Remembering the Great East Japan Earthquake and Tsunami, March 2011 – “We Want Them To Know They Are Not Alone” by Chieko Furuta Suemori

Monday, March 4th, 2013

March 11th marks the 2nd anniversary of the Great East Japan Earthquake – two long years of striving and rebuilding for those whose lives were altered by the disaster.  At the IBBY Congress last year, JBBY, the Japanese section of IBBY, hosted a very well-attended early-bird session, where we learned about the phenomenal work being done to bring books to children, and the healing that those books were and are able to effect.  Each speaker gave a personal account of their own experiences on 11th March 2011 and the different children’s book and library projects they have been instrumental in getting off the ground.  You can read the presentation given by JBBY President Takao Murayama here, in which he introduced the “Books for Tomorrow” project.  Hisako Kakuage spoke “To the Children of Fukushima, and for Children with Special Needs”, showing a selection of multi-sensory books, including cloth books and music (I was delighted to see Suho’s White Horse there).

Chieko Suemori, a former Executive Member of IBBY and founder of publishing house Suemori Books, launched the 3.11 Ehon Project Iwate within days of the disaster.  To date, they have received more than 232,000 books, which reach children via the Ehon Car mobile library project.  Chieko has given me permission to reproduce her presentation here.  Six months after the IBBY Congress, it is still very relevant and definitely worth reading, especially around this time when our thoughts turn towards those who are still suffering because of what happened two years ago – and to those who are doing all they can to help them.

We Want Them To Know They Are Not Alone by Chieko Furuta Suemori
~ Presentation given at the IBBY Congress, London, August 25, 2012

One year before the 11 March 2011 earthquake and tsunami in Japan, I moved from Tokyo, north to Iwate prefecture. The place where I live is inland, but still the shaking of the quake was horrible. It was a quake stronger than anything I had felt in my life. Electric power shut down, so we had no telephone, television or Internet access. Probably many of you were seeing the images of the tsunami on TV before we did.

Yamada is one of the coastal towns hit hardest by the 11 March tsunami. After the waves destroyed the town, fires raged from huge gas storage tanks and spilled crude oil, and even the water of the harbor was on fire. This once-peaceful place was a haven to my ancestors, who fled persecution of Christians in Kyushu, several generations ago. As soon as the telephone and Internet began to work, many friends asked me what they could do to help us in Iwate. I recalled the work of IBBY’s [founder] Jella Lepman, and I thought: we must gather books for the children. A newspaper reporter I had known since the IBBY Congress in Basel wrote a story about my plan, and within days we began to receive an overwhelming stream of picture books from all over the country. I had not realized how much confidence Japanese place in picture books as a source of strength for children. Some days we would receive 200 to 300 boxes of books! Within two months, we had 230,000 books.

We also had a wonderful team of volunteers who helped us at the Central Civic Hall that was the base of our project. They opened the boxes, unloaded the books, and filed the letters and messages enclosed by the senders. Then we began to sort and organize the books, following the advice of our experts on picture books.

On 4 April, three weeks after the quake, I first visited the disaster zone. Amid the rubble of the town of Yamada I came upon a young Buddhist priest wearing only straw sandals even as snow continued to fall. Desperately wanting to do something, he had come, determined at least to pray for the dead. He was not even sure how helpful that was, but still he kept on praying in those wretched streets of broken homes, washed out streets, and burned out workplaces. All he could do was pray, he said, but he would walk the whole length of the long, convoluted coastline of Iwate. At night he faced the ocean, which had claimed the lives of so many, and after a deep bow, raised his voice high, chanting a sutra for the repose of their souls. My encounter with that young priest was a blessing, an experience I will never forget.

The tsunami washed away schools and libraries. In some cities, even the mayor and members of the city hall staff were caught up in the deadly tide. The children said nothing, but I could see how bravely they understand the situation. On the day I visited a day care center, there was a little girl in a pink shirt who did not join the circle of children listening to a story, and while the others played happily, sat alone, gazing at the floor. She was one of the children waiting for a mother who would never return. All I could do was to take my chair over and sit next to the girl in the pink shirt. I wanted her to know she was not alone.

