Books | Children's Literature in Japan

Poop, realism and Ghibli: Enter the world of children's literature

by Kris Kosaka

Contributing Writer

Although lacking a single literary icon like some countries — the U.K. has Harry Potter; the U.S., Katniss Everdeen; Sweden, Pippi Longstocking; and Finland, Moomins — the breadth and depth of Japanese children’s literature astounds.

The range of work on offer to this impressionable age group — from picture books and manga to novels and short stories, covers a whole host of topics and themes. Search the shelves of any book store and you’ll find everything from haunting depictions of despair and destruction to books about poop and entire series devoted to popular sports.

Specific works for children emerged in Japan in the mid Edo Period (1603-1868) with the publication of woodblock-printed books of children’s stories called akahon (red-covered books). With the opening up of the country during the Meiji Era (1868-1912), the first children’s stories — including that of one of Japan’s most famous literary figures, Momotaro — were published overseas as chirimen-bon (crepe-paper books), often with translations made by visiting dignitaries to Japan, or by Japanese diplomats posted abroad.

By the 1920s, street performances of kamishibai, the Japanese storytelling technique of narrating a tale accompanied by large illustrated cards, became commonplace, with some estimates suggesting it was performed to around 1 million children a day in Tokyo at its peak. Publishers began to recognize the full potential of tales for children, and many magazines specializing in children’s stories were launched around this time, including Akai Tori (Red Bird) and Shonen Kurabu (Boys Club).

One of the most enduring children’s authors from this period is Kenji Miyazawa (1896-1933). Also a revered poet, his stories “Night on the Galactic Railroad” and “Gauche the Cellist” have been translated into multiple languages and remain popular today.

Spanning all genres: The breadth and depth of children's literature truly astounds. | OSCAR BOYD
Spanning all genres: The breadth and depth of children’s literature truly astounds. | OSCAR BOYD

In the years leading up to World War II, children’s literature in Japan shifted focus with government encouragement and became largely concerned with teaching “acceptable morals.” But, after the war, many pioneers began reconsidering stories for children as much more than just morality training.

Writing throughout this period was Mimei Ogawa (1882-1961), who published more than 1,200 dōwa (fairy tales) in his lifetime and is considered the father of modern children’s literature in Japan for his hauntingly beautiful works, including “The Mermaid and the Red Candles” and “The Cow Woman.”

Into the modern era, many Japanese authors have enjoyed wider global recognition. Mitsumasa Anno is a modern legend, known for his mostly wordless picture books featuring meticulously detailed illustrations. His famous “Journey” books showcase daily life in a range of locales, from “Anno’s Italy” to “Anno’s Spain,” but he also created alphabet and counting books alongside other educational books. A former math teacher, Anno was awarded the 1984 Hans Christian Andersen Illustrator’s Award for his “lasting contribution to children’s literature,” and has published over 100 books since.

The “Guri and Gura” series by Rieko Nakagawa, illustrated by Yuriko Yamawaki, has been published in various languages to great success and is an enduring favorite in Japan. Nakagawa, who also wrote the song lyrics for the 1988 Studio Ghibli film “My Neighbor Totoro,” has also published over 35 picture books in addition to her most famous series.

Taro Gomi, author and illustrator, published his first book in 1973 and has written over 400 since, many of which have been widely translated. He is perhaps best-known for “Everyone Poops,” which was a best seller when it made its U.S. debut in 1994, selling over 80,000 copies in its first four months and requiring multiple printings. Gomi’s distinctive artistic style and clever visual ploys, as seen in “Hi, Butterfly!” or “Where’s the Fish?” have made him into one of the most popular working artists in the field of children’s literature today.

There’s also a range of established young adult writers in Japan, like Eiko Kadono, winner of the 2018 Hans Christian Andersen Author Award, known best for “Kiki’s Delivery Service,” a beloved series that was made into an iconic Hayao Miyazaki film of the same name in 1989.

Various adolescent manga series deserve special attention in the realm of children’s literature, too. The scope of manga for children and young adolescents is remarkable, with series for nearly every interest or hobby.

From romance to sports manga, musician-focused to historically accurate, manga as biography or manga as pure humor, the market for illustrated novels is insatiable among Japanese youths and even contributes to cultural change. The sports manga, “Slam Dunk” (1990-96) by Takehiko Inoue, for example, is not only one of the best-selling manga of all time, it has also been credited with starting a basketball boom across the nation, and it is now one of the most popular sports among Japanese youth.

For the next 12 months, we’ll be featuring one children’s writer or illustrator on these pages each month, in order to introduce our readers to this special subsection of Japanese literature.

Reading children’s books is not just for children. Even as an adult, children’s literature is an excellent way to gain an understanding of culture and language, particularly Japan’s rich visual tradition. Join us in the coming months as we feature the best of Japan’s children’s literature.

This is the first installment of the series “Children’s Literature in Japan” which explores notable authors and illustrators of children’s literature. Read more at jtimes.jp/childrenslit.