“Let me read you a picture book in Dutch,” said Rudie Filon, the Dutch counselor of the Delegation of the European Union to Japan as he began reading the popular picture book “Jip and Janneke” in Dutch. Children and their parents’ eyes lit up, and even the smallest of the kids listened attentively to the words of a language from a country to which they had never been.
About 25 pairs of parents and children, some girls wearing semiformal dresses, participated in the event on Saturday at the EU office in Tokyo’s Chiyoda Ward. Almost all of the families were Japanese.
At the beginning of the event, three staff members of the EU delegation, including Filon, who is head of the press, public and cultural affairs section, gave explanations of their home countries in English and Japanese and by showing slides. After Filon’s reading, Nikolaos Zaimis, first counselor and head of the trade section from Greece, read the Greek mythological tale “Icarus” in his native tongue. He was followed by Richard Kelner, academic cooperation officer from U.K., reading Raymond Briggs’ best-selling picture book “The Snowman” in English.
“It was the first time for us to listen to Dutch and Greek live,” said Yuko Kimura, who came to the event with her Belgian husband and their 4-year-old daughter, Keira. She said she was grateful to organizers for giving her family the rare opportunity to listen to languages other than English while learning out about the countries and interacting with people from said nations.
The event was part of “The world reads for children” monthly book reading series organized by Global Literacy Group, a nonprofit organization that sponsors activities including book-reading sessions for adults and children, English speaking classes, and web-based activities such as showing samples of book-reading in different languages on YouTube.
The book-reading sessions have so far been held in cooperation with 14 embassies in Tokyo, and embassy staff — in some cases ambassadors, their wives or children — have read picture books from their countries in their mother tongues. The participating countries include Chili, Eritrea, Israel, Hungary, Bulgaria, Sweden and Dominica.
At the beginning of Saturday’s event, eight children from the ages of 3 to 9 spoke in front of the audience, with the older ones giving presentations on nations they researched, including the Netherlands, Greece and U.K. Then came the explanation and the reading, and a small party to interact with delegation members with drinks and snacks. At the end of the event, the EU officials each sang songs from their countries, and children were asked to draw their own version of the cover of the book that they found interesting at the event.
Kaoru Nakahara, representative of GLG, says that the group started the series about a year and half ago with the aim of giving children the opportunity to get in touch with the world at an early age, in order to be able to talk and make presentations in a language other than their mother tongue. A mother of a 3-year old boy herself, Nakahara says that she finds having that kind of real experience for both children and their parents is important for the child’s future.
“I find that what Japanese are lacking most is not so much the English language ability, but the ability to take the initiative or to make presentations,” she said. “Through this kind of fun party-style events, I think that it makes it easier for them to attain those kinds of abilities.”
Filon, the Dutch counselor, said he hopes to tell the children that they should look beyond their borders and “know that the world is bigger than (just) Japan.”
“Younger people are the future generation. What we noticed was that high school students who are moving on to university are not interested in going abroad. I always tell Japanese high school and university students that it is essential for a country like Japan to look abroad, because Japan has built a very large part of its wealth and prosperity on international trade. If you want to be good at international trade, you have to be able to speak (different) languages, and to be able to understand different cultures,” he added.
Zaimis, the first counselor from Greece, said that it was the first time for him to come in contact with families with small children in Japan, and to read a book to them in Greek. He said he found the whole experience fascinating.
“It doesn’t really matter what the language is. If you tell children an interesting story, I think they are really interested,” he said.
“Some of the older ones came to ask me questions about the story after the event. Also, some mothers asked me if I can provide them some more books in the Greek language, which are impossible to find in Tokyo. Perhaps, I can bring them a few books when I return from holidays or business trips from Athens,” he said with a smile.
Yuki Hori, 37, who came from Kawasaki, Kanagawa Prefecture, with her two children Kotoha, 5, and Nonoha, 2, said that the event was a good opportunity for her children to get to know about cultures other than their own.
“I read them picture books every night, which are all in Japanese, but maybe in the future, I’ll read them more English books,” Hori said.
Another family from Saitama Prefecture said they attended the event because they had lived in the United States for three years, and the parents wanted their two children to stay in touch with different cultures and languages.
Their children, Yusuke and Nao Ohashi, aged 9 and 6, both gave a presentation in English at the beginning of the event.
“I really enjoyed the event,” Yusuke said. “It was exciting to meet people that we normally can’t meet, and to be able to talk to them in person. I asked ‘sensei (teacher)’ whether he liked karaoke!”
“We cooperated with GLG as part of the EU-Japan Friendship Week and we were very, very happy with the turnout. Many, many people came,” said Kelner, the academic officer from the U.K.
He noted that the book-reading event was a chance for them to do grassroots exchanges with families, and teach them a little bit about EU in a fun way, rather than through the more serious events that they regularly hold.
“I think they had a good time and learned something. I think wherever you go, kids are interested in learning about different cultures and different countries,” he said.
The next session of the series is scheduled to be held with U.S. Embassy staff on June 18. For more information about events, visit the organizer’s website at worldreadsforchildren.jimdo.com