When we invited the children to pick a book they liked to keep, they began to search through the boxes. One boy kept on searching for one of his favorite books, and when he found it, he clasped it dearly as he left. I realized that the children were searching for their favorite picture books they had read at home, kindergarten or day care before the tsunami.

About a year after the tsunami, on the 5th of February, I visited Rikuzen Takata, a large city that suffered massive damage. I visited the school gymnasium. It had been designated as an evacuation center in case of emergency, but the 200 people who had fled there were caught up in the tsunami and whirled around as if in a huge washing machine. Except for two or three, almost all had died. Although a year had passed, the city still had buildings crammed with upside down automobiles washed along by the tsunami and tangled rubble everywhere. There I found a small stuffed animal lodged in the sand. Somehow unwilling to just leave it there, I wrapped it in a handkerchief and took it home. A cute pink figure of a cow, it had a broken bell around its neck. It must have belonged to a small girl. Thinking of the fate of that little girl, I keep the little pink cow on my windowsill.

With support from IBBY and many others, our Ehon Project Iwate has launched six Picture Book Car mini-bookmobiles. In the disaster zone are a number of people whose homes were not damaged in the disaster who have set up small bunko home libraries. The vehicles are small so they can pass along narrow roads and streets, and the managers of the home libraries can easily drive them. They are equipped with winter-use tires and even insurance policies.

This year, in order to provide information and encouragement for these home libraries, we started regular gatherings in Morioka centering on picture books called “Picture Book Rendezvous” (Ehon Salon). By offering various enjoyable events and a place for networking, we hope to support the endeavors of people devoted to bringing books to children in communities throughout Iwate.

We have decided to continue this project for 10 years, helping the people managing bunko libraries in their homes along the Iwate coastline. By then, the city offices, libraries, and schools that were destroyed in the disaster will have been rebuilt and restored to some extent.

In closing, I would like to ask you to listen to a song. It is a song about finding hope in the midst of despair and about what we want to leave to our children. All sorts of people are singing—actors and actresses, singers, television entertainers, professional sports people—all of them with roots in the disaster zone. The recording was originally part of an NHK program, but for this IBBY Congress we have prepared a special version with English translation by Roger Pulvers. The song gives us a visible sense of the meaning of hope and shows that we have taken up the torch to carry on for those who have died.

We think of the many children throughout the world who suffer in many different ways, even without destructive earthquakes and tsunami. For those children as well, we must sustain hope through our commitment to children’s books.

PaperTigers’ Global Voices feature with award winning author Holly Thompson (USA/Japan)~ Part 3

Wednesday, May 30th, 2012

Children’s and YA Books in Translation from Japan ~  by Holly Thompson

Part 3 of 3 (read Part 1 here and Part 2 here)

Over the years of raising our children in Japan, I have kept my eyes out for Japanese children’s books translated into English. Sadly, far more titles go from English into Japanese than from Japanese into English. Having peaked in numbers in the 1980s, nowadays few Japanese children’s and young adult books are translated into English each year.

The reasons for so few Japanese books being sold to English-language publishers are layered and complicated ranging from cultural differences and weak English copy or sample translations used for marketing books to foreign publishers, to stagnant picture book markets in English-speaking countries and a lack of interest from markets that are focused intently on books set in their own countries.

Currently, most of the children’s books translated from Japanese into other languages are sold to other countries in Asia—particularly Korea and Taiwan, and more recently, China. The International Library of Children’s Literature in Ueno, Tokyo, held an exhibit in 2010 Children’s Books Going Overseas from Japan and much exhibit information on translated Japanese children’s books appears on their website.

