When is a pile of crap considered a collection?
As long as I can remember, I’ve liked gathering things together to surround my life. Most of these things have come and gone. Smooth, round stones from various streams, rivers, and beaches. A shoebox-sized plywood box filled with bits and pieces of a broken transistor radio; marbles, foreign coins, stripped phone wires, bottle caps—pretty much anything that seemed useful for building, fixing, or inventing … something.
I saved both a can and a sixteen-ounce bottle of Coke that I bought in the weeks before the release of “New Coke” … to wait for the day I’d find the buyer for a taste of history. An old, broken CB radio that shorted out when the power adapter got plugged into the wrong jack. Every sketchbook I owned since grade school (most only half-filled) in case someone might need them for a comprehensive biography about me. A binder clip of a couple hundred Bazooka Joe comics because … well, they seemed to be worth points that someday might get me something I really wanted.
These were all parts of my childhood “collections” for years and years. Somewhere in my imagination they sparked a little glimmer, seeming to offer the potential for some bigger project or reward. And so as I encountered these odds and ends, I’d add them to my piles. These collections formed gradually, almost subconsciously. Just as subtly, they gradually faded away to make room for other concerns and interests. To this day, rummaging around my old room, I rediscover things—little piles of my history which are now inscrutable to me (a random collection of Outside and Winning magazines from the ’80s; a denim “purse” filled with fifty-cent and dollar coins).
An exception to this process of gradual disappearance has been my collection of black-and-white paperback Japanese comic books. Called “manga”—or more accurately, tanko-bon (a collection of manga episodes gathered into a single bound volume)—each edition contains a collection of about ten consecutive episodes from a monthly (or weekly) comic.
My grandparents got me hooked. As my young parents struggled to negotiate parenthood and a new life in New York City, my grandparents did what they could from their small city in Japan. Every month or two, I’d receive a package from them. Inside was a brand-new, recent issue of a monthly magazine for kids. The majority of the inside pages were printed one-color (black ink) on cheap, uncoated paper stock. The cover and a few of the front pages were tantalizingly printed in shiny, glossy, full color. Aside from brief language and math lessons of which I have no conscious recollection, these thick, perfect-bound magazines were full of episodes of several comics (to be continued the following month).
Every time one of these shipments arrived—especially as I got older and could read them myself—I would settle down and spend the rest of the afternoon reading Japanese. It was very clever of them to trick me into learning that way. The other amazing thing about these magazines was that they came with elaborate cardboard toys and games that we’d cut out, build, and play with. If I wanted to play with the bonus material, I had to study the instructions, which also were in Japanese. Between my days of American life—Sesame Street on the local PBS station, Magic Rainbow on another channel, and countless hours around our Brooklyn neighborhood—this little bit of Japanese culture that dropped into my life once every month or two magically transported me to a land with which I had many connections, yet little first-hand experience.
From these magazines, I was introduced to the bound comic books of Sazae-san (“The Wonderful World of Sazae-san,” in English), starring a typical post-World War II Japanese family. These were supplemented a few years later by books of Ijiwaru baasan (“Granny Mischief”). The comics were in the popular Japanese four-panel form seen widely in newspapers, with the fourth panel delivering the punch line. While I innocently enjoyed them as a child, linguistic and cultural learning were surreptitiously inculcated as well. Through these books, I became familiar with the written and colloquial dimensions of the Japanese language, and received exposure to themes in day-to-day Japanese life. Sazae-san debuted when my parents were children in Japan, and the comic helped me relate to their childhood stories.
The next significant impact to my childhood consciousness came from Doraemon (a robot cat from the 25th-century who tries to help his master’s bumbling great-grandfather, who is a young boy in the 20th-century). This comic introduced me to the lives of Japanese children—and the wonderfully limitless creative potential of the world of comics.
When my sister and I were children in New York, it was very hard to get a hold of Japanese books. Those we could find were either hopelessly outdated and boring (at the New York Public Library), or really pricey (at the only Japanese bookstore around). We traded as much as we could with our few Japanese-American friends.
The big scores came when I spent a few summers of my childhood in Japan. On two of those occasions, I was deemed old enough for my parents to give me a bit of an allowance and emergency funds (to be used only in an emergency, of course). In each instance, I managed to blow all the cash on comic books. Responsibly, I would wait until my departure date was near before I spent all my emergency money. The time I discovered the used comic bookstore near my grandparents’ house in Tokyo, I dragged into JFK International Airport (to the dismay of my parents, who had come to meet me) several large cardboard boxes chock-full of entire series of comics. While in Japan, I’d also discovered that the nationwide advanced recycling system required the populace to separate comic books from other paper waste. Much to my grandparents’ chagrin, after playing outside, I’d come home carrying bundles of their neighbors’ trash. These bundles also flew back home to New York with me. I’m not sure if I should be proud of my global recycling efforts, or if I should be looking into offsetting the carbon emissions of that extra payload.
These days, due to the efficiency of modern global freight, Internet commerce, and the explosive growth of a New York Japanese immigrant population, affordable Japanese comic books have become quite accessible over the years. A couple of my current favorite comics are more grownup. One has a protagonist who’s the wife of the chief of a sumo stable (Okami-san). Another, by the same artist, centers around a single dad who’s a grade-school teacher in the town where he grew up (Kai sensei). Yet another revolves around a Tokyo automotive executive who’s been transferred to a small seaside town and becomes a door-to-door car salesperson (Kaikyo monogatari).
I’m always on the lookout for other interesting stories. They’re part of my cultural identity. Yet even after all these years (and hundreds and thousands of comic books), I still don’t feel like a true collector of manga (would that be an otaku?).
After I went off to school, a good number of the books got culled from my parents’ house. None of my comic books are in little plastic bags. They aren’t sorted in any order. I don’t mind terribly when our daughter pulls one out to flip through it and ends up removing its jacket. Yet, as I stand in our small urban row house—looking in my bookshelves, under the bed, and in some random boxes in the basement—I can’t help but see the evidence of a lifelong collector. And in each of these places, there still seems to be a little more space.
llustration by the author