Japanese Picture Books as a Window to Japan ~ by Holly Thompson
Part 1 of 3
Some years ago, as we prepared for a second time to settle in Japan, with children ages two and seven, we were excited about the immediate access we would have to Japanese children’s literature. Japan has long had a robust children’s book market, and we were eager to be immersed in it. So after we moved into our rented home and formed our new school, work and household routines, just as we had in the U.S., we made weekly trips to our local library and brought home stacks of picture books, nature field guides, activity and art books, and, of course, manga—fiction, historical, and biography. With bookstores located at most Japanese train stations and plentiful throughout our town, we also spent hours browsing shop aisles.
Written Japanese includes three writing systems—kanji characters plus two phonetic syllabaries, and young children first learn to read the phonetic hiragana syllabary. Once children can read the hiragana symbols, reading words written in hiragana is immediate. Japanese children aged three and four are often seen reading books that are written entirely in hiragana, and our daughter could read this way in Japanese well before she could read in English.
Japanese picture books took our family deeper inside Japan. Not only were we exposed to great and quirky Japanese stories, but children’s books also provided a window into attitudes and human relations in our adopted culture. We came to better appreciate the rhythms of the language, learned dialogue for every situation, and encountered an infinite number of Japanese onomatopoeias. Japanese is such a complex language to read and write well, and children’s science and nonfiction books offered easy-to-comprehend information about the world around us—the physical world and the society to which we were adapting.
Many of our favorite Japanese children’s books from our years with younger children were published by Fukuinkan Shoten Publishers —their regular picture books, as well as their monthly series: Kodomo no tomo (Children’s Companion, in three age levels—0-2, 2-4, 5-6), Kagaku no tomo (Children’s Science Companion, in two age levels—3-5 and 5-6), Takusan no fushigi (World of Wonders, ages 8 and up) and the discontinued Ookina poketto (Big Pocket).
Fukuinkan Shoten’s monthly books (image on left) include original richly illustrated picture book stories, folktales, and outstanding and varied nonfiction. Published in sturdy paperbacks and often organized in their own sections in school and public libraries, these children’s books have endured on our shelves. I’ve often wondered if English-language publishers might benefit by considering the monthly book model that Fukuinkan Shoten has followed with great success here in Japan. Many of the most successful and popular monthly books, published initially as paperbacks with smaller print runs, are later published in hardcover, such as Taro Gomi’s Minna Unchi, famous in English as Everyone Poops.
Even without small children now, I still like to purchase Fukuinkan Shoten books, such as the recent Okaasan to warui kitsune (A Wise Mother and a Bad Fox) with Mongolian Bolormaa Baasansuren’s striking illustrations (cover image on right) and Take wa take (Bamboo is Bamboo) by Shozo Shibata (cover image on left).
As I look through our bookshelves and smile at our picture book treasures, I cannot help but wish that more Japanese picture books were translated into English. What a wealth of stories and nonfiction material to choose from!
Holly Thompson was raised in New England and is a longtime resident of Japan. Her verse novel Orchards(Delacorte/Random House) won the 2012 APALA Asian/Pacific American Award for Literature and is a YALSA 2012 Best Fiction for Young Adults title. She recently edited Tomo: Friendship Through Fiction—An Anthology of Japan Teen Stories (Stone Bridge Press), and her next verse novel The Language Inside (Delacorte/Random House) will be published in 2013. She teaches creative writing at Yokohama City University and serves as the regional advisor of the Tokyo chapter of the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators. Visit her website: www.hatbooks.com. Part 2 of her series will be posted here on the PaperTigers’s blog on May 23 and part 3 will be posted on May 30.