Because our children are bilingual, when they were young we read most Japanese picture books in Japanese, but we searched out English translations of Japanese picture books as gifts for relatives, friends or libraries in the U.S. Some of the Japanese picture books in translation that we loved to give are Singing Shijimi Clams by Naomi Kojima, The 14 Forest Mice books and others by Kazuo Iwamura, and books illustrated by Akiko Hayashi. Our all-time family favorite Japanese picture book was the widely read Suuho no shiroi uma, published in English as Suho’s White Horse, a Mongolian tale retold by Japanese author Yuzo Otsuka, illustrated by Suekichi Akaba, and translated by Peter Howlett—featured in this PaperTigers post.

R.I.C. Publications has a number of well-known Japanese picture books and some Ainu folktales in translation. Kane/Miller Book Publishers now focuses on books set in the U.S. but used to focus on translations of books from around the world; their catalog has a section on Books from Japan including the hugely successful Minna unchi by Taro Gomi, translated by Amanda Mayer Stinchecum and published in English as Everyone Poops. And recently Komako Sakai’s books have traveled overseas including Ronpaachan to fuusen published by Chronicle Books as Emily’s Balloon and Yuki ga yandara released as The Snow Day by Arthur A. Levine Books.

But these days very few English-language publishers, even those more multiculturally oriented, publish translations of Japanese picture books, and those titles that are imported are often those with minimum text. When picture books are translated into English, translation often happens “in house” at the English-language publisher, regrettably with no credit to a translator.  Translated text may also differ considerably from the original text. What’s more, some publishers even eliminate cultural references and alter illustrations—such as removal of kanji characters on signs in the background, and other details that would place a book firmly in Japan or Asia.

Over the years, even more than picture books, our family has sought out middle-grade (MG) and young adult (YA) books in translation and read novels by Kazumi Yumoto, such as The Friends, beautifully translated by Cathy Hirano, and Kiki’s Delivery Service, by Eiko Kadono, translated by Lynne E. Riggs. Partly due to the fact that YA is not a well-established book category here, not much Japanese YA fiction has been translated into English until recently. In the last few years, we are seeing a few more MG and YA titles translated from Japanese, and this is of course due in large part to overseas interest in Japanese manga and anime.

Examples of recent Japanese MG or YA titles translated into English include the Moribito books by Nahoko Uehashi, translated by Cathy Hirano; Brave Story, by Miyuki Miyabe, translated by Alexander O. Smith; J-Boys: Kazuo’s World, Tokyo, 1965 by Shogo Oketani, translated by Avery Fischer Udagawa; Real World by Natsuo Kirino, translated by Phillip Gabriel; The Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya by Nagaru Tanigawa, translated by Chris Pai; and lots of Japanese manga appearing in English—see BookDragon book reviews. Still, I look forward to the day when the YA list of translated titles is much, much longer.

SCBWI Tokyo now has a Translation Group for Japanese to English translators of children’s and YA literature, and this year the group will hold its second Translation Day on June 16, which will feature Alexander O. Smith and translators of stories in Tomo: Friendship Through Fiction—An Anthology of Japan Teen Stories. Through this SCBWI Tokyo Translation Group we aim to cultivate translators skilled in the nuances and particulars of children’s literature and hope that the group can be a model for other regions in Asia so that English-language publishers around the world can readily find experienced translators. In the future, perhaps more children’s and YA literature from Asia can appear in English and reach a wider global readership.

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:

Postcard from Japan: Bilingual Books with CD

Wednesday, June 8th, 2011

When I was in Japanese school in Canada, our class did a skit of the story of the giant turnip — Ooki na Kabu (The Giant Turnip).  This story, based on a Russian folktale, is a classic, often performed by Japanese children in schools.  The story is about a giant turnip that is so big that everyone in the village tries to pull it out.  When our class did it, we used a bean bag with a white sheet covered over it and the boy playing the role of the turnip sat inside it, uttering his lines from underneath the sheet.  It was a lot of fun.  

