A dictionary for the imagination


Book review, from Tokyo – On a rare trip out to the city, I picked up a book. On the cover, a girl in yellow boots stands in shifting rain clouds, gazing up to the thin white streaks above as birds soar past. 『風のことば 空のことば 語りかける辞典』(Kaze no kotoba sora no kotoba – katarikakeru jiten; lit. Wind words, sky words – a read-out-loud dictionary), the title suggests – Can you hear what they are saying?

Published slightly over five years after his passing, this volume is a compilation of Hiroshi Osada’s comments on the children’s poems he picked for publication in the Yomiuri Shimbun between 2004 and 2015. Verses of sensitive and acute observations of nature, things, and the human sentiment are coupled with Hideko Ise’s signature illustrations to create a truly timeless collection.

Structured like a Japanese dictionary of the simplest things from asa (morning), ame (rain), itami (pain), oishii (delicious), kaze (wind), karada (body), pensiru (pencil), to a final entry for wa, wasuremono (something forgotten), each term has multiple verses addressing different aspects, not defining but expanding the term. Just like a handy dictionary to grow our imagination and our sensitivities.

For example, Pencil – Not a tool for people to write words, but a tool to bring people to words. To the pencil, the paper says, “Write me, write me”, and when you write, the words say, “read me, read me”.

It then extends seamlessly to writing – When you write with a brush, you will come to realize that writing means steadying your breath and channeling all your senses.

I certainly enjoyed being reminded of the most delicious taste as a child – a quick bite of a special dish before it is served. And that the two main ingredients of a tasty dish is someone to make it so and then someone to eat it so (delicious). Also, that a simple kind word lasts longer than any medication or treatment (pain). How walking in puddles after the rain is just like walking in the clouds (rain). How the wind gives the grass and trees their voices, and how the power lines howl in defiance on a windy day (wind). How you never misplace unimportant items but only those that are important, and how you’ll never forget the day you forgot something at school and went back for it when no one else was there (something forgotten).

And of course, the editors kindly remind us to read out loud to share this volume with those close by.

Title: 『風のことば 空のことば 語りかける辞典』(Kaze no kotoba sora no kotoba – katarikakeru jiten; lit. Wind words, sky words – a read-out-loud dictionary) by Hiroshi Osada, illustrated by Hideko Ise
Publisher: Kodansha Ltd., 2020

Such a simple story


Book review from Tokyo – If ever we needed a simple children’s story about colours, Arree Chung’s Mixed (Henry Holt, 2018; Macmillan Children’s Books, 2018) probably fits the bill.

This brilliantly simple picture book for 3-5 year-olds begins with three colours – red, yellow, and blue. Reds were loud, yellows were bright, and blues were cool. Then one day reds started proclaiming they were the best because they were loudest. The yellows reacted, saying they were the brightest and best. And the blues just couldn’t care less about the brooha. The city quickly became segregated by colour.

But when a yellow took a liking to a blue, they mixed and created green. More colours mixed, creating an entire spectrum of colours in a multi-coloured city. And soon a new harmonious co-existence formed. Not perfect, but still home.

That last sentence signs off the book. The initial “harmony” began falling apart with a single loudmouth. So simple, but so very divisive. But when some colours became naturally attracted to their mutual differences, they came together and eventually built a new co-existence to call home.

What if the colours didn’t, or couldn’t, mix? Imagine a world of just different shades of red? How stuntedly bland is that?

Mixing creates in-betweeners that fill the gaps in the spectrum, making it more complete, more seamlessly enjoined. The spectrum has a place for every colour, even for the new ones yet to be formed.

Let’s take it one step further. Mix. Go out there. Reach out to other people. Hear them. And we will see the beauty, or not, of what we are part of.

It’s such a simple story, isn’t it?

 

Title: Mixed by Arree Chung
Publisher: Henry Holt, 2018; Macmillan Children’s Books, 2018

What has changed?


