Comics historiography is plagued by two fundamental misunderstandings regarding the history and nature of the medium. The first is the notion that comics in different countries are best understood through the lens of the nation, as the offspring of individual national traditions. The second is the idea that comics are the result of a gradual “integration of text and image” culminating in the combination of both in a single image space (the panel).
Although trying to come up with an ironclad definition of comics is usually unproductive, we can safely say that the term is generally used to describe “visual narratives in which characters are at least sometimes shown having conversations across multiple sequential panels, via sound images such as speech balloons, without requiring narrative text that explains the plot.” This type of storytelling has a specific origin in 1899/1900 in the United States, and did not result from “moving dialog from outside the panel inside the panel,” but from inserting sound into silent narratives.1
The immediate precursor to contemporary comics hence are so-called pantomime cartoons, narrative multi-panel cartoons without any dialog or narrative text, which first appeared in the 1860s and became a standard element of European and American humor magazines and some newspapers by the 1890s. The appearance and spread of such purely visual storytelling was closely linked to the broader phenomenon of increasingly complex visual entertainment in the late 19th century, including not only photography but devices such as stereoscopes and the phenakistoscope.2 In the 1890s, pantomime cartoons became a common form of entertainment in Japan as well, and helped create fertile soil there for the later adoption of comics in the 1920s.
One of the actors most directly responsible for the introduction of pantomime cartoons to Japan was a man by the name of Imaizumi Hidetarō, later better known under his pen name Imaizumi Ippyō. Imaizumi’s contribution to the history of manga may be the second-most underappreciated in mainstream histories of manga, next to George McManus’. Like most people who left an identifiable mark on history, Imaizumi was born in the right place, at the right time, to the right parents. His mother’s younger sister had married Fukuzawa Yukichi, founder of Keio University and the Jiji Shinpō, one of Japan’s first newspapers to be financed through advertising revenue rather than sponsorship by a political party or the government.3
Imaizumi Ippyō’s father died in 1865, shortly after Ippyō’s birth.4 Fukuzawa Yukichi then provided guidance and support to his bereft sister-in-law and nephew, and in 1873 Ippyō enrolled in Fukuzawa’s school Keiō Gijuku, the precursor to today’s Keio University, graduating in 1884. It is unclear whether Imaizumi had received any formal arts training while in school, but that same year he illustrated a political woodblock print, which featured a long commentary by Fukuzawa. Imaizumi would later write that this was the first time he drew a “manga,” a word that he defined as a synonym for the English word caricature. The kind of manga that Imaizumi would spend the rest of his life drawing would soon change, however.
Wanting to study “Western ponchi drawings,” Ippyō left Japan for San Francisco the following year, in 1885.5 Ponchi was the most common term for humorous drawings at the time, replaced only later by manga due to Imaizumi’s embrace of this word and its continuation by his eventual successor at the Jiji Shinpō. In San Francisco, Imaizumi sought out the offices of “two to three humor newspapers” to which he had been introduced. To his disappointment, none would hire him, reportedly due to his unfamiliarity with American culture. He was advised to practice drawing on his own, but quickly abandoned this pursuit in favor of finding employment at the San Francisco offices of Kai Shōten, a trading company exporting Japanese wares to the United States.6 The company had been founded by Kai Orie, another Keio graduate, and counted Fukuzawa Yukichi among its investors. Imaizumi described the company as a “general store,” which suggests that he may have been working in its storefront. He eventually saved up enough money to invest 2,000 yen in Kai Shōten himself.7 In the 1887 San Francisco city directory, “Japanese and Chinese Goods,” “Imaizumi Hidetaro” is listed at 107 Sixth, separately from Kai Shōten (“O. Kai & Co.”) at 547 Washington, so it appears that he may have also conducted business on his own.8
In the spring of 1890 Imaizumi nevertheless returned to Japan on the same vessel he had arrived on five years prior, the steamship Oceanic. In January of 1890 the Oceanic had also carried New York World journalist Nellie Bly, first from Hong Kong to Yokohama and then, after a five-day sojourn, onwards to San Francisco during a much-sensationalized record-breaking trip around the globe for her employer.9 According to Bly in her book Around the World in Seventy-Two Days, the Oceanic was both the fastest ship between Yokohama and San Francisco at the time, taking roughly two weeks, and “in the Orient the Oceanic is the favorite ship, and people wait for months so as to travel on her,” so presumably Imaizumi had a relatively comfortable trip.10
Back in Yokohama after five years abroad, Imaizumi began working for Fukuzawa’s Jiji Shinpō, which was originally published through the Keiō Gijuku press. Over the next nine years, Imaizumi would publish a significant number of narrative multi-panel cartoons copied from American publications, as well as similar cartoons drawn by himself, in this newspaper.
