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Kamishibai, Japanese Storytelling: The Return of An Imaginative Art

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Many older Japanese have pleasant memories of the neighborhood storyteller whose tales of adventure and noble deeds brightened the lives of children everywhere in Japan. American children can now enjoy this imaginative activity. Kamishibai (paper drama) is a traditional form of Japanese storytelling that uses large color pictures to accompany a dramatic narration. This type of storytelling is enjoying a renaissance in Japan and has recently become available in English for use in schools and at home. The narratives are written in both Japanese (hiragana) and English.

image of a man in front of many young children
A kamishibai man telling stories in postwar Japan.

Each kamishibai story consists of twelve to sixteen beautifully colored cardboard illustrations, a teacher’s guide, and instructions on how to use the story boards. The boards measure 10 1/2” x 15”, allowing even a large group of children gathered around a teacher or parent to easily see the pictures. The teacher’s guides are particularly helpful, giving a story summary, themes, ideas for initial activities, discussion questions, the cultural background to each story and follow-up activities. Each story is illustrated by a different artist. Although machine printed on cardboard, the illustrations look like bold watercolors, woodblock prints, or even brush and ink paintings.

The twenty-three stories currently available include an excellent sampling of ancient and contemporary tales appropriate for children two years old and up. For the youngest audience, there are stories such as Nya-on the Kitten, a story of a kitten so fascinated by the moon she tries to catch it. Tadpole Number 101 is a contemporary kamishibai that tells the story of a mother frog teaching her large brood of tadpoles the meaning of cooperation. The collection also includes a tale dating from the late tenth century, The Bamboo Princess, in which an elderly couple finds a beautiful baby girl in a stalk of bamboo. They raise her as their own child and later learn she is a princess from the moon. This story, familiar to all Japanese, is also known in English as The Bamboo Cutter or The Shining Princess. Urashima Taro, one of the most familiar Japanese stories to American audiences, is a folk tale of a fisherman who is rewarded by a mother tortoise for saving the life of her baby. After visiting the Dragon King’s palace at the bottom of the sea, Urashima Taro returns to his village and discovers that 300 years have passed. Resembling such Western tales as Sleeping Beauty and Rip Van Winkle, Urashima Taro explores themes of the passage of time, kindness, and adventure. A Spider’s Thread adapts a short story by Ryunosuke Akutagawa, an early twentieth century intellectual and author noted for his polished stories, essays, and poems. The story, which addresses forgiveness, greed, and retribution, is appropriate for older students. The hiragana Japanese narratives could be used in advanced Japanese language classes.

Kamishibai is part of a long tradition of oral folk literature in Asia. In Japan, as early as the twelfth century, the recitation of stories with accompanying pictures was used in temples to explain Buddhist deities and relate the histories of the temples. Shadow puppets, large two-dimensional figures attached to long sticks, and magic lantern projections were other methods of storytelling used at various periods of Japan’s history.

Kamishibai in its current form became popular during the 1920s, reaching its peak in the 1950s with more than 3,000 storytellers in Tokyo alone. Each day, the kamishibai man would make the rounds of various neighborhoods on a bicycle with about three different stories. Stopping at a convenient corner, he would announce story time by beating on a drum and sounding wooden clappers. After selling candy to the neighborhood children, he would allow his best customers to stand in the front of the group. The story boards were enclosed in a framed wooden box that opened on one side to resemble a stage mounted on the back of the kamishibai man’s bicycle. As the story progressed, he would pull the story boards out to reveal the next scene. He would stop at an exciting part of the story and announce that the story would be continued the next day.

During the 1930s, Ogon Batto (The Golden Bat) enjoyed phenomenal popularity. Resembling a caped Phantom of the Opera with a grimacing skeleton head and holding aloft a gold sword, the Golden Bat fought for peace and justice. His superhuman powers included the ability to fly through the air. The Golden Bat continued into the 1950s, fighting a mad Nazi scientist who had escaped Germany at the end of the war and was bent on destroying humankind. The original series, written by a 25-year-old and illustrated by a 16-year-old, captivated children all over the country.

Beyond its interesting historical lineage, kamishibai is a wonderful addition to the classroom. It introduces children to types of Japanese characters such as river spirits (kappa), wily foxes, and gentle Buddhist deities (Jiz¬). Bringing kamishibai to an American audience is a labor of love for two American women, Donna Tamaki and Margaret Eisenstadt, who became friends in 1967 as students at Columbia Teachers College. Tamaki, the translator of the stories, moved to Ky¬to twenty-five years ago and now teaches English language and folk literature at Doshisha Women’s College. Eisenstadt, a resident of New York City, became fascinated by kamishibai after seeing them during a one-year stay in Hokkaido in northern Japan in 1969. She brought kamishibai with her and found that the stories and pictures brought together the very diverse group of students she taught on the Lower East Side of Manhattan. Thanks to the perseverance and ingenuity of these two educators, young people in this country can also enjoy the return of this appealing form of Japanese traditional storytelling.