Book review, from Tokyo – The end of April in Japan normally heralds a long vacation. But things are different this year. Healthcare systems and workers face extreme stress as Covid-19 numbers continue to grow. For the public, Golden Week in Japan has become Stay Home week.

On TV, bullet trains are reportedly running at 0% passenger capacity. There are scarcely any cars on major highways and shopping areas are deserted. Nearer home, it has translated into fewer trips out – taking out the trash, brief walks, shopping for essentials. Public facilities like libraries and community centers are shut, but elsewhere it’s mostly business-as-usual with masks and at distance. Many eateries now do takeouts as well. Supermarkets remain busy. Some bulk-buy the advised 3-days worth of supplies. Staff headed for restocking saunter through socially-distanced shoppers in the aisles. Plastic boundaries hang between cashiers and shoppers.

Take a step away from human society, and I realized that it is already mid spring – the season when the natural world bursts to life. Fresh vibrant shades of green. Flowers. Yellow, white, pink, magenta, purple. Sometimes tinier than an asphalt pebble. Gusty winds. Fast moving clouds. Signs of the fluid tussle above. You can even hear the bugs chirping for summer.

All around the world, we’re seeing more of nature. And it’s not just the season. Clear skies over once-smoggy cities. Canals cleansed by the dearth in gondola traffic. Dolphins return to tourist-barren inlets. Neighbouring wildlife rest in lawns. Penguins roam empty aquariums. Lion herds lie on warm asphalt. For sure, the pandemic has hit humans and our society hard. But the silver lining is that our planet seems to be recovering. In just about six months at that!

Zoë Tucker’s Greta and the Giants (Frances Lincoln Children’s Books, 2019) can never be a more timely read. Inspired by Greta Thunberg’s story and translated into Japanese by Yumiko Sakuma as 『グレタとよくばりきょじん』(Gureta to yokubari kyojin, lit. Greta and the greedy giants; Froebel-Kan Co., Ltd., 2020), the gist of this colourful, nature-loving piece is laid bare in the Japanese title – greed.

For too long, human society has been driven by the pursuit of economic development and progress, distanced ourselves from our natural environment, while others suffer under the weight of poverty or lose their habitats. Suggestive? Perhaps.

Zoe Persico’s illustrations from cover to cover paint Greta as a friend of the forest. Some greedy giants arrive to scamper around tirelessly, cutting down trees to build homes. But they then start building bigger and bigger cities, destroying forests and driving animals out of their natural environment. Greta starts her placard protest alone, but she soon finds friends. Confronted by Greta and her friends, the greedy giants frown, fidget nervously, and stomp their feet in agitation. Familiar? Maybe.

Well, the next page shows the greedy giants appreciating the simple things, slowing things down – actually enjoying life. And finally, they return to live with their natural environment. A happy ending for all.

Other than the ending, the similarities to real life are uncanny, except that our current stay-home situation is being enforced upon us by an invisible threat to our lives. Greta Thunberg’s movement remains an urgent undertaking. One that requires global coordination. One that the virus must not derail. Because our story continues. The effects in nature are there for us to see and learn precious lessons from. And we must surely realize our footprint already. Otherwise, this book will serve a kind reminder of our acts and its effects on nature.

 

This review is based on the Japanese translation of the original English title.

Title: 『グレタとよくばりきょじん』(Gureta to yokubari kyojin, lit. Greta and the greedy giants) by Zoë Tucker, illustrated by Zoe Persico, translated by Yumiko Sakuma
Publisher: Froebel-Kan Co., Ltd., 2020

There’s more to being clever


Book review, from Tokyo – Mid March. The World Health Organization raised the coronavirus outbreak to a global pandemic. School in Japan has been abruptly suspended since mid February following a school-related cluster in Hokkaido. March 11 events, exhibitions, concerts, the Olympics. Postponed.

