Archive for the ‘Japanese Children’s Literature Introduced’ Category

World Kid Lit Month Review: Riku and the Kingdom of White

By Malavika Nataraj, Singapore

September is #WorldKidLit Month, a time to notice if world literature is reaching kids in the form of translations. Malavika Nataraj shares this review of children’s novel Riku and the Kingdom of White by Randy Taguchi, translated by Raj Mahtani, published by Balestier Press.

On March 11, 2011, the world watched in open-mouthed horror as the most powerful earthquake ever to rock Japan set off a giant wave that lapped up everything in its path: a tsunami that slammed into three reactors in the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant complex, crippling them and resulting in a catastrophic release of radioactive waste that affected hundreds and thousands of lives.

We all heard and read about the evacuations, the relief operations despatched into the worst hit areas, the scores of people who lost everything—their homes, their families, their possessions. Japan was in a panic; all of the resources it had strived to protect—its waterways, the sea, the very air—had fallen prey to the invisible evil that was seeping into everything, silent and deadly. Radiation. This word reverberated through the nation and beyond. Exports suffered. Share prices dropped. People had little or no electricity. Cartons of uncontaminated food and bottled water were scarcely unboxed before they flew off store shelves. Fear lurked everywhere. Hundreds and thousands of residents within a 20-kilometer radius of the damaged Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant were forcibly evacuated, their hometowns deemed too dangerous to inhabit.

Yet many people chose to remain nearby. Technicians, engineers, doctors and fire-fighters stayed behind, risking their own lives and those of their families to help the nation fight the catastrophe. We, the world, heard the reports, read the articles and watched the news. But could we ever fully understand the challenges these people faced, living in a radioactive disaster zone?

In towns that were as close as 40 kilometers to the epicentre of the disaster, many families soldiered on. Children still went to school, teachers still taught, and most residents made themselves as useful as they could. They organized volunteer centres, ran operations to de-contaminate their streets, and closed their windows against the radiation. Despite their challenges, their view of the world remained as upbeat as possible. But the way the rest of Japan viewed the Fukushima residents had changed. People became wary of the evacuees and residents, fearing that they had been ‘contaminated’.

This did not stop volunteers from pouring in. They came from all over Japan, bringing with them food, hope and helping hands. Many were moved by the plight of the children in Fukushima, who had been robbed of a normal childhood so suddenly.

The Fukushima Kids project kicked off in summer 2011, to give Fukushima kids an opportunity to learn and grow amidst nature—something they were no longer able to do in their own hometowns, for fear of exposure to radiation.

Over the summer, spring and winter breaks, hundreds of children were shepherded out of Fukushima to other parts of Japan, where they participated in homestays, enjoyed hands-on activities, played sport, went on treks, spent time with animals, ate healthy food, and generally enjoyed being ‘normal’ kids. This afforded them a chance to relax and refresh, learn new things and be close to nature again. The Fukushima Kids Executive Committee, formed by volunteers, ran the project successfully for five years.

Author Randy Taguchi

Author Randy Taguchi’s charming narrative, Riku and the Kingdom of White, is the result of time she spent as a volunteer in the Fukushima Kids project, working with the families and children of Fukushima. Through her involvement, she had the opportunity to interact with and interview dozens of Fukushima residents, and she was deeply moved by their resilience and strength.

Her story is the simple, yet thought-provoking tale of Riku, a fifth-grader, whose physician father accepts a transfer to Minamisoma, a town near the disaster zone. Having fresh air to breathe and good food to eat were things Riku never had to think about. Until now. And he is definitely not prepared for how much his life is about to change.

When Riku’s classmates in Utsunomiya find out that he is transferring to a school in Fukushima, their reaction is of shock and horror. “He’ll die of the radiation, poor guy,” they say. Riku’s aunt Midori, his mother’s sister who lives in Yokohama, also has nothing but horror stories to share about the fate of the towns near the epicentre of the disaster. But nothing will change his father’s mind, so Riku—whose life, he believes, is not in his control—puts on a brave face and prepares to follow his father. His mother has passed away, and his dad is the only family he has now.