The first such cartoon appeared on July 4, 1890, under the title hyaku-kanme no chikaramochi, “the 100 kanme strongman” (fig. 1; kanme being a Japanese unit of weight). The four-panel pantomime cartoon had first been published in the April 26 issue of the American cartoon magazine Judge as “John L. Hercules and His Pet; or, How a Fraud Was Given Away” (fig. 2) and had already been copied by the British Comic Cuts as “The Strong Man Fraud; or, the 1000-lb. Air-Ball” in its inaugural issue, dated May 17 (fig. 3). Perhaps because pantomime cartoons were still a novel form of entertainment in Japan at the time, Imaizumi added a lengthy and unnecessary explanation of the self-explanatory plot: a vaudeville strongman lifts a heavy-looking ball to impress the crowd, but in the last panel the supposedly weighty object is carried off by his little dog, revealing the strongman to be a fraud.
Given that Imaizumi returned to Japan at some point during the spring, it is possible that he personally carried a copy of the original cartoon’s Judge issue aboard the Oceanic, though later cartoons similarly copied from American cartoon magazines (such as Judge, Life, and Puck) and newspapers (primarily Nellie Bly’s employer, Joseph Pulitzer’s New York World) show that such publications crossed the Pacific on a somewhat regular basis, likely as reading material that passengers brought aboard steamships to help pass the two weeks at sea. Based on a comparison of the Judge and Jiji Shinpō versions of the “strongman” cartoon, it appears that Imaizumi traced the outlines of its central elements and added his own shading, gaining some of the first-hand experience drawing such cartoons on which he claims he missed out in San Francisco.
In his autobiographical writings, Imaizumi would later explain that he was primarily employed by the Jiji Shinpō as an accountant and drew or copied cartoons as secondary work,11 which explains why it took almost three months for a second pantomime cartoon to appear in the Jiji Shinpō, this time drawn by Imaizumi himself (fig. 4, September 27, 1890). As in his version of the “strongman” cartoon, Imaizumi added a detailed explanation, even though the cartoon is entirely comprehensible without it (and can thus be considered a pantomime cartoon). An English title, “Perpetual Motion,” was added as well.12 Similar multi-panel jokes about two Japanese men bowing to one another ad nauseam are found in the magazines Shōkokumin in 1891 (figs. 5-7) and Maru Maru Chinbun in 1893 (fig. 8). Both of these cartoons were possibly inspired by Imaizumi’s, but end with one of the men falling asleep from bowing for too long (regarding the word balloons, see footnote).13
Shōkokumin in May 1893 published another cartoon possibly adapted from Imaizumi (figs. 9 and 10), suggesting his potential influence on other Japanese cartoonists. This cartoon was originally drawn by F. M. Howarth for the April 23, 1891 issue of the American Life (fig. 11), but was copied by Imaizumi for the August 4, 1891 Jiji Shinpō (fig. 12).14 Since the Shōkokumin version differs from both Howarth’s and Imaizumi’s (note for example the ending), it is difficult to determine which it was based on, but in light of the Shōkokumin cartoon that appears derivative of “Perpetual Motion,” it is plausible that Imaizumi’s version may have provided the model, though Shōkokumin also featured cartoons lifted directly from American magazines, including Life.
