Books | Children's Literature in Japan

The lifelong rebellion of children's author Eiko Kadono

by Kris Kosaka

Contributing Writer

There’s something magical in Eiko Kadono’s works, and it’s not just in the antics of her most beloved character, Kiki, a young witch in training. The author of more than 200 books for children, Kadono is also an accomplished translator of children’s books from English to Japanese, including the works of Mick Inkpen, famous for his “Kipper” series, and Dick Bruna, of “Miffy” fame.

It’s no wonder Kadono was awarded the Hans Christian Andersen Author Award in 2018, only the third Japanese children’s writer to be recognized. In honoring Kadono, the jury praised her female characters as “singularly self-determining and enterprising, figuring out how to cope with all kinds of complications without suffering too many self-doubts.”

Her best-known series, “Kiki’s Delivery Service,” is a great place to start; Kiki is a beloved cultural icon in Japan, thanks to the Studio Ghibli film of the same name.

Kadono’s 1985 novel was a bestseller when Hayao Mizayaki made his famous film adaptation in 1989, and Kadono went on to pen five more books in the series. The original was translated into English by Lynne E. Riggs in 2003. Unlike the movie, the chapters unfold in an episodic wave, each detailing a separate “delivery” in a self-contained story.

On the page, Kiki’s adventures are quiet lessons of friendship and perseverance, a classic story of a young girl finding her way in the world. A live-action film adaptation premiered in 2014, speaking to Japan’s enduring fascination with Kiki. Part of Kadono’s magic comes from her realistic characters following their universal hopes and dreams, despite the fantastical or foreign settings.

One of Kadono’s earliest works, “Brazil and My Friend Luizinho,” was inspired by her two years living in Brazil and tells the story of a young boy who loves to dance samba. “Grandpa’s Soup,” also translated into English and illustrated by Satomi Ichikawa, is an understated picture book of grief and reconciliation in which the grandfather of the title struggles to remember the ingredients of his beloved wife’s meatball soup after she passes away, and shares each new batch with a growing number of animal friends.

Born in 1935, Kadono has acknowledged that the years of World War II had a profound effect on her thinking, sparking a lifelong “rebellious phase” against authority and a dogged determination to “be confident in myself.”

Her female characters consistently challenge the status quo, but with her wide span of works in Japanese, her continuing presence in the world of children’s literature is also spellbinding. Awarded everything from the Sankei Children’s Publishing Culture Award to the Noma Children’s Literature Award, the 84-year-old Kadono continues spinning her magic, regularly posting recipes and essays on her website in addition to publishing new works.

This is the fourth 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.