Alice's Academy

Japanese Picture Books

Jane and Bill McCullam

Jane and Bill McCullam have an independent bookstore, Cattermole, specializing in children's literature. In 1990 Cattermole acquired a collection of Japanese picture books from the 1920s and 30s. Traditional Japanese paper is not at all acidic so these had the appearance of being almost new, apart from a bit of rust at the staples. The typography, vivid colors, and open layout predated anything similar in the West, and Jane and Bill were inspired to translate the accompanying text. Over the next two years they collected additional 20th century Japanese books and studied the language, culminating in their bilingual Catalog 17, November, 1992. Japanese letter forms are beautiful and complement the images so perfectly it is natural to accept the interrelatedness of picture and text which constitutes the art of children's books. This article appears in slightly different form in a book, A Bookseller's Catalog, to be published in June, 2006.
(Elizabeth Pandolfo Briggs, editor, Alice's Academy)


Plate 1

This cover, from the July, 1929, issue of Kodomo no kuni illustrates the effect of Japanese typography.

Written Japanese is both fascinating and intimidating, a prototype for a culture and a roof sheltering Japanese social structure. It has two forms. The most characteristic is termed kanji, or Chinese letters, borrowed from China around 1,000 AD. These resemble what Westerners think of as pictograms. Some pre-WW II Japanese dictionaries have as many as 50,000 of these characters. During the American occupation of postwar Japan, some scholars proposed doing away with kanji altogether, as a means of modernization. They were retained, partly with the support of American administrators, although the list of kanji was shortened to 1,850 characters. This list today comprises the required knowledge set for high school graduates in Japan. But Japanese is not so syllable-poor as Chinese is sometimes considered; there is also a syllabic alphabet of 25 to 50 letters known as kana, which functions exactly like western alphabets. These letters predate the introduction of kanji. Kana have two written forms: the first is a standard set, hiragana; the other a special set, with exactly the same pronunciation, called katakana, used to as a visual cue to distinguish modern or foreign words or expressions. For example, "McDonalds" would be written in katakana.

Plate 2

Ogawa Mimei/Hatsuyama Shigeru, from Mimei Dowashu

While alphabet reform after 1945 makes it necessary to provide modern translations of pre-war books, the gulf between the exciting developments in Japanese children's books during the 1920s and 1930s and its resumption after 1960 was chiefly due to political and nationalistic trends. These changes in the accepted and generally understood kanji between the pre-war period of the Taisho era and the early Showa era (1926-1988) and modern Japan make much of this literature inaccessible.

One of the most interesting Japanese authors of this earlier period was Ogawa Mimei (1882-1961), a utopian socialist, who, like Carl Sandburg, created a series of fantastic fairy tales, newly minted, for a modern world. He also produced Here and Now stories similar to the ones created by Lucy Sprague Mitchell. Many of his stories express sympathy for the struggle of the poor and lower class. Unfortunately, his collected tales have not been translated into modern Japanese, so they are no longer read.

Plate 3

Kodomo no kuni, July, 1932. Ogawa Mimei Hatsuyama Shigeru.
The Small Mother.

A little boy doesn't want to go to bed alone, and asks his mother to put him to bed. She replies he is too old for that and to put himself to bed. Then, his big sister goes in and tucks him in and reads to him while she pats him. He goes to sleep, but awakens in a bit to find his sister still there. She reads to him again. Later the mother comes and finds both children asleep next to each other. She smiles and tucks them both in.

Modern picture books began to appear early in the twentieth century in a number of countries. The juxtaposition of text with borderless pictures appears in England (1896, William Blake, Songs of Innocence), France (1919, Edy Legrande, Macao & Cosmage), in Russia, and elsewhere, but the introduction of gutter bleeds and other distinctive techniques congruent with the development of modern art appeared first in Japan. This should not be surprising, since picture books are a traditional Japanese form dating back to at least the twelfth century. More surprising was the work of a small group of brilliant artists who founded the monthly magazine, Kodomo no Kuni (Children's Kingdom), in 1922, which continued until 1944. There were numerous other literary magazines at the time, especially Akai Tori (Red Bird), Otogino Sekai, and Kin no Fune, but Kodomo no kuni was the first to give illustration equal expression with the text. In terms of beauty, color, and graphic design it was like a mirror of the future, far more advanced than anything produced in the West until much later.

The first clues about this period in the West appeared as a wonderful article in Phaedrus, Vol 12, 1986/87, by the important Japanese publisher, Mr. Tadashi Matsui, who had been inspired by these magazines in his childhood.

