A New Illustrated Book From the Pen and Perspective of a Yonsei

Jodie Chiemi Ching

Gwen Muranaka.(Photo courtesy of the Japanese American National Museum website)
Gwen Muranaka.(Photo courtesy of the Japanese American National Museum website)

I first (virtually) met Gwen Muranaka – the editor at Rafu Shimpo in Los Angeles, California – through the Zentoku Foundation, a nonprofit created to support our struggling Japanese American community newspapers. We were both recruited by its president, Mark Nakakihara.

During my editor years (2020-2022) at The Hawai‘i Herald, which started at the height of the pandemic, we bonded over our mutual struggles: loss of advertising support, a lack of events to cover and figuring out how we could be of support to our communities during such a dark time. Despite the darkness, I can see now how the COVID-19 pandemic forged new friendships and bridged communities; for this, I am eternally grateful.

One day, Nakakihara told me that Muranaka drew comic strips; when I saw her work, I knew “Dad’s Three Cats” would be a great addition to the out-of-pocket Dennis Fujitake’s “808” and Jon Murakami’s local-style family in “Generation Gap.” Muranaka’s cute, quirky, relatable strips have been a part of the Herald publication since 2020, and some of them appear in her new book “Drawing by Heart” (J-Town Beat, 2023).

On Saturday, Nov. 18, at 2 to 3:30 p.m. Muranaka will launch “Drawings by Heart” at the Japanese American National Museum in Los Angeles, California, with a book signing event. There she will also be in conversation with Susan Hirasuna, anchor of Fox 11 News, about her new book.

“Drawings by Heart” cover. (Photo courtesy of Gwen Muranaka)
“Drawings by Heart” cover. (Photo courtesy of Gwen Muranaka)

In the introduction of her book, Muranaka wrote that she has always drawn cartoons as a solace and a way to express herself. She was born and raised in Southern California by her parents Tomio (Nisei and the main character of “Dad’s Three Cats”) and Julia (Sansei) Muranaka.

After majoring in English literature at UCLA, Muranaka studied Japanese at Waseda University in Tökyö. She even worked at Japan Times and interviewed internationally acclaimed author Haruki Murakami on “his thoughts of a changing Japan in the wake of the 1995 Aum Shinrikyo attack on the Tökyö subway system that left 13 dead.”

Muranaka drew her way through life, often in the evening on a green cutting board she bought in Shibuya. This book is a culmination of these fun, quirky and cute drawings thoughtfully chaptered: Experiencing a New Culture; Food; Animals; Traditions; Family and Community; and Pop Culture.

Some of my favorite gems in this book include topics Nikkei can all relate to: Japanese snacks, noodle-slurping, trains, heated toilet seats, Spam musubi, sumö, Nisei veterans and Las Vegas; and I enjoyed the appearances by Hanna Barbera’s animator and television producer Iwao Takamoto, Totoro, Godzilla and Hello Kitty. There’s more, but I don’t want to give away too many spoilers.

These will make a great gift for family and friends. For information about Gwen Muranaka and to pre-order a copy of “Drawing by Heart” visit her website jtownbeat.com. For information about her book signing event on Saturday, Nov. 18 at JANM in Los Angeles visit janm.org/events/.

Jodie Chiemi Ching is an author, poet and a former editor of The Hawai‘i Herald. She and her husband, Alex, also run their mom-and-pop shop Island Vee Dub, a brick and mortar in Kaimukï specializing in vintage Volkswagen parts and accessories.


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