The story, translated into English by Raj Mahtani, is told through Riku’s eyes. Through Riku, Taguchi has us experience a world where children go to school breathing only through masks. Their clothing covers every inch of their skin, and their heads droop like wilted flowers under their hats. Frozen and canned food, sausages, rice from other parts of Japan, carried in the capable arms of volunteers—these are the foods they eat. Tiny cylindrical objects that continuously measure radiation levels, called dosimeters, dangle from their necks as a reminder of their new reality. Taught in classrooms with sealed windows, sweating through the blistering summer months, they need at all costs, to be protected from this invisible evil, radiation. They inhabit a world where no one is allowed to play outside; a place where only the wind pushes the swings in empty parks, and unused bicycles turn to rust in garages.

When Riku arrives at Minamisoma, memories of his Utsunomiya life still fresh in his mind, he is stunned at how empty the town feels, like a town of ghosts. There are no kids about and he sorely misses running around with his best friend Yuta, and riding bikes the way they used to. When Riku finally does meet local children, he feels like an outsider. He is aware that he isn’t a ‘real’ Fukushima kid. At first, he is baffled by the others. Why don’t they play outside? Why do they all look so downcast? But as time passes, he begins to understand too well the magnitude of the disaster, and the impact it has had on the lives of Fukushima’s children.

The children naturally look to adults for answers. How should we live? What should we do? But no answers come, because the adults themselves are confused. They are stressed out and sad. Decontamination of the pavements, soil, and school grounds happens multiple times a day. But no one knows what to do with the radioactive waste. What’s the point of decontaminating the mud, if it is just going to be stuffed into bags, piled up and left here anyway? Riku thinks. The adults are full of contradictions. “We just want you to study without any worries, Sweetie,” says one mother. Riku wonders if that is even possible anymore.

Throughout this book, Riku runs through a gamut of emotions: anger at his father for bringing him to Fukushima, confusion, sadness, and finally, acceptance.

The more time Riku spends in Minamisoma, the more like a ‘Fukushima kid’ he becomes. This is never clearer than when he goes to stay with Aunt Midori during his summer break. His cousins are afraid to come near him in case he is contaminated; his aunt won’t let him touch anything without having a hot bath first. He feels contaminated, like an untouchable, an outcast. He realizes that this is how everyone views children like him—children who are living in the disaster zone. He sees that he can never go back ‘home’ to Utsunomiya or anywhere. He has lost his home forever.

Things begin to look up for Riku when he and four other children get the chance to leave Fukushima during winter break, as part of the Fukushima Kids project. He learns that he will go to Hokkaido, a place that holds the fondest memories for him, because it was there that his family had their last holiday before his mother’s death.

In Hokkaido, he spends time outdoors, crunching through snow in his snowshoes and learning about animals of the forest from his homestay host Mr. Nomura. He has thoughtful conversations with the indomitable Gen-san and with Mr. Nomura’s son Yoichi. In Hokkaido, no one treats him like an outsider or an outcast. He finally feels like a regular kid. Slowly, he begins to heal.

Translator Raj Mahtani

Riku begins to come to terms with the loss of his mother; he battles his loneliness by befriending a mysterious boy in the woods and a mischievous tonchi. He finally returns to Fukushima, more mature and responsible. He begins to see that his life is his own and he can live it with strength and heart. And that being a Fukushima Kid isn’t so bad after all.

Riku and the Kingdom of White is a valuable story of a boy’s spiritual evolution. And translator Raj Mahtani, who has collaborated with Taguchi on her book Fujisan, brings Riku to life for the English reader.

A Yokohama resident, Mahtani has been translating from Japanese to English since the nineties. His other translations include Rieko Saegusa’s Tale Winds, Fumitada Naoe’s Live with Meaning. Die with Passion and Shiho Kishimoto’s I Hear Them Cry.

 

Reviewer and editor’s note: We hope for Balestier Press to issue a second, carefully edited edition of this novel that does justice to its highly compelling content. 