The coarse matte drawing paper on which Kodomo no kuni was printed was a happy accident, having been a substitution on account of delivery problems. As Matsui remarks in Phaedrus, it absorbed the ink of the five-color offset process in a way which, "...created unusual subdued tones and quite striking color combinations".

Plate 4

Kodomo no kuni, Sept, 1929.

Fukazawa Shozo (1899-?) was one of the magazine's founders. He worked previously for other children's magazines. This brilliant, Picasso-like piece compares the horns of snails, goats, deer, cattle, and even devils, reflecting on how the snail builds his home in an endless horny spiral.

The most common type of "gutter bleed" is a two-page spread on the inside of a single leaf of folded paper. The one shown in Kodomo no kuni above is different. The left page is the inside of one leaf, while the right-hand page of the image is the outside of a different folded leaf. It is difficult to overstress how revolutionary and important this development was. Full gutter bleeds involve the reader with great intimacy, erasing the line between story and reality, while full edge bleeds allow the image to explode from its frame. Both of these qualities characterize modern art. These techniques took ten years to appear in a few Western books, namely; 'Histoire du Babar, 1932; and The Story About Ping, 1933. After the war, they become much more common; for example, Ludwig Bemelmans' Sunshine, 1950, and Maurice Sendak's I Want to Paint My Bathroom Blue, 1956.

The Japanese reckon time by the Imperial reign, so their year Mejii 1 would be the first year of the Mejii era (1868). This arbitrary designation, however, does seem to correspond with a style of life. Consequently, the Taisho era (1912-1926) has become known as the "free-spirited Democratic" period when official encouragement was given to radical change in most social institutions in an effort to "Westernize" Japan. Growing prosperity after WWI created a new middle class, an urban proletariat patterned on Western models rather than the indigenous rural lifestyle.

Plate 5

Kodomo no kuni, March, 1932. In the Dining Car, by Kawakami Shiro 1889-1983.

Shiro studied at Tokyo Art School. He was also an established illustrator for other literary magazines. In this story, one girl asks, "Isn't that the Itsukushima Shrine?" Another answers, "Oh, yes, how beautiful." Observe that the children seated in the dining car have Western-style clothing and are eating with knives and forks instead of chopsticks.

Plate 6

Kodomo no kuni, May, 1932. Puppy, the Honorable Ice Cream, by Kawashima Haruyo.

The Honorable Ice Cream! A scoop soon melts in the sunshine. "Oh, hand, oh, ice cream." Even a child can maintain his composure during an accident.

Plate 7

Kodomo no kuni, Sept, 1932. Don-de, Don, by Fukazawa Shozo.

Surf batters the beach in this poem, where we see children scattered about on the sand.

Plate 8

Kodomo no kuni, February, 1932. Gasoline Stand, poem by H. Satahara, illustrated by Y. Ryosuke.

Observe the text; the first lines (Japanese is normally read right to left), are kanji; to the left is a line of katakana, the same syllables, but designating a new or foreign phrase, in this case the term "Gasoreen Guru", or Gasoline Girl, denoting the young station attendant. Our translation below echoes the effect through italics, representing the traditional kanji, with normal font for the katakana.

Powder snow, a light snowfall,
Snowing gently,
The Gasoline Girl
Looking Frozen.

Powder snow, a light snowfall,
Snowing gently,
Gasoline Pump
is a
bright red pump.

Powder snow, a light snowfall,
Snowing gently,
A Taxi stops.
She pulls out
the hose.

Powder snow, a light snowfall,
Snowing gently,
As she pulls the handle,
the meter whirls.

Powder snow, a light snowfall,
Snowing gently,
The Taxi turns on its lights
and drives away.

Plate 8

Rear cover, Kodomo no kuni, July, 1932. Fireworks by Hatsuyama Shigeru.

Geneticists speak of "hybrid vigor" to describe the effects of outcrossing. Japanese art was a line-bred variety, a healthy artistic tradition stretching back for thousands of years. For example, the most celebrated children's book artist of the period was Hatsuyama Shigeru (1897-1973), who claimed to have been strongly influenced by the 17th century ukiyo-e artist Moronobu, and who copied an eighth-century scroll, The Sutra of Causality of Past and Present, many times over. This native tradition was exceptionally strong in an isolated society. The Taisho era, however, encouraged contacts with the West and adoption of Western industrial and intellectual modes of thinking. The sudden fertilization of traditional art by the explosive vitality of modern European painting and design at the beginning of the twentieth century generated astonishing results. Developments in Western art from Impressionism through DADA and Futurism were unknown in isolated Japan. These visual ideas arrived almost simultaneously when a young generation of Japanese artists began to return from European travel and study in 1914. Many of these artists embraced a humanist philosophy which sought to alter social consciousness through art. In many ways Kodomo no Kuni predicted what would happen elsewhere in the world, especially after the collapse of material prosperity following 1929.

