Resilience from helpful neighbours


Book review, from Tokyo – After spying a review in a column by Ayako Oguni in the Mainichi Shimbun (morning edition, 2 March 2021), I simply had to pick up this particular picture book. Kyoko Ube’s 『リアスのうみべ さんてつがゆく』 (Riasu no umibe santetsu ga yuku; lit., the Ria coast where the Santetsu runs) tells the inspiring heart-felt story of the Sanriku Railway after the March 2011 tsunami.

Affectionately known as Santetsu, of which san comes from the name of the region and tetsu an abbreviation of tetsudo or railway, the service running along the 160km Rias Line famously ploughed on despite extensive damage to its tracks and bridges. It is no wonder that the train line has become a symbol of reconstruction. But this book offers more than just that story.

From the title page, Yukiko Saito’s illustrations threw me straight into a dark and dank room lit only by a sole candle. An old lady huddles together with two children in a blanket while a man next to them sits hunched against the wall. His head hangs dejectedly, a black rucksack stands nearby. Their backs are to the window, so I can see rooftops washing away outside. Some power poles too. This is a now familiar image I could piece together from first-hand accounts.

The next few pages surprised me, like the people who hear the train coming through the light snow. It can’t be! There is so much damage, but people work day and night to put the railway back into service. And by the fifth day, the train pulls into the station, bringing people equipped, determined, and ready to help clean up the rubble. Many survivors become ill from their prolonged stays in the evacuation shelters, but a ride together on the familiar santetsu brings tears of joy and smiles. When an old lady apologizes for not being able to paying her fare, the train conductor grips her hands appreciatively, saying “We’re in it together. Ganbaru beshi!”

As the train chugs on, over the years, the landscape outside changes from construction site brown to a grassy green covering what was once a town. Strolling the plain, those legs would recall a fish shop here, the tofu store next to it, and the barber across the street. As the sea breeze passing through the pine forest brings back kinder, fun memories, a distant train whistle reminds us that we are not alone.

Written in simple Tohoku dialect, the book portrays the resilience of the region driven and made possible by the railway. Besides the dialect, illustrator Saito also hails from Tohoku, which makes it a full cast from subject matter to perspective. My particular takeaway is how resilience comes from standing in solidarity and reaching out to help your neighbours. No one is or should be left alone. As a Chinese saying goes, a faraway relative cannot stop a nearby fire. The nearby community must be the first port of call. So, this book is truly a tribute to the santetsu. A railway that connects and stays close to its people. Its rhythmic rumbling, the heartbeat of the Sanriku coast.

Title: 『リアスのうみべ さんてつがゆく』 (Riasu no umibe santetsu ga yuku; lit., the Ria coast where the Santetsu runs) text by Kyoko Ube, illustrated by Yukiko Saito
Publisher: Iwasaki Shoten, 2021

Five years ago, ten years on


Book review, from Tokyo – Ten years have passed since the Great East Japan Earthquake on 11 March 2011. In the Japanese central government’s last official ceremony in memory of the disaster’s victims, the Emperor clearly expressed a sentiment that echoed – the disaster continues today. While international news outlets continue to cover the anniversary, there is also a growing amount of literature – naturally, when survivors, people who have lived through the event become ready to talk, then will there be light shone on its many facets.

One such publication is 『16歳の語り部』(Juurokusai no kataribe; lit. 16 year-old speakers group). Released five years ago, the words of three students from Omagari Elementary School in Higashi-matsushima City, Miyagi prefecture, trace their thoughts of how they came to terms with reality and what they hoped to achieve through sharing their stories under the Kids Now Japan project (Kids Now). Former Miyagi prefecture middle school teacher Toshiro Sato started the project after reading a newspaper article on Nayuta Ganbe, one of the three children, speaking about his experience.

