A centuries-old Japanese storytelling tradition is being revived for modern audiences. Meet kamishibai – from kami, meaning paper and shibai, meaning play or theatre – an ancient art form that many librarians, nursing-homes and schools use in many countries throughout the world. How and why has it evolved? What is the appeal?
In todays’ manufacturing environment, line managers and workers are familiar with kamishibai boards, also referred to as T-card systems. However, the Japanese word kamishibai (from “kami” meaning paper, and “shibai” meaning theatre) finds its origins in the twelfth century, in Japan’s art of pictorial storytelling or “etoki”: picture scrolls or “emaki” were used by Buddhist monks as tools to preach to audiences of often illiterate villagers.
In Japan: from entertainment kamishibai…
Around Japan’s Edo period (1603-1868), the standing picture style or “tachie” became popular entertainment as a street performing business. It is, however, in 1923-1929, in Tokyo, during the period of the Great Kanto Earthquake and the Great depression, that the current style of flat picture kamishibai or “hirae kamishibai” gained widespread popularity. Many unemployed became itinerant kamishibai storytellers or “gaito kamishibaiya”, who affixed their approximately A4/A3 size wooden stage or “butai” to the back of their bicycle. To draw children’s attention and gain a loyal following, they used wooden clappers and sold sweets and savoury snacks. Kamishibai storytellers did, and still do, reveal pictures one by one- hence kamishibai being somewhat closer to comics than traditional story books because pictures are more sequential. In the 1930s, street kamishibai storytellers used inexpensive techniques; they produced simple images drawn or painted on paper. At that time, kamishibai stories were generally extremely light-hearted, crude and/or mythical tales, presented in episodes with cliff-hangers and illustrated with glaring, garish colours to attract their young audience’s attention. The edibles sold were equally crude, often prepared in unhygienic conditions. As such, kamishibai became a byword for tackiness that was frowned upon by many (especially the police and government officials, eg the Ministry of Education), as it sought to exploit children.
…to military propaganda or “kokusaku” kamishibai
That same government, however, saw in kamishibai’s wide appeal, low cost and portability the ideal mass medium they could easily adapt to influence and indoctrinate both children and adults, not only in Japan but also in Asian countries under Japanese Occupation- hence the production of “colonial kamishibai”. Above all, the government wanted to capitalise on kamishibai’s (perhaps) key attribute: its power to elicit a strong and pleasant sense of togetherness or “kyokan”, as the members of the audience experience similar feelings. Hence, in the Japanese government’s hands, kamishibai became a powerful pro-war propaganda tool. Although most kamishibai’s patriotic narratives asked audiences to help the country in any possible way and be prepared to die for the “nation-family”, some were somewhat educational. Their pictures showed how to build resistant bomb shelters, what to do during air raids (eg how to put out resulting fires) etc. The government’s military propaganda strategy was so successful that it led to a tenfold increase in kamishibai publications compared with the pre-war period – when only recreational kamishibai were created.
… to educational or “kyoiku” kamishibai
Japanese educators also saw great potential in kamishibai – as evidenced in the resulting national education guidelines issued by the government in 1948. Inspired by Christian missionaries’ Gospel kamishibai stories which were first published in 1933, Gozan Takahashi initiated, in the late 1940s, the use of kamishibai as a two-way communication and interaction tool (between a performer and their audience), which distinguishes it from traditional picture-books and makes it a multimodal device. He also favored uncluttered pictures. He founded a kamishibai publishing firm called “Zenkosha” to disseminate his stories aimed at kindergarten and nursery schools. Although street kamishibai as a recreational tool was re-introduced after the devastation of World War Two, criticisms from both officials and non-officials about its immoral use and its lingering sense of tawdriness, added to the advent of household television in the 1950s, led to its demise as an entertainment tool.
Today in Japan
In 1967, the Ministry of Education limited the use of kamishibai to Early Years Foundation Stage (EYFS) schools, its rational being that little formal research had conducted into the impact of kamishibai in education. As a result, nowadays, kamishibai stories are predominantly, but not exclusively, used in EYFS education. They cover a wide array of topics, from folktales to academic subjects such as science, through to more contemporary questions such as the environment, tolerance, peace, etc.
