It is a semi-autobiographical work by Henry Kiyama – born Yoshitaka Kiyama – who immigrated to San Francisco around 1904. It was originally serialized in a Japanese-language newspaper between 1924-1927, and then compiled into a single volume and self-published in 1931 as The Four Students Manga. Interestingly, it was never published in Japan. It lay forgotten for decades until being rediscovered around 1980 by Frederik L. Schodt, the author of Manga! Manga! The World of Japanese Comics and who was also an early advocate for Japanese comic books. After many years, it was translated by Schodt as The Four Immigrants Manga in 1999.
The story follows the titular four immigrants as they arrive in San Francisco. There’s Fred, who dreams of becoming a farmer, Frank who just wants to strike it rich, Charlie who wants to study American democracy, and Henry, who has come to study art. It’s clear that “Henry” is a stand-in for Kiyama himself and the others are fictionalized versions of his friends.
The manga is very episodic and shows the struggles Japanese immigrants faced, with a comedic touch. They were often sent out as “boys” for rich white families, which included cooking and cleaning. Of course, the four characters are inept and usually mess things up, leading to them always getting fired. For example, Henry cleans a woman’s house but accidentally teaches a woman’s parrot how to cuss both in English and Japanese, so she cans him.
There is also a lot of fun at the expense of the Americans themselves. When Charlie leaves the employ of one rich white lady, she goes looking for another Japanese “boy.” Finding a dapper Japanese gentleman, she offers him a job. Offended, he protests that he is the consul-general for the Japanese Empire in San Francisco.
Other big events throughout American history are covered. The most famous being the 1906 San Francisco Earthquake, which leveled the city. Another being America’s entry into the First World War. Charlie dreams of going overseas and fighting the entire German Army with a samurai sword. When he comes back and asks for American citizenship, he’s told, “Um! Not for Orientals yet!”
Other, less well-known incidents are depicted too, like the Turlock Incident in which a white mob kicked Japanese immigrants out of the town Turlock by gunpoint. Racism is a common theme, in which everyone stereotypes everyone else. White people are referred to as keto and black people are called kuroto, drawn in the blackface stereotype of the time. There is no camaraderie between the Japanese and Chinese immigrants, even though Charlie often goes to their gambling dens in Chinatown. After all, there was a racial chauvinism carried by many Japanese at the time, which allowed them to think they were “superior” to the Chinese.
However, in one such incident, a white woman berates Charlie for not helping a Japanese woman with her luggage. After all, they are both Japanese. Too lazy to help, Charlie replies, “Me Chinaman. Me no care.”
The original manga was published in Japanese but several characters speak English throughout. Schodt’s translation left these English phrases in but used a different font for when the characters are speaking Japanese. A good touch, I think.
The Four Immigrants Manga is a fascinating piece of history – Japanese, American, San Francisco, and comics history. The humor might be dated with unfortunate stereotypes, but it is priceless as a time capsule for an era many Americans know little about.