Tayo Shima

Speaking Time: 2006-9-22 ?09:00—09:30??Hall 2

Speaker: Ms Tayo Shima (Japan)


IBBY 2006 speech

Picture Books as Art Traversing Time and Culture


I am honored to be able to offer a keynote speech at this momentous occasion of the IBBY Congress, the first to be held in China. IBBY celebrated its 50th anniversary at the September 2002 Congress held four years ago in Basel, Switzerland. One of the important achievements at that Congress was the exhibition presenting the history of the Hans Christian Andersen awards, from the time it was first held in 1956—to 2002. IBBY founder Jella Lepman’s creation of this award was a landmark event in her efforts for peace starting right after World War II. I think we all believe, as Lepman believed, that human beings were inherently good, and if the spirit of tolerance can be nurtured among the younger generations the world may be able to overcome the tragic history of recurrent wars. IBBY and the Hans Christian Andersen awards have gone on to build ties among those around the world who make it their mission to put good books in the hands of children.

Through picture books and books for children, as Lepman showed us, art sustains human beings throughout their lives, no matter what circumstances they might encounter. Art is an inextricable part of human life. At a level perhaps deeper than politics or religion or any other realm of human affairs, it is essential to our existence. Sustaining human beings throughout the long course of their lives, it invigorates their spirits and purifies their hearts. And art, which is not defined either by national identity or politics, transcends the frameworks of culture, language, or creed. It is the source of the passion necessary for individual human beings to survive.


Affinities with Art from Afar

Today I would like to talk about some examples in which picture books, from the beginning of their history about 150 years ago, have demonstrated how art traverses cultures and distances. Lepman’s choice of picture books was wise. For artists of different ages and working within all sorts of social frameworks have transmitted through them the legacy of universal human values. By understanding the serious position that art can play in the context of our lives and the weight of authors and artists devoted to books in each age of history, we can confirm the genuine importance of our task, as members of IBBY, of putting good books in the hands of children.

The art and culture of far-distant countries can have a tremendous impact on each other depending on the time and need. This may be quite common today, with the advent of the Internet, but it has been going on for a very long time. One might say that true art flows in the direction where it is most needed. Surely many of you can attest to the way this flow has worked in your part of the world.

Let me take this opportunity to describe what happened between Japan, a small chain of islands located along the coast of the Chinese continent, and Europe, in the opposite hemisphere. Along with so much culture for which Japan is deeply indebted to China and Korea from time immemorial, paper, sumi ink, and the arts of the brush flowed west to east.

These arts flourished and matured in Japan in unique ways, and by the twelfth century, Japan had a tradition of recording tales and historical events in the form of illustrated scrolls. These later evolved into Nara e-hon, which were bound books featuring folk tales with color illustrations. In the Edo period, from the early seventeenth century to the mid-nineteenth century, Japan was closed to trade with other countries, with the exceptions of the Netherlands and China, and its people were forbidden to travel overseas. During this interlude of prolonged domestic peace and with relatively little influence from the outside, the country developed a distinctive national character and culture.

The primal landscape against which Japanese artistic expression evolved was one of steep mountains covered with abundant forests. The mountains were interspersed with valleys filled with shifting mists and clouds and damp earth. In this environment, Japanese developed affinities for certain aesthetic qualities from which human beings can draw spiritual richness. They devised diverse and highly refined artistic disciplines and expressions of these qualities in forms that people everywhere can share. These qualities were found in high-culture arts such as tea ceremony, noh drama and dance, but also in the popular arts and culture of the daily life of the common people.

Indeed, what is curious about the forms of expression cultivated in the Edo period is that they were fostered by the merchant class, the stratum of society at the bottom of the social hierarchy below the samurai ruling elite as well as farmers and artisans. Merchants were prospering from the economy of peaceful times. One of these forms of expression was kusazoshi, simply bound books consisting of about 10 pages richly illustrated and with texts written in phonetic script easy for ordinary people to read. These books provide the roots of the picture books of Japan today, and interestingly enough, the time of their origin coincides with the era during the chapbooks of England began to circulate as a means of building literacy.

One type of kusazoshi, the akahon, known for their red covers, featured folk tales like Momotaro, The Tongue-cut Sparrow, Princess Hachikazuki, Bunbuku’s Teakettle, and The Battle of the Monkey and the Crab—stories that continue to be read by Japanese children today. The kusazoshi, including the akahon, were like the picture books made today in that they were created through the close collaboration of the storywriters and woodblock print artists. These books, along with the miniature-book type known as mame-hon, were a treasured and intimate part of popular urban life until the end of the nineteenth century. The picture books of the Edo period, as shown here, display many basic features that contributed to the history of picture books.

