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

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Four Immigrants Manga traces the adventures and misadventures of this foursome of friends from their landing at Angel Island forward. They encounter a range of racism, from the casual patronizations to legislative racism, that framed the lives of Asian immigrants to California.

Henry (Yoshitaka) Kiyama

Reviewed by Joe Lockard

Monday, February 14 2000, 8:28 PM


Yoshitaka Kiyama was one of the back-and-forth figures of transit who accompany most modern immigration waves. They arrive, return, come back, and return once more. There is a capacity to adapt and prosper, but also reasons to head back overseas from where they came. As they traverse physical and cultural distances, these travellers alter two worlds and serve as human bridges.

The manga genre, the Japanese version of graphic novels, arrived in the United States long before manga were discovered by Americans hanging out in underground comix shops in the 1970s. Kiyama created them from his San Francisco studios as early as the mid-1920s. Having arrived from Japan in 1904 as a nineteen year-old art student, headed for the San Francisco Art Institute, Kiyama developed an academic style with which he elaborated pleasant but unremarkable portraiture. Were this his sole activity, Kiyama would have remained unknown.

For some reason that remains buried --- perhaps an immigrant's desire to record his experiences in American society in accessible form --- Kiyama began a cartoon series that featured himself and three friends as Every Immigrant protagonists. When the series debuted at a San Francisco gallery in 1927, the manga proved to be his most popular work. As Frederick Schodt, this volume's translator, points out in an excellent introduction, it would be about another seven years until the first comic books appeared in the United States. Kiyama took his creation with him to Japan and returned in 1931 with printed copies of the 104-page Four Immigrants Manga. In 1937 Kiyama returned to Japan once again, took a position as a high school art teacher, and never visited the US again before his death in 1951.

It is fortunate for Kiyama's legacy that it caught Frederick Schodt's research attention and translation efforts. Schodt, who translates contemporary manga, encountered Kiyama's work years ago and persisted in efforts to uncover its history. His combination of scholarship, advocacy and conscientious translation has achieved exemplary results here. The translation notes and historical comments are valuable and necessary complements to the manga; the cultural history becomes far more accessible to the uninitiated.

Four Immigrants Manga traces the adventures and misadventures of this foursome of friends from their landing at Angel Island forward. They encounter a range of racism, from the casual patronizations to legislative racism, that framed the lives of Asian immigrants to California. From houseboy service to field work, the foursome transit the occupational possibilities open to new immigrants. In some respects they are still schoolboys on a lark. For most hours of the week, though, the foursome are fully engaged in pursuit in the economic opportunities open to them in the United States. As one comments, "Doing this menial work, I'm still earning more than a Town Hall clerk back home!"

The manga episodes take the different friends through Sacramento delta rice fields and fruit orchards, but these are essentially cosmopolitan characters who return to city life. A number of episodes deal with the 1906 San Francisco earthquake and its aftermath. Others touch on local history in the form of the Panama Pacific International Exhibition of 1915 or the failure of Japanese-owned immigrant banks. Now-forgotten characters in the immigrant community enter history once again in some frames. Low points of California history that need remembering --- like the 1921 Turlock Incident, where Japanese field laborers were awakened at gunpoint and forced out of a rural town --- are retold together with ironic commentary.

'Americanization' is a very spotty process throughout these stories, one limited by prevailing anti-Asian prejudice and restrictions. The characters never assimilate; rather, they adapt from lack of choice. Japanese immigrants gain relative elevation due to Japan's success in the Russo-Japanese War and their country's emergence as a Pacific imperial power, but the Japanese consul is still mistaken for a Chinese houseboy. Kiyama illustrates how racial hierarchy hurts even when you are not on the bottom.

At a period when California had anti-Asian miscegenation laws, immigration restrictions meant that Japanese men relied on picture brides to create families. With brides, the arrival of children who receive Anglo names represents another step in acculturation. Three of the four men manage, one way or another, to settle down; one prospers as a rich farmer.

The artist, however, succeeds without ever finding a place in this new Californian world. As his friends become fathers and businessmen, his thoughts return to Japan. Some twenty years after their arrival, the foursome gathers once again to wish their artist-friend well on his return --- perhaps temporary, but likely not --- to Japan.

Kiyama's drawing style adds frequent touches of humor to these episodes and the manga storyline. The noses of babies drip; men slouch down the street; and storekeepers assume a protective posture. A wry verbal wit joins this visual wit, as the immigrant characters observe their situation with occasional anger but no malice. Where it arises, Kiyama's anger animates his humor. It is an attitude like this that would make this manga so attractive as a teaching text.

Berkeley: Stone Bridge Press, 1999. 

Copyright © 2000 by Joe Lockard. All rights reserved.
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