This widening enforced lockdown coincides with the coming of spring. A time for renewal and new beginnings. Bordering the old and new academic and business years in Japan, this period is also marked by its famed sakura viewing season. Young people in formal graduation dress. Graduates and adults moving to new workplaces and offices. In a meritocracy, education ties in closely with climbing the rungs of the social ladder. I took this opportunity to take an idle adolescent mind off her younger sibling and the passing bug to gift my child a paper guide to lifelong learning.

Takashi Saito’s 『本当の「頭のよさ」ってなんだろう』(Hontou no “atama no yosa” tte nandarou, lit., The real meaning of being “clever”; Seibundo Shinkosha Publishing Co., Ltd., 2019) starts by questioning why some people succeed in life despite not getting good grades in school. He reveals that grades measure performance on a tested scope, not necessarily the ability to adapt, innovate or be creative. Besides education, school, he suggests, offers the chance to learn how to live as a social being, a safe, controlled environment where children can learn about themselves and build their own identity. Advocating the benefits of institutionalized education, he opines that specializing in a certain field too early only limits one’s potential, and sowing the seeds of learning in a broad education helps to grow them into a rich forest of knowledge. And from that forest will one find personal purpose.

Saito’s guide to lifelong learning persuades readers to set aside the obsession with making the grade. Because we only have so much time, an overemphasis on beating the test will surely come at the expense of the pursuit of more holistic, wholesome goals. Bring that into the corporate world and we will see shadows of a scandal in the making.

Humanity is facing a test. A test where we cannot merely seek to make the grade by seeking those low numbers. Since the outbreak began, surges in confirmed cases have occupied our minds, the airwaves, and targeted news feeds. To pass this test well, we need knowledge and coordination from our best informed minds and trusted leaders and cooperation from a calm, informed public. And then in Japan, nature summoned a morning of snowfall after a day that topped 23 degrees Celsius last weekend. Surely no one will forget the larger problem requiring global leadership and coordination – humanity and the climate. Should this book serve its purpose, then we will find many more children building more forests of knowledge for humanity. 

Title: 『本当の「頭のよさ」ってなんだろう』(Hontou no “atama no yosa” tte nandarou; lit., The real meaning of being “clever”) by Takashi Saito
Publisher: Seibundo Shinkosha Publishing Co., Ltd., 2019

Shaping a new normal


From Tokyo, book review – Fresh into a new year and already past the first weekend school event. The academic year’s last event is an art and craft work exhibition to demonstrate a year of learning. Parents turned out in numbers as school children mingled. Some weaved through ambling visitors to a random point B, others wandered around searching for a favourite piece to jot down notes for their reports. Art, student curators, eager parents and wide-eyed toddlers. Without my trusted informers (children), some notable absentees would have stayed out of mind.

Some Primary 6 children haven’t reported back since the new year holidays, apparently preparing for the upcoming secondary school entrance exam season. Someone is rumoured to be suffering from burnout. Maybe some other kid is down with fever? Or was flu suspected? Who really knows what’s happening anyway?

Syoichi Tanazono’s『学校へ行けない僕と9人の先生』(Gakkou e ikenai boku to kyuunin no sensei, lit. Me who couldn’t go to school and 9 teachers; Action Comics, 2015) offers a peek into the mind of a boy who found going to school almost impossible. Throughout the comic, Masatomo Tanahashi struggles with flashback dreams of a tall dark shadow stalking him, which later turned into a migraine that kept him away from the classroom.

Tanahashi’s story begins in his early days of Primary 1. He was finding it hard to follow the lesson in class one day, and luck had it that his form teacher (No. 1) Ms. Oshima posed him a question. When he admitted that he couldn’t understand, she slapped him manga-esque hard. He had been taught that in kindergarten, that it was okay to not understand things, and to say so to get an explanation. And so he said it once more. Another manga-esque tight slap sent poor Tanahashi bawling.

