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Comic Chronicles: Japanese Gentleman in America

Greg Robinson for Nichi Bey writes:

By the 1930s, comic strips had become important vehicles of social and political commentary…Yet… representations of racial minorities in mainstream strips, especially positive ones, were rather rare…As a result, I was pleasantly surprised recently when I came across the Toya Matsu episode in the 1930s comic strip “You be the Judge,” by L. Allen Heine.

“The Case of the Japanese Gentleman,” a six-part series, appeared in the “Bela Lanan” strip during the week of Oct. 10, 1938. A caption accompanying the first installment stated “Time..1931! Place…Berkeley, California.” The strip introduced Toya Matsu, a “native-born Japanese,” and his wife.


Greg continues:

Readers were invited to send in a self-addressed stamped envelope to receive the citation of the true case. In fact, the “Toya Matsu” case, though set in the 1930s, closely tracks the notorious case of Takao Ozawa, a Berkeley High School and UC Berkeley graduate who applied for citizenship in Honolulu in 1914. Like “Toya Matsu,” Ozawa was a Christian and spoke English fluently. One minor difference was that Ozawa was already 19 years old by the time he came to the United States. After being denied naturalization by the Hawai‘i district attorney, Ozawa brought an appeal in federal court. His case went all the way up to the U.S. Supreme Court, which in 1922 ruled unanimously that Japanese were ineligible for naturalization on racial grounds.

Read the article here Greg continues:

Meanwhile, the power of comic strips to shape public opinion remained a source of concern for Japanese Americans and their supporters. In the weeks after Pearl Harbor, Nisei journalist Bill Hosokawa persuaded cartoonist Ham Fisher to include a Japanese American character in his “Joe Palooka” strip…Japanese American cartoonist Bob Kuwahara broke the color bar in mainstream newspaper comics with his strip “Miki,” although he did not include any Asian characters in it, and signed his name “Robert Kay” to hide his ethnicity.

It was not until 1996, when Quebec-based artist Daniel Shelton began his syndicated comic strip “Ben,” that a mainstream strip featured recurring Nikkei characters. Three years later, Tak Toyoshima debuted his strip “Secret Asian Man,” which would launch a new era of Asian American creators and characters in the “funnies.”

Other Japanese American cartoonists like Fred Kida and Iwao Takamoto are not mentioned.

Allan Holtz has all you need to know about the Bela Lanan comic strip.

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