Manga artist Misako Rocks! is a challenger and a woman of passion.

Despite being raised in a conservative family in Kazo, Saitama Prefecture, with father and son police officers, her life has been full of adventure.

She has worked as a puppeteer in New York, experienced homeless life, lived with a lesbian couple, and wed an American man and divorced. But she kept challenging new things to reach where she is now — the first Japanese manga artist whose comic books have been published in English across the United States.

Her comic book “Rock and Roll Love,” based on her life in New York, was awarded Best Teen’s Book by the New York Public Library in 2007. It’s about a Japanese girl who wins over her first love with the help of friends while experiencing the highs and lows of being a foreign student in the U.S. Now she lives in New York.

“America is a country of immigrants, so I receive lots of emails from children of various nationalities and backgrounds,” the 38-year-old artist better known as Misako said in an interview at a Tokyo hotel. “One Mexican girl who had a black boyfriend sent me an email saying her relationship was not going well because of cultural differences, but she said my manga character gave her courage.”

Kids love Misako’s work. When she was holding workshops at a local botanical garden, about 200 children would show up for each one, she said.

Her work has also inspired children to study abroad. Backed by strong recommendations from parents and teachers, “Rock and Roll Love” became required summer reading at local schools. “Many of my fans are otaku (geek) girls, and you know it’s difficult for these girls to be a central figure in their schools. So I make them protagonists in my manga world,” she said.

Misako, whose real name is Misako Takashima, had lived off the beaten path until recently.

An admirer of Hollywood star Michael J. Fox, she first decided to go to the U.S. in 1999, while studying at Hosei University. Though she occasionally encountered discrimination at the university she was attending in Missouri, she made many friends.

But compared with her Japanese friends, who depended heavily on their parents for financial support, her new American friends were financially independent.

“I learned the importance of friendship and having an independent mind in the U.S.,” Misako said.

After returning to Japan and graduating from Hosei, she landed an internship as a puppeteer at Bond Street Theater in Manhattan. So she again left Japan in 2001, but the internship was tough and didn’t bring her money. To make matters worse, her landlord kicked her out of her apartment after a spate of trouble for no specific reason, she said.

“It was summer, so I didn’t first think about it so seriously since I only had a suitcase. That’s how I began my homeless life in New York. I slept in parks, and at night, I would approach a dumpster behind a bagel shop and fish for bagels. I literally lived off garbage at that time,” she said.

While earning money face-painting at a street festival in Manhattan, she met a lesbian couple who invited her to live with them. Since it was late August and fall was approaching, Misako took them up on the offer.

After moving in, Misako’s new roommates suggested she consider becoming a school art teacher because she was good at taking care of children. Having difficulty making ends meet, the intern contacted the Brooklyn Board of Education with zeal, telling members how she wanted to teach Japanese art to children. After an interview, she landed a job as an after-school art teacher at a junior high school in a low-income black community in Brooklyn.

“This school was a hotbed of racial discrimination. They hated white people. All the teachers were either black or Hispanic. Some children were just out of the reformatory. Many had tattoos that read ‘death’ or ‘kill’ on their fingers,” Masako said, adding she was robbed of many things by schoolchildren, including her Japanese calligraphy tools.

The kids were mischievous. One boy tried to shock Misako by drawing a nude woman. Instead of being embarrassed, Misako praised the drawing.

“Very good! But don’t you think her breasts should be bigger?” she asked. She tried to praise their work as much as she could. Even when the girls showed off their sexy dance steps in front of her, she praised them instead of scolding them. Misako felt that was what these children really needed. Many were from single-mother families with many children and were hungry for love.

Her efforts paid off and the children eventually accepted her. When her final day at the school arrived, many students hugged her and cried, she said.

“It was really touching. I was really glad that I didn’t give up,” she said.

Around 2002, she met her “dream boy” — a musician from Wisconsin. It was love at first sight, she said, and after a one-year long-distance relationship, they married and moved to the state. She was 25. But her marriage did not last long. Masako said she was so exhausted trying to work things out she became dependent on sleeping pills.

A major turning point came in 2003. While she was working at the reception desk of a children’s museum in Wisconsin, a boy asked her if she knew about the manga “Dragon Ball.” Until that point, she hadn’t realized how popular Japanese comic books were in the U.S. Later, she went to a library and discovered many Japanese comic books that had been translated into English.

“I saw a ray of light. I had a gut feeling this could be my career,” she said of the time she decided to start drawing manga.

After that, she learned how to draw manga from scratch by reading numerous American and Japanese comic books. She found herself attracted to “graphic novels,” a genre that portrays characters’ feelings in a way that is somewhat similar to Japanese girls’ comic books. She also thought her life itself was a story worth telling.

She created some samples and pitched them to several publishing companies in New York. But they all turned her down. She begged the publishers to reveal her shortcomings and submitted new samples six months later.

“They were surprised to see me back. They told me I was the first one to come back with an improved version,” she said. Her efforts eventually bore fruit, and her first comic book “Biker Girl,” was printed by Disney’s publishing arm Hiperion Books in May 2006. The second one, “Rock and Roll Love,” was published in May 2007.

She has been pursuing a career as a manga artist ever since.

In 2010, she was chosen as one of Nikkei Woman Magazine’s 15 women of the year. And when Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and his wife, Akie, visited New York in 2013, Misako was selected as one of the five outstanding Japanese artists in New York to meet them, along with ballerina Yuriko Kajiya.

Misako now gives workshops and lectures both in the U.S. and Japan. She is also busy running her weekly online manga “Bounce Back,” about a girl named Lilico from Osaka who suddenly changes after her father accepts a job in the U.S.

“The reason I named the comic ‘Bounce Back’ is because I like the NBA. But it also has a double meaning. Even if you fall, you’ll bounce back from a setback,” Misako said, reflecting on her life.

So far, she has encouraged many fans in the U.S. and U.K., and hopes she can also encourage Japanese youth to leap to the global stage.

“Many Japanese young people tend to limit themselves before even trying hard,” said Misako, who proved with her real life that she is not afraid of failure.

Asked what kind of message she wants to deliver, she repeated her favorite phrase from the popular science fiction movie “Back to The Future.”

“If you put your mind to it, you can accomplish anything,” she said.

Important events in Misako’s life

  • 1996 — Enrolls at Hosei University.
  • 1999 — Enrolls at Truman State University in Missouri.
  • 2001 — Graduates from Hosei University; begins internship at Bond Street Theater in New York.
  • 2002 — Marries a Wisconsin musician.
  • 2006 — Publishes first comic book, “Biker Girl,” with Hiperion Books
  • 2007 — Second comic book, “Rock and Roll Love,” declared Best Teen’s Book by New York Public Library
  • 2009 — Publishes third comic book, “Detective Jermain vol.1,” with Henry Holt and Co.
  • 2010 — Listed by Nikkei Woman Magazine as one of 15 women of the year
  • 2013 — Invited to meet Prime Minister Shinzo Abe as one of five “super Japanese women” in New York

“Generational Change” is a new series of interviews that will appear on the first Monday of each month, profiling people in various fields who are taking a leading role in bringing about changes in society. Readers are encouraged to send ideas, questions and opinions to hodobu@japantimes.co.jp

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