Kiyama, Henry Yoshitaka

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Henry Yoshitaka Kiyama


Born January 9, 1885, in Neu, Tottori Prefecture, Japan; died April 24, 1951, in New, Tottori Prefecture, Japan; immigrated to United States, 1904; returned to Japan, 1937; married, 1922; children: one daughter. Education: Attended Mark Hopkins Institute of Art (now San Francisco Art Institute).


Artist, art teacher, and cartoonist. Painter in San Francisco, CA, 1904-37; opened an art studio, Sutter St., San Francisco; Neu, Tottori Prefecture, Japan, art teacher, 1937-51. Exhibitions: Works exhibited in San Francisco, CA, including at Palace of Fine Arts, 1920; permanent exhibition at Yonago City Art Museum, Tottori Prefecture, Japan.

Awards, Honors

New York Art Students League scholarship.


Manga Yonin Shosei (collected comics; title means "The Four Students Comics"), [San Francisco, CA], 1931, published as The Four Immigrants Manga: A Japanese Experience in San Francisco, 1904-1924, translated by Frederick L. Schodt, Stone Bridge Press (Berkeley, CA), 1998.


Half a century before Art Spiegelman's breakthrough graphic novel, Maus, revisioned and revitalized the traditional comic book format and injected new life into the art form, an artist in California named Henry Yoshitaka Kiyama was self-publishing his own cartoon memoir in book form. Published in 1931 as Manga Yonin Shosei in 1931, the work gained a new audience when it was rereleased in 1998 as The Four Immigrants Manga: A Japanese Experience in San Francisco, 1904-1924. According to Andrew D. Arnold, writing in Time magazine online, Kiyama's work is "nothing short of a history-making revelation: America's (and the world's) first graphic novel." Manga Yonin Shosei lingered in obscurity for decades until manga (Japanese-style comics) translator and popularizer Frederick L. Schodt discovered a tattered copy in the Bancroft Library at the University of California at Berkeley.

When Schodt proceeded with literary investigative work to track down the life and times of Kiyama, his search led to a remote village in western Japan which was both Kiyama's birth and death place. Given access to the artist/illustrator's artwork by a surviving daughter, Schodt prepared the translation of The Four Immigrants Manga that finally appeared in 1998.

California Dreams

Born in 1885 in the small village of Neu in Japan's Tottori Prefecture, Kiyama was the son of a well-to-do innkeeper. At this time, Japan was coming out of centuries of isolation, and the young Kiyama, according to Betsey Culp writing in the San Francisco Flier Online, "would have graduated from high school able to quote both Shakespeare and Confucius and feeling as comfortable in a coat and tie as he was in a yukata. " A budding artist, Kiyama had a dream of leaving his native country and striking out for the brighter prospects offered by America. It was a dream shared by multitudes around the world. Thus in 1904, as a nineteen year old, Kiyama set off with three friends to find their future in San Francisco.

Kiyama was probably not unaware of legislation passed in the United States in 1882 and known as the Chinese Exclusion Act. This legislation was enacted to stop the flow of Chinese immigrants who served as a cheap labor pool and took Americans' jobs. While Chinese nationals were now prohibited, Japanese immigrants were allowed entrance into the United States for that same purpose, with the result that racism and discrimination would shadow these immigrants in their adopted country and be a common feature of the Japanese-American experience. Adding to this anti-Japanese sentiment was the military superiority demonstrated by Japan in its 1904 war with Russia, which spawned a feeling of distrust throughout the western United States as people viewed the close proximity of a new rival power.

When Kiyama and his three friends landed in the midst of this climate, they tried to make the best of things. Kiyama pursued his goal of becoming an artist in San Francisco. He attended the Mark Hopkins Institute of Art, later to become the San Francisco Art Institute, and did well with painting and life drawing. Inspired by American comic strips, such as "Little Nemo," he also began cartooning, financing his art and studies with menial jobs as a houseboy. Kiyama made San Francisco his home for over thirty years, only returning to Japan in 1922 in order to find a bride before immigration laws in the United States made that impossible. Two years later, when the Immigration Act of 1924 was passed, all further Japanese immigration was excluded. In addition, Japanese immigrants already in the United States were not allowed full citizenship until 1952.

Kiyama traveled to Japan again in 1927, and made a third trip in 1937, intending to return to his new home in San Francisco. However, history intervened. With the deterioration of relations between the United States and Japan, and the outbreak of World War II, Kiyama was unable to gain reentry into the United States. Instead, he became a high school art teacher in his hometown, dying there in 1951 at age sixty-six.

Kiyama's Manga

It is not clear when Kiyama began his memoir, but by 1927 the forty-two-year-old artist had created fifty-two comic strip episodes, each with twelve panels, of the adventures and misadventures of a quartet of young immigrants who, like Kiyama and his friends, arrived in San Francisco in 1904. The episodes appear to have been written with weekly periodical publication in mind, but they were never published in newspapers. Instead, Kiyama exhibited them at the Golden Gate Institute in February of 1927, and subsequently had the series published in book form in its entirety in 1931. Viewed in relation to traditional U.S. comics, Kiyama's panels were not comic-strip material; they were too lengthy and too documentary in nature. However, Kiyama had created one of the very first true comic books to be published in the United States. Manga Yonin Shosei, or "The Four Students Manga," the comic book was bilingual, with the Japanese speaking in that language with one another, and when addressing whites, employing a sort of pidgin English. Hand-lettered and drawn by Kiyama, the book was well received by the local Japanese community, as it related serious circumstances and situations in a comic manner, taking the bite out of the discrimination many felt on a daily basis.

