Books | Children's Literature in Japan

Mimei Ogawa: The father of modern Japanese children's literature

by Kris Kosaka

Contributing Writer

Often referred to as the Japanese Hans Christian Andersen, Mimei Ogawa (1882-1961) is the father of modern children’s literature in Japan and has published more than 1,200 fairy tales alongside a collection of essays and poetry. Grounding his frequent forays into fantasy, Ogawa was a socialist, anarchist and humanist, and his stories tackle political and realistic issues during the Meiji, Taisho and Showa eras (collectively 1868-1989), showing philosophical depth in their poetic, simplistic language.

Born in what is now the city of Joetsu in Niigata Prefecture, Ogawa showed an early promise for writing and attended Waseda University to study English literature. Influenced by the works of Lafcadio Hearn and Russian literature, he published his debut short story while still a student.

He graduated in 1905 and quickly focused on children’s literature. His first collection of stories specifically for children, “The Red Ship,” was published in 1910. The title story, still a classic today, tells of a young girl who sees a ship in the distance with a distinctive red line across its hull and imagines all the places and possibilities of its travels. It captures the wanderlust spirit of the Meiji Era and launched Ogawa’s career within the genre.

Also a pioneer in the Japanese dōshin-shugi (child’s-heart) movement, which believed that the hearts of children were both pure and innocent, Ogawa resisted the popular tendency in the Taisho Era (1912-26) to create simplistic, moralizing propaganda for children, and instead crafted thoughtful works that elevated the literary value of children’s literature in Japanese society, aligning himself with the bunmei kaika (civilization and enlightenment) movement within education.

“The Ox Woman” is a famous tale indicative of Ogawa’s work. Called the Ox Woman for her steady strength, a deaf and mute woman loves her only son so fiercly it endures beyond death within a small mountain community. Combining ideas of Buddhism with depictions of rural snow-bound communities longing to find fortune in the south, many strands of Ogawa’s ideals unite in the narrative.

Another famous work, “The Red Candle and the Mermaid,” depicts the careless greed of humanity as foster parents take advantage of their adopted child, thrice marginalized in society as a female, an orphan and a mermaid. Although later criticized for the dark negativity of his children’s stories, Ogawa frequently used his works to call attention to society’s underlying cruelties, and many of his stories retain a deeply humanistic tone.

His legacy is assured, however: Ogawa was the first president of the Japanese Association of Writers for Children, founded in 1946. He received the 1950 Japan Art Academy Prize and the Order of Culture in 1953. His hometown founded the Ogawa Mimei Literary Award in 1992 and Joetsu runs a museum honoring his contributions to children’s literature. Many of his stories are available online in English, and the thoughtful lens through which he viewed humanity retains a modern freshness, despite being written nearly 100 years ago.

This is the fifth 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.

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