Kamishibai is also known as a “storybox theatre”, and the latter acts as a frame for the pictures, thereby intensifying their power and facilitating the audience’s concentration when listening. Similarly, sliding pictures in and out at different speeds together with half-revealing them, then pausing for dramatic effect, constitute techniques conducive to better focus and concentration. Additionally, for some years now, kamishibai, have been used in a participatory style: the audience is not (only) a quiet, passive recipient. Kamishibai storytellers may read a commercially published story whilst, now and then, interacting with the audience and incorporating their perspectives. In higher schools, older participants can be instructed to collaborate to create a kamishibai storyline and its storyboards, then to perform in front of an audience. Such scaffolding learning activities not only enhance social competences but also foster a confidence-boosting feeling of empowerment. This is exactly what pupils from Mikawa Junior High School in Nagasaki experienced in 2017 after listening to Hiroyasu Tagawa’s first-hand experience as an atomic bomb survivor. It is worth noting that whilst some tsunami, nuclear plant or Nagasaki/ Hiroshima survivors’ stories are also passed onto younger generations via kamishibai created by artists who have listened to survivors’ own memories (eg Never again, a “Peace through kamishibai” story available in 17 languages), others are the creations of the survivors themselves, eg Yoshi Tabata, who outlived the March 1933 tsunami, Hiroshi Suenaga, who survived the Nagasaki bombing on 6 August 1945, Yoko Oka who survived the Fukushima disaster in March 2011 and Mieko Matsuno, who survived the March 2011 tsunami. Not
unexpectedly, some kamishibai stories (such as Matsuno’s) also provide children with easy-to-understand information about self-protection in the event of natural disasters such as earthquakes and tsunamis.
Unsurprisingly, establishments other than EYFS schools use kamishibai as pedagogical tools. Foreign language schools, such as Kanda College of Foreign Languages in Tokyo, use them as their key theme for projects with partner institutions abroad. Some non-profitable organisations (NPOs) use them to establish and maintain cross-cultural links with other countries. For example, Niigata N Net set up a volunteer group in 2009 called “Dream Bridge” to produce multilingual kamishibai to be used as a recreational and learning tool by early years educational institutions in places as diverse as Sri Lanka, Madagascar, South Africa etc.
Other Japanese organisations focus on the transmission of culture between generations. For example, Hyogo Prefectural Museum of Archaeology (HPMA) has facilitated the production of kamishibai stories designed, and used, to raise visitors’ awareness of ancient culture. Similarly, via community support projects, several NPOs, eg Green Leaf, aim to transmit endangered indigenous dialects to younger generations through kamishibai. In 2009, 8 Japanese dialects featured in the UNESCO’s Atlas of the World’s Languages in Danger ; hence, for example, Tora Mistuhashi makes and performs kamishibai to spread understanding of Ainu culture and tradition.
Like any other countries, Japan is changing and some changes may not be for the best. One issue arising from almost constant exposure to digital media is that human contact diminishes, especially amongst the young. Some educators believe this may delay speech development at EYFS, hence kamishibai have been adapted and tailored to meet the needs of individual children who present specific developmental and learning disorders. Another challenge is Japan’s ageing demographic. Since the turn of the century, care homes for the elderly have increasingly turned to participatory style kamishibai. The latter not only fosters the warmth of human interaction, but also provides stimulation that proves extremely useful when senile dementia and other age-related symptoms set in. Stories based on the past, either of a serious or light-hearted nature, are helpful in triggering conversations linked to personal experiences at different stages in life.
Admittedly, there has been a revival of street kamishibai storytellers in recent years, but their numbers are nowhere near those in the 1920s. Some, like Tokyo Kirara-za, a volunteers’ kamishibai troupe, do perform in hospitals, orphanages and schools for the physically and mentally handicapped but predominantly present their stories outdoors, in
front of families. Many adults in the audience admit to harbouring fond childhood memories of kamishibai stories, but could it also be that kamishibai “appeal to the yearning of many people today for a time when life moved at a gentler pace” in Japan?
