The Four Immigrants
The history of early first generation Japanese immigrants (issei) in America is a bleak tale, told mostly through single paragraph descriptions in high school history textbooks. The paragraph usually describes extreme racial discrimination, poverty, lack of eligible women, as well as other hardships. This is true, yet even in such difficult times, joy was to be found among a community of friends and a sense of opportunity in the New World.
In 1980, Frederik L. Schodt, author of the seminal book Manga! Manga! The World of Japanese Comics, discovered a book named Manga Yonin Shosei ("The Four Students Comic") by Henry Yoshitaka Kiyama. The story of four young Japanese men in San Francisco, from disembarking from the boat to "Henry" and "Frank" returning back to Japan, it's a powerful visual biography of Kiyama's own experiences in California and those typical among fellow issei. Drawn in the late 1920's from Kiyama's memories in San Francisco during the era between 1900-1920, this work is a strong reminder that manga, and the graphic novel for that matter, is not a new literary expression.
Completely translated by Schodt (the original copy contains English and Japanese text, as the intended audience were fellow semi-bilingual issei) and retitled as The Four Immigrants Manga, this is a great book for lovers of American history and of manga.
Schodt supplements the original manga with an introduction to the manga and its conventions, to Kiyama and the situation of fellow Japanese immigrants, and to the translation process employed by himself. Following the comic are notes and commentary, along with a final afterward. I found these notes to be very informative and interesting, allowing me to enjoy the actual manga even more.
Reader beware; Kiyama imitates the style of American newspaper strips at the time. Conventions such as left-to-right panels are present, along with rather racist practices of drawing Chinese with squinted eyes and pigtails, and African Americans with big lips. This may be offensive to some people. I try to view this myself as a true and honest representation of attitudes and conventions at the time, warts and all. However, no race escapes uninsulted in The Four Immigrants Manga; whites and fellow Japanese are often paired with derogatory terms. This is an authentic retelling of life as it was in San Francisco in the early part of the 20th century, an experience that we have few records of, mainly due to the Japanese resettlement in the U.S. during World War II.
Will you laugh? Probably not. The strips have a sarcastic tone to them, as going to the land of democracy and easy money turns out not to be as democratic or as easy as the young Japanese students thought. However, the characters are in no way depressive, as each brings their own unique spin on how to be successful in California, from farming rice to investing in banks to gambling. The Four Immigrants Manga gives us the chance to experience something out of our ordinary experience, while blending American comic strips with the Eastern focus on story-telling, and it does this very well. Pick up this book if you're in a mood to try something unique.