Japanese Children’s Literature 17-19c


A review of Visualizing the Child: Japanese Children’s Literature in the Age of Woodblock Print, 1678-1888, by Kristin Holly Williams.

Although certainly not spoiled with attention, the early modern Japanese child has received the occasional academic cuddle. This attention, however, has been greeted with widely different results. Cradled in the hands of scholars of education, the Japanese child cheers happily; the informal environment of early modern terakoya (temple schools) seems like paradise when compared to the military strictness of the modern schooling system as it was created in the Meiji period. On the other hand, the research of demographers and anthropologists into the widespread custom of infanticide elicits tantrums and tears. The fact that this infanticide was phrased at the time as “returning the child [to the gods]” (kogaeshi) surely makes us reconsider whether this “paradise” was such a desirable place for children after all.

Despite a growing body of scholarship concerning the realities of early modern Japanese children’s lives, the early modern “child,” as concept and representation, remains in relative obscurity. We still lack a work equivalent in scope to Philippe Ariès’s classical exploration of childhood in France, or for that matter, similar studies in the cases of England, Germany, China, or any of the many other countries in which the history of the child has been pursued as an active field of study. The list is long enough to make one wonder what particular factors have prevented an exploration of the topic in the case of Japan. Whatever the reason, it cannot have been for lack of resources. Japan’s flourishing early modern print culture and literacy ratings have secured a legacy of vast documentary records concerning almost any subject, children among them. Luckily, we now have Kristin Williams’s dissertation, which engages with part of this fascinating material as she explores the early modern Japanese “child” through “children’s literature.” By examining “the child both as a subject and a consumer of literature” (p. 16), this dissertation demonstrates the existence of a vibrant children’s culture that reflected as well as helped shape and disseminate conceptions of the “child” in the eighteenth century.

The first hurdle to be surmounted in a project like this is, of course, a problem of definition; are we justified in even speaking of a “children’s literature” in early modern Japan? Prevailing scholarly consensus disagrees, locating the birth of children’s literature in the Meiji period with the advent of works like Koganemaru (1891) and Akai fune (1910). Williams’s first chapter is dedicated to challenging this consensus. After surveying previous scholarship on children’s literature, she follows Harvey Darton and Emer O’Sullivan in delineating these works as 1) “produced ostensibly to give children spontaneous pleasure,” 2) produced “habitually, in quantities and with a frequency which implied that they were meant for a known, considerable, permanent class of readers,” 3) “assigned by adults to the group of readers comprising children and young people,” and 4) “belonging to both the literary and educational realms” (pp. 39-42). The rest of the chapter then proceeds to show that early modern “picture books,” defined as small-format works with “a high ratio of illustration to verbal text and a simplified script” (p. 1), fulfill all of these conditions, thus effectively dragging the birth of children’s literature back in time over two centuries.

Especially refreshing in this chapter is Williams’s refusal to be pegged down by genre. Whereas most scholarship of Japanese literature is still very much structured according to genre schemes based on outward distinctions such as cover color, Williams argues that genre names such as “red book” or “patterned book” have obscured an enduring continuity in content that was aimed at children, i.e. children’s literature. This stance is reflected in the somewhat unusual scope of her dissertation, stretching from 1678, the year of the oldest known datable picture book published in Edo, to 1888, the year that marked the end of the “bean book.” This disregard for established genres is not only effective within the aims of the current dissertation, but also serves as a reminder that content/form relations in Japanese literature is a subject that deserves further examination.

The second chapter extends the argument by showing that early modern commercial products aimed at children were not limited to literature, but included other forms of amusement, such as board games, toys, dolls, and tops. By pointing out the existence of a commercial children’s culture, Williams strengthens her position against scholars who have regarded the rise of this kind of production as “a distinctive feature of Western modernity—something that one should not expect to see in Japan until the Meiji period” (pp. 75-76). Moreover, the chapter also examines the way in which this culture was intertwined with literature through the tropes of the reluctant student and the happy child reader, both of which depict the child as balancing between, on the one hand, avidly consuming children’s products, amusement, and play, and on the other, diligently progressing toward adult literacy. As Williams perceptively remarks: “Edo-period children’s literature not only introduced children to cultural literacy, but it also taught them about consumer behavior” (p. 113).

After these two long and broad-ranging chapters, the dissertation enters its second part, consisting of five annotated translations of early modern picture books. The translations use photo manipulation to insert English in place of Japanese into the original woodblock print, a method that retains the close relationship between word and image and thus works particularly well with the heavily illustrated picture books featured in the dissertation. Each translation is furthermore accompanied by an introduction that highlights one particular characteristic of each story. The first translation, of Tadatoru yama no hototogisu (Cuckoo of Mt. Gratis), is aimed at revealing how these works adapted older stories to match the interest of child readers. Williams then moves on to consider the girl as subject and as reader in Nezumi no yomeiri (The Rat Wedding), followed by Kaminari no shiki banashi (Stories of Thunder in Four Seasons), in which she highlights picture books’ centrality of theme, rather than plot or story. Terako tanka (Verses for Schoolchildren) is used to illustrate the commercial nature of these works, and finally, Kaitai tanjō raku (The Paradise of Gestation and Birth) serves as an example of how religious and medical knowledge were woven into these narratives as well.

Clearly written and coherently argued, Williams’s dissertation succeeds in its aim of showing that “Japanese woodblock-printed picture books of the late seventeenth century through the late nineteenth century were a form of children’s literature and that this children’s literature was an integral part of a commercial children’s culture in early modern Japan” (p. 115). Since this leads us to the conclusion that “Japan has one of the world’s oldest traditions of children’s literature for a mass audience” (p. 351), Williams’s work will not only appeal to scholars of early modern Japanese literature, education, or intellectual history, but also deserves to be read by historians interested in the child or childhood in general.

Niels van Steenpaal
JSPS Postdoctoral Research Fellow
Graduate School for Law and Politics
The University of Tokyo

Primary Sources

Edo no Ehon
Kinsei kodomo no ehon shū
Shin Nihon koten bungaku taikei

Rare books collections including those of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, and the National Institute of Japanese Literature

Dissertation Information

Harvard University. 2012. 386 pp. Primary Advisor: Adam Kern.


Image: Torii Kiyonaga, Japanese, 1752–1815. Publisher: Tsutaya Jūzaburō (Kōshodō), Japanese. “The Tanabata Festival,” from the series “Precious Children’s Games of the Five Festivals (Kodakara gosetsu asobi).” Japanese, Edo period, about 1794–95 (Kansei 6–7). Woodblock print (nishiki-e); ink and color on paper. Vertical ōban; 39.3 x 26 cm (15 1/2 x 10 1/4 in.). William Sturgis Bigelow Collection, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, 11.13935. Photograph © Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.

1 comment
  1. I guess the relentless countering of Ariès’ bold claims, especially his interpretation of disparate images, may have deterred Japan scholars from attempting a similarly sweeping view. But this work is making a welcomed contribution with a tighter analysis for which the author should be congratulated.

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