That was the beginning of Tanahashi’s shut-in days. The foundations for building trust had been shaken, badly. It took him years and nine teachers – a dour relief teacher and a cheery home tutor failed to meet the countable cut – to end the period that covered his formative years. That left Tanahashi with the dark figure in his dreams, untimely migraines, feet that refused to step out of the door on schooldays, and an absence from class that brewed stories of him.

Those stories morphed quickly. On days Tanahashi actually made it into the classroom, he felt everyone’s gaze. A leg stuck out across his path. A body check in the hallway by an unknown girl. Silent sniggers. Audible whispers. The look. He knew this was “special” treatment. Dropping in and out of class, the more the teacher tried to ease him back into the class, the more the situation escalated. Until the day one level-headed boy actually spoke to him during a group task, breaking the cycle, but only temporarily.

On days at home, Tanahashi would doodle his favourite Dragonball characters, read Dragonball comics, and sometimes direct an epic duel among his figurines. But when the school bell rang, he would peer out his second-storey window to the street below to check on children passing by on the way home – a scene that will grow all too familiar.

As Tanahashi continued his battle to be normal, years went by. There was even a time when he became the center of attention, putting on the mask of an outgoing, outspoken senior. Acting normal didn’t last long. All those days away from school left Tanahashi way behind the curriculum, even with teachers visiting to help him attain the level required of compulsory education.

Confounded by the situation, his parents asked Ms. Inamori (No. 7) to take him under her tutelage. She had a track record of bringing shut-in children back out into society, and she noticed Tanahashi’s shy demeanor and drawing ability. The seasoned pro quickly identified the problems and offered a solution – a distant cram school.

His introduction to the cram school’s teacher Ms. Mori (No. 8) came with a stern warning: I can’t change the rules just for you. You come on three days a week, no more no less. Attending the cram school a few stations away made Tanahashi more relaxed. Among a mixed group of kids from primary to secondary school children, no one talked about his school. No one knew him outside the cram school. No one seemed to bother. Everyone was there for the same reason – to spend time together, play, study and learn, three days a week. That’s normal.

Cram school led to graduation, which seemed to offer the chance of starting anew. But despite Tanahashi’s valiant efforts at studying, he didn’t understand classes. He realized that it was impossible for him to be a normal secondary school student even if he tried.

Noticing the change in his mood, Inamori decided to help Tanahashi meet his idol Akira Toriyama (No. 9), the creator of the Dragonball series. When the day came, Tanahashi showed his best Dragonball doodle to Toriyama. He brushed that aside but had more to say about Tanahashi’s original manga. “I like how you already have your own manga world,” he opined. And then the world outside looked different.

Tanahashi’s story moves quickly on toward the end from there. That last quote filled him with the confidence to trudge on in life, through dreaded classes, extra curricular activities, and outings with friends, all with the goal of becoming an artist with his own world in clear sight. Not just that, but to accept and reflect on his shut-in past as a treasured part of himself, who by the end had become an accomplished manga artist and illustrator.

Based on Tanazono’s real-life experiences, the story is littered with many mentions of “normal” as if conforming were the ultimate goal of life. The bullying episodes certainly prolonged Tanahashi’s recovery from the initial trauma. That it was never properly resolved left a bad aftertaste. But the eventual reconciliation came with arduous support from family, until he finally found the confidence in his own ability, unlocked by the words of teacher No. 9.

This left me realizing how anyone struggling to conform, to fulfill someone else’s expectations cannot really be content, because it only means meeting someone else’s idea of what is normal. Seeing and accepting one’s current situation as it is, like in Tanahashi’s case, certainly helps to give one the platform and means to shape one’s own normal world.