Neither the English title of “Perpetual Motion” nor Shōkokumin and the Jiji Shinpō’s affinity for “Western” content are surprising given the historical circumstances. Though contemporary Japanese nationalism tends to emphasize tradition as a source of pride and Japanese superiority, nationalists in Fukuzawa’s time were acutely aware of the fate that had befallen China, Japan’s ancient model to emulate. The forced end of Japanese strategic isolation at the hand of Commodore Perry’s gunboats and the unequal treaties imposed on the country had similarly reinforced the notion that for the sake of the nation, established traditions had to be replaced with those of the powers Japan hoped to emulate. Fukuzawa himself had written a Jiji Shinpō editorial in 1885 urging Japan to “leave Asia.” The choice to nationalists was clear: Japan would either become a Western colony or a Western colonial power, by abandoning tradition and embracing all technology and culture from the North American and Western European Imperial centers.
By the time Imaizumi Ippyō began adapting Euro-American cartoons in the Jiji Shinpō, the newspaper had already started occasionally including English-language text, as well as a recurring Western joke feature.15 Shōkokumin even featured a pantomime cartoon in March 1890 (fig. 13), before the Jiji Shinpō did, showing that the introduction of this type of entertainment was part of a broader trend and not simply an idiosyncratic predilection of Imaizumi’s. Over the course of the 1890s, Shōkokumin printed multiple articles on other types of visual entertainment and technology, such as zoetropes and Eadweard Muybridge’s photographs of a horse in motion, for example (figs. 14 and 15). Both Shōkokumin and the Jiji Shinpō likewise printed many four-panel “metamorphosis” cartoons, in which an object slowly morphs into another. Imaizumi even used one such cartoon, drawn by the German-Austrian cartoonist Hans Schließmann, as the first image in his autobiographical writings published in 1901, Ippyō zatsuwa (fig. 16). The appearance of metamorphosis cartoons has been linked to the publication of Charles Darwin’s On the Origins of Species,16 and perhaps not entirely coincidentally Darwin’s book is cited in one of the essays featured in Ippyō zatsuwa.17
After “Perpetual Motion,” Imaizumi continued to copy and draw additional multi-panel cartoons, and on April 27, 1891, he first used the word manga for such a cartoon (fig. 17). This four-panel pantomime cartoon shows a Chinese man who attempts to fish with his queue but ends up being pulled into the water. A note at the top proclaims this cartoon a “manga (copied from a foreign newspaper).” The “newspaper” in question was the American humor magazine Texas Siftings (founded in Austin, but by then published in New York), which had featured the cartoon in its March 21 issue under the title “The Chinaman’s Bright Idea” (fig. 18). The cartoon was also copied by the New York World (on April 8, fig. 19), from which Imaizumi likewise excerpted cartoons, but in this case he must have copied it directly from Texas Siftings, since the World mirrored the cartoon and eliminated some details that have been preserved in Imaizumi’s version. Both fishing accidents and ridicule of Chinese queues were recurring subjects in American cartoon magazines at the time, and this was true in the Jiji Shinpō as well.
Chinese queues would become an especially frequent object of ridicule in both American and Japanese cartoons during the First Sino-Japanese War between 1894 and 1895.18 Already three years prior in 1891, such ridicule of Chinese customs was likely perceived as a convenient illustration of Japan’s need to “leave Asia,” as postulated in the Jiji Shinpō in 1885. “The Chinaman’s Bright Idea” may have also appealed to Imaizumi due to its marine setting: under his tenure, the Jiji Shinpō would feature several more pantomime cartoons showing fishing or boating accidents, including one signed “H. I.” in 1893 (fig. 20) that Imaizumi, whose legal name was Hidetarō (hence the H.) would later include in a book publication of “collected Ippyō manga.” In 1897 Imaizumi would also draw a six-panel pantomime cartoon obviously based on “The Chinaman’s Bright Idea” in which a fish pulls on a fishing Chinese boy’s queue (fig. 21).
