Talking with Tang Yaming: Crossing Borders with Picture Books

By Deborah Iwabuchi, Maebashi, and Andrew Wong, Tokyo

On February 26, 2022, SCBWI Japan hosted editor, author, and translator Tang Yaming, who spoke to us from his home in Tokyo. Born in Beijing, Tang worked as an editor for 35 years at Fukuinkan Shoten Publishers, one of Japan’s top children’s book publishers, until retirement. He continues editing and making picture books, collaborating with Japanese and Chinese writers and artists, and publishing through Chinese publishers. Many of the works he mentioned struck us as deserving of translation into English, and his talk had much to offer everyone in children’s books.

 

Some of the many works Tang Yaming has nurtured, in Chinese and Japanese

 

In “Crossing Borders with Picture Books,” Tang Yaming drew on his experience of bridging the Japanese picture book industry with the world. With thoughts of the war in Ukraine hanging over us, Tang first reminded everyone that borders do in fact exist, however much we may hear in the kidlit industry that they don’t. Whether they are natural, national, or cultural, they exist. And Tang recognizes that it is his job as a publisher to cross (or bridge) those borders and help children gain a broader perspective of the world.

In 1983, Tang happened to serve as an interpreter for a group of representatives of children’s books visiting Beijing from Japan, and in this position, he spent a week with Tadashi Matsui, then president of Fukuinkan Shoten.

 

On the Great Wall of China: L to R, Tang Yaming; illustrator Satoshi Kako; former president of Fukuinkan Shoten, Tadashi Matsui

 

Before returning to Japan, Matsui offered Tang a job in Tokyo. Tang had no experience in children’s books and wasn’t sure how serious Matsui was, but decided to go to Japan to find out. He told us that he showed up at Fukuinkan Shoten totally prepared not to have a job, but was determined to stay and study in Japan, even if it meant working as a cook at a Chinese restaurant. It turned out the job was his for the taking. He became the first foreign full-time editor in Fukuinkan Shoten and in Japan’s publishing industry, and thus began his career as an editor of children’s books. Japanese society was just entering the era of globalization, and Matsui’s goal in hiring Tang from China was to bring cultural diversity to children’s literature in Japan.

Taking examples from Japanese long-seller picture books such as Sūho no Shiroi Uma (Suho’s White Horse) and Ōkina Kabu (The Gigantic Turnip), Tang explained that Japanese creators who had deep personal connections to Mongolian and Russian culture were central to the creation of both books, and this was even before Japan underwent a phase of internationalization in the 1980s.

Tang then shared his tale of crossing borders during the production phase of Shika yo Ore no Kyodai yo (Oh Deer, My Brother Deer! 2004), for which he sought a Japanese writer and Russian artist to shape a poetic ode to the circle of life through the lens of the indigenous people of Siberia. This story had been percolating in him for decades since being captivated by the beauty of Siberia’s harsh natural landscape as a young soldier sent to the Soviet border.

 

Picture book Shika yo Ore no Kyōdai yo (Oh Deer, My Brother Deer! 2004)

 

In 1969 during China’s Cultural Revolution, Tang had been sent from Beijing to Siberia during the Sino-Soviet border conflict. He’d managed to avoid fighting, and was instead deeply impressed by Siberian flora and fauna. Decades later at Fukuinkan, he decided that the beauty of the nature of Siberia was what he wanted to create a book about. In searching for an author, he found Toshiko Kanzawa, a writer who had spent her childhood on Sakhalin, one of the Kuril Islands north of Hokkaido. Kanzawa had the background Tang was seeking. She knew about the native people on the island and the cultures of people of the northern territories. To write the book, Kanzawa traveled to Siberia to learn about the indigenous tribes on the continent, and it was about them that she wrote. Tang was delighted with Kanzawa’s story and writing. He pointed out that she had even included native language in the text.

The next job was to find an illustrator. Until the 1980s, we learned, Japanese picture books were illustrated almost exclusively by Japanese artists. Yet Tang was convinced that no artist could draw Siberia unless they had actually seen it. He eventually discovered an artist by the name of Gennadiy Dmitriyevich Pavlishin who lived in Siberia and was devoted to portraying indigenous peoples. Pavlishin agreed to illustrate the book, and Tang was excited when the artist finally contacted him to say that illustrations were ready.

