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Japanese Children's Books
First Issue (Spring)
Editorial contact: einfo@yamaneko.org
Published: April 5, 2003

Japanese version


Japanese Picture Books
Classic Picture Book
Hanasakiyama: Flowering Mountain
Newly Published
Penkiya: The House Painter
A Long-selling Favorite
"Watashi no Wanpeesu: My Lovely Dress"
English Translations

Picture Book
Manga (in Japanese)

Educational Comic

Japanese Picture Books

A Classic Picture Book


HANASAKIYAMA: Flowering Mountain

Written by Ryusuke Saito, Illustrated by Jiro Takidaira
Iwasaki Shoten, 1978, ISBN: 4-265-90820-9  

(no English translation available), German
Reading level: 8 years and older
Japanese language students: Beginner's level, Written entirely in Hiragana

Aya, a ten-year-old girl, goes into the mountains to gather wild mountain vegetables called Sansai(*1), for the coming festival. Unknowingly, she wanders a bit too deep and finds herself in an unfamiliar place. The hills are covered with beautiful flowers in full bloom, of a variety she's never seen before. This is the domain of a strange old woman who appears and tells her how these flowers are related to Aya herself.
The old woman apparently knows all. Yesterday, Aya's younger sister had begged and teased for a new kimono to wear to the festival. But their family is much too poor to be able to afford a kimono for each of their two daughters. Knowing this, Aya had asked that her parents buy a special kimono for her sister, saying that she didn't want anything for herself. In her heart though, she was truly longing for one...
It was Aya's noble kindness towards her sister that caused a single flower to bloom in these mountains, says the old woman. In fact, each of the blooming flowers was created by an act of compassion by someone in the village. One act of thoughtfulness brings a single flower into full bloom. And when that compassion is such that someone is willing to make the supreme sacrifice for the sake of others, the earth itself swells upward, forming a new mountain.

This is the picture book version of a short story by the same title, originally published in 1967. Since the girl on the cover is depicted in a kimono(*2), and the story is told in dialect(*3), a first-time reader might assume that this is an old folktale retelling. And in fact, that is the author's intent. Contrary to appearances however, it's an original story which was written in the postwar period of the 20th century.
The author, Saito, writes in his afterword to this book: "Just imagine how wonderful it would be ... for me, for us and for Japan, if the flower buds which lie hidden within each of our hearts were transformed into a force so great as to form huge mountains."
After WWII, the Japanese experienced a drastic change in their lifestyles. Suddenly, they were in a world where they had more freedom, but this was accompanied by the need to bear individual responsibility for their actions. It was a time of great reforms where each individual had to start from a state of nothingness. Saito felt it his mission in life to teach the children who signified Japan's future, the importance of those fundamental values which would see the country and its people through whatever the past, present and future had in store for it. True kindness and compassion.
The illustrator, Takidaira has added artwork which perfectly reflects the essence of this story. With a style that simulates cutwork against a black background, the illustrations suggest both the gentle and powerful nature of the imagery, providing us with visual confirmation of the true beauty of Flowering Mountain.
Although more than twenty years have passed since this book was first published, it has retained a firm place on the shelves of children's bookstores and libraries, often being used in textbooks and as part of the teaching curriculum in Japan.
The dreams of these two creators are still very much alive today, passionately appealing to the flower buds which lie deep within each of our hearts.

Ryusuke Saito (1917-1985)
Born in Tokyo, Saito graduated from Meiji University, majoring in the literary arts. After working as a newspaper reporter and journalist, he turned to writing for NHK, the public broadcasting system, in Akita where he had been relocated during the war, and also assisted as a visiting producer for the Warabi Theatre Company. In 1958, he returned to Tokyo. The majority of his work up to 1967 was published in that year by Rironsha in a collection of short children's stories under the title of "Berodashi-Chonma", gaining him immediate recognition as a highly talented writer in this field. The following year, he received the Shogakukan Literature Prize for this book.