A single Internet search will yield a myriad of examples to support the claim that, although non-Japanese people, often thanks to Pokémon in the late 1990s, may have become familiar with Japanese manga well before they heard of kamishibai, the latter story-telling medium has been embraced by other peoples. The manga and anime market is big business worldwide; hence, given the contributions made by Kamishibai to the comics genre, some readers became aware of kamishibai via manga.
Although, between 23 May and 26 August 2019, the British Museum in London staged the largest manga exhibition ever held outside Japan, a glance at the map of events organised worldwide for World Kamishibai Day on 7 December 2018 reveals that England does not feature on the list of participants and the same conclusion may be drawn from the list of speakers at the Kamishibai International Symposium in May 2018 in Slovenia.
One of the first scholarly articles on educational kamishibai published in English outside of Japan is dated March 2003 and was written by an American author, Lee Gretchen, who was teaching English abroad: “Kamishibai, a vehicle to multiple literacies”. However, kamishibai really grew in popularity worldwide after the publication, in 2005, of Japan-born Allen Say’s book entitled Kamishibai Man; the French version came out a year later. Since then, the worldwide appeal of kamishibai has undeniably grown. An International Plurilingual Kamishibai competition was launched in 2018 by a French educational organisation called DULALA (meaning From One Language to Another) which is officially accredited by the French Ministry of Education and seeks to promote bilingualism/plurilingual education for all children. South America has been hosting an International Festival of Kamishibai for a few years and several countries hold their own kamishibai festivals, targeting both children and adults, eg Slovenia and Croatia. Kamishibai stories can be purchased online in France, Belgium, Spain, Germany, Canada, South America, etc. The target audience is not only pre-school children but also pre-teenagers. Some stories are available in up to four languages (especially French, Spanish, Dutch, Hugarian, Italian, German); some come in three levels of difficulty and with companion audio CDs. Kamishibai stories, especially for educational purposes, constitute a flourishing market and fee-paying kamishibai workshops aimed at parents, librarians, (trainee) nursery, primary and secondary school teachers, speech-therapists, people working in leisure centres, care-homes for the elderly, etc. run in many countries, eg Italy, France, Spain, Peru. Kamishibai are actively used in classrooms and libraries for children’s literacy development; their use is even encouraged by the Chilean Ministry of Education. As both learners and tutors focus on the pictures and narratives instead of each other, kamishibai stories also facilitate a non-confrontational, non-awkward approach to address human problems, including diversity, gender awareness (in Italy), sex education (in India), obesity etc.. Kamishibai also constitutes an ideally versatile and user-friendly tool for intercultural projects between pupils from two countries.
Finally, the use of kamishibai as a therapeutic tool should not be ignored. It is used with addicts presenting mental health issues, with people presenting specific learning difficulties and/or autism.
In 1985, Sakuramoto, a Japanese author wrote: “because kamishibai is a simple and straightforward integrated art form, […] it can be used extremely effectively as a teaching tool for winning hearts and minds […]. Many years of putting this idea into practice confirm it”. Indeed, and whether it serves as a pedagogical medium or for entertainment, whether in Japan or elsewhere, this ancient art form somehow remains both relevant and strangely reassuring in the face of today’s fast-changing world.
About the Authors
Throughout her life, Japan-born and bred Megumi Bailey has been involved in Early Years Foundation Stage education through her family-run schools. After teaching science in Japanese high schools, she moved to the UK. Since 2001, she has been teaching Japanese at the University of York on the Languages For All programme.
Géraldine Enjelvin has been a university lecturer in England for over 25 years. She has trained primary foreign languages teachers and currently teaches French to undergraduates at the University of York. Her 2018 publication on kamishibai led to her June 2019 hands-on workshop at York Festival of Ideas with Megumi Bailey.