The Showa era (1926-1988) which followed was reactionary. What began as intolerance to the violent pace of change in Japanese society became a decreasing tolerance for any radical views, and ultimately, the complete subjection of art and life to the service of an increasingly militaristic state. Many of the new wave of proletariat artists involved in children's book illustration formed a vocal minority who opposed militarism and especially Japan's war with China after 1931. They were less fortunate, or perhaps more vocal, than German artists at about the same time.

Plate 9

Kodomo no kuni, April, 1932.

Harue Koga (1895-1933), helped to form the "action" group of artists around 1920. He was arrested by the government and probably executed in 1933.

The Bauhaus staff and students (including H.A. Rey, author and illustrator of the Curious George series) were able to escape to the West along with most of Germany's dissident artistic community. In Japan they were crushed. Children's book artists became so demoralized and subservient to the state during the 1930s that little distinctive artwork appears in Japan for a full generation. To find original Japanese artwork done between the mid-1930s and 1967 we must look abroad, especially to the United States, where emigré artists and Americans of Japanese descent continued the tradition. Taro Yashima (1908-1994), one of the only artists to have escaped, was an outspoken critic of the rise of fascism in Japan. Eventually he and his pregnant wife were placed in a concentration camp there, and were starved and tortured. After a time, he "confessed" to crimes against the state and was released. He soon immigrated to the United States, where he changed his name from Atsushi Iwamatsu to protect his family, and became active following Pearl Harbor in intelligence operations on behalf of his adopted country. His book, Crow Boy, received a Caldecott Medal in 1956. This masterpiece is a story about a mentally retarded boy in a rural Japanese village who earns the respect of his fellows in part with the help of the schoolmaster.

One of the first things which strikes even casual Western observers of Japanese children's books is how didactic they are, yet without any sense of coercion. Consider the following, which could almost be one of Lucy Sprague Mitchells' Here And Now stories.

Plate 10

Kodomo no kuni, May, 1932. The Child's Bow of Obeisance, illustrated by Murayama Tomoyoshi (1901-1977).

After leaving Tokyo University in 1922, Tomoyoshi studied philosophy in Berlin, where he became acquainted with constructivism and the Bauhaus. On his return, he became a critic for social reform and the new art. In spite of great pressure from the security police, he continued to draw for Kodomo no kuni until 1935.

This story is about a child's first traditional bow of obeisance to someone outside her own family. She wants to go to school alone for the first day of first grade. She gets on a crowded train, full of adults; she can't see anything because she is too small. When she hears her stop called out, the train is so crowded she can't get to the door in time. A stranger realizes her problem and tells the conductor to hold the train and asks others to make way. They do, she gets off and thanks the stranger, bowing.

Other examples of didacticism are the stimulating books of Mitsumasa Anno (1926-). His book Faces, translated from the Japanese "Smiling Squash" is a delightful wordless book that encourages babies and very young children to recognize 47 luscious-looking fruits and vegetables.

A clear plastic overlay printed with a smiling or frowning face can be used to direct the attention of babies only a few weeks old. Graphically, it is a brilliant invention which yields dozens of vegetable personalities. Anno was honored in 1984 with the Hans Christian Andersen Medal by the IBBY (International Board on Books for Young People), the most prestigious award in our field. He began his career as an elementary school art teacher, an experience consistent with many of the best author-illustrators. His books are rich in detail and often have mathematical themes: exploring sets, number theory, topology, and logic, in a direct and lucid fashion. His best-known book is his alphabet, Aieou no hon, based on Japanese hiragana characters; for instance "i" standing for "ichigo", or strawberry, hence the border decorations, with a house, "ie", on the facing page. Many other "i" sounds are hidden in the foliage. In the English version, Anno's Alphabet, Ibex and iguana gaze quietly from an ivy border. Each page shows a large realistic wooden letter of impossible construction, in the style of M.C. Escher. Our favorite is his Aesop, in which Father Fox and his son discover an illustrated Aesop left in a field. The story stems from a personal experience of Anno's in the United States, when he brought his young son along. The boy was fascinated by his father's ability to speak and read English, which was the sort of offhand parental boast fathers know well. In the book the young fox begs his father to read the found book to him, but it turns out that Father Fox is not so literate as his son supposes, so he invents a narrative to explain the pictures. The text comprises Father Fox's "reading" and the original in hilarious parallel. Anno ends the book with Father Fox saying he will only read the book one time.

