Kiyama, Henry Yoshitaka 1885-1951

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KIYAMA, Henry Yoshitaka 1885-1951


Born January 9, 1885, in Neu, Tottori Prefecture, Japan; immigrated to United States, 1904; returned to Japan, 1937; died, April 24, 1951. Education: Attended San Francisco Art Institute.


Artist, teacher.


New York Art Students League scholarship.


The Four Immigrants Manga: A Japanese Experience in San Francisco, 1904-1924 (original Japanese-language edition Manga Yonin Shosei was self-published in San Francisco, 1931), translation, introduction, and notes by Frederik L. Schodt, Stone Bridge Press (Berkeley, CA), 1999.


When Yoshitaka Kiyama arrived in San Francisco from Japan in 1904 at the age of nineteen, he took the name of Henry. Kiyama stayed in the United States for thirty years, studying art and mastering Western techniques and became a well-respected artist whose works, many of which have survived, were widely exhibited. He had a studio at 1902 Sutter Street in San Francisco's Japantown. Kiyama returned to Japan for the last time in 1937, and while he was there, war broke out, forcing him to remain. He taught school in his hometown of Neu and continued creating his own works until his death in 1951.

Kiyama also created what may have been the first graphic novel approximately seven years before an American comic book was published. In 1927, he had his work on exhibition at the Golden Gate Institute, and in addition to his drawings and paintings, he displayed fifty-two episodes of a cartoon created in the style of American comic strips titled Manga Hokubei Iminshi, or A Manga North American Immigrant History. It represented the lives of Kiyama and friends who had taken the names of Charlie, Fred, and Frank and covered the period from 1904, when the young students first arrived, to 1924. Kiyama, who deliberately used a style that was crude and cartoony, similar to that seen in American strips, hoped that it would be carried by a newspaper, but it was perhaps too long, or too documentary, and it was never picked up. Kiyama had the work printed while visiting in Japan in 1931, and returned to self-publish it in the United States as Manga Yonin Shosei or The Four Students Manga. The work was praised by people prominent in the Japanese community, as well as by the consul general of Japan.

Frederik L. Schodt came across a copy of the work in a Berkeley library in 1980 and began to translate it. He later published it as The Four Immigrants Manga: A Japanese Experience in San Francisco, 1904-1924. Kiyama's edition was handwritten in Meiji-period Japanese, but where other ethnic groups, including Chinese and English speakers appear in the story, they speak their own languages. This hand lettering remains, supplemented with English text, and some panels are reversed to accommodate the left-to-right flow of English. Historian reviewer Benson Tong called the volume "charming, yet poignant."

Joe Lockard, who reviewed the new version for Bad Subjects online wrote that Schodt's "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."

The four immigrants represent a life of both personal and legislative racism in California as they work in a series of low-level jobs from houseboy to field and orchard worker, grateful for their wages, still higher than those they would receive in Japan. Fred hopes to succeed in farming, Frank in the import and export business, Charlie in the study of American politics, and Henry, like his creator, in art. Most of the episodes are set in the city, however, and there are many that provide histories of the 1906 earthquake and fire, the Spanish flu, World War I, immigrant marriage customs, and property rights, or the lack thereof. The four never assimilate, but rather adapt in a society that still mistakes the Japanese consul for a Chinese servant. They lose money in risky ventures and reach various levels of success.

"Kiyama's drawing style adds frequent touches of humor to these episodes and the manga storyline," wrote Lockard. "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."

Richard von Busack noted in a review for Metroactive online that "as Schodt writes, there's something in The Four Immigrants Manga to offend everyone. Schodt hastens to apologize for the racism, adding that Kiyama learned to draw African American and Chinese stereotypes from the newspapers of the day. But the ugly side of the immigrant experience rounds out The Four Immigrants Manga and makes it more than just an interesting antiquity."

A writer for Rational Magic online noted that one of the things that comes through is the sense of humor of the friends and other Japanese immigrants. The reviewer wrote that "some of the things that happened to them were really quite terrible, such as when Charlie and Frank were bundled onto a truck at gunpoint and driven out of Turlock with a warning never to return, or when Charlie's request to gain his precious citizenship was denied, even after he'd fought on behalf of the United States. Yet the characters can still dismiss their bad fortune with a wry sentence or even a joke."

"From subjects as mundane as cooking and selling shoes to sensitive topics like the death of a parent and the great San Francisco earthquake, Kiyama exhibits a gentle humor that appeals to readers of all cultures," wrote Robert L. Humphrey in American Studies International. "This must have been very difficult to do at the time, for much of Kiyama's art deals with the strong anti-Asian feelings that were building up on the West Coast and which eventually prevented his return."



American Studies International, June, 1999, Robert L. Humphrey, review of The Four Immigrants Manga: A Japanese Experience in San Francisco, 1904-1924, pp. 107-108.

Booklist, September 15, 1998, Gordon Flagg, review of The Four Immigrants Manga, 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, pp. 76, 78.

Pacific Historical Review, May, 2000, Brian M. Hayashi, review of The Four Immigrants Manga, p. 271.


Bad Subjects, (February 14, 2000), Joe Lockard, review of The Four Immigrants Manga.

Metroactive, (June 3, 1999), Richard von Busack, review of The Four Immigrants Manga.

Rational Magic, (August 12, 2003), review of The Four Immigrants Manga. *