In my second blog post, I will share some insights from the second article in the special issue of the journal Children’s Culture (Kodomo no bunka), titled “Kamishibai’s 100 Years—New Challenges” (published by the Research Center for Children’s Culture, July 8, 2023).

It is actually not so much an article as a transcript of a conversation between poet Arthur Binard and Yoko Takahashi, the granddaughter-in-law of Takahashi Gozan. The Takahashi Gozan Prize was established in 1961 and has been awarded annually ever since by the Research Center on Children’s Culture in Tokyo. Arthur Binard was given the 58th Gozan Prize in 2019 for his kamishibai “A Tiny Voice” (Chicchai koe). Selecting a series of details from the famous Hiroshima panels by husband and wife team Toshi and Iri Maruki, Binard composed a poetic text to create a kamishibai story about the horrors of the atomic bombing from the point of view of the animals that were affected. The conversation between Binard and Takahashi Yoko took place at the Tokyo Children’s Cultural Research Center hall during a retrospective exhibition of Gozan’s work.

Imai Yone, Matsunaga Kenya, and Takahashi Gozan are usually mentioned together as the originators of “educational kamishibai” in Japan, but Takahashi Gozan brought a different set of skills to kamishibai compared to the other two (see Blog Post 1). Whereas Imai Yone was a Christian missionary and Matsunaga Kenya was an elementary school teacher, Gozan was trained in the arts as a designer and later became a children’s book and magazine illustrator/publisher. Just like Imai and Matsunaga, Gozan observed the mesmerizing power that street-performance kamishibai exerted on child audiences, and he put his efforts into creating the first kamishibai for kindergarteners (yōchien kamishibai). Gozan can be credited with transforming kamishibai into what it now has become in the minds of most Japanese: a medium for very young children. Although there are various ongoing efforts in Japan and elsewhere to expand the audience for kamishibai, very young children continue to be a central focus for kamishibai publishers, such as Doshinsha.

Gozan’s granddaughter-in-law, Takahashi Yōko, has been actively reviving Gozan’s legacy. Not only did she restart his publishing company Zenkōsha in 2011, but she has also been reprinting his kamishibai stories:刊行物一覧/ .  As a graduate student at Hosei University, she conducted research about Gozan’s life and work, which culminated in her dissertation: “Comprehensive Research on Takahashi Gozan: Design, Illustrated Children’s Magazines, and Kamishibai.” In 2016, she published A Collection of Educational Kamishibai: Takahashi Gozan and Kindergarten ( Yōchien) kamishibai, which won the Japan Daycare Research Award.

Takashi Gozan was born in Kyoto in 1888 to a family of art exporters. His early training was in design, and he won awards for his designs of such diverse house-hold items as lamps, tapestries, and even neckties. He became involved in editing a children’s magazine in 1917 and started his own publishing company Zenkōsha in 1931 at the age of 43. For the first couple of years, he published illustrated children’s stories (e-banashi) and flip-book style animated comics. In 1935, he began publishing a series of kamishibai for kindergarteners based on classics of Japanese and Western literature. The well-known western stories included “Little Red Riding Hood,”  “Puss-In-Boots,” “The Three Pigs,” and “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland.” By publishing these classics, Gozan hoped to elevate kamishibai in the eyes of parents and educators, who associated the often lurid and sensationalistic street performance illustrations with lower-class entertainment.

This image from Gozan’s adaptation of “Alice in Wonderland” can be found on the Cotsen Children’s Library popular blog: “Pop Goes the Page”.

Gozan is also famous for having adapted Beatrix Potter’s literary tale of Peter Rabbit to the kamishibai format. As can be seen in the detail below, Gozan was heavily influenced by Disney at the beginning of his career, but he continually stretched the boundaries of the medium and is credited with many firsts. In 1937, he created the largest kamishibai cards and stage ever in Japan for a Buddhist kamishibai titled, “Hana-matsuri” (Cherry-Blossom Festival). The kamishibai was the size of 6 tatami mats (about 18 ft X 64 ft)! It was performed to large audiences at the Hibiya Music Hall in Tokyo.

Detail from Takahashi Gozan’s Tale of Peter Rabbit, which has been republished by Zenkosha.