Jiro Takidaira (1921- )
Takidaira was born in Ibaraki Prefecture, and began working with wood block prints around 1940. After the war, he became a member of the Nihon Bijutsu Kai and simultaneously began working in art publication. He received the first Kodansha Prize for Picture Books and the 9th Mobil Children's Culture Award for "Hanasakiyama". In addition to providing all of the artwork for Ryusuke Saito's stories, he has also published books of his own including a collection of his artwork called "Takidaira Jiro Kirie Gashuu"
(Jiro Takidaira's Cutwork: Kodansha).

"Fuki" and "Hanasakiyama" (Iwasaki Shoten), "Hachiro" (Fukuinkan-Shoten

*1: Sansai (pronounced: Sahn-sigh, and written as "mountain vegetables"):
There are over forty varieties of edible young plants which grow wild in the mountainous regions of Japan. Providing distinctive flavors, aromas and textures which have become almost synonymous with spring cuisine itself, they provide a culinary reminder that despite whatever hardships the winter may have brought, the favorite season of the Japanese is finally here at last.

*2: In the past, kimonos were the standard dress for all Japanese. However, since the Meiji Restoration (1868), more and more people began adopting the less cumbersome Western-style clothing. Nowadays, kimonos are only worn during the New Years holidays and on traditional Japanese or formal occasions. Sadly, it's become fairly uncommon to see people walking around dressed in kimonos.

*3: Since folktales are passed down verbally, and are usually told by an older family member or local storyteller, the idiosyncrasies of the local dialect tend to become an integral part in the telling of the tale, and this is reflected in the written form as well.

(Review by: Mako Kawahara)

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Newly Published


p. 5-6

(c) Iku Dekune

PENKIYA: A House Painter

Written by Kaho Nashiki, Illustrated by Iku Dekune
Rironsha, 2002, ISBN: 4-652-04022-9  47pp

(no English translation available)
Reading Level: 11 years and older
Japanese language students: Intermediate level, Contains Kanji w/o kana.

It's a very simple story. Shinya is the son of a house painter. And he becomes a painter just like his father. Eventually, he grows old and passes away, a house painter to the very end.
Shinya merely wishes to become a good painter, works hard at it and gradually becomes capable of mixing the very colors he aims for. However, amidst this process, there is no forced or huge striving for a great "dream". There is simply just one thing he wishes to do, so he never bothers with other alternatives. He becomes an apprentice to a master painter and under his guidance, learns the craft.
Learning to mix the exact right color can be quite difficult. A customer orders, "Please make it blue-gray", but despite many attempts, Shinya just can't seem to get the color right. The master finally lends him a hand and on the first try easily mixes up a color that's exactly what the customer wants. The master tells Shinya, "Even if the customer says "blue-gray", there are an infinite number of colors that can be called by that name. You have to be able to sense out the exact color the customer is looking for." That's right, the goal is to be able to find the customer's favorite color, the exact color that they're looking for. If one can manage to do that, that's the sign of a true craftsman. Hoping to gain insight into this talent, Shinya goes on a journey.