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Global Literature in Libraries Initiative Features Japan, Including Children’s and YA Literature

By Andrew Wong, Tokyo

Looking for a strong dose of commentary on Japanese literary works online? Try the special Japan-in-Translation series at the Global Literature in Libraries Initiative (published throughout May 2018). Organized by David Jacobson, this series offered an entire month of blog posts spanning poetry and prose, manga, light novels, chapter books, picture books, fun with kanji, and onomatopoeia, plus reflections on publishing and reading translated works. Several members of SCBWI Japan contributed.

Here is the full list of posts in the series, including many on children’s literature:

Isao Takahata of Studio Ghibli Dies

By Sako Ikegami, Kobe

Isao Takahata, co-founder of Japan’s most famous animation company, Studio Ghibli, and director of the poignant film Grave of the Fireflies, passed away last week on April 5, 2018, at the age of 82. Unlike his famous partner, Hayao Miyazawa, Takahata’s works were not as flamboyantly cinematic, yet they were no less memorable or moving, addressing deeply personal themes related to childhood—its struggles and its tender beauty—often reflected upon in retrospect.

Image from Grave of the Fireflies (Toho/The Atlantic)

Grave of the Fireflies is based on a short story by Akiyuki Nosaka (1930-2015), based in turn on the author’s experience of the World War II bombings in Kobe. Takahata survived a similar bombing at the age of nine in neighboring Okayama prefecture, where he spent his childhood, and drew upon his experience in creating the movie.

Most recently, Takahata’s film The Tale of the Princess Kaguya, based on Taketori monogatari, an ancient fairytale written during the Heian era (794-1185) and popularized as a children’s story, was nominated for an Academy Award in 2015.

Participants in SCBWI Japan Translation Day 2016 translated excerpts of Grave of the Fireflies for a workshop with Ginny Tapley Takemori, translator of Nosaka’s The Whale that Fell in Love with a SubmarineGrave of the Fireflies is forthcoming in English translation from Pushkin Press.

Online obituaries for Isao Takahata: NPRIGNSlate, The Atlantic.

Eiko Kadono Named to Andersen Award Shortlist

By Avery Fischer Udagawa, Bangkok

Japanese author Eiko Kadono has been named to the shortlist for the 2018 Hans Christian Andersen Award (“little Nobel”) in Writing. She is the author of Kiki’s Delivery Service, basis of the well-known animated film by Studio Ghibli.

Born in Tokyo in 1935, Kadono has written and translated prolifically for children of multiple generations.

The International Board on Books for Young People notes, “When she was ten, Eiko Kadono was evacuated to northern Japan during the Pacific War. These memories formed the basis of one of her best-known stories, Rasuto ran (Last Run, 2011) and the experience of war as a child is at the root of her commitment to peace and happiness. She studied American literature and then travelled extensively in Europe as well as in North and South America and began writing. She has published nearly 250 original works—picture books, books for pre-schoolers, fantasy and young-adult—and translated into Japanese more than 100 works by foreign authors including Raymond Briggs and Dick Bruna. Her best-known works include Zubon senchosan no hanashi (Tales of an Old Sea Captain, 1981) and Odorobo Burabura-shi (Grand Thief Burabura, 1981), both of which won prizes in Japan. In 1985 she published the first of six volumes of Majo no takkyubin (Kiki’s Delivery Service, 1985) that won the Noma and Shogakukan Prizes and was selected for the IBBY Honour List in 1986. Eiko Kadono has also been a champion of reading and books for children and has been recognised for her contributions to children’s literature with the Medal with Purple Ribbon in 2000, and the Order of the Rising Sun—Gold Rays with Rosette in 2014.”

This video shows the 2018 Andersen Award shortlistees, including Kadono, and gives a glimpse of their workspaces. It also shows the Andersen jury at work.

Kiki’s Delivery Service by Eiko Kadono has been published in English by Annick Press, translated by Lynne E. Riggs.

An Unexpected Music: The Beast Player

Review by Alexander O. Smith, Kamakura

Fans of Nahoko Uehashi have had a long wait for another book in English translation from the internationally acclaimed fantasy author since the publication of the second volume of the Moribito series in 2009. The Beast Player is not a continuation of that, but the first English entry in an entirely new story that already spans four volumes in Japanese. Available as of March 1st from Pushkin Press, The Beast Player collects the first two volumes of the series with translation into English courtesy of Cathy Hirano, who also translated the Moribito books.