Title:『学校へ行けない僕と9人の先生』(Gakkou e ikenai boku to kyuunin no sensei, lit. Me who couldn’t go to school and 9 teachers) by Syoichi Tanazono
Publisher: Action Comics, an imprint of Futabasha Publishers Ltd., 2015
First published as a monthly series in 2014 on webaction.jp

 

Working the magic


Book review, from Tokyo – On the shelf of my local library stood a dark cover with a little witch. Standing on the branch of a tree, her frock catches the wind. She grips her broom tight, her pointy hat reaching up high to the full moon above. Appearing small yet determined, a crow perches alongside her. 『ちいさな魔女とくろい森』(Chiisana majo to kuroi mori, lit. The little witch and the black forest; Bunkeido, 2019) is unlike other witches’ tales.

The story begins. In the moonlight, two witches fly north to the black forest. One big, one small. A crow is with them. The forest animals greet the mother and daughter pair, and they move quickly to a hut to start preparing a witches’ brew. The forest is ill.

The mother witch works her magic, chanting a spell to conjure up a potion. The little witch sings along, mimicking her mother. When the potion is ready, the little witch helps to cast the brew, pouring it on the ground and roots of every single tree in the forest.

“Will the forest recover?” she asks.
“It will take time,” was the response.

One day, they hear that the forest in the south has fallen ill too. But there is still work to be done for this one. “I’ll stay,” says the little witch, suggesting that her mother go south.

But she cannot yet make the healing potion on her own. Chanting the spell is easy, and she rubs her hands, expecting the seeds to form and fall from her palms into the boiling broth. Nothing happens.

The big witch offers some advice – for the spell to work, you must think of all the living things in the forest, have them in your heart at all times. Day after day, her palms get sore from days of practice. Until the day when the seeds fall from those blisters into the steaming pot will she be ready to protect this forest alone.

Mutsumi Ishii’s story of witches coming to the rescue of an ailing forest strikes home for the episode in which the child learns the ropes, with sound advice, of course. From an eager apprentice, she grows into a real little witch who can cast her own spell. And that’s just about enough, for this forest at least. Chiaki Okada’s delicate artwork mesmerizes with expression in detail while leaving much room for imagination – those blisters turning into seeds is where she worked her magic.

No cackling, menacing fingers, crooked noses, eyeballs, bats, cobwebs, or spiders. But an endearing witch’s tale with a wisdom that we sometimes overlook – working magic takes time, effort, and heart. And of course, there is the bit about the forests as well.

Title:『ちいさな魔女とくろい森』(Chiisana majo to kuroi mori, lit. The little witch and the black forest)
Text by Mutsumi Ishii, illustrated by Chiaki Okada
Publisher: Bunkeido, 2019

You can almost hear it


Book review, from Tokyo – Rain. I remember those days huddled up indoors, safely away from the seemingly endless rumbling. Peering through the windows at those blinding white streaks crackling across the sky. Walking around outside in those suddenly leaky shoes and soggy socks that squish with every step. Drenched clothes that stick to the skin, and those drippy trousers that strangely feel a whole lot heavier. None of that in Yuko Ohnari’s『どしゃぶり』(Doshaburi, lit. Downpour), a charming story of a boy meeting a sudden downpour right in front of his house.

He is on his way out, stepping gingerly over the burning porch, when he spots a towering gray cloud floating this way. The first drops begin to fall. Pitter, patter, plop. That’s a big one! The smell of rain blends in with the smell of the ground. And then the skies open…

The boy opens his umbrella. Dop. Dup. Bip. Bop. Bup. Bop. Duppity dop. Bup bop bup bup bop bup bruuuup. Bap bap bup bup braaap. It has become a drum!

“It’s so noisy!” He shouts. The rain falls harder. Faster. He notices a cacophony of sounds around him. The trees, the grass, the ground, the roofs. It’s the rain! In full voice! And he sure can hear it.

Arms outstretched, he feels the rain. He kicks off his shoes and joins in the fun. Swish! There goes a puddle! Plomb! And another one! He stops and tilts his head upwards. The rain bounces off his head. Glides across his forehead. Slides down his cheeks. Swirls round his ears. Washes down his hair and neck.

And then it’s over. As quickly as it came. The entire street is dripping wet. The cars. The houses. The boy too, of course. Refreshed. Cooled down. A wide smile on his face. That was great! “Come back again sometime,” he says.

