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Saturday, Jan. 13, 2007

English foibles bear humorous and educational manga


By BETH HILLMAN
Special to The Japan Times

It's New Year's Day and the Yamada family, dressed in kimono, gather around the table for a feast, and to review English phrases they learned the previous year, like "take a breather" or "playing hooky."

Manga artist Makiko Shimamoto
Manga artist Makiko Shimamoto displays two books compiled from the comic strips she and writing partner Mitsuyo Okada wrote from their experiences in the U.S. BETH HILLMAN PHOTO

Like many Japanese families that relocate to the U.S., the Yamadas are intent on nailing down American slang. But unlike other families, the Yamadas happen to be fictional.

They inhabit the pages of "My Wife is a New Yorker," a compilation of comic strips that teach English, written by Mitsuyo Okada and illustrated by Makiko Shimamoto, a manga artist who has lived with her family in New York for 20 years.

"I didn't particularly have any interest in coming here," Shimamoto says in Japanese at a cafe in her town of Mamaroneck, N.Y., a 30-minute train ride from Manhattan. "Now, I feel like maybe it was an advantage to me as a manga artist to be in New York."

Shimamoto met her future husband in their college manga club. When his mother remarried an American, he joined her in New York, landing a job at a Japanese newspaper there.

When he proposed, Shimamoto left Tokyo to join him. At first, she continued to write typical manga for young women about office ladies and newlyweds. But in the late 1980s, the era of snail mail, sending manuscripts back and forth to get editors' revisions proved troublesome. She found herself falling behind on the newest trends in manga, which made it hard to keep her stories fresh.

In 1989, her husband, Kyoichi Miura, asked her to write a comic for his newspaper, Yomiuri America. Most Japanese newspapers have at least one comic, but the Yomiuri, established a few years earlier, had yet to include one.

"I didn't particularly want to do it, but since it was my husband, I just did it," Shimamoto says with a smile.

Miura assigned his wife a partner, Mitsuyo Okada, a freelance writer and manga neophyte whose English skills, he believed, could help his wife write a comic that doubled as an English study guide.

"She can speak English, I can draw manga, so if you put us together, it works," Shimamoto says.

Thus, a 12-year partnership was begun, with Okada choosing key English phrases and suggesting humorous situations for their use and Shimamoto writing the text and drawing the pictures.

Both transplants to New York, Okada and Shimamoto's characters were naturally the same, the Yamada family, who move to the U.S. when husband, Teruo, is transferred there. Hijinks ensue, mostly involving the misunderstanding of English slang, as when wife, Shizue, panics after taking the phrase "He got away with murder" literally, or Teruo infuriates a female colleague after he overhears the phrase "He's my man" and tells everyone at the office, "She's my woman."

"We fought all the time," Shimamoto says of Okada with a laugh. "I guess because we both really wanted it to be good, but we had different ideas. She wanted to make it our main job to teach English, but I just wanted to be funny."

Besides the most obvious difficulty -- finding enough interesting material to fill years of weekly comic strips -- one of the biggest hardships Shimamoto says she faced was figuring out how to depict non-Japanese characters.

Teru and Shizue's son, Churchill, for example, falls hopelessly in love with his classmate Melody. Shimamoto drew the cherub-faced Melody as she would any cute female character, but Okada intervened. "If it was Japan, she'd do cute things like this," Shimamoto explains, resting her chin on her fists and rounding her eyes. "But Americans don't do that. And I needed to draw her as an American."

Okada also took issue with the way Shimamoto depicted African American characters, alleging that their coloring was too dark or lips exaggeratedly thick. Shimamoto soon realized that she needed to be careful about her depiction of other races to avoid any suspicion of prejudice, a consideration that was irrelevant in her previous comics.

Even Churchill's line-thin eyes came under scrutiny as potentially appearing too stereotypically Asian, but Shimamoto kept them as they are and says they have become his trademark.

The pair's weekly columns for Yomiuri America were released in four volumes by Kenkyusha, under the names "Amerika chuuzai monogatari" (Tales of Expatriates in America) and "Okusama wa New Yorker" (My Wife is a New Yorker).

Available in bookstores across Japan, the texts have also been used in schools to teach both English and Japanese. A company that specializes in arranging relocations to America even gives them out to customers as a freebie, Shimamoto says.

Several years ago, around the same time Yomiuri America shut down and the pair stopped writing their comic, Shimamoto's friend Tatsuhiro Saido, whom she met years earlier when she and his wife took Lamaze class together, started a magazine called Enjoy. He asked her to write a comic, and she came up with "Konya mo miso soup" (Miso Soup Again Tonight), a strip without recurring characters or English phrases that focuses more on cultural misunderstandings and differences in viewpoint between Japanese and Americans.

"I just want readers to think, 'Oh, I had that experience too!' " Shimamoto says.

"I want them to feel relieved, to feel like other people are going through the same things. I try to write a comic that feels familiar, as if the characters lived next door."

Shimamoto is currently working with a manga publisher to compile the strips into a fifth book, her first solo volume, which will be released later this year or in 2008.



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