The culture and arts that flourished in the peaceful, literate society of Japan’s Edo period were discovered by Europe after the opening of the country in the mid-nineteenth century and introduced at the Paris world fair 150 years ago. Ukiyo-e prints—Utamaro’s pictures of beauties (bijin-ga), Sharaku’s portraits of actors (yakusha-e), and Hokusai and Hiroshige’s landscapes—and other Japanese arts stimulated an artistic movement known as Japonisme in Europe. Many are aware that artists of the Impressionist school like Renoir and Whistler were much influenced by the encounter with Japanese art. Less well-known, however, is that, coinciding with the period when color woodblock printing techniques were rapidly developing in Europe, ukiyo-e prints on “bird-and-flower, wind-and-moon” (i.e., nature) themes, and printed books of Edo were an important influence on expression in picture books produced in Europe and the United States.

That Japanese artistic taste should come to have a widespread impact on diverse aspects of art and daily life in the West in the late nineteenth century happened quite by accident, but Western artists were inspired by the idea of expressing beauty by way of condensation—appreciating the entirety of nature even within its smallest fragment, as found in the ukiyo-e and Japanese printed books. Perhaps picture-book artists of the West were particularly ripe at that time for this contact with new ways of seeing things and expressing them to be found in arts from a “newly discovered” land like Japan. Confused by the dramatic changes wrought in the late nineteenth century by the industrial revolution and troubled by deep questions about the meaning of art, artists of the West were quick to embrace the sensibilities the Japanese arts suggested.

At the same time, in Japan itself, the behests of modernization following the opening up of the country in the 1850s led people to go overboard in casting their traditional arts and culture aside and embracing instead the influx of Western “civilization and enlightenment” as they sought to join the ranks of the leading countries of the Western world. They renamed the old city of Edo “Tokyo” and turned their backs on the culture that had flourished and matured for three centuries. Many fine works of art and craft were collected and taken abroad at this time. The exodus of ukiyo-e prints made during the Edo period, for example, was so complete that for a very long time it was impossible to study ukiyo-e properly from only those remaining in Japan.

The Rise of Picture Books around the World

The Jugendstil/Art Nouveau movement that spread throughout Europe was the response of artists to the mechanization of manufacturing and the mass-production society following the industrial revolution and the subsequent decline of traditional handcraft industries. The movement also reflected anxieties aroused when Luis Daguerre’s invention of photography in 1839 raised the question whether painting would ultimately become outmoded. Charles Darwin’s The Origin of Species, too, rocked fundamental assumptions about the nature of human existence. The graphic designs produced by Arthur Mackmurdo in 1883 can be seen as an attempt to recreate and restylize nature as captured in the context of the advent of machine technology and science. They can also be seen as an outcry by human beings, who are part of nature. With their intricate flowing lines evoking the energies of change and immortality, these works seem to represent an appeal to keep alive that which is negated in the largely unknown realm of science. The heyday of picture books dawned, bringing together the styles of Art Nouveau and the Seccessionists—the Jugendstil movement—that grew out of the sense of fear that machines might come to replace humans. These developments coincided, moreover, with the expansion of the picture-book readership that had previously been limited to the families of the wealthy and aristocratic. One of the features of these picture books was ukiyo-e’s subtle influence on their composition and forms of expression. As an alternative to the attempt to meticulously express the whole of nature, ukiyo-e demonstrated the Asian philosophy of seeing the whole in each of its parts.

Then came the outbreak of World War I in Europe. Immediately before its close came the October revolution in Russia and the birth of the socialist state on a colossal scale in the Soviet Union. Picture books for children were first used for the educational functions of the state in confronting the problems of literacy in a vast nation. In dealing with the masses, no line was drawn between art and politics, and information and propaganda were disseminated through radical new avant-garde expressions.

The poets, meanwhile, did not forget to ask children: “What are you going to be when you grow up?” and to remind them to always be “lighthouses in the darkness” for society. The short period of the 1920s and 1930s, when dramatic political changes were taking place in many parts of the world, was a rare time when artists were truly devoted to transmitting, in forms understandable to children, ideas about the nature of society and its ideals and about their choices as individual human beings.

Meanwhile, the United States had became home to massive number of immigrants from Scandinavia, from Eastern and other parts of Europe, and from Latin and South America. As a result, American picture books vividly record the cultures of countries all over the world. Indeed, the picture books of the 1920s and 1930s are testimony that art was capable of transmitting the legacy of the human spirit transcending the boundaries of ethnicity, culture, language, and religion. Interestingly enough, they reflected the trends in universalistic expression of Art Deco that exerted overwhelming influence in the world at that time. In the United States, children’s book departments were established in major publishers. Although it was still difficult for women to play a leading role in business or the professions, many talented women had a chance to play a major role in the publishing of books for children. And especially in American publishing, this was an extraordinary time when children’s book designers worked with authors and illustrators to become involved in creating books as total works of art, taking into account paper quality, typefaces, and illustrations.