With a distinctive touch, the artist Dekune, manages to capture and express those very colors which Shinya seeks to create. The flush of dawn. The stillness of the evening. The pitch black dark of the night sea. This is hardly a big picture book at about the size of an average hardcover novel, but the scenes depicted give its pages a broad and expansive largeness. In a sense, Dekune's brush is Shinya's paint brush. She uses a color that contains so many different colors that it cannot be described by a single name. Every time you turn a page, you experience a small but new thrill.
It's a simple matter of doing the job in front of you, thoroughly and earnestly. Colors follow the work. From this little story, the reader can intuit the mystery and atmosphere that accompanies Shinya's life. One's left with the sense that every one of us has his own paintbrush. That's the type of satisfaction which this picture book provides.
The text was written by Kaho Nashiki, a writer whose novels for children are very popular. She is the writer who won the first "Children's Literature Fantasy Grand Prize" sponsored by the clinical psychologist, Hayao Kawai and awarded by the Picture Book and Children's Literature Research Center since 1995. Although presently in its ninth year, only Nashiki's novel, "Uraniwa" (Backyard: Published by Rironsha) and one other have been awarded the grand prize. For all other years, there have been no recipients for the grand prize. Thereafter, she has gone on to publish several novels which include, "Nishi no majo ga shinda" (The witch of the west is dead: Published by Shogakukan) which has received many children's book awards, "Rika-san" (Miss Rika: Published by Kaiseisha), and "Angel, Angel, Angel" (Published by Genseirin). Her meticulous portrayal of the psychology of characters in her novels has gained her many fans.
This is the first volume in the new Kaho Nashiki's Picture Book Series. "Penkiya" is Nashiki's first attempt at writing the text for picture books. For this series, she's scheduled to create each book in collaboration with a different illustrator. Her partner for this book is Iku Dekune. Dekune's etchings accompanying the Grimms Fairy Tales were selected for the Bologna Bookfair Picture Book Illustration Exhibition. Her original picture books include, "Ofuro"(Bath: Published by Gakushu-Kenkyusha), "Ame-Furashi" (Rainmaker from "Grimms fairy tales" published by Parol). Dekune presently lives in Prague.

(Review by: Sakana Hayashi)

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A Long-selling Favorite

Dress Cover



Written and Illustrated by Kayako Nishimaki
Koguma-sha, 1969, ISBN: 4-7721-0018-0  

Japanese (no English translation available)
Native Reading level: Preschool
Japanese language students: Beginner's level, Hiragana and Katakana only

I first encountered this book when my daughter was three years old. I was browsing around the bookstore wondering what I might read to her, when this picture book with its bright yellow-green border caught my eye. Right in the middle of the cover was a cute rabbit carefully sewing a white cloth on a sewing machine.
When I read it to my daughter, she immediately became absorbed in the pictures and repetitive verses. After hearing it several times, she first picked up the expression, "clackety-clack of the sewing machine" and then, the humming phrase "La la di la, lo lo di lo". Finally she could recite the entire book although she had not yet learned to read. She'd say, "Now I'm going to read you this book" and then she would "tell" me the picture book, as if she were telling a tale. It seemed there was something about this simple book which made it very attractive to children.

The story begins when the rabbit finds a piece of white cloth.

A white cloth comes drifting down from the sky. The rabbit decides to use the cloth to make herself a dress. As the cloth slides through the sewing machine, a fresh white dress emerges. The rabbit puts on her new dress and goes for a walk. When the rabbit walks through a field full of flowers, the flowers jump into the cloth and it turns into a flower-patterned dress. When it starts to rain, it turns into a raindrop-patterned dress. And when a little bird flies by, the material becomes bird-patterned. The bird-dress lets the little rabbit fly through the skies. It takes her over the arch of a rainbow, where the dress turns rainbow-colored. It's a story where the dress changes its pattern many times.

According to the publisher's information in the book, this was initially published in 1969. Why has such a simple tale become a long-selling favorite? It's just a white dress which turns into many different dresses. It may be that the wish to wear a magical dress like this one resonates with many children. In creating this book, the author wished to give voice to those hidden feelings which are usually buried deep within a child's heart. It seems to me that the author's aspirations have touched the children. Other aspects of this book which appeal to young children are the onomatopoeic expressions and repetitive phases. Little children love to chant these verse-like lines.

The delicate illustrations with their soft-hued coloring give the little readers a sense of reassurance and warmth. They're a clear reminder of Ms. Nishimaki's background in lithography.

Translations of this book are presently available in Taiwan (Mandarin), Thai and South Korea.

Kayako Nishimaki
Born in Tokyo. After graduating from the Crafts Course of the Faculty of Fine Arts at Tokyo National University of Fine Arts and Music, she went on to study engravings and lithography. This eventually resulted in her original picture books. Her first picture book called "Botan no Kuni"(The Land of Buttons) was published in 1967, followed by "Chiisana Kiroi Kasa" (The Little Yellow Umbrella) and "E no Sukina Nekosan" (The Cat Who Liked Pictures). She has been awarded the Sankei Children's Book Award and Kodansha Prize for Picture Books.