The text is, quite simply, noisy. Not exactly easy to read, but fast, loud and fun. This picture book about a boy in the rain fascinates me because Koshiro Hata’s artwork alone could not tell the entire story. We see the rain fall. The umbrella open. The water strike and drench the boy. The boy kicking and jumping into puddles. And we also see him smile. But that is only half the story. Ohnari’s text tells us how the boy hears the rain, speaks to it, plays with it, and at the end, he says goodbye to the passing shower.

That’s not the only connection. Midway through the book, the boy stands hunched in the barrage of falling rain. On the last page, the boy holds his umbrella up to the shower in the bath. On both pages, you can almost hear the sounds again. Even without the help of any text.

Sometimes, we are not so lucky with rain, with floods and drought and the recent extreme weather conditions. But the joy of playing with water doesn’t really change, and this book certainly captures it well. In the rain, without the rumbling thunder and lightning flashes of course.

 

Title:『どしゃぶり』(Doshaburi, lit. Downpour)
Text by Yuko Ohnari, illustrated by Koshiro Hata
Publisher: Kodansha, 2018

Since that day


Book review, from Tokyo – The Great East Japan Earthquake struck more than eight years ago. The impact was felt not just physically. It was a day when a fundamental change began, and continues unabated. Just recently, the decision was made to decommission the nuclear power plant next to the crippled Fukushima Daiichi.

In the preface to『あの日からの或る絵とことば』(Ano hi kara no aru e to kotoba, lit. Pictures and words from a day since then) picture book editor Daisuke Tsutsui brings together 32 children’s book creators who tell their own stories from the day. Readers are treated to one more, in the preface reserved to the driving force behind a book of artworks interspersed with contemplative worded entries.

In the preface, Tsutsui expresses a view I share, that the content of some picture books has changed. Bolder, filled with life, addressing death, and giving space to images that were once thought to be frightening. Meanwhile, others have become more sensitive, carefully portraying the details of our daily lives and those moments to cherish. In compiling this book, Tsutsui hopes readers will identify with some of the ideas in those pages and reflect on their own thoughts since that day.

Here are some parts from four essays among the entries spread across 130-odd pages.

Yuki Sasame’s poem 『よごしてはいけない』 (Yogoshite ha ikenai, lit. We must not dirty) starts off expressing a gratitude to nature (god). “While humans may be the ones to cultivate the fields and refine the grains, only the gods (nature) can make them grow. Such gifts of the gods (nature) must not be tainted by human desire.” And of course, she goes on to stress the need to stop polluting the land, the air, the oceans, the rivers, that give us our vegetables, fish, meat, and food, because why should we make ourselves and our children suffer as a consequence?

mirocomachiko’s 『いきものとしてのわたし』(Ikimono toshite no watashi, lit. Me as a living thing) reflects on her plight as a weak creature, lamenting her struggle to even find a sanitary napkin in Tokyo in the aftermath of the quake, while apologizing to her late cat for not realizing earlier how it detested visits to the hospital and letting it finally go peacefully. And how she puts her energy into painting to live true to herself and start recovering her strength as a living being.

In 『机の下 柱時計の中』(Tsukue no shita hashira dokei no naka, lit. Under the table, in the grandfather’s clock), Kenji Oikawa recalls ducking under his desk, an act that brought him back to his school days, to an evacuation drill. And then back further, into the Brothers Grimm’s “The Wolf and The Seven Little Goats” where only the one in the grandfather’s clock was miraculously spared. Their stories, he says, are sometimes cruel, with the innocent made to suffer. Not unlike the ferocity of nature.

