Rieko Nakagawa, born in 1935 in Sapporo, was working as a teacher in a small nursery school near Komazawa Park when she wrote her first children’s book.
It was the late 1950s during the postwar years, and Nakagawa felt there weren’t many good children’s books to read aloud to her wee charges. Her first published work, “No-No Nursery School” (“Iyaiyaen,” 1962), roughly based on her experiences as a teacher and illustrated by her sister, Yuriko Yamawaki, became a runaway success.
The book won multiple accolades, including the Minister of Health and Welfare Prize, an honorable mention for the NHK Children’s Literature Encouragement Prize, the 10th Sankei Children’s Publishing Culture Award, the Noma Children’s Literature Prize and the Recommended Works Prize, selected by the Japan School Library Association as a must-read book.
But Nakagawa is best-known for what came next. Following the success of her first book, Nakagawa, together with her illustrator sister, published “Guri and Gura,” first in a magazine in 1963 and then as a book in 1967. This adventure of two cake-baking, friend-making twin field mice captured the imagination of a nation, and has since been translated into 10 languages, becoming an internationally acclaimed, bestselling series.
With 12 books in total, the series continues to be a bestseller today, with titles that see the field mice head to the seashore, welcome a special visitor at Christmas and cheerfully tackle the traditional chore of spring cleaning. With easy vocabulary and frequent singsong repetition, the beloved books emphasize friendship, sharing and the simple joy of cake.
Nakagawa is also well-known for her contribution to children’s music. She is the lyricist for over 20 songs, including hits such as “Hey Let’s Go” (“Sanpo”), the theme song from the award-winning Studio Ghibli movie, “My Neighbor Totoro.”
Lifelong friends, she and Ghibli cofounder Hayao Miyazaki also collaborated to create a book to coincide with the opening of “My Neighbor Totoro.” It contains artwork from Miyazaki and poetry by Nakagawa, all inspired by the film. Outside of art, the two also worked together to create a preschool for the children of Ghibli employees, which is nestled in the woodlands near the Ghibli Museum in Mitaka.
Nakagawa’s life and work has been devoted to the young, and she’s deservedly an icon of children’s literature.
This is the ninth installment of the series “Children’s Literature in Japan,” which explores notable authors and illustrators of children’s and young adolescent literature. Read more at jtimes.jp/childrenslit.