(Review by: Mei Takahashi)
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English Translations

Picture Book

Guri and Gura

by Rieko Nakagawa and Yuriko Yamawaki
Charles E Tuttle Co
, 2002, ISBN: 0-8048-3352-4 (English)
Translated by  Peter Howlett and Richard McNamara

Originally Published by Fukuinkan-Shoten, 1963
ISBN 4-8340-0082-6 (Japanese)

Reading level: 4-8 years

Guri and Gura are two little field mice. One day in the woods, they discover an enormous egg. Great lovers of food, they immediately start wondering which egg recipe to use. But wait! There's no way they could ever carry an egg this size home! So Guri and Gura go home and bring back the biggest frying pan they own. That's right, they can just cook the egg right here in the forest. But then, the extra-extra large-sized egg turns out to have an extra-extra thick shell and it's not going to be easy to crack. When they finally do manage to get it open and cooking, the delicious smell attracts all their woodland friends from the forest. What extra-extra delicious food did the extra-extra large egg turn into?

"Guri and Gura" featuring two cute little field mice, is such a popular picture book that there's hardly a child in Japan who hasn't read or heard it at least once. Since its publication in 1963, 4.5 million copies have been sold worldwide.

Pretending to be the little mice, children can choose their own melody to sing the little song in this book, "Our names are Guri and Gura". If it's a bit off tune, so what? It'll be enough to make everyone feel gay and cheerful. The generosity and kindness shown by the mice in sharing with their forest friends what they so painstakingly created will fill the reader with warmth. The figures are drawn in simple lines and filled in with a subdued color such as red or blue, against a white background. This leaves readers plenty of room to fill in the rest with their imaginations. That leeway may be just what makes it possible for us to really wish we could take a bite of that delicious-looking yellow "something" which the mice cook up. "Guri and Gura" is full of kindness and thoughtfulness. The warmth and comfort one feels when touched by this kindness may be secret behind the success of this book.

"Guri and Gura" was subsequently expanded into a series which presently includes eight books. One of these, called "Guri and Gura's Surprise Visitor" involves a visit from a very special guest who arrives on a winter day. This book won the Ministry of Health and Welfare Award. This series is also very popular abroad and is now available in nine languages including English.

Rieko Nakagawa (1935- )
Nakagawa was born in Sapporo, Hokkaido. While working in a nursery school, she was responsible for publishing a small magazine called "Itadori". In 1962, her first children's novel called "Iya-iya-en" (The No-No Nursery School) was published by Fukuinkan-Shoten. This book received the Sankei Children's Book Award, Ministry of Health and Welfare Award and many others. Other books include "Sora-iro no Tane"(Sky-colored seed), "Momo-iro no Kirin" (The Pink Giraffe), "Tanta no Tanken" (Tanta's Adventure).

Yuriko Ohmura (1941- )
Ohmura was born in Tokyo. She majored in French at Sophia University, College of Foreign Languages. She has collaborated with Rieko Nakagawa on many books including "Iya-iya en", "Sora-iro no Tane" and "Kaeru no Eruta" (Elta the Frog). Subsequent books in the Guri and Gura series, among others, have been published under her married name, Yuriko Yamawaki.

An interview with Rieko Nakagawa: "Japanese Book News" Volume 36, Winter 2001

(Review by: Fusae Nishizono)
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Science Comics

In Japan, the Great Manga Empire, comic books have infiltrated almost every aspect of society, and are widely loved by a broad audience ranging from child to adult. As a form of entertainment, Manga have produced a rich culture of their own, extending into many diverse genres. They also have a very useful application in communication. Since children are less likely to be bored by manga, for some time now, they have increasingly been used as an educational tool. Educational (Informational) Manga have traditionally been employed in teaching history and biography to children. They are now used quite effectively in the instruction of almost all conceivable subjects.