Right: Nahoko Uehashi (Goodreads)

The Beast Player follows the story of Elin, the green-eyed daughter of a “beast doctor” who looks after the Toda—massive, scaled creatures ridden into battle by the Toda warriors. Elin and her mother’s eyes mark them as members of a secretive tribe of wanderers called the Ahlyo, though her mother renounced her tribal affiliations to live amongst the Toda Stewards.

In the first half of the book, we learn how Elin comes to leave her home and settle into a new life under the care of Joeun, a lapsed academic who has taken up beekeeping. We are also introduced to some of the other major players in the world: the Yojeh, an empress who acts as the political and spiritual leader of the land, and the Aluhan, a duke who commands armies faithful to the Yojeh to protect their borders. The second half follows Elin as she rises through the ranks of students at Kazalumu, a sanctuary where they care for Royal Beasts—fantastical creatures that look something like giant wolves with wings.

Along the way, we occasionally step into the viewpoint of other characters, such as Ialu, one of a cohort of bodyguards who serve the Yojeh for life (a life often cut short by an assassin’s arrow—not all is well in the Yojeh’s realm), and Esalu, the headmistress at the sanctuary. Those with difficulty keeping the large cast of characters straight will be happy to hear there is a list at the beginning of the book that includes a family tree for the Yojeh’s royal family.

Uehashi’s story is an intriguing blend of many elements that will be familiar to fans of contemporary western fantasy—a strong female lead, a school for gifted students, the challenges of taming fantastical creatures—and other details that will feel more specifically Japanese, like meals of steamed rice and miso, and an emperor considered by many of her subjects to be divine.

One of the cornerstones of fantasy is worldbuilding, and here The Beast Player does not disappoint. Perhaps taking cues from her earlier work as an anthropologist, Uehashi lays out the tribal affiliations and politics of her world with clarity and depth. Class plays a large role in the story as well, with details such as dress and occupation following the internal logic of a carefully crafted fictional society. This enables the main narrative thread following Elin’s attempts at inter-species communication with the Royal Beasts via playing a hand-made harp to function as a kind of allegory for communication across barriers of class and race.

Language is an aspect of fantasy worldbuilding that can either be treated as an afterthought or, as is the case in Tolkien’s Middle Earth, an integral part of the story. In The Beast Player, we learn early on that the name for Elin’s people, the Ahlyo, is a bastardization of their true name, “Ao-Loh,” meaning “Guardians of the Oath.” The oath, we are told, was sworn by their people to never repeat a terrible mistake made long in the past. This is the first glimpse we are given of a secret history that is frequently hinted at throughout the story, the knowledge of which ultimately comes to play a role in informing our heroine’s actions.

Somewhat challenging is the terminology in the book. In the opening, many aspects of caring for the Toda are described with capitalized words: the Ponds, the Chambers, the Law. There are also words in an indeterminate language, such as the tokujisui medicine administered to the Toda, and political terms—the Chief Steward, the Aluhan—that can be a bit confusing at first. Here again, I turned back to the list of characters at the beginning to keep everything straight.

Thankfully, the prose is more than strong enough to carry the reader through those initial speed bumps. Hirano is a gifted stylist, and the combination of her deft word choice with Uehashi’s evocative images keeps the story flowing while bringing us moments of lyrical beauty.

In a market glutted with streamlined page-turners that take more hints from Hollywood than the classics of fantasy, The Beast Player, with its leisurely paced, meandering storytelling, can feel at times like a throwback. And yet, opening a doorway to different takes on familiar genres is exactly the aim of Pushkin Children’s Books. Given the alternative of shelves laden with dystopian Hunger Games clones I’m glad that Pushkin and Hirano opened that door and let The Beast Player, like its titular character, make an unexpected music of its own.

Right: Cathy Hirano (Skye Hohmann for BookBlast®)

Don’t Know What “Ippai Attena” Means? You Will.