Though cartoons about fishing and boating were overrepresented in the Jiji Shinpō, they were a common element of American cartoon magazines as well. Imaizumi’s multi-panel cartoons, both originals and copies, duplicate many other common topics of European and American cartoons at the time, demonstrating the international nature of these cartoons. These typical subjects include photography (fig. 22), bicycling (fig. 23), and the “sprinkler sprinkled” gag (fig. 24) that also provided the plot for one of the first narrative motion pictures, Louis Lumière’s L'Arroseur Arrosé, in 1895. As a result of European colonialism, exotic animals and the African wilderness likewise often featured in European and American cartoons during the 1890s and hence appeared in Japanese cartoons as well, for example in Imaizumi’s March 11, 1892, adaptation of the six-panel pantomime “Ein Abenteuer in den Dschungeln” (an adventure in the jungles) from the German Fliegende Blätter (figs. 25 and 26).
As discussed elsewhere (Exner 2018, 2021), the basic form of modern comics developed by adding “transdiegetic” content, such as motion lines, pain/impact stars, and sound images to pantomime cartoons. Though Imaizumi’s career ended before the popularization of sound images around 1899/1900, the foreign multi-panel cartoons he copied for the Jiji Shinpō likely represent the first examples of motion lines and pain stars used in multi-panel cartoons in Japan. Elements resembling motion lines can be found in earlier domestic art such as picture scrolls as well, but the motion lines used in contemporary Japanese comics undoubtedly trace their roots back to those used in pantomime cartoons and comic strips rather than picture scrolls. The first such cartoon in the Jiji Shinpō to use motion lines was an eight-panel pantomime cartoon about a hunter catching a bear, featured on January 12, 1894 (fig. 27). Pain stars appeared less than a week earlier, on January 6 in a seven-panel cartoon (fig. 28). Both cartoons are almost certainly of foreign origin (note the English text in fig. 28), though their original places of publication have yet to be discovered. Imaizumi used motion lines in one of his original cartoons as early as July 3, 1895 (fig. 29) and beginning in 1897/1898 pain stars as well (fig. 30, from December 5, 1897, may be of foreign origin, but fig. 31, from May 29, 1898 was most likely conceived by Imaizumi).
In 1899 the Jiji Shinpō started featuring cartoons drawn by Kitazawa Yasuji, who had been working as a cartoonist for the English-language Yokohama publication Box of Curios and would later become famous under his pen name Rakuten. According to Kitazawa, he was scouted by Fukuzawa Sutejirō, Yukichi’s son, as a replacement for Imaizumi, who had started to suffer from a debilitating disease that prevented him from writing or drawing (his autobiographical Ippyō zatsuwa had to be dictated).19 The newspaper informed readers of this change in cartoonists due to Ippyō’s unspecified illness on January 1, 1900. Imaizumi passed away just four years later, in 1904.
In 1902 the Jiji Shinpō inaugurated a regular cartoon feature called Jiji Manga, edited by Kitazawa, continuing Imaizumi’s use of manga rather than ponchi to describe cartoons. Kitazawa today is often referred to as “the father of modern manga,” in large part because he became Japan’s first successful professional cartoonist, popularized the word manga, and trained several other influential cartoonists. However, both the purely visual sequential storytelling of pantomime cartoons and transdiegetic content in the form of motion lines and pain stars had already been established in Japan by Imaizumi Ippyō, whose role played in the history of Japanese comics remains underappreciated.
Although Kitazawa started using the “audiovisual” form of comics in which characters have continuing conversations over multiple sequential panels via sound images (usually speech balloons)—and which was rapidly gaining in popularity in the United States in the 1900s—as early as March 16, 1902 (fig. 32, on the left), Kitazawa used this form only sparingly and not for a continuing series with recurring characters until the 1920s. One reason for Kitazawa’s lack of interest in such comic strips was his view that cartoons should always make some kind of political or social point; he considered cartoons that served solely as entertainment frivolous (notwithstanding the fact that he drew plenty of cartoons devoid of explicit social or political commentary, likely because the Jiji Shinpō was a capitalist enterprise interested in selling more copies, an endeavor greatly aided by ‘mindless’ entertainment). The fact that it took until the 1920s for audiovisual comic strips to become a common form in countries like France and China as well suggests that larger forces were at work than individual artists’ interests, but it appears likely that Imaizumi, given his immense interest in narrative cartooning and American cartoons, would have begun copying wildly successful comic strips like the Katzenjammer Kids and Happy Hooligan in the Jiji Shinpō and eventually attempted such a comic strip of his own, had he been able to continue drawing for a few more years.