Science Comics
"NHK Special: SEIMEI -
A Long Journey over 4 billion years"
Planet of Life
"Life Itself Began in the Earth's Prehistoric Seas"
5 volumes
Comic art by Kei Honjoh, Shogakukan  

Japanese (No English translation available)
Reading Level: 8 years and older
Japanese Language Students: Intermediate level. Kana are available for all Kanji used, but the terminology is relatively difficult.

"Seimei" (Life - A Long Journey over 4 billion years) was shown over ten weeks as one of the "NHK Special" programs, a highly popular documentary series on NHK, the Japanese public broadcasting system. Where do we come from and where are we going? This program attempted to elucidate the mystery of life itself. The magnificent and profound story of how life began, was presented using unbelievably fantastic imagery. The contents were based on in-depth and detailed interviewing of top researchers from around the globe. The program not only titillated, but also satisfied the intellectual curiosity of all viewers. The "Life" series has been rerun many times thereafter and is presently available in an all-color book series as well as on VHS, DVD and CD-ROM.

These comic books, in addition to covering the content of the entire TV series, take the form of an insiders view into the planning and making of this program. Researcher findings are accurately shown in meticulously-drawn illustrations. Those fantastic images which at times overwhelmed viewers, and at times fascinated them, are all faithfully reproduced in the book. There's also an abundance of the type of light humor which characterizes comic books, making it possible for readers to follow along at a good pace, without being exhausting.

These books depict the enthusiasm and exhilaration of the production staff in a sort of "Making of..." style. How was life first born on this planet? By what process did it evolve? And why have some species survived to this day, while others disappeared off the face of the earth?  One can easily imagine facing the same questions ("Why?", "How?" and "What's the mechanism?") and sharing in the surprise, excitement and emotion that the producers themselves no doubt felt. The use of simple language and lavish drawings do much to create this effect. Children can absorb the advanced and rich contents of this entire documentary in a perfectly natural way, with complete comprehension. "Seimei" is an educational manga of extremely high quality, both for its breadth of content, as well as for its entertainment value. By fully employing the benefits of the manga format, the result is an excellent five-book series which should satisfy a broad audience of readers ranging from child to adult.

Brief description of individual volumes

Volume 1.
Creation: Born in the Seas
Evolution and the Mysterious Big Bang
(Editor: Keiko Nakamura 1994,
ISBN: 4-09-226201-9)

Primal seas full of prussic acid and cyanide were regularly shaken by the moon's forceful gravity. Four billion years ago, the first life form was born within these seas.

Life repeatedly evolved over an almost unimaginably long period of time. Then, in the Cambrian period 530 million years ago, there was suddenly an explosive increase in the numbers and diversity of life forms. Here was a world of strange and mysterious organisms that defied even the broadest extent of our imaginations.

Volume 2
The Fishes' Landing Operation
Dinosaurs Chased Away by Flowers
(Editorial Advisor: Takashi Hamada 1995,
ISBN: 4-09-226202-7)

The seas were the source of a rich and diverse range of life forms. But there were fish who bid those seas farewell and left for the rivers. Eventually, after many thousands of years, an animal was born which left the water and took its first step on land. This is the history of those adventurers, the animal pioneers who challenged the unknown world, overcoming the numerous and severe hardships that lay in their path.

Dinosaurs: the animals which probably prospered more than any other species on this planet. However, for all their success, evolution that would lead to their downfall was going on unnoticed, right under their feet. What was it that would finally result in their extinction?

Volume 3
A Challenge to Reach the Skies

(Editoral Advisor: Takanori Matsui 1995,
ISBN: 4-09-226203-5)

The Archaeopteryx, the ancestor of all birds, first appeared around 150 million years ago. However, the wings on this ancient creature have the exact same structure as the wings of the birds we see today. How did the archaeopteryx develop the perfect structure for flight, which enabled it to fly freely through the skies?

