Japanese American Traditions

Kamishibai: A Modern Educational Revival of a Traditional Entertainment Form

The kamishibai man pedals his bicycle into town and begins clapping his wooden blocks together. Like moths to a flame, children flock to him from all directions, clamoring to buy sweet mizuame candies. After the candy purchases are negotiated, the children form an audience around the kamishibai man as he begins to tell an exciting story with brightly-illustrated cards he inserts into a wooden theater-shaped frame on the back of his bicycle.

This was a familiar scene all over Japan for approximately 30 years, from the advent of kamishibai in the early 1920s until the popular form of street storytelling lost its audience to television in the early 1950s.

Kamishibai, sometimes spelled as kami shibai, means “paper” (kami) ”theater“ (shibai), and is named for the picture cards the storyteller uses to present a story to an audience. Parts of the story were printed on the backs of the cards to help the teller remember the story and to make sure the story matched the pictures. The stories were of the classic “to be continued” type—which kept the children coming back time after time to hear the rest of the story. Researchers suggest that the kamishibai form was related to early manga (printed Japanese comics), and was, in some ways, a predecessor of anime (animated Japanese cartoons).

Tara McGowan, an artist and storyteller, is currently writing a book about the history of kamishibai and how it has been used in Japan and the United States.

Q: What part did kamishibai play in children’s and a community’s lives before the advent of television?

McGowan: Kamishibai was one of the few forms of entertainment that was available, and available for children of lower-income families. It was enormously popular during the 1930s, 1940s and 1950s, especially during and directly after the war when so much else had been destroyed.

Q: What were the kamishibai men like? Were they intent on selling candy? How did someone become a kamishibai man? Were there any kamishibai women?

McGowan: The stereotypical image is of a man on a bicycle, although there were exceptions. I know a woman artist, for instance, who told kamishibai stories in the burned-out neighborhoods of Tokyo directly after the war, but she did this as a volunteer. The use of kamishibai was not restricted to the street performers, but they are the ones who popularized it. I think it is safe to say that the candy peddler/street performers, who traveled around by bicycle and belonged to the kamishibai organizations that loaned out the stories, were probably all men.

It was not difficult to become a kamishibai man, but after a certain point, the government did impose restrictions requiring the kamishibai performers to acquire licenses. This was to ensure the hygiene of the candy sold and also to control in some measure the content of the stories. The downside of this kind of control was that the government also used kamishibai to disseminate war propaganda. For this and other reasons, kamishibai suffered an image problem in Japan after the war.

The kamishibai men were absolutely intent on selling candy. They had to make a living. But to be successful at their trade, they also had to be friendly, enthusiastic and animated—otherwise they would not have had any customers.

Q: How are modern-day teachers using kamishibai in the classroom?

McGowan: Teachers in America and Japan are using kamishibai in their classrooms in a variety of valuable ways, but in both countries, there is a general misperception on the part of teachers and librarians that kamishibai is simply a large picture book. I am writing a book on the subject, and a large section of the book will explain how kamishibai evolved as a different medium from picture books.

When I was in Japan, I interviewed people involved with kamishibai, and they all agreed on the need to educate teachers in Japan, the U.S. and elsewhere about the unique capabilities of kamishibai as a form so it can be used more effectively as a teaching tool. They were excited to hear that I am writing a book for American teachers, storytellers, librarians, artists and everyone who might be interested, and they shared many of the exciting techniques they are using with their students of all ages in Japan.

It is important to realize that kamishibai is not only for children. People of all ages in Japan today create and perform their own kamishibai stories at annual kamishibai conventions, and in its heyday, kamishibai stories were published for adult audiences as well. Now most of the kamishibai published in Japan are for young children, but hopefully the revival on interest in kamishibai in Japan and elsewhere in the world will lead to more variety in the kinds of kamishibai available in print.

Joyce Nako is a sansei storyteller who uses kamishibai for storytelling. She has performed at the Pacific Asia Museum, the Armand Hammer Museum of Art and the Japanese American National Museum, as well as at schools, libraries and temples.

“I am, as much as possible, following a tradition,” Nako said. “I perform kamishibai to share my Japanese heritage with others.” Nako said that after one of her performances, a 70-year-old nisei woman praised her storytelling. “It was the first time she had ever seen kamishibai.”

Nako said that she sees kamishibai storytelling as a collaboration between the artist who created the pictures, the storyteller, and the audience. While performing, Nako said she judges an audience’s response and “plays” to the responders.

When choosing stories to tell, Nako said she is drawn to very old traditional Japanese tales and she prefers watercolor illustrations on the picture cards. Nako once saw a woman perform propaganda-style kamishibai war stories, but said that she personally does not like violent, aggressive stories. “I’m a pacifist, I think,” she said. Nako said one of her favorite stories to tell is the moral tale The Crane Returns a Favor, which carries the message that a good deed will often be repaid later in an unforeseen situation. Nako said the themes in many traditional Japanese kamishibai tales are also found in the stories of other cultures.

Caldecott Medalist Allen Say’s most recent book is about a kamishibai man—a tale of an old paper storyteller in Japan who returns to the city and discovers the children he used to entertain have not forgotten him.

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