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Cartoonist Ernst captured ‘fish-out-of-water’ gaijin as they floundered

by Patrick Budmar

Special To The Japan Times

Having often been told by the Japanese that he would “never understand” their culture because he was not one of them, American cartoonist Tim Ernst decided to embrace this notion and deploy it creatively.

Ernst relocated permanently from California to Akita Prefecture in 1981, following an earlier stint as an English teacher in Yamagata Prefecture, where he met his wife of 34 years.

It was during his time in Yamagata that he came up with the idea for a comic strip focusing on the daily struggles of a Western everyman with the local culture. Ernst says much of the inspiration came from his own real-life encounters with the Japanese and their customs.

“I was — and even after all these years, still am — the bumbling, awkward, mistake-driven gaijin (foreigner),” says the 61-year-old.

As well as collecting and compiling ideas for the comic based on his own follies, Ernst also observed the plight of other non-Japanese “fish out of water” around him who seemed to be floundering in similar unfamiliar situations.

Ernst initially pitched the concept to The Japan Times in the early 1980s, but he came up against resistance because of the name of the strip, which was simply “Gaijin.”

The newspaper deemed the word — the shortened version of gaikokujin (“foreign-country person”) — as “too derogatory,” he says, though Ernst disagreed with this assessment, arguing that it was appropriately “descriptive.”

Unwilling to change the name, Ernst then pitched the project to the now-defunct Mainichi Daily News, then the second-largest English-language newspaper in Japan after the JT. Ernst says the newspaper “embraced the concept immediately” and began publishing the strip in April 1984.

An aspiring cartoon illustrator in the U.S. before he moved to Japan, Ernst found the regular gig at a major newspaper both exciting and challenging.

“I saw the opportunity here to create a character which kind of mirrored an adult version of Charlie Brown from ‘Peanuts,’ ” he says. “Once I established the character, I simply put him in situations I had experienced or was informed of by other gaijins who had.”

As computers were not widely used by cartoonists in the ’80s, the drawing and lettering of the comic strip was all done by hand, while the tone screens for shading were cut and pasted.

When a batch of six or eight strips was finished, Ernst would send the content to his editor at the Mainichi for publishing.

Ernst says the “Gaijin” strip became an instant hit with the English-speaking community at the time, as well as with the growing number of travelers visiting Japan.

“It seemed I hit a raw nerve and people could identify with my follies and laugh at themselves, which was the primary goal of my cartoon,” he says.

With Ernst at the Mainichi, The Japan Times chose to publish “Happy Bob” by Mark Stephen Doerrier the same year.

Doerrier’s short-lived comic strip generated controversy for what some foreign residents saw as negative portrayals of Japanese culture (see “Nasty, brutish and short?: The brief life and times of ‘Happy Bob,’ ” Law of the Land, Feb. 19), but Ernst says he did not encounter a similar reaction from readers.

“I did not design the series to make it controversial in any sense of the word,” he says. “My aim was not to lampoon Japanese culture but rather to poke mild fun at ourselves in this bewildering society.”

After 2½ years and having survived several changes of editor, “Gaijin” came to an end in The Mainichi Daily News in October 1987. However, Ernst continued to work for the newspaper for the next two decades, creating the Illustrated Idioms feature for their weekly edition.

Ernst’s arrangement with the Mainichi meant he held sole copyright over the strips, so he began exploring other avenues for “Gaijin” when the serialization ended.

“I suggested compiling them into a book, but the editors at The Mainichi Daily News felt it would not sell,” he says.

One of the editors at the paper introduced Ernst to Tomy Uematsu, a fan of “Gaijin” who had connections with the publishing department at The Japan Times.

With Uematsu’s help, Ernst was able to pitch the book version of “Gaijin” to The Japan Times, where it was subsequently accepted for publication.

Instead of merely compiling the strips into a book, Uematsu added Japanese translations and explanations for each of Ernst’s drawings.