Kiyama's book opens in 1904 with the arrival in San Francisco of four young students from Japan. Immediately, the four take American names: there is Henry, who has come to train as an artist, Frank, who wants to go into business, Fred, with dreams of farming, and Charlie, who is eager to find out about American democracy in action. Separate episodes focus on different friends as they pursue their dreams with often-comic overtones. They each seek work as household servants by day, and are students at night. These plans often end with disastrous results: Henry is fired when he teaches a parrot dirty words; Frank, asked to clean a stove, disassembles it. Arnold noted, though, that "the two characters who quickly take the book's center are the ne'er-do-well Charlie and Frank, the budding capitalist," the pair of whom Arnold dubbed "the Mutt and Jeff of Japan."

In his book Kiyama uses the classic gag-strip comic book style, though he also documents incidents that, like those many Issei (first-generation Japanese Americans) endured, are far from humorous. Acts of casual discrimination, for example, are daily events; As Kenji Murase noted in Nikkei Heritage, "A recurring theme is their eager striving for acceptance, followed by rejection and setback." The immigrants run into trouble when they venture outside of San Francisco: hired to harvest squash in the Central Valley, they are rousted out of bed by angry whites and threatened with lynching if they comeback to that area.

This unlikely quartet also experience some of the major historical incidents of the early twentieth century, such as the 1906 San Francisco earthquake, the First World War, the 1915 Pan-Pacific International Exhibition, the influenza of 1918, and the beginnings of Prohibition. "Again and again," Arnold wrote, "Kiyama brings history alive with his personal accounts of major events rendered in a highly readable cartoon form."

Incidents both comic and tragic are portrayed, as when Charlie is saddened by news of the death of his father back in Japan, or the characters lose their savings when their bank goes bust. The writing is finally on the wall for Henry and Frank when they see that Charlie, freshly home after serving his adopted country in World War I, is denied citizenship. They return to Japan in 1924, leaving their other two friends behind. Francis Hwang, writing in City Pages Online, felt that "the intensity of the narrative, however, is tempered by Kiyama's light visual touch."

Many other reviewers agreed with Hwang's assessment. Benson Tong, reviewing The Four Immigrants Manga for Historian, found the "depiction of ordinary Japanese immigrant life here conveys pathos and yet also lessons on the power of the human will." Tong went on to comment that Kiyama's "volume offers a running, sometimes even blunt, commentary on the dynamics of the Japanese immigrant community." Similarly, for Booklist reviewer Gordon Flagg, the book is a "fascinating cultural document of an era of great interest to scholars of Asian American culture."

Many critics appraised The Four Immigrants Manga more for its literary merits, and were equally impressed. Library Journal critic Stephen Weiner called the work "poignant," and praised Kiyama's illustrations as "direct and effective." Likewise, Roger E. Chapman, reviewing the title for H-Net, called it a "wonderful primary-source document." As Chapman further observed, "One theme that becomes clear in the narrative is the economic struggle of living in America. In humorous fashion the myth of streets paved with gold is exposed to bitter reality." For Charles McCarter, writing in Ex: Manga Web site, The Four Immigrants Manga "is a story worth reading, and shows the true power of the medium of manga." Dov Sherman, writing for the Okatu World Reviews Web site, found the book "both enlightening and poignant," and praised its "heartfelt

If you enjoy the works of Henry Yoshitaka Kiyama

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Onoto Watanna, Miss Nume of Japan: A Japanese-American Romance, 1899.

Art Spiegelman, Maus, 1986.

Chris Ware, Jimmy Corrigan: The Smartest Kid on Earth, 2000.

story." Arnold concluded that Kiyama's manga is a "delightful read and a reminder of where Americans have come from and who we are now."

Biographical and Critical Sources


Booklist, September 15, 1998, Gordon Flagg, review of The Four Immigrants Manga: A Japanese Experience in San Francisco, 1904-1924, p. 184.

Historian, summer, 2000, Benson Tong, review of The Four Immigrants Manga, p. 877.

Library Journal, November 1, 1998, Stephen Weiner, review of The Four Immigrants Manga, p. 76.

Nikkei Heritage, spring, 2002, Kenji Murase, "The First Modern Comic Book in America," p. 13.


City Pages Online, (December 23, 1998), Francis Hwang, "California Dreaming," review of The Four Immigrants Manga.

Ex: Manga, (May 13, 2005), Charles McCarter, review of The Four Immigrants Manga.

H-Net, (January, 1999), Roger E. Chapman, review of The Four Immigrants Manga., (November 5, 1998), "Henry Yoshitaka Kiyama and The Four Immigrants Manga.", (May 13, 2005), "Henry Yoshitaka Kiyama."

Mangajin Online, (May 13, 2005), Beth Hughes, review of The Four Immigrants Manga.

Metroactive Online, (May 26, 2004), Richard von Busack, "Anime Ascent."

Otaku World Reviews, (May 13, 2005), Dov Sherman, review of The Four Immigrants Manga.

Pop Japan, (May 13, 2005), review of The Four Immigrants Manga.

San Francisco Flier Online, (November 17, 1998), Betsey Culp, "Through Henry's Eyes."

Stone Bridge Press, (May 13, 2005).

Time Online, (February 19, 2005), Andrew D. Arnold, "Coming to America," review of The Four Immigrants Manga.*