Structured as three separate accounts, Nayuta Ganbe, Honoka Tsuda, and Akane Aizawa share their journey of overcoming loss, facing reality among friends and adults, and finding a way forward through speaking up. P5 in 2011, they may have gone to the same school just 2.3km from the sea but their stories of that day and the five years that followed differ not only because of what they saw, but also because of their very different characters.

When the earthquake struck, Tsuda was excited at the intensity of the initial quake as she took cover under a grand piano while a strange calmness came over Aizawa as she soothed panicked friends a few rooms away. When the tsunami came, Ganbe froze as the outstretched hand of a middle-aged man drifted into the murky waves that battered the school building he was taking refuge in from two sides, and in the aftermath, bodies that once breathed life strewn across the land. Whatever was left of Tsuda’s early excitement vanished when her father showed her what was left of their home – nothing. Its second floor laid some 50 metres away by a river. As for Aizawa, despite her disbelief at her hiraya one-floor home gone, she had clung onto the hope that her beloved dog had somehow survived because it was never found. But soon, she had to come to terms with the death of a dear childhood friend.

The three of them all knew that one unnamed person, but it was especially excruciating for Aizawa because the two had quarreled over something she could not recall the previous day and could no longer apologize. For Tsuda, this same person, who knew Aizawa took time to befriend someone, had once said “ano ko no koto, yoroshiku ne” to her about Aizawa, and that now took on a different meaning.

Recovery took time; the three of them eventually each found their own way. When school resumed about a month later, students were instructed not to talk about the tsunami. In middle school, inlanders, who did not suffer much damage, outnumbered those who came from the coast, and so the differences in how they behaved, what they spoke about became more pronounced, increasingly marginalized. Ganbe gradually came to understand the gag order, but he was shocked when he heard someone else, about the same age, speaking out at an event – it’s okay to talk about it! – and he soon found meaning in speaking and sharing his story with others. Especially when memories were gradually changing as time passed. Talking made him feel better but he also saw how he could help others learn about the disaster in this way. He saw how natural disasters could strike Japan at anytime, anywhere – that others were mi-saisha (people who may one day be afflicted by a natural disaster). And he saw how his work could help save lives in the next big one.

On the other hand, Tsuda’s frustration exploded in class one day when she flung a table at a boy who was making fun of how his mother panicked during the quake. Reacting in that way allowed Tsuda, and some of the boys in her class, to keep their heads, she reflected. She also saw how some adults, being humans themselves, pushed children aside in the queue for rations. Tsuda had a father, and teacher, who trusted her to find herself, her own way in life as a person, which was liberating. Inspired by Ganbe’s actions, she also too took to sharing her experience with her peers. Near the end of her account, she reflected how not everything since 3.11 had been bad, and also on the importance of human interaction, because despite all our records of the past, when those cease to exist, what remains would be the depth of one’s memories.

Aizawa, however, was one to bottle things inside. Like others traversing childhood and adulthood, she didn’t find it easy to open up to an adult, and so she didn’t. Instead, she found respite in venting to Tsuda her complaints and troubles during their walks home from school, but the emotions and tension kept churning within. She confessed to having lost her old positive self as she fell deeper and deeper into negativity with each harsh uttering of her stressed friends. But she was not suicidal. Just lost. Not necessarily searching for any particular direction in life. But when she was given the chance to speak, she found that the freedom to speak without restraint to her peers allowed her to slowly find her cheerful self again. In retrospect, she wished that adults had simply watched over them quietly instead of probing from time to time. And, she still loves the sea.

The book encapsulates in time, fixing in print the words of these three 16 year-old survivors who were 11 at that time. It also includes an entry by Miyu Yamashiro, a Tokyo high schooler who heard them speak, along with Sato’s entry that rounds up the book. Sato himself lost his daughter who was raring to go on to middle school. But Ganbe’s, Tsuda’s, and Aizawa’s words gave him another perspective, that of children that day. Their voices drive the hope and strength enclosed in these pages that make this title one not just for their stories but also a reminder of other children who have suffered more. As we remember the lives lost and the missing, we must remind ourselves to be ready for the next disaster and the recovery in its aftermath.