“It was Tomy’s Japanese translation and his delicious sense of humor that made the book very appealing to the Japanese public,” Ernst says. “After he helped introduce our follies to the Japanese public in the book form, I think the Japanese came to appreciate our adaptation to their culture and our struggles a little more humorously.”

The book was followed by a second, “Gaijin II: After Shock,” four years later, in 1991, though this time Uematsu was not involved with its creation.

“The editors felt, against my opposition, that it did not need Tomy’s Japanese explanations anymore,” Ernst says. “They were wrong, and the second book did not do nearly as well as the first one.”

Despite that setback, Ernst says he and Uematsu have remained close friends over the years, working together on other publications and “enjoying many good laughs together.”

The original “Gaijin” went through more than 30 reprints in the following years, including translations into Chinese and German, until the mid-2000s, when The Japan Times returned the copyright to Ernst.

Ernst is currently working with another author to revive “Gaijin” in color and adapt the strips for use as English-language teaching tools.

“The problem is, some of the humor involves things of that time that don’t exist or aren’t funny anymore,” he says. “It will be a real challenge for us.”

Looking back at his strips from that period, Ernst admits that the 1980s and ’90s were a great time to be in Japan.

“I lived here in a time when this country was just finding itself, still rebuilding after the war years and growing stronger year by year,” he says. “The younger generation has made their mark on the world stage in terms of their music, movies, fashion and anime.”

Today, Ernst continues to draw cartoons for both children and adults, while teaching English on the side.

Ernst may have been a gaijin — an outsider — when he first settled down in Akita, but he feels much less of one these days.

“Now that I have lived here in Japan longer than I have lived in my home country, all the newness and freshness has warn off,” says the father of two. “I’m too familiar with life here now.”

Ernst characterizes that period as the “golden years” of his publishing career, before the “advent of the Internet age” and the “slow death of printed books.”

“I miss the journey of producing books people would like to hold in their hands and read,” he says.

Your comments and story ideas: community@japantimes.co.jp

  • kyushuphil

    I love the conceit that the Japanese have a culture outsiders cannot fathom.

    As if Japanese culture itself were monolithic.

    It’s not one culture. Just look at much of the writing of Sōseki, Yosano Akiko, Junichiro Tanizaki, Hayashi Fumiko, Dazai Osamu, Ariyoshi Sawako. Look at the films of Ozu, Kurosawa, Miyazaki Hayao. They all argue against the stupidity of just following habit. They all question different versions of different status quos. They all see individuals in all their rich individuality.

    Then look at most Japanese teachers. All — or almost all — are addicted to regimentation. Almost none ever ask any questions. Almost none ever want to see any writing from any students that shows personal issues and questions being evolved.

    These are two very different cultures. One is of artists, alive human beings. The other is of zombies, the living dead.

    Then look at all the neon in Japan. Look at all the cars caught up in congestion and sprawl. Look at the shopping malls. The robot girl pop groups. The nuclear reactors and the ruins of forever-polluting nukes. All that TV advertising where, in commercials, no woman appears ever except in infantilized little girl voice.

    Now, what culture is that, in which so many Japanese live? Is all that vulgar consumerism so hard for any outsider to see? Is it anywhere near the world of the Japanese artists that all, in all other cultures, can understand very well, thank-you?

    Yes, the Japanese culture of one set very seriously questions the mindless culture of the other, all those mindless robot teachers included.

    • Ron NJ

      As a foreigner you just don’t understand nihon no kokoro obviously.

      • kyushuphil

        True enough.

        I remember the same conceit being raised going on 50 years ago, as the black power movement cranked up in the U.S. Then the women’s movement. So many groups claiming exceptionalism.

        As you probably know, Japan has an epidemic of persons who have fallen into deep, pathological silence (damari-komu 黙り込む ). These are youth who cannot articulate anything special about themselves, or anyone else. Japan also has its epidemic of youth suicides, nearly triple that of the rate among American youth. And seriously rising rates of autism. All these disorders relate to the vulgarities, lies, and mindlessness of the modern, imported culture of consumerism — in addition to the organic substances such as chemicals, radiation, and other toxins built in, too.