Tang flew from Niigata, on the Japan Sea side of Honshu, to Khabarovsk on the Eastern edge of Russia, and then traveled to Pavlishin’s home, where Tang discovered, after a night of obligatory drinking with the artist, that only three pictures had been completed. When he finally got a look at the art, however, Tang knew he’d chosen the right artist because the illustrations were exactly as Tang remembered Siberia.

 

Tang Yaming in Siberia; Left: Tang Yaming and far right: illustrator Gennadiy Dmitriyevich Pavlishin with a woman in traditional clothing

 

The story of Oh Deer, My Brother Deer! made a powerful impression on attendees. The story was from ages that have come and gone; Kanzawa’s childhood home of Sakhalin was lost to Russia after World War II. Tang had begun working in Japan when Sino-Japanese relations were at their best. He traveled with ease from China to Japan, and from Japan to post-Cold War Russia, where he had no problem finding his artist at home. He showed us a photo of himself with Pavlishin and a woman from an indigenous tribe of Siberia in native costume.

For attendee translators, writers and illustrators, many of us who live and work in a culture different from the cultures we were born in, cultural diversity is what we thrive on, so the explanation of how Tang produced this book was especially interesting. In the credits at the back of the book are further notes of diversity: acknowledgments of two translators who must have helped out in translating the book for the sake of the illustrator and ironing out other details. One was Kazuya Okada, a Japanese living in Khabarovsk, Russia, and the other Valentina B. Morozova of Kyiv, the capital of Ukraine.

Once-retired after 35 years with Fukuinkan Shoten, Tang has continued to be involved in the publishing business in China, initially by translating Japanese picture books on China so that Chinese children can read about their culture in picture books in their own language. After explaining that in China picture books are sometimes considered wasteful—too much space on the page lacking text—Tang also offered an astute observation that a country’s picture book industry usually starts blossoming when the economy starts growing, opining that that occurs when people start having deeper pockets and the idea of education shifts toward a more holistic one.

Still, Tang noted that an understanding of the market’s tastes and needs is crucial in publishing. For example, while he strives to make picture books that both adults and children can enjoy, he demonstrated how a deeply rooted mindset that children should be educated by adults and that good manners are important drove the China sales figures for a series on manners and etiquette to 900,000 copies—over ninety times the sales figures in Japan where originally published. He also shared how books concerning nature and social issues are selling well because people can relate to them as more young families move to cities in search of better wages.

 

Chinese editions of the Kaisei-sha picture book series on manners

 

However, Tang also noted some misses, such as a carefully crafted informational series on toilets, which covers the history of their development. We might have thought that the pandemic would have boosted sales of this somewhat niche but important topic about the most visited hygiene facility. But Tang heard parents say that their children are busy learning other things and they don’t have time to learn about toilets.

Returning to Tang’s comment connecting economic growth and the picture book industry, it struck blogger Andrew that that reality could have been the reason behind his own lack of exposure to picture books and local literature during his youth a few decades ago when his country was caught up in climbing all sorts of world rankings.

Besides further discussion on making books that venture into foreign places, during the Q&A, Tang also acknowledged the importance of portraying and handing down local history and culture to future generations. Both lines of thought seemed to converge toward finding the stories or voices that need to be heard before they are lost to marginalization, poverty, modernity, and urbanization. This is an idea that echoes strongly with the translator in both of us bloggers, along with the fact that it’s only natural that some stories are more suited to certain markets—which is one more reason to admire and celebrate the work behind successful translations!

Decades ago, when Fukuinkan Shoten president Tadashi Matsui hired Tang Yaming to create some diversity at Fukuinkan Shoten, it was a hopeful era. Matsui could never have foreseen the changes occurring in the current global situation. For us at SCBWI Japan, Tang Yaming’s talk was the perfect moment to be reminded of the wealth of culture we inherit in a book like Oh Deer, My Brother Deer!, as well as the importance of our role as writers, illustrators and translators in ensuring this attention to culture endures.

 

Editor, author, translator Tang Yaming

 

Deborah Iwabuchi runs Minamimuki Translations in Maebashi, Gunma. Have a look at her high-tech operations at Minamimuki.com.

Andrew Wong is a freelance linguist and translator of The World’s Poorest President Speaks Out. The happy introvert also keeps a text-heavy blog on books and other stuff at Tales from 2 Cities (or more).

This post first appeared on the SCBWI Japan blog.

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