This was a time when American children’s books came into the commercial limelight as popular items to be given as gifts. In fact, the akahon of Japan were also distributed among the merchant class in the Edo period as special gifts for children at New Year’s. Here we see children’s books not as tools of education or information transmission, but as presents—part of the lives of ordinary people and fashionable products of the printing industry through which parents passed on to children their culture’s art and lore. Among long-selling picture books that continue to be published even today are several that belong to the American Golden Age of picture books in the 1920s, which can compare with the Golden Age of picture books of England in the nineteenth century.

What was happening in Japan in the years following World War II when Jella Lepmann founded IBBY and the Andersen awards?

The country had just surrendered after a long and destructive war and there was a whole generation of young people who had been educated for a militarist cause but who now faced the need to build a new society on the principles of democracy. They themselves had been educated in their impressionable teenage years to believe that they were the subjects of the emperor and that it was their duty to serve the purposes of the imperial state. With their nation under occupation by the victors in the war and abruptly expected to shift their thinking to the principles of democracy, one can only imagine the turmoil going on in their minds.

The young editors in search of pictures, poetry, and stories were also in search of their own identity. Probably it was inevitable that they should turn to beliefs and arts, music, and literature that are universal in nature. Their odyssey may have been rather like the search for the Blue Bird of happiness, but strangely enough, now fifty years later, there are few books that can compare with the works those who began writing for children at that time produced.

Akaba Suekichi, Kasa Jizo [Straw Hats for the Jizo], 1961; Suho no shiroi uma [Suho and the White Horse: A Legend of Mongolia], 1967

Sato Churyo’s Ooki na kabu [The Giant Turnip] (1962)

Wakita Kazu’s Odango pan [Dumpling Balls] (1966)

Kitagawa Tamiji’s Usagi no mimi wa naze nagai? [Why Are the Rabbit’s Ears Long] (1962)

Segawa Yasuo’s Fushigi na takenoko [The Mysterious Bamboo Shoot] (1963)

Iwasaki Chihiro’s Ame no hi no orusuban [At Home Alone on a Rainy Day] (1973)

Taniuchi Kota’s Natsu no asa [A Summer’s Morning] (1970)

All these titles can still be found on bookstore shelves. In 1984, Anno Mitsumasa, who had begun producing picture books in 1968 with Fushigi na e [Strange Pictures], received the Andersen Award. In 2004, Henteko henteko [Strange, Strange], the latest work of Ono Kaoru, who began publishing picture books in 1958, was the target of much attention. When we look at the works of these leading postwar picture book writers, we can observe how freely and creatively they followed their creative instincts despite the difficult conditions after the war. As poor as the times might have been, the society that had finally attained freedom and turned toward peace must have been one in which they could readily write for children and for themselves. There must have been something about that time that resembled the ferment of picture book artists’ activity in 1920s-1930s America, with its influx of diverse cultures from overseas. Today’s picture books with their often-stereotyped forms of art can be mass produced for profit both as teaching aids and as commercial goods, but it has gotten harder to find the kind of passion capable of universal appeal that has been passed down from ages past.

What We Must Do

In her book, A Bridge of Children’s Books, Jella Lepman quoted the words of Ortega y Gasset:

The child should be raised up in an atmosphere of bold, generous, ambitious, and enthusiastic emotions. Mythical figures such as Hercules and Ulysses will for ever be perfect ones for the child, because, like all mythology, they generate a spirit of inexhaustible enthusiasm . . . But maturity and culture are not the creations of the adult and the sage, but of the child and the savage within us. Let us raise our children as children forgetting as completely as we can that they will be adults some day. The best human being is never the man who has been least a child . . . Maturity is not a dissolving away from childhood, but a bringing together of childhood . . . The songs of the poets, the words of the wise, the genius of politicians are no more than grown-up echoes of the voices that have been long held in check and that wish to flourish as the eternal child.

As we have seen, since the time IBBY was founded, even as Jella Lepman probably knew would happen, the wars, the revolutions, the terror and strife, have not stopped. Human beings have not learned yet to coexist and live together peaceably despite all the horrors they have suffered. We do not know when they will learn, but this much is certain: we must endure and continue to try to learn. Among all the things that we must do to help children endure and learn, IBBY is devoted to providing nourishment through books. What I wish to say is that today as never before we are aware of the vast and rich resources of art and human wisdom in every culture around the globe that can provide such nourishment. Perhaps this is a good occasion for us all to remember afresh Jella Lepman’s idea in founding IBBY that books can very concretely and enduringly contribute to our hopes for achieving peace in this world.