The Four Immigrants Manga: A Japanese Experience in San Francisco, 1904-1924

I finally got around to reading THE FOUR IMMIGRANTS MANGA and it kind of made me feel guilty for all the time I wasted reading old school Iron Man comics with the ads for Hubba Bubba, NBC’s Saturday morning cartoon line-up (Like ONE TO GROW ON — I, in fact, got all my life’s lessons from Tempestt Bledsoe), and other things I’ve wasted my life on this past year.

Originally published in 1931, this collection of comic strips, observations made by Yoshitaka (Henry) Kiyama from his emigration to America in 1904 to his departure back to Japan in 1924, was way ahead of its time as far as using comics as journalism, sociological study, and autobiography. A classically trained artist (His works are still viewed in Japan as wonderful snapshots of turn-of-the-century American life), Kiyama saw the potential of the comics form and unlocked them to create one of the few first-hand accounts of Issei life in the United States of America. There are not too many writings by first generation Japanese immigrants and of those that exists, one is a comic book. Now that says more about “comics legitimacy,” for those who still care to look for it, than, say, some convoluted TV show about superheroes.

The book revolves around four friends–The sensitive Henry wants to become a master artist, the affable Frank wants to become a great businessman, the driven Fred wants to be a successful farmer, and the charming Charlie simply wants to just learn the democratic ways of America and truly know what it means to be an American. These men go on many journeys against the backdrop of early 20th century America, encountering such incidents as the Great San Francisco Earthquake of 1906, World War I, and the Influenza epidemic of 1918 all filtered through the perceptions and perspectives of Japanese immigrants.

Every immigration story is a unique experience, and the Japanese experience was no exception. Seeing through the eyes of Kiyama, who was there and documenting it, is funny, heartbreaking, and exhilherating all at once. It is also considered to be the first book published with completely original comic material and one of the first comic books published in the United States (New Fun Comics, considered by many to be the first real “comic book,” wasn’t published until four years later). So, maybe we should start referring to all comics as Manga. Relax, xenophobes, I’m kidding of course.

Another unique aspect to this comic is that the original dialogue was “bilingual”–Japanese characters spoke to one another in Japanese with English mixed in, while Americans spoke in English (Although Kiyama’s English had the carefully studied manner of an immigrant, so they spoke in broken English). This, understandably caused translator Frederick Schodt a considerable amount of headaches, until he came up with the cleverest solution I’ve ever heard of in the field of literary translation: The Japanese dialogue would be translated into proper English, while the English spoken by Americans would be left the untranslated, hand-lettered form. This left the Americans speaking broken English and the Japanese speaking fluent English, but Schodt’s rationalization makes perfect sense: Through an immigrant’s untrained ears, the English language would sound a bit nonsensical. This unorthodox choice opens up a whole new world for the reader as we are not only seeing the world through an immigrant’s eyes, but hearing it as well.

THE FOUR IMMIGRANTS MANGA is the kind of treat you love to run across as a comics fan, because it’s an actual story that needs to be told. It isn’t just a shared piece of history between comics fans, but a bit of cultural and personal history we as Americans need to share more often. It’s a shame Kiyama didn’t produce more of these strips throughout his life, as I couldn’t help thinking that as these characters went through the years, they would one day end up having everything they worked so hard for stripped from them in 1942 when FDR signed Executive Order 9066, ordering all Japanese Americans to be herded into Interment Camps. This is our history as Americans and stories like this make us more rounded, not just as comics fans, but as human beings. It’s nice to know that 70 some-odd years after no American publisher would take this book on, that Kiyama’s nation of birth has gone on to supplant the UK as the ultimate authority on what is cool in mainstream comics.

Here’s another cool bit of trivia: This book is not shelved in graphic novels, but with the Asian American Studies section in your local Barnes & Noble. That excites me in the same way PERSEPOLIS and EPILEPTIC being shelved in Biography or Larry Gonick’s Science and History books being shelved in History and Science, not to mention all the young readers GNs shelved in those particular sections. People interested in Asian American history (Like I was when I was perusing), can run across this book in the Asian American History section, where it has more of a fighting chance there than in the GN section (You know, that place where young men gather and pretend to read ULTIMATE SPIDER-MAN, while they sneak glances over at the cute girls across the aisle reading manga). Books like these, shelved away from the Graphic Novels ghetto, are the ones that’ll move the medium forward and that is a truly exciting thing.

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I used to be at the Savant meatwagon until we imploded and I've written for this site, on and off, since it was the Continuity Pages. I've created comics published by Moderntales and E-volution and have published my own S.P.I.R.I.T. '76. Why have you never heard of these, you ask? It's because the millions (and I do mean millions) who've read these awesome comics have decided they were so awesome that they should be kept a secret amongst themselves. The uninitiated must never know, or their minds will be blown. So you see, it's for your own good.

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