Other Japanese have made important contributions to American children's literature. Kazue Mizumura, an immigrant, has created dozens of books. With her husband, Claus Stamm, she has retold a funny folktale celebrating women's independence, Three Strong Women. Masako Matsuno was born in America of Japanese parents. Her first book, illustrated by Mizumura, was A Pair of Red Clogs. It is particularly interesting as a children's book that presents an honest moral dilemma, conforming to the Jpaanese tradition that books, even fiction, are intended to instruct as well as amuse.

In Japanese children's books not only is allowance made for the child's level of language preparedness, but attention is given to the level of emotional preparedness as well. Considerable care is exercised in the selection and presentation of information. There is a greater emphasis on non-verbal learning, and one sees a great deal of ingenuity in graphic presentations which lead children to discover the world rather than to bury them with information. From 1928 until the end of World War II there was a lovely, large-format monthly magazine named Kinderbook, published by Froebel-kan, closely following Education Ministry guidelines for preschool children.

Japanese is a language particularly well-suited to puns and other forms of verbal play, a characteristic of what otherwise would be "non-fiction" books. Chirps of Insects, by Masao Ohno and illustrated by Tatsuhide Matsuoka, gives the sounds emitted by many insects with musical scales and analyses the sounds to enable the student to reproduce them. The best parts of the book are the pages of visual onomatopoetic images. These katakana were copied from manga, Japanese comic books, which imitate the sounds. Manga artists vie for clever use of this device. We are familiar with ZAP and POW in American comics, but recent Japanese comics have the sudden flame from a cigarette lighter, SHUBO; noodles being eaten, SURU SURU; and cream being poured into coffee, SURON.

Plate 13

Manga are enormously popular today. There are many produced in huge quantities for all ages of the population. Sales figures for manga are in the range of ten million a week. The influence of these comics and their animated film adaptations of children's books is important and growing, as is their influence on the growth of the graphic or illustrated novel in the United States. Perhaps most American children today will know Japan chiefly as the home of anime, full-length animated cartoons, which have become ubiquitous on television and in the cinema.

As Oyagi Tomoko, Chief Curator of the Tokyo Museum of Art, remarks in the conclusion to Matsui's article in Phaedrus, #12, "Is not the spirit of today's material affluence robbing our children of the very chance to be children? The humanism and dreams of children's books of the 1920s contain a far healthier, richer message than the children's literature of today. The eyes of children in these books sparkle as they discover hundreds of ways to play in the blessings of the seasons and in their daily lives". They do indeed sparkle.


Works Cited

Aesop/Anno, Mitsumasa. Aesop's Fables. 1987, Tokyo, Iwanami (NY, Orchard).

Anno, Mitsumasa. Aieou no hon. 1976, Tokyo, Fukuinkan, Golden Apple Medal, Bratislava, and Anno's Abc, 1975, NY, Crowell.

Anno, Mitsumasa. Anno's Faces. 1989, NY, Philomel.

[Exhibition Catalog] The Artists and the Picture Book: The Twenties and the Thirties. 1991, Tokyo, Japanese Board on Books for Young People, JBBY, and Tokyo Metropolitan Teien Art Museum.

Herring, Ann. The Dawn of Wisdom, Selections from the Japanese Collection of the Cotsen Children's Library. 2000, Los Angeles, Cotsen Occasional Press.

Matsui, Tadashi. A Personal Encounter with Kodomo no kuni, A Vanguard Tokyo Periodical of the Twenties and Thirties, Phaedrus, Vol. 12, 1986/76, pg. 14.
Dr. James Frazer of Fairleigh Dickinson University, the editor of Phaedrus, has a collection of amazing children's books, including many examples of Taisho-era Japanese material. He was particularly generous in helping us to understand these books in their proper context.

Ogawa, Mimei/Shigeru Hatsuyama &Takeo Takéï. Mimei Dowashu. 1926-31, Tokyo, Maruzen, 5 vols.

Ohno, Masao/Tatsuhide Matsuoka, (Calligraphy by Eita Shinohara). Chirps of Insects. 1991, Tokyo, Fukuinkan.

Schjeldahl, Peter. Words and Pictures, Graphic Novels Come of Age. The New Yorker, Oct. 17th, 2005.

Schodt, Frederick L. The World of Japanese Comics. 1983, NY, Kodansha.

Unger, J. Marshall. Literacy and Script Reform in Occupation Japan. 1996, NY, OUP.


Bill and Jane McCallum

Volume 10, Issue 2 The Looking Glass 2 April, 2006

Site design and content, except where noted, © The Looking Glass 2007.
"Japanese Picture Books"
© Jane and Bill McCallum, 2006.
Send general correspondence regarding The Looking Glass c/o The Editor.