Issei Insights

Usually, when we think about Japanese immigrants, we immediately remember the egregious internment camp period during World War II. The knowledge of a "Japanese immigrant experience" prior to the 1940s was murky for me, until I encountered Henry Kiyama's The Four Immigrants Manga. But even after reading Kiyama's book with detailed notes by translator Fred L. Schodt, I knew there was so much more to the history of the Issei (first-generation Japanese immigrants) to discover.

I just finished reading The Issei: The World of the First Generation Japanese Immigrants by Yuji Ichioka. It is a passionate, historical account that unabashedly, and in my opinion, rightfully, argues that the early Issei pioneers faced much discrimination in their day. Particularly in the early 1920s, the Japanese in America faced wave upon wave of anti-Japanese legislation and sentiment. They were excluded from citizenship. They could not join most labor unions. They were prohibited from owning land. On July 19, 1921, in Turlock, California, Japanese farm workers were herded into the back of pick-up trucks at gunpoint, and after being driven out of the city, were warned never to return again. Kiyama captures this Turlock Incident in one of his comic strips, and somehow manages to find humor in it. But the prospects of making a life for Japanese immigrants in the 1920s were quite dismal. Ichioka's work culminates with the 1924 Immigration Act which prohibited the admission of "aliens ineligible to citizenship," a phrase which specifically singled out the status of Japanese in America at the time. Remarkably, the finale to Kiyama's comic episodes takes place in 1924, using the Immigration Act as a key plot device.

Ichioka's book also helped paint a more complex picture of the first Issei in America. Two things stand out to me as I try to form my lead characters.

1. The Issei were pioneers, full of spirit and with progress on their minds. They were ready to take on Western culture & society, even dressing the part. They weren't war refugees or escapees of an oppressive regime (well, at least not most of them). They were often educated, bright-eyed, and eager to learn the ways of America. Many originally hoped to bring what they learned back to Japan. But the longer they stayed, the more they began to consider the US their home. Planting roots in a foreign country meant a lot of new forays for the Issei: quite a few organized Japanese American Associations, formed newspapers, and engaged heartily in the political sphere. One man even created what is arguably the first graphic novel! I want this pioneer spirit to be embedded in the tone of my show, just as it is in Kiyama's work.

2. The Issei came with their own prejudices. This is evident in both Kiyama's work and Ichioka's account. The Japanese had just proved themselves a formidable world power with their victory in the 1905 Russo-Japanese War (only a year after Kiyama's characters arrive in the States). They saw themselves as superior to other Asian groups, particularly the Chinese who were already on US soil. For the Issei, the Chinese weren't trying hard enough to assimilate into American culture. Imagine their frustration when the distinctions they saw so clearly between themselves and the Chinese no longer seemed to matter to the rest of America. Lest I portray all of the characters in Kiyama's work as virtuous idealogues, I want to keep the less attractive attributes in mind as I write. The characters on stage should be flawed as well as likeable.

All of this to say that I am glad that my foray into "research-mode" has not been for naught. Each tidbit of information I gather about the history and the context of Kiyama's America helps me get a fuller picture of the world I want to portray on-stage.