Selected Japanese Picture Books — by Andrew Wong

May GLLI Blog Series:  Japan in Translation, No. 18

Picture books anyone?

I confess, I don’t remember reading many picture books in my childhood. I recall keeping a prized collection of The Adventures of Tintin and The Adventures of Asterix (eventually given away), but not many other kinds of stories told in pictures. Having missed out of an entire section of published children’s literature, today I find myself discovering a fascinating spectrum of picture books in Japan with my two children.

Watashi no Wanpisu

One Japanese favorite is a story about a rabbit and its magical dress. It starts with a piece of cloth fluttering down from the sky, and the rabbit works it through a sewing machine to make a dress. The dress takes on wonderous designs during the rabbit’s travels. Kayako Nishimaki’s Watashi no wanpisu (“My Dress) remains a perennial favorite in Japan for its rhythmical text and simple drawings. Young children simply love seeing the dress adorned in its many patterns. I just enjoy the sound of the old-fashioned sewing machine:  “kata kata.”

Buying Mittens

Rabbits, foxes, bears. Like in many countries, animals feature strongly in Japanese stories and folktales. Take Nankichi Niimi’s Tebukuro wo kai ni (available in English as Buying Mittens, translated by Judith Carol Huffman) a popular folktale about a mother-child pair of foxes going to town to buy some mittens on a cold, winter day. Like other fox tales, where the fox outwits a human or some other animal, the little fox accidentally shows its paw when buying mittens from a human. Ken Kuroi’s soft and delicate artwork sets the scene for the warmth of the shop owner, the courage of the little fox, and their newfound trust.

Naita Aka Oni

Another popular tale is Hirosuke Hamada’s Naita Aka-oni (“The Red Ogre that Cried”), a story of oni, a mainstay of Japanese critter folklore. Wanting to befriend humans, Aka-oni (a red ogre) succeeds with the help of his friend Ao-oni (a blue ogre), who decides to leave so his friend will not be discovered by his new human friends. This tale of friendship and sacrifice has been retold and adapted in other languages and by other illustrators.  However,  neither Toshio Kajiyama’s kind-looking ogres nor Takaaki Nomura’s recent woodblock print-style picture book are available in English.

Hima na Konabe

And what of bears, one of the most popular animals? To the Ainu, Japan’s indigenous people who hunted them, they are considered kamui or gods. Even inanimate objects are considered gods, like in Hima na Konabe (“The Pot that Had Nothing to Do”). Retold by the late Shigeru Kayano, one of the last native speakers of the Ainu language, this is an Ainu tale of a bear god mesmerized by a villager’s sprightly dance after being hunted. The bear god returns time and again to determine the identity of the young man, who turns out to be a pot kept spick and span, which keeps him in a bright, effervescent mood. Keep your tools in good shape, and they will reward you, says this Ainu tale.

Sekai de

Like the Ainu tale, I found some other picture books adapting more difficult topics for children. The topic of our possessions takes on a thought-provoking slant in Yoshimi Kusaba’s Sekai de Ichiban Mazushii Daitouryou no Supiichi (“A Speech by the World’s Poorest President.”) Based on former Uruguayan President Jose Mujica’s speech at the UN’s Earth Summit 2012, the bold and simple message on the excesses of modern society is complemented by Gaku Nakagawa’s distinct colors and strong lines. An English version is forthcoming from Enchanted Lion Books, and I hope it will give parents and children a chance to share some time and think about happiness together.

Bear and the Wildcat

The theme of grief has also made its way into picture books. For instance, The Bear and the Wildcat, translated by Cathy Hirano from Kazumi Yumoto’s story of loneliness from loss, is told through largely black-and-white illustrations by Komako Sakai. Yoko Imoto’s Kaze no Denwa (“The Wind Telephone”) is based on an actual old-fashioned black telephone sitting in a white phone booth on a hilltop in northern Japan. Set up in 2010 by a man who wanted to “speak” to his late cousin, the wind telephone was opened to the public after the owner realized it had witnessed the March 2011 tsunami crash into the shores below. This book is mentioned in an SCBWI Japan blog post marking the 5th anniversary of the earthquake and tsunami.

