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

Again, it is more of a discussion than an article, this time amongst four influential people in the world of kamishibai in Japan today, moderated by the Director of the Research Center for Children’s Culture in Tokyo, Suzuki Takako.

The four discussants:

Nagano Hideko, renowned picture-book and kamishibai author and president of the Kamishibai Bunka Suishin Kyōkai (Association for Promoting Kamishibai Culture)

Miyazaki Fumie, kamishibai author and researcher and vice-president of the Kamishibai Bunka Suishin Kyōkai (Association for Promoting Kamishibai Culture)

Sakai Kyōko, president of Dōshinsha publishing company and representative of Kamishibai Bunka no Kai (IKAJA)

Tsukahara Shigeyuki, Professor of Children’s Education at Seisen Women’s College. He is also a professional clown and kamishibai performer and theorist.

This discussion may surprise kamishibai enthusiasts outside Japan because of the relative lack of information available about how kamishibai is viewed in Japan today. Histories of kamishibai in English often begin with the street-performance art in the 1930s and end with the disappearance of kamishibai off the streets of Japan with the advent of television in the 1950s, as in Allen Say’s widely acclaimed Kamishibai Man (2005). Everything post World War II is often treated broadly as “kamishibai today,” and there is an assumption that, since kamishibai was invented in Japan, it must be thriving there. But there have actually been a lot of interesting movements, countermovements, setbacks and developments with kamishibai in the nearly 80 years since the end of WWII, and it has actually been a pretty bumpy road! As the discussants point out, kamishibai has been in an almost constant struggle since its inception to survive in the face of new technologies.

The four discussants begin with a reflection back on several of the formative figures in educational kamishibai immediately after the war, who were also founding members of the Research Center for Children’s Culture in Tokyo—Kawasaki Taiji (1902-1980), Horio Seishi (1914-1991), Inaba Keiko (1916-1975), and Kako Satoshi (1926-2018). Each one deserves a blog post of their own, so I will not go into detail about them now. What may come as a surprise to readers outside Japan is that kamishibai has only survived in Japan thanks to the perseverance and unstinting promotion by many such passionate people over the years, and this struggle continues to this day.

Defeat in WWII and the aftermath had a huge impact on all media directed at children in Japan. Artists, educators, parents, community activists and storytellers who had experienced the horrors of war felt intensely passionate about improving society and raising a new generation that would never have to experience what they had suffered. Anyone who has been involved with IKAJA (the International Kamishibai Association of Japan) will recognize the emphasis on peace and the idea that cultivating kyōkan (shared feeling) through kamishibai will lead to world peace. Of course, this same feeling of kyōkan is what made kamishibai such a powerful tool for propaganda, when it was used to promote a national “shared feeling” for supporting the war effort, but IKAJA’s insistence on using kamishibai to channel kyōkan for peace comes directly out of the post-war movements mentioned above.

One of the biggest setbacks to kamishibai in Japan was the Ministry of Education’s decision in 1966 to remove kamishibai from the curriculum. As you may recall from my first blog post, educators like Matsunaga Kenya and those involved in founding the Educational Kamishibai Association of Japan in 1938 began publishing kamishibai stories based on literature in the national curriculum. During and after the war, kamishibai cards and stages were governmentally mandated instructional supplies and continued to play an integral role in public-school classrooms, but the laws changed in 1966-67 when kamishibai was designated “expendable goods.” For publishing companies, like Doshinsha, this ruling quite literally pulled the rug out from under them. As Doshinsha president Sakai Kyōko, points out, publishers at that time had planned at least a decade in advance, relying on public-school purchases of kamishibai, and that revenue disappeared overnight. The kamishibai publishing industry in Japan has never fully recovered.

The reasons for the change in attitude towards kamishibai will be familiar to many of us who have worked in the public schools. As Tsukahara points out, educational systems in Japan and elsewhere tend to follow the latest trends, and the time-span between educational fads is shrinking the world over, thanks in large part to the fast pace of advancements in internet technologies. In the 1960s in Japan, television, video, and overhead projectors were the latest cutting-edge audiovisual technology, and kamishibai seemed backwards and outdated by comparison. 

As Miyazaki-san explains, in the 1980s, school libraries and schools in Japan increasingly used their budgets on reference materials and technologies for reading instruction. In a counter-movement during that same decade, Miyazaki describes how some teachers and parents worked to improve children’s culture through book-sharing, home libraries, and movie clubs. By 2010, she notes that narrative had all but disappeared from the language curriculum in Japan in favor of non-fiction and instructional texts on how to write newspaper articles or reports. In yet another counter-movement, community volunteers began to pick up the slack by going into the schools, especially the kindergartens, to do “read alouds” (yomikikase) and sometimes perform kamishibai.  Public school education in Japan, as elsewhere, has become increasingly about efficiency and raising student test scores. All of the discussants noted that young people in Japan today do not appear to have the same passion and strong sense of purpose and commitment to improving society that motivated the immediate post-war generation.

Tsukahara-san also describes a transition around 2012 away from drama and theater programs in Japanese schools in favor of aerobic dance. Although he says there is nothing wrong with dance, he argues that the disappearance of dramatic play and theater programs in schools has reduced young people’s opportunities to assume different personas and empathize with experiences other than their own. (In this sense, Slovenia is ahead of Japan because kamishibai is one of the pillars of arts education there. And, in Chile, the Ministry of Education has also adopted kamishibai into the curriculum.) Many educational systems around the world are trending toward increasingly individualized learning programs, and in Japan, the Ministry of Education currently has a five-year plan to establish what they are calling GIGA schools, where each child will be given his or her own personal computer for completely individual instruction. As the discussants argue, the profits of the technology companies are increasingly determining the direction of public education.