Bly, Nelly. Around the World in Seventy-Two Days and Other Writings. New York: Penguin Books, 2014.
Exner, Eike. Comics and the Origins of Manga. New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 2021.
Exner, Eike. “The Creation of the Comic Strip as an Audiovisual Stage in the New York Journal 1896-1900.” ImageTexT, Vol 10, No. 1, 2018.
Fukuzawa Yukichi Jiten Henshū Īinkai. Fukuzawa Yukichi Jiten. Tokyo: Keiō Gijuku, 2010.
Imaizumi Hidetarō. Ippyō zatsuwa. Tokyo: Seishidō, 1901.
Kitazawa Rakuten. “Manga taiheiki.” Warai no izumi 53 (July 1952): 90–99.
Kunzle, David. Rebirth of the English Comic Strip - A Kaleidoscope, 1847-1870. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 2021.
Smolderen, Thierry. The Origins of Comics - From William Hogarth to Winsor McCay. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 2014.
Stewart, Ronald. “Manga as Schism: Kitazawa Rakuten’s Resistance to ‘Old-Fashioned’ Japan.” Manga’s Cultural Crossroads, edited by Jaqueline Berndt and Bettina Kümmerling-Meibauer. New York and London: Routledge, 2014.
Stewart, Ronald. “Kitazawa Rakuten no manga: kyūha no furuki Edo-shumi kara hanareta atarashii mono wo mezasu.” Bijutsu Fōramu 21, Vol. 24, 2011: 41-49.
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- See Exner, Comics and the Origins of Manga, chapter 2, or “The Creation of the Comic Strip as an Audiovisual Stage in the New York Journal 1896-1900.”
- See for example Smolderen 15.
- Fukuzawa Yukichi jiten 413 (family relationship), 196 (Jiji Shinpō reliance on advertising
- Fukuzawa Yukichi jiten 413.
- Imaizumi 5.
- Imaizumi 5-6.
- Fukuzawa Yukichi jiten 291.
- Imaizumi’s listing in the San Francisco city directory was discovered by Rachel Thorn.
- Imaizumi 5. For information on Bly’s trip: The Evening World, January 25, 1890, “Home To-day,” and Bly, “One Hundred and Twenty Hours in Japan.”
- According to The Evening World, “Home To-day,” Bly left Yokohama on January 7 and
arrived in San Francisco on January 21.
- Imaizumi 6.
- In at least one text on manga history with a nationalist bend that reproduces this cartoon, the English title is not featured, as if to downplay the obvious connection to Euro-American pantomime cartoons, rather than prior domestic art.
- Both cartoons use word balloons to represent the men’s thoughts, extremely unusual in multi-panel cartoons at the time, though such balloons are unrelated to the speech balloons in manga today: the words contained in these balloons are clearly inaudible to the other character. Furthermore, in fig. 8, the last words comment on how terribly the sleeper is snoring, but the snoring sound is not depicted.
- The cartoon is reminiscent of another pantomime cartoon copied from Life, “A Little Cut up, But Still in the Ring” (November 24, 1892), featured in the Jiji Shinpō on February 28, 1893.
- I first learned of this joke feature from Ron Stewart.
- See for example Kunzle 314.
- Imaizumi 11.
- In 1894 the Jiji Shinpō also featured cartoons from the World and the Newark Advertiser on the war.
- Some texts on Kitazawa claim that he was selected by Yukichi, but Sutejirō had already taken over management of the Jiji Shinpō in 1896 (Fukuzawa Yukichi jiten 197) and Kitazawa himself claimed that it was Sutejirō who discovered him for the Fukuzawa newspaper (Kitazawa 91).