Across several essays, there was an appreciation that we just happen to be alive, to survive in this time and age. Yasumi Kato’s expresses in『あんぱんと牛乳』(Anpan to gyuunyuu, lit. A red bean bun and milk) that we are alive in this particular time in our unfolding history of disaster, pollution, attacks, and conflict. In her short essay, she recounts her bewildering, sudden craving for a red bean bun and milk right after the quake. And her realization that those brightly lit nights of slumber were an unneeded habit brought from her upbringing. She continues “there is so much that is unnecessary. Since then, I reflect on things around me more often. Where is this water from? What is this dish made of? Where was it made? Who did the cooking? What did people do when this didn’t exist? What did we do before we had cling film?”

This somewhat parallels a point in mirocomachiko’s essay. “If we go along with the flow of this world that we have created, the days will be filled with excessive, unnecessary worries. And we would gradually lose the power that we actually need to live.”

So what is the excess that consumes this power? Kato offers another thought. “Many living things feed on something, pass motion, and leave offspring. The oceans are polluted, and since we cannot fish anymore, the shells and fish just keep growing in number. This is akin to inheriting dirty oceans. Or so I read somewhere. And it continued, must humans also be this way?”

Leaving the open question, she returns to her title. A red bean bun and milk is a combination that the police often equip themselves when keeping an eye on a suspect, well at least in Japanese dramas and movies. Essentially, supplies for the long haul. Certainly an initial hunch that falls not far from the target.

The essays and contributions allowed me to contemplate the fundamental shift I felt from that day. That creators of children’s books considered these issues in similar ways gave me the chance to collect my thoughts, and that gave me hope. Hope that the change that started from that day will carry on. And that stories like Hisanori Yoshida’s attempt to capture the strength of life and the human spirit in 『希望の牧場』(Kibou no bokujo, lit. The Ranch of Hope) are being heard.

Title: 『あの日からの或る絵とことば』(Ano hi kara no aru e to kotoba, lit. Pictures and words from a day since then)
Edited by Daisuke Tsutsui with illustrations and photos by 32 children’s book creators
Publisher: Sogensha, 2019

That person?


Book review, from Tokyo – Remember when you had no choice but to team up with that person for something? Well, in life, we will have some moments with people we aren’t quite comfortable with. Some we prefer to forget. Others maybe more fondly remembered.

On its spine, Noriaki Tsujimura’s 『あいつとぼく』 (Aitsu to boku, lit. Him and me) already says a lot. In Japanese, “boku” is, well, just plain old “me” but “aitsu” is normally used to refer to someone who “I’d rather stay away from”, “isn’t exactly my type”, “that person”. You get the idea.

This story of “me” being paired together with “him” for a three-legged race is coupled with Toshikado Hajiri’s colourful spreads and facial expressions that jump at you straight off the page. Tsujimura takes care to put us in “my” shoes and spells out “my” thoughts in words.

From the start, lil’o “me” already seems scared of the sight of “him”. “He” is loud and brash, doing things “his” way, while “I” stay indoors with “my” friends, engrossed in a game of ping-the-eraser-off-the-table. During PE, the teacher lines the class up by height, pairing “him” with “me”, for the three-legged race at the annual sports day. “He” decides that “we” step out on our outer leg. It’s not working. No matter how much practice, “we” keep falling over.

Throughout the entire book, Tsujimura uses very few names. One is Mayumi, the name of “his” sister.

When practicing on the eve of sports day, Mayumi falls and hurts herself. Something happens. Legs bound together, “we” dash across the field. Fast. Without falling over. For the first time. As “he” piggybacks her off to the nurse’s room, “he” leaves a parting shot, suggesting to step out on the inner foot – something “I” suggested before.

The next day, the race ends in a flash. Fast but not fast enough. “I” wanted to run some more, but that bond around “my” leg had been removed too quickly. 

“He” wants to race together again next year, but “we” might not be in the same class then. During recess, “he’s” at it again. But this time, “he” looks this way and flashes a V-sign with that big wide grin of “his”. And “I” return a rather sheepish one.

