Episode 52 │ Manga, Boxing, & Happenstance (JAPAN)
"I think everybody has a different path and it's important to figure that out. And sometimes mistakes aren't really mistakes, it's just holding things off for a better time." (Kofi, Episode 52)
Happy Black History Month, everyone! Black history is essential and worth studying and celebrating all year, but I'm reveling in the fact that February especially is our month. Plus, we get an extra day since 2020 is a leap year! This week's guest is an up-and-coming manga artist, boxer, and scholar named Kofi Bazzell-Smith, who's gone to Japan twice to further his artistic and linguistic development. I became aware of him in a Facebook group called Black in Japan, where he regularly posted updates during his most recent semester in Japan.
Growing up in Champaign, Illinois, much of Kofi's childhood was spent in a kung fu school. His father taught kung fu at said school and was a third-degree black belt in the Shaolin style, and under that influence Kofi has been practicing martial arts his whole life. He eventually landed on boxing in high school, and that became such a passion of Kofi's that he dropped out of The University of Illinois for a time to pursue being a professional boxer. Kofi also started young when it came to drawing. Watching the anime 'Dragon Ball Z' as a child inspired him to start drawing and dreaming of writing his own manga works. (Manga are Japanese-style comics or graphic novels, and are usually written in Japanese.) As an artist, Kofi was completely self-taught until he went to Japan for the first time in his 20s.
After dropping out, Kofi was enjoying boxing and took a wide range of community college classes (including Japanese, which he also self-studied) during that time. But it got to a point where he wanted to further his studies and get more serious about becoming a manga artist, so he saved up to pay his own way to Japan in 2017. He lived in Fukuoka for a month, studying Japanese and manga at a language school in that city. His classes weren't very challenging, but he did learn the fundamentals of manga storytelling structure. Most of his Japanese language progress came from interacting with Japanese people on a daily basis, especially in the local boxing gyms that he trained at. Thanks to a friend he was staying with in Fukuoka, Kofi got to tour a research facility at Kyushu University and was even offered a job as a translator. But Americans need a Bachelor's degree to get work visas in Japan, and so Kofi couldn't accept the offer. Plus, talking to his friend's colleagues made Kofi realize that they were degreed, but not necessarily any smarter than he was. So he decided that he would go back to school in the States and get his Bachelor's degree, so that he could take advantage of whatever future opportunities might arise for him in Japan.
After fulfilling general education requirements at Parkland College, Kofi transferred to Eastern Illinois University where he's currently a studio art major continuing to strive toward becoming a more skilled artist. In January 2019 he even published his first book (in English and Japanese), a short manga work that's meant for kids. Kofi is someone who believes deeply in the power of asking for help and seeking out information, and so he was very forthright about his desire to go to back Japan, asking EIU's study abroad office what he needed to do to make it happen. After getting his grades up and applying for scholarships, Kofi returned to Japan for the fall 2019 semester to do an exchange program at Kansai Gaidai University in Hirakata (Osaka Prefecture). And this time around, he didn't have to pay for anything because the scholarships he earned (including the US-Japan Bridging scholarship and the Freeman-ASIA scholarship) covered everything.
Kofi studied Japanese and manga this time as well, but in a more profound way than he did in Fukuoka. Kansai Gaidai specializes in teaching foreign languages to its students, and Kofi's Japanese took off thanks to his classes and his boxing activities outside of shcool. Furthermore, his manga professor at Kansai Gaidai was excellent about teaching the practical aspects of producing manga, including formatting techniques and the process for submitting work to Japanese manga competitions. This professor earned all of her university degrees, including her doctorate, at Kofi's dream school: Kyoto Seika University. Kyoto Seika specializes in training manga artists and is the only university in the world offering graduate degrees in manga, and Kofi had previously tried to study there but was unsuccessful. Now that he was in the Osaka area, which is within reasonable proximity to Kyoto, his luck was about to turn around in an amazing way.
One day, Kofi went with a friend to an event at the Kyoto International Manga Museum and took his portfolio with him. He takes his portfolio with him pretty much everywhere, "because you never know". He showed his work to people at this event, and met a professor who told him about an unadvertised event happening downstairs, where the major publishing houses of Japan were meeting with manga artists and letting them submit their work. Armed with his art, his Japanese skills, and a lack of fear, Kofi went down there. He received invaluable feedback from various people on his artwork, and he exchanged contact info with a fellow manga artist who just so happened to have graduated from... you guessed it! Kyoto Seika University.
Kofi's new acquaintance arranged for him to visit Kyoto Seika and meet the esteemed Professor Akira Sasou, who'd actually taught Kofi's professor at Kansai Gaidai much of what she knows! Professor Sasou didn't believe that Kofi was ready for graduate school just yet, but he did give Kofi a textbook that he'd written so Kofi could study from it. He also invited Kofi to his Monday figure drawing class, and so every Monday evening Kofi would spend hours commuting to Kyoto, auditing the class, and commuting back home. Kofi learned so much about the abstract and storytelling elements of manga, and he told me that the art he created under Professor Sasou's guidance was some of the best work he's ever done.
Never letting his boxing prowess fall to the wayside, Kofi became even more involved in the Japanese boxing scene than he'd been when he was in Fukuoka. He not only got to train under former world champion Nobuhiro Ishida, but he also beat a professional fighter at a huge boxing event in Kawasaki. He also got connected to Shosei Nitta (the current head of the Japanese Pro Boxing Association), who offered Kofi a contract to fight professionally when he returns to Japan long-term.
Kofi returned to Illinois in January 2020, and is now even more invigorated to work toward each of his multi-faceted passions. His mentor, comic artist and professor Stacey Robinson, is helping Kofi come up with his own blueprint for becoming a professional artist and professor who receives academic funding to create and talk about his work. And Kofi is already strategizing for his next trip to Japan, which will hopefully be an independent study/internship taking place during summer 2020. After graduating from EIU, he hopes to return to Japan for an extended amount of time that will allow him to further improve as a manga artist, reach Japanese fluency, and keep boxing. He wants to travel the world with his art, and China (he also studies Chinese) and Ghana (where his name comes from) are high on his list of places he wants to go. Kofi can be found on Facebook (Kofi Bazzell-Smith), on Instagram (@kofi.manga), or on his website.
Be sure to listen to this episode, "Manga, Boxing, & Happenstance (JAPAN)" for more! And don't forget to check out the resource list below!
Mini-documentary about Kofi (YouTube)
Black in Japan (FB group)
Parkland College Japanese Culture Club (FB page)
Dragon Ball Z (anime)
Clip Studio Paint (drawing and painting software)
Kansai Gaidai manga drawing syllabus (fall 2019)
Anime Central (Midwest Animation Promotion Society)
Hakata Kyoei Boxing Gym (Fukuoka)
Tokushima Sports Boxing Gym (Hirakata, Osaka)
Neyagawa Ishida Boxing Club (Neyagawa, Osaka)
Nihongo no Mori (Japanese lessons on YouTube)
Maggie Sensei (Japanese learning blog)
MEXT Scholarship (for study/research in Japan)
Danielle G. is the creator and host of Young, Gifted and Abroad. You can find her other writings at DeelaSees.com.