Our Lives | TELLING LIVES

Cameroon-born manga artist draws on a life in Japan less ordinary

by Dave Hueston

Kyodo

For a man born in Cameroon who grew up in Japan, finding his calling in life as a social minority has given him a unique perspective, which he has parlayed into a budding career as a manga artist.

As Japan’s pop culture has evolved, so too have the experiences of Rene Hoshino, who has used the bittersweet memories of his childhood years as the comical material for his recently released manga, “Afurika Shonen ga Nihon de Sodatta Kekka” (“The Results of an African Boy Growing Up in Japan”).

With a growing following of more than 47,000 people on Twitter, the 34-year-old appears to have struck a chord in a society where he is making his mark as an African-Japanese.

“My material comes from talking to Japanese people and the emotions they show,” Hoshino, in a white button shirt and backward red cap, says in Japanese in a recent interview at his home in Kunitachi, western Tokyo.

“I take down notes when I see them emotionally react to me or see their response when I talk about life in Cameroon. They might think it peculiar that I can speak Japanese so fluently. If I write about that, readers find it interesting. As long as they’re moved about differences or commonalities, anything is OK. That’s the value in writing the manga.”

Hoshino, whose artwork features vivid jungle scenes reminiscent of his native Cameroon, says he didn’t consider the ill treatment from other kids at Japanese schools growing up to be “blatant prejudice.” But he admits the other kids in his class at first considered him an oddity and stereotyped him, or otherwise teased him about the color of his skin.

“There were kids who, if they saw African television personalities (like Ousmane Sankhon or Zomahoun Rufin) or a semi-naked African tribe on Japanese TV, would say, ‘Is that how your family is?’ There was a lot of that.”

Many of those incidents would later become the neta (stories) he would use for the humorous manga series he began posting on Twitter from March this year as a diary of his childhood memories.

Out of Africa and standing out

Born in a small village in the former German, French and British colony in Central Africa, Hoshino was just a baby when a Japanese anthropologist doing research near his village fell in love and proposed marriage to his mother, Dalina.

The family, including Hoshino, who was the product of his mother’s previous marriage, moved to Himeji, Hyogo Prefecture, when he was around 3.

Although he didn’t yet speak Japanese, he was captivated by the TV anime “Anpanman” in nursery school and started drawing manga of his own. But what drew him to manga in the first place?

“It would’ve been stranger for me not to have been drawn into this magical world,” he says. “You can fly or remove your face and give it to someone. Anything can happen there, can’t it? I was fascinated. You understand why kids would rather read manga than play outside. In the real world, such marvelous things don’t happen. It’s like always having your own toy chest.”

Even so, he says he never dreamed that years later as an adult he would turn his childhood pastime into something that would launch him into the spotlight as a manga artist.

“Honestly, I never thought I’d become a manga artist. I was just enjoying myself through manga and other childhood games. Drawing manga was just an extension of that.”

Probably what bothered Hoshino the most as a small child was standing out in a crowd. Whereas the kids from his own elementary school grew used to him right away, he became an object of curiosity when kids from other schools would join his class on excursions.

In particular, he became self-conscious about dating Japanese girls in junior high school. When his group of friends talked about girls they intended to ask out, Hoshino says he felt left out because all he saw were Japanese dating other Japanese.

“I had absolutely no image of Japanese girls falling for an African guy. All of the guys they liked were from Japanese pop bands with light skin and straight hair. So I shut myself out from that group because I was so different,” he says, hesitantly admitting that he didn’t have a girlfriend in junior high school.

With the hip-hop and reggae boom and overall infiltration of black culture in Japan through Hollywood stars such as Will Smith, dating became easier, he says. He references one of his favorite Japanese proverbs: “Kaho wa nete mate” (“Good things come to those who wait”).

“After high school, I noticed more and more Japanese girls began to follow hip-hop or reggae. They liked hip-hop dancers and black culture, so I learned enough about it to answer questions. Girls started to approach me to date. I was like, ‘America and Jamaica, thank you very much!'” Hoshino says, pressing his palms together as if offering gratitude at a Shinto shrine.