Lately, a mother from the volunteer reading group I attend here, showed me the book of  the play we’d performed, The  Turnip (retold by Kimiko Saito, illustrated by Kaoru Ohno), alongside a number of similar bilingual Japanese picture books with CD published by a company called Labo Kyoiku Centre.  She had gotten them out from her local library.  The text was in English (all the books were translated by Sarah Ann Nishie).  Some other notable titles she showed me were A Mongolian Folktale: Sukh’s White Horse  retold by Yuzo Otsuka, illustrated by Suekichi Akaba, (published in English as Suho’s White Horse – see Marjorie’s recent Books at Bedtime post) and The Ocean Going  Orchestra by Yuzo Otsuka, illustrated by Jun Maruki.  The website pages for the books contain audio clips of the CD in which the tales are read both in English and Japanese. These are good books for bilingual education and a great resource.  I was very happy to see a number of my favorite Japanese children’s book author, Kenji Miyazawa’s books available in this bilingual CD format on the website.  Hope you can seek them out wherever you are!

Reading the World Challenge 2011 – Update 1

Friday, March 25th, 2011

It’s not too late to join this year’s Reading the World Challenge if you haven’t already – just take a look at this post for details.

In our family we have all joined together and read picture books set in Mongolia, which is our current focus on PaperTigers. I had to hunt around a bit but we came up with a good selection. I’m not going to go into a great deal of detail here as they are all gathered up in my Personal View, Taking a step into children’s books about Mongolia. We have really enjoyed delving into the culture and heritage of Mongolia and these picture books have been read all together and individually.

One bedtime Older Brother read Horse Song: the Naadam of Mongolia by Ted and Betsy Lewin (Lee and Low, 2008) to Little Brother – quite a long read and they were both engrossed. Watching them from the outside, as it were, I came to an added appreciation of the dynamics of Ted and Betsy’s collaboration, both in the energy of their shared enthusiasm and participation in the events surrounding the famous horse-race, and also of being struck by a busy, crowded scene one page and then giggling at the turn of expression on an individual study’s face the next.

And I’ll just share with you Little Brother’s reaction to Suho’s White Horse, which you can read about in a bit more detail in my Books at Bedtime post earlier this week:

It was a moving story. The governor made me angry because he broke his word and was cruel to Suho and his horse.
[Listening to the musical version played on the Mongolian horsehead fiddle, the morin khuur] Once you know the story, you can tell which part of the music is telling which part of the story. How do they make that music with just two strings? It fills me with awe.

I also read The Horse Boy: A Father’s Miraculous Journey to Heal His Son by Rupert Isaacson (Viking, 2009), an amazing story of a family’s journey to Mongolia in search of horses and shamans to seek healing for the torments that were gripping their five-year-old autistic son’s life: as Isaacson puts it with great dignity, his “emotional and physical incontinence”. If you have already read this humbling, inspiring book (and even if you haven’t), take a look at this recent interview three years on from their adventurous journey. Now I need to see the film!

And talking of films (which we don’t very often on PaperTigers, but I can’t resist mentioning this one), The Story of the Weeping Camel is a beautiful, gentle film that takes you right to the heart of Mongolian life on the steppe. Who would have thought a documentary film about a camel could be so like watching a fairy tale? Don’t be put off by the subtitles – our boys love this film. Take a look at the trailer –

But now it’s time to leave Mongolia and find out what everyone else has been reading… (more…)

Books at Bedtime: Suho’s White Horse: A Mongolian Legend

Wednesday, March 23rd, 2011

Suho’s White Horse: A Mongolian Legend is the retelling of one of the legends that explains the origins of Mongolia’s national musical instrument, the morin khuur, or horse hair fiddle, which always has a carved horse’s head at the top of its pegbox.

Suho, a young Mongolian shepherd boy, rescues and rears a white foal. A few years later he is persuaded to enter a horse-race with the governor’s daughter’s hand in marriage as the prize. With his beautiful white horse, of course Suho wins the race – but when the governor finds out that Suho is a shepherd he not only goes back on his word, but has his soldiers beat Suho up and steals the horse.