That sheepish smile at the end seems to say, “Perhaps he’s not as scary as he seems.” Never once referring to him by name, from the start, the meek boy keeps a safe distance. But by the end, the two boys have formed a kind of bond. Not best of friends just yet, and that’s just fine.

 

Title: 『あいつとぼく』(Aitsu to boku, lit. Him and me)
Written by Noriaki Tsujimura, illustrated by Toshikado Hajiri
Publisher: PHP Institute, 2015

Already available in Korean from Scola (Wisdomhouse Publishing Co., Ltd.)

Work in progress


Book review, from Tokyo – That step into parenting is, well, while much documented, very much unknown territory. Even for an old hand, no two children are exactly alike, but some things will stay more or less the same.

From birth, sniffing up that newborn fragrance, anxiously cheering their first steps, quietly leaving them to wobble on ahead on their bicycles, bidding them off to school, facing down the teen rebel, enjoying that first paycheck treat, meeting their choice of a lifetime partner, maybe getting to transition into parenting seniority, and perhaps gaining the mantle of grandparent-hood.

Much of these parenting milestones are picked up by comic artist and father-of-two Shinsuke Yoshitake in 『ヨチヨチ父 とまどう日々』(Yochi yochi chichi – tomadou hibi, lit. Wobbly toddly dad – those dithery days).

In 55 signature musings, Yochi yochi chichi is littered with illustrated reflections from the everyday challenges of a dad as a child’s first non-mum entity to those desperate hunts for diapers. He also laments how dad-dad non-talk doesn’t feel quite the same as free mum-mum chatter.

He puts a dad-spin on a non-dad view of the most mundane events – a dodgy guide to the wide world, his child’s occasional fan, the ways dad tries to keep literally in the picture, and the gratitude of finally landing a place of comfort at the in-laws, along with no lack of kid-related topics for conversation.

Underpinning each episode are expectations, from his boss, co-workers, family, wife, and children, and the pressure to satisfy them partially or simply fall hopelessly short. These create the perfect chance to introduce the Yoshitake family teaching – take life a step at a time and learn from those who are more successful, so that one’s peak is always now or ahead. This contrasts to setting a fast pace, peaking early in life, but falling sharply and ending up frustrated at not being able to fulfill one’s expectations of life.

Despite several readings, I remained slightly puzzled by cover flap that said “papa ha kyoukan, mama ha rakudan“, which loosely means, “dads empathize, mums despair”. One day, I came to realize that this could be interpreted as how dads are often let off for being “dad”, but mums would feel let down instead. Behind that is the expectation mothers bear as parents, the need to cover for dad’s parenting inadequacies, and do much more, including work.

In Japan, I have learned that a child’s education brings greater parenting burdens. Finding a preschool opening eats away at the mental fabric of cities teeming with young dual income families. The huge waiting lists are proof of the stress parents face at each entry window. Having to maintain cash flows without adequate childcare support simply means choosing not to have children.

And then with school comes PTA and those parent-led or -participation groups, committees, organizations and communities today often chaired by selfless working mothers. Fathers silent, invisible. Almost as if visibility at routine meetings might brew a strange kind of pressure to take on more. What then for their wives and children. And for those ready to swim against the tide, who knows what expectations lie in wait. I’ve seen dad-only dad-led groups, but those are voluntary, ultimately for the willing.

Such episodes don’t appear in Yochi yochi chichi. Perhaps Yoshitake was merely speaking from experience. Maybe it is one of the many reasons for the disdain implied in the cover flap. But probably we would all be better off seeing through and breaking down all those hidden expectations, dispelling unnecessary stress and pressure, for a parent will always be a work in progress. I appreciated the kindness and forgiveness as a new parent, and this book certainly affords parents a little kindness that goes a long way toward helping the village raise a child.

 

Title: 『ヨチヨチ父 とまどう日々』(Yochi yochi chichi – tomadou hibi, lit. Wobbly toddly dad – those dithery days) by Shinsuke Yoshitake
Publisher: Akachantomamasha, 2017