Success comes suddenly

Hoshino, who has permanent residency in Japan but retains his Cameroon nationality, worked for a building contractor and became popular as manager of a bar in his local area after graduating from high school, before moving to Tokyo at the age of 25 to pursue a career in television.

Although he has made TV appearances talking about his African experience in Japan, he was turned off by the fact a lot of TV producers were looking for African stereotypes: characters who play dumb, speak poor Japanese or excel at sports. He continued to draw manga as a hobby on the side and even tried pitching some to a number of major publishers, but without success.

Conversely, it was only when he took to Twitter in March that he saw his fortunes change. Within two months of him beginning to post his observations of an African’s perspective growing up in Japan, over 30,000 people had become followers of his Twitter handle, @RENEhosino. Next, a publisher came knocking and released the Japanese manga book on Aug. 20, Hoshino’s 34th birthday.

“The title of the manga is purposely ambiguous — the observations of an African boy or his experiment of living in Japan,” Hoshino explains. “I highlight the noteworthy points of the experiment of living here for 34 years. As much as possible, I leave interpretations to the reader and just show the results.”

One manga strip depicts an event that occurred when Hoshino was in elementary school art class. He asked a girl he was friends with to lend him the “hada-iro” crayon. Not knowing at the time that “hada-iro” in Japanese means skin color, he was shocked when she handed him a brown crayon.

“I just didn’t know the meaning of hada-iro was skin color,” he says, adding that nowadays the crayon is called “pale orange.”

There was also the time when he saw other kids making a fuss as they stared out a window at his high school entrance ceremony, a point in his life when he just didn’t want to stand out anymore. To his embarrassment, his mother had shown up in full Cameroon native dress and was walking proudly across the school courtyard.

It wasn’t until he graduated from high school and started working in the real world that he realized standing out “actually wasn’t always a bad thing.” It had its advantages: People started to take notice of his stories.

The minority experience

Hoshino, who has five younger brothers and sisters who are of mixed race — all from his mother’s marriage to his Japanese father — speaks French, one of the official languages of Cameroon, and some of the tribal language of the Mvae people. He says he is also learning English via Skype.

As a person who considers himself Japanese at heart with African roots, Hoshino says he is able to convey both worlds through his manga. Although the cultures, traditions and histories are completely different, he understands why Japanese people are intrigued by the African continent.

“Africa is a world of fantasy completely different from Japan,” Hoshino says. “There are rich resources of diamonds, oil and gold. Japanese dress is rather conservative, while Africans wear a lot of primary colors like red and yellow. Japanese also sympathize with the tragedies from history of Europeans who invaded, took people away to different places (into slavery) and divided up countries. Most Japanese also know it as the birthplace of humankind.”

Hoshino himself, however, sees more similarities than differences between Japan and his homeland.

“They both have the same worries about paying for children’s education or marriage problems … husbands or wives cheating on each other, or problems with corrupt governments,” he says. “We’re all human, so what we worry about doesn’t change that much.”

Looking forward, Hoshino says he hopes to see his future manga works made available overseas in different languages.

“I write about Japan and Cameroon, but it could just as well be about other countries,” he says. “I am writing about minorities and majorities. For instance, straight people don’t understand the feelings of lesbian or gay people. The same goes for minorities who can’t understand majorities because they might have a victim mentality.”

Hoshino believes that if people can stand in each other’s shoes, “it can bring about empathy and close the distance between them.”

“I want people to see this ‘observation record’ in the manga I write,” he says. “If this is conveyed to the world, the minorities and majorities can have a common experience from the same book. The publisher is already talking about releasing my work in other languages. I think it will happen soon.”

Hoshino’s manga is a type of litmus test for Japanese reactions to issues dealing with other cultures and race. Even when he gets negative comments on Twitter he takes it all in stride, he says.

Asked what is the best feedback he has received, he says: “The thing that makes me happiest is when followers say ‘I had never thought of that before’ or ‘I made a new discovery because of what you wrote.’ I am happy that my manga has had the effect of bringing about positive change.”