Suho manages to get home and is nursed back to health. Meanwhile, the white horse escapes. Incensed, the governor orders his men to catch the white horse – and if they can’t catch it, to kill it. The white horse does manage to return to Suho but is so badly injured that it dies. Suho is heartbroken but the horse comes to him in a dream and tells him to use different parts of his body to create a musical instrument – and so the morin khuur is born.

This retelling of Suho’s White Horse by Yuzo Otsuka, and translated by Richard McNamara and Peter Howlett (RIC Publications, 2006) is great for reading aloud, with plenty of detail. Both Older Brother and Little Brother became emotionally involved in the story very quickly, reacting to the different stages with outrage, horror and sadness. Hans Christian Andersen Award winner (1980) Suekichi Akaba‘s illustrations are beautiful, conveying the vastness of the steppe as well as the story’s emotive narrative.

And a real bonus with this edition is the accompanying CD that contains a musical retelling of the legend played on the morin khuur itself by “the horse-head fiddle’s finest player” Li Bo (scroll down this page to read an interview with him). We were all captivated by the haunting music and the boys had quite a deep discussion of which bit of music referred to which bit of the story.

I’m excited to have found this recording of Suho’s White Horse on You Tube with Lai Haslo playing the morin khuur and Zhang Lin on the Chinese dulcimer. I hope you enjoy it as much as we have – listen out for the horse galloping.

Taking a step into children’s books about Mongolia

Monday, March 21st, 2011

Renowned throughout the world as the founding head of the Mongol Empire in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, Genghis Khan’s legacy as “the first children’s writer” is perhaps generally less well-known. But the strong oral tradition in Mongolia means that many of his stories are still told today, and some can now also be read in English, thanks to a fine anthology of Mongolian Folktales published recently.

According to the National Library of Mongolia, at one time Mongolia’s “most popular slogan was ‘Everything for children'” and in 2003 the library opened its Book Palace for Children in Ulaanbaatar, which does indeed seem to provide everything in the way of books a young visitor to the Library could possibly desire. Meanwhile, author and publisher Dashdondog Jamba has spent his whole life ensuring that children in Mongolia have access to stories and the written word, taking his mobile library out to the remotest areas of the country, first by camel and oxen, more recently by truck. You can read his account of one of his journeys here.

Many children’s stories from and about Mongolia reflect its place in world history. The cultural heritage of those times remains strongly evident today, especially when you look beyond the urban areas towards the vast grassland steppe that consitutes most of Mongolia’s geography. This means that picture books with a contemoporary setting and the retellings of traditional stories merge to offer insight into each other that is relevant to today’s young readers, wherever they come from.

The list of books given below is not long, and I’m sure there are others to be found: but in the meantime, all of these are enriching and worth seeking out.

Picture books

Bolormaa Baasansuren, adapted by Helen Mixter,
My Little Roundhouse
Groundwood Books, 2009.

A delightful picture book, which brings the nomadic life of a Mongolian community to life through the eyes of one-year-old Jilu, who shares his experiences of all the roundness in his life, from the ger that is his home to the encircling love that enfolds him. There’s plenty here for young children to contrast and compare with in their own lives. My Little Roundhouse was selected as part of the 2010 Spirit of PaperTigers book set.

Marco Polo
Marshall Cavendish Children, 2008.

Marco Polo’s adventurous life is relayed through compact text and sumptuous illustrations bursting out of borders that reflect the rich patterns and brocades of the Silk Route. We read about his many years working under Kublai Khan and the sceptiscism of his fellow countrymen back in Venice. A beautifully depicted map shows the extent of his Travels.

Chingis Khan/Genghis Khan
Henty Holt and Company, 1991/Marshall Cavendish 2008.

Originally published as Chingis Khan in 1991, this classic title has recently been reissued as a Marshall Cavendish Classic with the slightly differently spelled title Genghis Khan.

A picture book biography (more…)