Volume 4
The Miracle System: Sex
The Insects' Information Strategy

(Editorial Advisor: Tairo Ohshima 1995,
ISBN: 4-09-226204-3)

"Sex", the system by which life has arranged for natural genetic recombination.  It's what leads to diversity and individuality of organisms. Looking into the history of how this system evolved and the role which "Sex" played in the evolution of life on this planet.

Did you know that insects account for 70% of all animals on earth? While the vertebrates were busily striding the path towards growth into huge sizes, the insects were focused on building smaller and more economically-efficient bodies. Simple is best. The latter half of this volume focuses on the magnificent mechanisms which allowed for the rise of the insect empire.

Volume 5
When Man and Ape Parted Ways
Where are We Going?

(Editorial Advisor: Masao Kawai 1995,
ISBN: 4-09-226205-1)

Darwin insisted in his theory of evolution, that "man evolved from apes." But where exactly did man and ape take separate paths? And what was it that made our two species distinct?

During the 4 billion years in the history of life on earth, an enormous number of organisms were born and the majority of them disappeared. As just one in that multitude of life forms, human must now look back on the road which we have passed and from there, learn exactly where we are heading in the future.

(Review by: Emi Sugimoto)
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Sakura Sakura (Editor's Note)

In Japan, the school year ends in March and starts anew in April. So spring is a time of graduations and tearful farewells. And also a time for a fresh start in a new school or one's first full-time job. Japan's beloved flower, the Sakura (cherry-blossoms) bloom at around this time of the year, adding to the general air of festivity.
Although there are hundreds of varieties of cherry-blossoms, the most popular is the Somei-Yoshino (Prunus x yedoensis) species. Its delicate beauty perfectly expresses the atmosphere of the season. Lasting two weeks from the time a flower first blooms, its ephemeral nature and lightly pink-tinged petals symbolize, both the slight sadness of partings as well as the hesitant anticipation of new friendships.

One of the favorite ways that the Japanese enjoy the sakura is what is commonly called, "Hanami" (i.e., Flower viewing). Carrying "Hanami-bento", beautifully-arranged box lunches full of various Japanese delicacies, and of course, plenty of sake, our traditional rice wine, people lay woven mats under the blooming cherry-blossom trees and gather to celebrate the season.

Hanami has an interesting history which even many Japanese are not familiar with. The name, Sakura stems from "Sa" (rice paddy god), and "kura" (abode). In other words, Sa-kura are the abode for an aspect of the rice god when she/he comes down from the mountains to visit the world of humans. After blooming for two weeks, the petals of the Sakura scatter, flying on the wind like a flowery snowstorm. We in fact call this, Sakura Fubuki (cherry-blossom snowstorm). The petals, which still carry the soul of the "Sa" god, cover the rice paddies where these godly souls enter the young rice shoots.
In the fall, the rice ripens, is picked and eaten. There's a Japanese saying that there's a god in every grain of rice, which is why we should not let a single grain go to waste. When eaten, the souls of the gods in each grain will return to the mountains, having shed their physical bodies for our sustenance. They will come again the following spring, to grace yet another Sakura.

This is the first issue of our new quarterly magazine. We hope you've enjoyed it. I'd like to thank all of the Yamaneko Honyaku Club members who contributed their time and effort to making this magazine possible. Hopefully, some of the readers of this issue will join us in our effort to deliver information about Japanese children's books to those in the English-speaking world. (S.I.)
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Published by:
Yamaneko Honyaku Club
Midori Takeuchi (Chairman of the Yamaneko Honyaku Club)
Yamaneko Honyaku Club, Staff and Members
Editing and Translation:
Sako Ikegami
Editorial Assistance:
Sakana Hayashi, Mako Kawahara, Yumi Kikuchi, Reiko Lee, Fusae Nishizono,
Noriko Otsuka, Emi Sugimoto, Mei Takahashi, Midori Takeuchi, Toshie Yanagida
Ono Sendai, Literary Translation Network Webmaster

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