With its capacity for community building and cultivating kyōkan (shared experience), kamishibai bucks these powerful trends, and, as the five discussants agree, it is becoming all the more important because of them. As opportunities to have shared experiences and common feelings in community disappear, kamishibai offers a readily available way to create niches of person-to-person contact almost anywhere. What I didn’t know until I read this article/ discussion is that the kamishibai seminars, study groups, and community activist groups, who bring kamishibai into the schools and community centers on a volunteer basis throughout Japan, came into being in direct response to kamishibai’s disappearance from the public schools in the 1960s and 70s. Artists, like Nagano-san are creating kamishibai out of the traditional nursery rhymes (warabe uta) and games that children used to sing and play in order to teach a younger generation of educators and parents, who did not grow up with this kind of collective play. The most important take-away from this discussion of kamishibai’s challenges for me is that a great deal of work still needs to be done to, in the discussants’ words, “turn back the clocks” in Japan, if some sort of balance between building cooperative, vibrant communities and the trend toward hyper-individualization is to be achieved. Kamishibai may play a key role in that re-calibration, and that may be why its popularity is growing in communities around the world, as well as in Japan. 

This discussion also reminded me of my reception during my first trip to Japan to research kamishibai in 2001. At that point, flannel board theater was the latest craze there, and I remember being asked, “Why are you researching kamishibai? Kamishibai is going to die out soon. Why don’t you study flannel-board theater instead?” In the more than two decades since that time, there has been a renewal of interest in kamishibai in Japan, and the energy and excitement about the format is growing around the world. In that sense, we are all part of a kamishibai renaissance and part of a growing global community that can work together to keep this artform alive. This was one of the reasons Walter Ritter, Donna Tamaki, and I formed the World Kamishibai Forum in 2020, and one of the main reasons I began this blog was to encourage greater communication between this growing global community and the kamishibai community in Japan.

In order for kamishibai to survive going forward in Japan or anywhere else, it will be vital to inspire the younger generations to engage with kamishibai. In my next blog post, I will look at the second half of this same discussion–Where We Go From Here–where Nagano Hideko, Miyazaki Fumie, Sakai Kyōko, Tsukasahara Shigeyuki, and moderator Suzuki Takako go on to talk about new movements to encourage that engagement in Japan.


4 Responses

  1. This was a very informative blog post, Tara. Thanks so much. When I started presenting kamishibai in classrooms and libraries in about 2010, I naively thought teachers would jump at the chance to adopt kamishibai and make it part of their classroom activities. That has not been the case, however. I can think of only one teacher (an art teacher, unsurprising) who did that as a result of my efforts. (Happily, I am returning to her classroom next month.) If teachers are not going to adopt kamishibai in a much bigger way, kamishibai storytellers must bring it to the classrooms themselves. That’s what Write Out Loud is doing in San Diego County, here in California. To get into lots of classrooms, the service needs to be free of charge. That’s a difficulty for most k-storytellers, of course. Last I looked, even they need to pay the rent and eat from time to time. Our answer to this is to operate as a non-profit organization that can solicit funding from various sources. This “triangulates” the operation ~ funder / service provider / recipient ~ and solves the money problem. Of course, that is much easier said than done – but it can be done. Using this model, we visit hundreds of classrooms and libraries every year. We are not doing enough yet, but with a small number of actors serving different parts of our region, we are possibly the most prolific provider of kamishibai to schools/libraries anywhere. I recommend this model to anyone who wants to address the need for kamishibai in classrooms.

    • Thank you, Walter. Your ideas are very helpful. To really adopt kamishibai into a school or community, I think it takes the whole village, not just one teacher working alone. (Although there are some remarkable individuals who have persevered.) Even in Japan, the most successful projects are in communities where parents, librarians, storytellers, and community activists all work together to create events and opportunities for young people to present their stories. I am thinking of my experiences at the Minoh Hand-Made Kamishibai Festival, which was sadly discontinued a couple of years ago. But for the years that it ran, the dedication of so many people to make it happen over many years led to a truly vibrant kamishibai culture and some really inspired storytelling by young people in the community!

  2. I like to read how things turned out in the past, and thank you for the researcheds, time have changed, technology has caught up with everything, and with much respect for everyone, my opinion is based on my experience, in each of my presentations I start the activity by presenting the book Kamishibai Man, written by Allen Say in this way the participants have a brief idea of where and how kamishibai emerged, which it is very important for every one to know. During the time I have been using Kamishibai I have had one primary purpose and one of them has been to bring joy to children who are economically disadvantaged. For me there are many tools that should be used when presenting a story in the Kamishibai format. Within the magic that this technique hides there is something else and that is to carry and leave a message for the audience of children and adults, it is not just telling the story that makes this moment special and unforgettable but through the moral and teaching that the educator or presenter can construct. For a person who has worked in the educational system, it is inevitable but essential to add other skills that can help children and specially adults who have suffered being illiterate. During this literacy moment. I think that within the world of the arts the use of Kamishibai is the bridge to make a difference and change lives. The Kamishibai paper theater has allowed my participants to learn about its history. I also apply what is now heard in schools, the STEAM method, which allows me to apply the meaning of these acronyms within the story. Kamishibai for me has been an excellent tool to bring healing to others, Once the child has the opportunity to also present a story in Kamishibai, this will help him/her dare to give a speech in the future, and above all to encourage children that they too can be the leaders of tomorrow, and for adults its always good to remember the past through literacy, seniors have the best oral stories which they can be integrated into a Kamishibai.

    • Thank you for sharing your experiences with kamishibai, Lilly. It sounds like you are doing great things!

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