        Maybe its just easier for a besieged people to clam up. Haruki Murakami said as much — brilliantly — at his post 3-11 speech in Barcelona three years ago, when he excoriated his fellow Japanese to wake up out of their fatuous silence and get angry about the ride they were being taken on.

      • Jason Onizuka

        TBH, I would rather someone who wants to put themselves out of misery do it the Japanese way instead of the american way of shooting up schools and inflicting mass casualties.

      • Gordon Graham

        Says the guy who stereotypes the Japanese ad nauseam…

    • Gordon Graham

      So, there are two Japanese cultures?

      • kyushuphil

        Read Haruki Murakami’s speech at Barcelona from three years ago. It’s famously articulate about one very large set of people nominally Japanese — except they’re asleep, he says, and need to wake up to what other culture they’ve gone to sleep in.

      • Gordon Graham

        Murakami is a snob who mewls about complicity for convenience’ sake while his Aoyama jazz bar is cooled by nuclear power and he jets off to Greece, Barcelona and Switzerland to lead a life of a privilege among the literai…To him most Japanese are two-dimensional peripherals…faces he sees go past at an airport or train station…”petals on a wet black bough” as Pound might say. There’s a vibrant culture out there beyond the mundane dismissive judgement of a certain writer with an unhealthy attraction for teenage girls.

      • kyushuphil

        Duly noted.

        I don’t care much for our boy Murakami’s novels. But that speech of his does something much more than diss many of his countrymen — it nails the more powerful and largely unaccountable web of privileged interests that takes advantage of so many, so recklessly — all, of course, under the most genteel guises.

      • Gordon Graham

        I agree that there is all too often more stock put into who is making decisions than what is being decided. The Fukushima fiasco being a prime example. I don’t agree with Murakami that the general populace is as complicit as he implies. Once elected, politicians pretty much have carte blanche to do whatever they want…Look at the Iraq war. Americans (and citizens all across Europe) took to the streets by the hundreds of thousands to protest America’s decision to attack Iraq (The world spoke loud and clear)…There was no referendum. The people’s wishes are rarely if ever considered. What’s a fisherman toiling 16 hour days 7 days a week going to do about big business in Japan deciding to go nuclear? Is he a “zombie”? No…He’s a fisherman! Where are Murakami’s essays about nuclear energy pre March 11? Not that they would have mattered…So, yeah, big business makes the decisions in this world. Are you going to hang that on the Japanese people?

      • kyushuphil

        I used to work in human rights. I learned a bit then about how impervious and immune are those at the top.

        But I also learned how they can be touched. No one single magic trick or strategy, but if they know people are saying things, thinking things, there are openings.

        The criminals who launched the Iraq madness were fueled above all else by that huge archipelago of all the biz and law schools that float the larger madness. I can scarcely touch them. But I can touch their peers, the teachers who imagine themselves different, or more genteel, faux human specialists, in all their other departments.

        It’s them I target — all who could extend humanity and frames of reference so that the rest of us, we the great unwashed, might have larger perspectives and greater confidence in each other. That includes the fisherman you mention, or the eponymous Siberian farmer to whom Wendell Berry from the banks of his hard scrabble perch on the Kentucky River wrote his (poem) letter in the midst of the cold war.

        It also includes readers of columns like the original one here, curious as to the conceit that any people can join the world yet be forever beyond, away from, untouched by it.

  • AsianReaper

    I like how you lot talk as if it was only Jp. I have my feet dipped into three cultures Chinese/ Japanese and American.
    One point you brought up is toxicity of consumerism. Japan has nothing on the Chinese in that aspect in fact nothing either of you mention seems relevant to how messed up China is, Urban sprawl ,poison food, zombie like populace, on and on .

