Books / Reviews | ESSENTIAL READING FOR JAPANOPHILES

'Totto-chan: The Little Girl at the Window': Charming vignettes pay homage to an unconventional education

by Louise George Kittaka

Contributing Writer

The author of “Totto-chan: The Little Girl at the Window” is actress and TV host Tetsuko Kuroyanagi, best-known for her long-running show “Tetsuko’s Room,” a staple of Japanese daytime TV since 1976.

Totto-chan: The Little Girl at the Window, by Tetsuko Kuroyanagi, Translated by Dorothy Britton.
232 pages
KODANSHA INTERNATIONAL, Memoir.

The vivacious Kuroyanagi never really fit the conventional model of Japanese womanhood and, as shown by this childhood memoir, her penchant for thinking outside the box manifested early.

Curious, intelligent first-grader Totto-chan — Kuroyanagi’s self-coined nickname — proves to be too much for her teacher, and she is subsequently expelled from school at the tender age of 6. Fortunately, her mother withholds this information from her daughter and simply suggests taking a look at a new school: Tomoe Gakuen.

The school is unconventional, founded in Tokyo by Sosaku Kobayashi. Students study in railway carriages converted into classrooms, and Totto-chan’s new schoolmates include physically disabled and returnee students.

While the book is essentially a collection of charming vignettes about the daily life of a lively little girl, it also pays homage to the work of a visionary educator. As World War II progresses, Kobayashi is forced to close the school, but his legacy lives on here.

A runaway bestseller when it debuted in Japanese in 1981, it has since been translated into over 30 languages. With increasing awareness of the importance of catering to children with diverse needs in Japan’s classrooms, Totto-chan’s story is more relevant today than ever.