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In an age of rising violence and crime, parents and teachers who are at a loss over how to teach children the importance of life could find a treasure trove of hints in ancient tales.

Folklore researcher Toshio Ozawa talking about the power of stories

According to Toshio Ozawa, a veteran researcher of folklore and oral literature, many problems in today’s educational system could be corrected if children were given more opportunities to hear stories passed down over the generations.

Ozawa, at 71 a professor emeritus at Tsukuba University, emphasized that childhood is an extremely important time to learn the simple — but essential — facts of life: Living things will one day die, life is made possible by taking other life, and so on.

“Old tales are designed to show this (to children) in a very effective way,” said Ozawa, who has translated many of the world’s folk tales, legends, fairy tales and other old stories into contemporary Japanese so children can understand them easily.

“Time-tested stories have a ‘three-step rhythm’ that corresponds to the rhythm of the human body,” Ozawa said. “As we can recognize this in sports — like the hop, step and jump — these stories always take twists and turns on the third phase” in a rhythm that sounds comfortable to humans.

In the original Snow White, for example, the queen disguised as a witch kills the princess three times before the story begins to unfold. But Walt Disney’s version wrongly omits the first two fatal incidents and only describes the third killing, with a poisoned apple, Ozawa said.

A similar three-step development is seen in The Three Little Pigs, in which the youngest pig successfully defends his two brothers and himself from the wolf’s third attack.

“Life-or-death issues, which often appear in old tales, sound harsh sometimes, but that’s life, as it is,” he said.

These stories, however, never describe cruelty in a realistic manner, leaving room for the imagination, Ozawa said. “You may often encounter a phrase like ‘the wolf ate the boy’ but the story never says, ‘in a pool of blood’.”

“Today’s children, even 3- or 4-year-old kids, are urged to learn fast and quickly adapt to the world of adults,” Ozawa said. “But kids need to take their time to grow up.”

The scholar pointed out that problems in today’s education system have much to do with the tendency of parents, schools and society as a whole to not teach children the essential facts of life and instead give priority to knowledge-based education.

“The most important message from the old tales is that we can only live by taking other life,” he said, adding that this rule can also be taught at mealtimes, as many children fail to realize that the meat on the table comes from, for example, cows that were alive just a few days earlier.

Storytelling can also serve as a communication bridge between parents and children in an age in which people have quick access to abundant information via television and the Internet, which have inevitably eroded the need for oral literature, Ozawa argued.

“No matter how interesting television programs may be, they can’t bring parents and children closer,” Ozawa said. “By telling children stories, however, parents can attract attention through their voices and convey important messages in an atmosphere of trust and comfort.”

To help promote a balanced education for children, Ozawa has held seminars on folk tales since 1992. Currently, these seminars are held at 14 locations across Japan, with each attracting around 200 parents, teachers and librarians.

“Over the past 10 years, some of my students have become skillful storytellers,” Ozawa said. “They visit schools and kindergartens nationwide and amazing things often happen.”

He cited one case in which a problematic high school class that teachers had actually given up on was brought together through the power of storytelling.

“One problematic male student paid no attention to the storyteller on her first visit and tried to make a fool of her on her second call some time later,” Ozawa said. “But on her third visit, he sat in the front and told his classmates, ‘Shhh’.”

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