According to Yoko Takahashi, who recently discovered Gozan’s diary and has brought many new facts to light, he was also the first to create sanka-gata (participatory) kamishibai with the story “Little Pup” (Chibichan). In his original version, children in the audience were invited to give the little puppy in the story a reward by putting paper dog biscuits into slits in the illustration. Cutting slits into a card for something to be inserted is referred to as sashikomi, although this is a different application of the idea than Matsunaga Kenya’s (see Blog Post 1). As Takahashi Yoko points out, sashikomi was expensive for publishers and was easily damaged with frequent use, so, when this story was later published by Doshinsha with illustrations by a different artist, the kamishibai did not include the sashikomi technique. Gozan also experimented with the idea of having more than one way to perform the same set of kamishibai cards. He offered four different options on the back of the cards, but this method proved to be too challenging to perform.

Gozan also innovated with the materials he used to create kamishibai. He was the first to use collage (hari-e), and he notably extended this idea to origami collage. As a designer, he greatly admired the simplicity and elegance of origami designs and even put together a ten-volume set of origami designs with instructions. As Binard points out in his conversation with Takahashi Yoko, there is a kind of poetry at work in Gozan’s efforts to pare away as much detail as possible and create kamishibai stories out of the bare elements. 

This origami kamishibai by Takahashi Gozan, “The Five Pigs,” is still being published by Doshinsha.

Partly these efforts were also necessitated by a lack of materials during WWII. In 1945 just as the war was ending, Gozan’s house and publishing company were burnt to the ground, but as early as 1946, he was continuing to publish kamishibai and children’s books, using any scraps of paper he could find around the barracks and bomb shelters. 

“The Red Sparrow and the Nightingale” (Benisuzume to uguisu) was the first of Gozan’s kamishibai to be republished by his granddaughter-in-law. As Takahashi Yoko describes it on her website, it is an example of Gozan’s use of paper scraps when materials were scarce during the war.

Like Imai Yone and Matsunaga Kenya, Takahashi Gozan also created propaganda kamishibai to support the war effort, but his kamishibai activities continued well beyond the war years. This was not mentioned in the conversation between Arthur Binard and Takahashi Yoko, but, as I have written elsewhere, it was thanks to the advocacy of Takahashi Gozan and picture-book author Kako Satoshi that kamishibai was designated a Children’s Cultural Treasure (Jidō bunkazai) in 1952 by Japan’s Ministry of Social Welfare (McGowan, 2015, p. 19). Without these efforts, kamishibai might well have died out, not only as a street- performance art but even as a published medium.

For those of you who might be interested in performing a kamishibai story by Takahashi Gozan, Doshinsha has republished some of his works, which can be purchased through a Kinokuniya Bookstore (US) or Junkudo Bookstore (Europe). And thanks to Takahashi Yoko, many more of his stories are now becoming available for purchase through her website. I am particularly interested in Gozan’s post-war kamishibai and just ordered Takahashi Yoko’s book, so this will certainly not be the last blog post I write about Takahashi Gozan, undoubtedly one of the giants in the history of kamishibai.

Other resources:

McGowan, T. Performing Kamishibai: An Emerging New Literacy for a Global Audience (Routledge Press, 2015)

McGowan, T. “The Many Faces of Kamishibai (Japanese Paper Theater): Past, Present, and Future”



5 Responses

  1. It was so wonderful to learn about the history of Kamishibai & Takahashi Gozan, the legend. I am excited to make use of sashikomi, a participatory kamishibai session soon, that would be so much fun with the children. Lot to learn from your blog, how minimalist, kamishibai could be, even making use of waste & scraps!

    • Thank you, Lipika. I hope you will sign up for a Kamishibai Dojo session through the World Kamishibai Forum to share your story with us!

  2. Thank you for sharing the results of your research with us. These articles are invaluable for all of us working with kamishibai. I’ve heard Gozan’s name often but I had no idea of what he contributed to the development of kamishibai. His illustrations are unique and thoughtfully crafted. I was impressed that he used even scraps of paper for his illustrations when materials were scarce after the war ended – so children could still enjoy seeing new kamishibai stories. Miyamoto Junzo, who designed toys that came with Glico caramel candies, used all sorts of scrap materials and continued making toys for Japanese children even during the war!

    • Thank you, Donna. I just received Takahashi Yōko’s book, so I am looking forward to learning a lot of new things about Takashi Gozan to share with everyone.

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