Japanese Manga on Immigrant Experience Brought to Life as Stage Musical

It’s been nearly eighty years in the making, but a groundbreaking stage production about the AsianAmerican immigrant experience is finally garnering acclaim after debuting on the Bay Area theatre scene last summer. “The Four Immigrants” is a musical developed by the San Francisco Theatre Works Troupe, a professional nonprofit theatre company. It’s based on a 1931 manga (form of Japanese graphic novel) of the same name by Henry Kiyama, whose story of four Japanese immigrants making a life for themselves in San Francisco in the early 20th century was inspired by his own immigrant experience as a student at the prestigious San Francisco Art Institute.

“The Four Immigrants” may have never been brought to life on stage were it not for a serendipitous discovery by its writer and composer, Min Kahng. In a recent interview with The Harvard Gazette, Kahng recalled how he stumbled upon an English translation of Kiyama’s graphic novel and was instantly intrigued. “It primarily interested me because the narrative we are told about Asian immigrant history is that they came here to become laborers. To learn there was a Japanese immigrant who came to study art at the San Francisco Art Institute really spoke to me because I feel like I’m trying to carve a similar path.” [See From the Page to the Stage by Jill Radsken, The Harvard Gazette, 09.Oct.2018.]

Kahng, who is the child of immigrants and the writer of seven other musicals, explained that as a teenager he felt pulled towards musical theater, even while he also strived to fulfill the more traditional expectations of his parents. “I grew up in a household where the arts weren’t necessarily encouraged. My parents knew I had a creative side, but they didn’t know how to cultivate it. It was definitely a struggle when I decided to major in music…. so I double majored in rhetoric. It was a way to say my parents I might become a lawyer.”

Kahng’s risky career move seems to have paid off in spades. Since its debut last year, “The Four Immigrants” has garnered rave reviews, as well as the San Francisco Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle Choice Award. But despite all the accolades, Kahng is most excited about sharing the little known experience of the Issei, the first generation of Japanese to immigrate to the United States in the early 20th century. As he explained to NBC News last year, “I think this story of going someplace and finding your home is universal. I hope this message resonates with everybody because we’re on this planet and trying to figure out what our place is.” [See Eight Decades Later, ‘The Four Immigrants Manga’ Finds New Life as a Musical by Grace Hwang Lynch, NBC News, 24.Feb.2017.]


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