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.
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