanese-American history, comics-format biography, comics history, olde San Francisco, or the immigrant experience in general. Might not be appropriate for kids for a variety of reasons (art, racial portraits, obscure subject), but I'd love to see this book used as an adjunct in Asian-American history classes at the high school and college levels.


Copyright 2000, D. Aviva Rothschild


Return to The Comics Get Serious main page

Return to Rational Magic Current Issue

Return to Rational Magic Home

Rational Magic logo