Title: 『16歳の語り部』(Juurokusai no kataribe; lit. 16 year-old speakers group) by Nayuta Ganbe, Honoka Tsuda, and Akane Aizawa, supervised by Toshiro Sato
Publisher: POPLAR Publishing, 2016

Nayuta Ganbe appears in this recent article.
Japan’s children of the tsunami shaped by tragedy, Jakarta Post, 4 March 2021

(Updated on 14 March to include Tsuda’s opinions on non-negative things post-3.11 and revise ending)

An unexpected read


Book review, from Tokyo – I never thought I would find it sitting in that bookstore. “Are there any English books?” I ventured politely at the cashier counter. The kind lady guided me to the English study corner of the store. Well, there was half a shelf, and this was one of the largest stores in greater Tokyo albeit targeted at a domestic crowd. Anyway, I already expected the selection because I had searched their online catalogue. But what I didn’t expect was for the eiken (practical English language proficiency test) section to come with a tiny little shelf of learning aids, where there stood inconspicuously not one but two copies of And Tango Makes Three alongside Hello Kitty early reader book and educational toys. I had heard about this book, once-banned in Singapore, and had read it before. This Classic Board Book edition just screamed out – get me! – so I did, thinking “Anyway, there’s another copy for someone else!”

My elder daughter, now in middle school, has gotten more interested in English, although whether for grades or just the language remains unclear. She might pick Tango off the shelf someday, but my younger one’s preference for foreign language learning veers towards K-pop. That is, if she ever ventures there as often as she does the tablet, her toys, or her sewing kit. She often asked to be read at bedtime. So when I got the chance, I dangled a penguin story along with a running translation in Japanese. And she bit.

For anyone who hasn’t already read, Tango is based on a true story about two male penguins fathering a chick in New York City’s Central Park Zoo. Tango starts by bringing readers to New York City, then Central Park, and then its zoo, where human families come to meet the animal kind. And of course, there must be penguins because they’re on the cover! So the story starts when two male penguins Roy and Silo find each other during mating season. They waddle, swim, eat, and sing together. They do everything together. But when other couples start hatching eggs in their nests, Roy and Silo could only bring home an egg-like rock to warm. That is, until one day, when Mr. Gramzay, their keeper, snuck a spare egg into their nest. The two penguins cared for it and it was only time when Tango cracked it open. The book ends with children cheering on a fledgling Tango gliding through the waters with her two fathers before sunset in the penguin house suggest that its time for human and animals alike to go to bed.

Reading that to her didn’t lull her to sleep but drew loads of unexpected laughter. She giggled at how the two penguins seemed to do everything together, particularly bowing as she would. She laughed at how they imitated the other couples by bringing home a rock, and how they tried to hatch it – Of course, it wouldn’t hatch! It’s a rock! Obviously, she was having loads of fun. And right at the end, she burst out again, “two fathers” she exclaimed, to which I added two mothers is also fine. And I think I caught a paused smile in the dim light before she repeated herself again, her mind probably more energized than sleepy after all that. I suggested another read, which she took off me to race through before finally drifting off to dreamland.

Something felt warm and fuzzy inside as I saw my seven-year-old’s openness and honest reactions to this penguin story, regardless of how the birds actually turned out. Reading together certainly opened my eyes to something more than just penguins not normally being able to care for more than one egg. Maybe one day, she will pick it up and perceive it differently on own her own, in the same way as her elder sister, now attuned to the SDGs, did when she reread that Japanese picture book on Mujica’s speech.

(Review based on Little Simon Classic Board Books edition.)

Title: And Tango Makes Three by Justin Richardson and Peter Parnell, illustrated by Henry Cole
Publisher: Simon and Schuster, 2005 (hardcover); Little Simon, 2015 (board book)
Also available as ebook and audiobook.

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

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

 

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