Kibou no Bokujo

That earthquake has inspired several picture books for children, but none can match Eto Mori’s Kibou no Bokujo (“The Ranch of Hope,” illustrated by Hisanori Yoshida). At first glance, the true story of a ranch owner’s stubborn refusal to desert his cattle seems to be more a message for adults than children. The cattle have become worthless after being exposed to radiation at the ranch, which is located near the crippled Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant. Like the Mujica speech, The Ranch of Hope brings up questions on the meaning of life. What it does uniquely is to serve up a true story of brave defiance that inspires the courage to carry on.


Another book on how nuclear power has changed Japan can found in Dome-gatari (“Dome Speaks”), by Arthur Binard, an American poet and translator who writes in Japanese. Written in the first-person from the perspective of the A-bomb Dome (the partly ruined building that serves as a memorial to the atomic bombing of Hiroshima), it recounts the Dome’s story from “birth” as a venue for showcasing Hiroshima products to the day it got its present form. “Dome” speaks about nuclear power simply and clearly, referring to radioactive particles as small shards of glass, breaking into smaller and

Rain Won'tsmaller and smaller bits, for who knows how long. Accompanied by Koji Suzuki’s illustrations, the story ends with Binard’s telling commentary on the global power relations that lie beneath nuclear power generation. Binard also translated Kenji Miyazawa’s famous poem, “Ame ni mo makezu.” His interpretation in Rain Won’t, a picture book, reframes the poem post-March 11 as not only a source of strength but also as a rallying cry.

Often, I am drawn to picture books by the artwork, but I have chosen to share what I see as messages in these stories, be they familiar perspectives and values in old favorites or new messages in recent titles. Having only scratched the surface, I hope some of these titles will eventually reach English readers because these messages strike a chord and encourage a broader, different perspective from Japan.

Coming on Monday:  Murakami translator Jay Rubin on his next translations

Andrew Wong was born in Singapore and now lives in Tokyo.  He found SCBWI Japan (The Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators, Japan Chapter) when in search of a community focused on translating for children. He finds the time to keep a blog on Japanese picture books and stories that speak to him in hopes that they will one day find a worldwide audience.

David Jacobson
 organized this series on Japanese literature in translation. He is the author of Are You an Echo? The Lost Poetry of Misuzu Kaneko, a 2017 NCTE notable poetry book. A longtime journalist, David has written news articles and TV scripts that have appeared in the Associated Press, The Washington Post, The Seattle Times and on CNN and Japan’s NHK. Since 2008, he has worked with Seattle book publisher Chin Music Press. An experienced Japanese translator, he is on the board of the Global Literature in Libraries Initiative.

And in case you missed it…

May 1:  Roger Pulvers on Ishikawa Takuboku (Japan-in-Translation, No. 1)
May 2:  Kathryn Hemmann on outsider stories in contemporary literature (Japan-in-Translation, No. 2)
May 3:  Deborah Iwabuchi on memorable translations (Japan-in-Translation, No. 3)
May 4:  Eve Kushner on kanji’s punning potential, part 1 (Japan-in-Translation, No. 4)
May 5:  Eve Kushner on kanji’s punning potential, part 2 (Japan-in-Translation, No. 5)
May 7:  Translator roundtable on Shiba Ryōtarō’s Ryōma!, part 1 (Japan-in-Translation, No. 6)
May 8: Translator roundtable on Shiba Ryōtarō’s Ryōma!, part 2 (Japan-in-Translation, No. 7)
May 9: Librarian Ash Brown on manga in translation (Japan-in-Translation, No. 8)
May 10: Excerpt from Mori Eto’s Dive!! (Japan-in-Translation, No. 9)
May 11: Tony Malone on translations of Natsume Sōseki (Japan-in-Translation, No. 10)
May 12: Poet Michael Dylan Welch on translating haiku (Japan-in-Translation, No. 11)
May 14: Smithsonian BookDragon’s Favorites, part 1 (Japan-in-Translation, No. 12)
May 15: Smithsonian BookDragon’s Favorites, part 2 (Japan-in-Translation, No. 13)
May 16: Sally Ito on Misuzu Kaneko’s Compassionate Imagination (Japan-in-Translation, No. 14)
May 17: Frederik Schodt on The Four Immigrants Manga (Japan-in-Translation, No. 15)
May 18: Stone Bridge Press Publisher Peter Goodman (Japan-in-Translation, No. 16)
May 19: Melek Ortabasi on Japanese Literature as World Literature (Japan-in-Translation, No. 17)


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