By Emily Balistrieri, Tokyo

Rudorufu to Ippai Attena by Hiroshi Saito is a cute chapter book about a little black cat who finds himself lost in the big city, after inadvertently boarding a long-haul truck. He befriends a tough stray who knows a few tricks—including how to read human language. Can Rudolf use what he learns to find a way home?

Translated by Deborah Iwabuchi and Kazuko Enda as Rudolf and Ippai Attena, it’s put out in English by Kodansha in their Eigo Bunko line (which hardcore Haruki Murakami fans might be aware of, as it was the only way to read his first novel, Hear the Wind Sing, in English [translated by Alfred Birnbaum] until the 2015 version translated by Ted Goossen). Since Rudolf is a book published in Japan for young English learners, complete with a vocab list in the back, you might wonder how the translators approached it.

At a talk Iwabuchi and Enda gave recently in Tokyo, they said their goal was for English-speaking elementary-schoolers to be able to understand and relate to the story. As such, one of their focuses, besides navigating cultural things like torii and fish varieties, was making street-smart Ippai Attena sound like he could handle a fight without veering into words children shouldn’t use. Iwabuchi described English bad words as similar to Japanese keigo, in that there are various registers and situational uses. When she said this, I immediately thought of how kono yarō can operate on so many levels of English insults, from “Ya little booger” to “You bastard” (and surely beyond).

Speaking of “Ippai Attena,” though, if you’re wondering how this unconventional name made it through as-is, the main rationale was that the title is equally mysterious in Japanese (I won’t spoil what it means here). The translators do work an explanation into the text. While there may have been smoother options, the book’s very clear setting in Japan includes a few other references to the Japanese language, so the rōmaji doesn’t feel entirely misplaced.

As it turns out, the name joke was only one of many the translators had to cope with, including that most brutal pun, sake/salmon. And Ippai Attena’s trademark threat got an amusing localization to make it more evocative for English readers who may not know Doraemon.

Overall, the book’s themes of getting your education and using knowledge to accomplish your goals are good, but I especially like Ippai Attena’s nurturing side; for instance, where he says, “When you talk tough and sound nasty, your mind starts thinking it’s tough and that it’s acceptable to be mean,” I hope readers pause and consider the idea.

Japanese Children’s Books Today with Yumiko Sakuma on Nov. 11

The Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators presents

Japanese Children’s Books Today with JBBY President Yumiko Sakuma

Time: Saturday, November 11, 2017, 6:30-8 p.m.

Place:  Tokyo Women’s Plaza, Conference Room 2, 5-53-67 Jingumae, Shibuya-ku, Tokyo (by the United Nations University) map

Fee:  800 yen SCBWI members; 1,000 yen nonmembers

Reservations required. To reserve, email japan (at) scbwi.org by Thursday, November 9.

Note: This event will be in Japanese with English interpretation provided.

* * * * * * * * * * *

Translator, editor, Japanese children’s literature critic, and current president of the Japanese Board on Books for Young People (JBBY), Yumiko Sakuma will present the history and current state of children’s book publishing in Japan. She will explain the aims of JBBY and discuss the latest issue of the English-language JBBY booklet Japanese Children’s Books, which showcases Japanese children’s books for enhancing international understanding. Sakuma will also describe recent trends in children’s books in Japan and offer recommendations of favorite new titles.

Yumiko Sakuma was born in Tokyo and worked as an editor before becoming a freelance editor, translator and Japanese children’s literature critic. She taught children’s literature at Aoyama Gakuin Women’s College, has translated more than 230 children’s books into Japanese, and has garnered many awards, including the Sankei Juvenile Literature Publishing Culture Award. She also researches African literature and is the current director of the Japan Africa Children’s Books ProjectHer own website バオバブのブログ (Baobab Blog) provides valuable information about Japanese children’s titles. Yumiko Sakuma is the President of the Japanese Board on Books for Young People (JBBY), and her essay「翻訳ってなんだ」 (“What Exactly Is Translation?”) is available in English translated by Deborah Iwabuchi in this post“Pianyan, Little Keys, and Yumiko Sakuma.”

japan.scbwi.org