Born in Japan and raised in the United States, high school graduate Nao has moved to Tokyo for a year to reconnect with her Japanese heritage. At Himawari House, a shared house for students, she befriends two fellow Japanese-language students: Hyejung from Korea and Tina from Singapore. Himawari House follows a year in the lives of the three young women, delivering a spirited, heartfelt slice-of-life story about friendships and identities that bridge cultures.
Stories about study abroad experiences often have a travelogue quality, but Himawari House emphasizes everyday life and relationships, never exoticizing its Japanese setting. This graphic novel centers on Nao, Hyejung, and Tina’s friendship, their bond a source of strength and humor as they navigate school, work, family, and romance. The three women have each come to Japan for different reasons—introspective Nao wants to rekindle her Japanese identity after a childhood of blending in with her white American peers, sensitive Hyejung desires independence after losing her sense of self to family obligations and a manipulative boyfriend, and fun-loving Tina craves direction and validation while working a demeaning waitressing job.
Himawari House celebrates connections forged across personal and cultural differences, whether that’s navigating a multicultural identity, communicating honestly with family members who hold different values, or pursuing romance across a language gap. The graphic novel interweaves profound questions of love, purpose, and identity with the mundane episodes of a year living away from home for the first time. We follow the characters as they work low-pay jobs, learn to cook, nurse crushes on celebrities, and find catharsis through a night of karaoke with friends. The threads of their stories capture the emotional intensity and sheer adventure of a being a newly independent young adult.
Creator Harmony Becker makes smart storytelling choices to reflect the diversity of the Asian and Asian diaspora cultures she portrays. Expressive monochromatic artwork blends Japanese manga conventions with a North American aesthetic, mirroring Nao’s bicultural heritage. The text itself is multilingual; speech bubbles with dual translation and missing or blurred-out words, paired with Japanese sound effects, represent the jarring experience of being immersed in an unfamiliar linguistic environment. Becker also uses phonetically-written language to represent the different dialects of English spoken in Himawari House, peppering conversations with Japanese, Korean, and Singlish vocabulary and sentence structures. In an afterword, the author explains that she chose to write dialogue phonetically as a celebration of Asian and Asian diaspora language, pushing back against the white tradition of reproducing Asian accents for pejorative comic effect. The effect is a story that feels authentically multilingual.
Just as Himawari House explores gaps and connections between cultures, the graphic novel itself bridges a divide between American comics about Japan, which have often centered a white audience, and Japanese manga aimed at a domestic Japanese audience. The result is a funny, sensitive, culturally rich coming of age story that will appeal both to young adult and adult readers.
By Harmony Becker
First Second, 2021
Publisher Age Rating: Young Adult
NFNT Age Recommendation: Adult (18+), Older Teen (16-18), Teen (13-16)
Creator Representation: East Asian
Character Representation: Japanese-American, Korean, Singaporean