Mostly Manga, and Me (pt. 3)

David Wybenga, a JCMU English Language instructor in Hikone, has been drawn to Japanese comics, or manga, ever since he was a child. He will be writing a series of articles on the topic of manga and how it affects him as an American teacher in Japan. For #3 in this series, David discusses the works of Allen Say, a highly distinguished Japanese-American writer and illustrator best known for his beautifully drawn picture books.


Within the Kokunai Ryugaku Program at JCMU, I had the experience of teaching a class on notable Japanese-Americans. It was a pleasure and a privilege to share with Japanese students what happened to their predecessors and their families after they arrived on American shores. After all, this could be their legacy. Most of these one-of-a-kind historical contributors were not related to comics at all, and included; Toyo Miyatake, Jimmy Mirikitani, Mine Okubo, Daniel Inouye, Steven Okazaki and others.

For this month I want to introduce one of the subjects of our class; James Allen Koichi Moriwaki Seii, now commonly known by his pen name, “Allen Say”. He was born in 1937, in Yokohama, near Tokyo, and grew up with a great love of manga. When he was about 12 years old he decided he wanted to become a manga artist and thought of no better way than to arrive at the home of his manga hero, Noro Shinpei, who was a very popular cartoonist at that time.

He apprenticed himself to Mr. Shinpei for several years. Though just a boy, he flung himself completely into the world of art and developed his rich skill and technique at the foot of the master he deeply admired. This period of Allen Say’s life is lovingly chronicled in a book I came to cherish, the autobiographical novel, The Ink-Keeper’s Apprentice. To be clear, this is not a comic or illustrated book but rather much like a young adult novel conveying a fascinating account of their relationship, exuding delicious details of the classic Japanese mentor/protégée relationship.

The Ink-Keeper’s Apprentice is not to be missed.

While still a student, his father brought him to America to live, an adventure in itself in which he learned English, developed his art, got jobs, learned to drive, made friends – in short, he became an adult in America.

Grandfather's Journey

Over some years living in the States, he did not become precisely what he dreamt of – not a comic book artist – but rather a celebrated picture book illustrator and author. The prestigious Caldecott awarded (gold prize) picture book; Grandfather’s Journey, tells the stirring story, both joyous and sad, of his actual grandfather that most certainly inspired Allen in life and art. The illustrations tell it all, like photos ripped from a precious family album. This is a story that will move and resonate with anyone who has had feet planted in two countries. Allen Say also received the Caldecott Honor (silver prize) for his book The Boy of the Three-Year Nap.

Most of his picture books are stories about himself and his family, like Tree of Cranes, The Inker’s Shadow, Drawing From Memory, or about unique aspects of Japanese culture, Kamishibai Man, Under the Cherry Blossom Tree, and The Bicycle Man. Today, most of his books are translated into Japanese.

A perennial interest for teachers and a classic of multicutural education is How My Parents Learned to Eat, which he illustrated for Ina Friedman. This book tells the story of how a man and woman from different cultures learn to appreciate each others’ cultures, communicate and eventually how to compromise.

How My Parents Learned to Eat

I have more than 15 of Allen Say’s gloriously illustrated books on my shelves, plus his semi-autobiographical novel. That leaves several more yet to read. Following in his grandfather’s footprints, Mr. Say lives on two shores and in two worlds, with tremendous experiences from both, separately and combined. I was never sure whether to describe him as a Japanese-American as his life has transcended the term. Allen Say is a blessing and a treasure that both American and Japanese people are so privileged to share.

-David Wybenga

JCMU English Language Instructor

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