    It is the old entrenched customs that do tend to hold Japanese politics back in the dark ages but to be fair don’t you think its better to retain some aspects of culture rather then sell it down the river like China , or America has.. There is no other country I would rather live in then JP , even though I know there are problems they are outweighed by the positive, safer schools and neighbourhoods, clean food and air, areas to do activities such as fishing in clean rivers and camping without worrying about being shot in your tent.

    walking down the street without concern. The USA is a joke and China is a hate monger whos people are unable to produce a critical thought.

    If Japanese want to hold onto the bumbling foreigner concept then let them live the fantasy because every foreigner I know is Japan is harder working better educated and better paid then their Japanese counterpart,

  • justin tims

    Although the Japanese cling to the image of the bumbling gaijin in Japan, it’s equally sad, if not more, that they fail to realize that they are the real bumbling gaijins when it comes to them being a member of the rest of the world.

    Never have I met a people so inept and incompetent and bumbling at understanding anything else except that rice goes on the right and miso soup on the left.

    • Gordon Graham

      Justin, I think you just publicly forfeited your right to get indignant about sweeping generalisations concerning a nationality or race.

  • Gordon Graham

    What is this “unbridled privilege” of which you speak? Also, what “race” exactly is “foreigner”?

  • Verus

    Please learn to draw.

  • kyushuphil

    To an extent, gotcha. Yes.

    Trouble is, if you visit U.S. college campuses, you will find women’s studies programs, black studies departments, La Raza, Asian studies, Native American studies — all quite separate from each other.

    All make the practice of behaving like all good corporate academics — by sticking to their turf, and never citing, never working with anyone from any other.

    Yes, I welcome the few multi-disciplinary energies that prove exception to the rule. But the rule is so powerful among all across all aspects of corporate America: no one can understand me and my group — and we’re not going to see anyone else as human outside.

  • Gordon Graham

    I don’t text while driving…I’m calling into question unbridled use of terminology, asking people to not merely accept words as truth just because people use them. But to think about what exactly it means to be “privileged” etc. I’m asking what exactly do you mean by the Japanese have unbridled privilege? Does that unbridled privilege extend to the unemployed and homeless? What exactly is the privilege that they enjoy?

  • Gordon Graham

    A word’s meaning is determined by how the “common” people use it, not what the professor’s at Oxford or Universite de Paris insist. If that weren’t the case we’d all be speaking Latin…But we don’t. We speak a “common” language.

  • Gordon Graham

    Half refers to race…Japanese don’t consider those half American, half Canadian as “ハフ”…However, they do consider Yu Darvish, Japanese, regardless of race.

  • Gordon Graham

    I’m curious to know which university in Japan has a Japanese only policy.

  • Gordon Graham

    The only “Japanese only” cases I know of are those where the businesses were taken to court and sued. The Japanese court always ruling in the favour of the plaintiff. Again, you want to extend the racist bigotry of a few to “the Japanese” en masse…I think you’d better honestly review what’s in your own heart before getting your dander up against “Japanese ideas”.

    • GaijinToy

      Gordon, you keep asking me questions and then dismissing my answers. It’s obvious you have no interest in having a real conversation, and you are not asking these questions in good faith. I’m sorry if a frank discussion of racism makes you uncomfortable, but please refrain from making personal insults. I made it clear that I was giving my opinion. My “dander” is not “up” against anything but your incessant trolling.

      • Gordon Graham

        I’m as comfortable challenging your sweeping condemnations of the Japanese as you are at continuing to make them. I see there’s a new article out by Debito Arudo…I’m sure you’ll have a few frank observations to add to that “conversation”.

  • GaijinToy

    I did not make up the definition of “institutional racism” or “systemic racism.” If you are unaware of these concepts, you are free to Google them.

    • Gordon Graham

      No, you’ve just misapplied them to a meaningless context…A society that is 99% Japanese. A society, which by the way, the other 1% is free to join if willing to fully commit to becoming Japanese.

  • Gordon Graham

    “compare Japanese ideas about race to a university in the US with a policy of “whites only”"