AFCC 2016 (Part 2): A Harvest of Knowledge About Japanese Children’s Content

At Asian Festival of Children’s Content 2016 in Singapore, Japan featured as Country of Focus. Offerings included a Japan Booth and Japan-related sessions over three days of the conference.

By Andrew Wong, Tokyo

IMAG2588_1Helping out at the Japan Booth and attending some sessions on the final day of the Country of Focus: Japan program at AFCC 2016 was enough for me to gain a harvest of knowledge on Japanese children’s content. I can only imagine how much more I could have learned from a full three days. Here are some quick impressions from the sidelines.

Right: AFCC Country of Focus poster with illustration by Chihiro Iwasaki. Photo by Andrew Wong.

The Japan Booth treated passersby to a selection of some 200 books. Drawn by the cover illustrations and exhibition panels, the curious stepped in to pick up the books. Some pored over them quietly, taking in the colors and stories in the pictures; others opened up to chat about writers, artists, and their own stories of Japan. Between sessions, Kazuo Iwamura’s and Chihiro Iwasaki’s works would sometimes create overcrowding in part of the booth. Many visitors were ready to take the books home with them after they had taken a look, even though they did not read much Japanese. (Singapore library users will be happy to hear that the books in the booth will soon inaugurate a brand new Japanese-language collection.)

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Books and panel on display at the Japan Booth. Photo by Naomi Kojima.

Naomi Kojima offered a popular hour-long session on Japanese picture books. She almost ran a half-marathon, racing through more than a dozen picture books in a room packed to the wall with eager listeners. Giggles and laughter accompanied her commentaries on Noboru Baba’s Ju-ippiki no neko (Eleven Cats) and Aju Kato’s Jicchorin no aruku michi (The Jicchorins Take a Walk) as everyone joined her in admiring the titles.

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Table covered with books toured by Naomi Kojima in just one hour. Photo by Holly Thompson.

Besides books, multi-talented musicians Toshihiko Shinzawa and Satoko Yamano charmed listeners with songs written for children and adults alike, and they demonstrated how adding music to picture books and vice versa can create new ways to enjoy both media. The International Library of Children’s Literature‘s Chihoko Tanaka captivated children and parents with lively performances of Japanese rhymes and folk tales, while award-winning manga artist Miki Yamamoto helped visitors create their very own folded peek-a-boo cards.

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Miki Yamamoto (upper right) helps visitors create peek-a-boo cards. Photo by Naomi Kojima.

This year’s focus on Japan coincided with the 50th anniversary of Singapore-Japan diplomatic ties, and a new chapter in literary collaboration began with an underwater launch of bilingual books (more on this here) as stingrays looked on in the Sentosa aquarium.

Festival participants got to hear Akiko Beppu, editorial director at Kaisei-sha, liken the work of an editor to that of content producer, linking author and reader and envisioning each book in the store from the start. Doshinsha’s chairperson Kyoko Sakai was on hand to share the techniques and psychology behind kamishibai, a form of storytelling theatre that uses large picture cards in a wooden stage. She made a brief but serious mention of kamishibai’s appeal and its sad history of use in wartime propaganda, and said she wanted the tradition to be used for peace and harmony.

Kamishibai stage (Doshinsha.co.jp)

Kamishibai stage. Image by Doshinsha.

Ms. Sakai’s message drew parallels with Yumiko Sakuma‘s remarks in her closing session: some authors in Japan now are working to bring up topics of war and peace in children’s books, because the country’s pacifist constitution is under threat. Ms. Sakuma also highlighted two other trends in Japanese children’s literature: a focus on unconventional relationships and less-common afterschool activities, and stories about the Great East Japan Earthquake of 2011. She ended by stressing the need for even greater diversity in content for children in Japan.

Covering the recent changes and challenges in Japanese children’s books, Ms. Sakuma’s words proved a thoughtful closer. Like the other sessions, her speech offered hints of the hopes and dreams that we want children to cherish and chase―to help them on their way to shaping the future.

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