By Dr. Tara M. McGowan
In recent decades, Japan has achieved worldwide recognition for its own brand of kawaii, or “cute” aesthetic, epitomized by the wide-eyed, youthful characters of manga and animé. What is not so well known is that this aesthetic can be traced back to a profusion of artistic activity that began during a brief period of almost unprecedented freedom of expression known as “Taishō Democracy.” During the Taishō period (1912-1926) progressive ideas flourished, and Japanese artists and writers who had been studying in Europe began returning home in greater numbers, freshly inspired by modernist artistic movements there—late impressionism, expressionism, cubism, fauvism, and Art Deco (Horie and Taniguchi 6). Artists, illustrators, and designers seamlessly integrated Western and Japanese influences into a fusion of styles that continues to feel fresh and innovative today.
The Meiji period (1868-1912), when Japan first opened its doors to the west after more than 200 years of relative seclusion, had seen the creation of museums, theme parks, zoos and aquariums, especially in the major metropolitan centers of Tokyo and Osaka, but it was not until the Taishō period (1912-1926) that these spaces began to be viewed as entertaining and educational for children. In Europe, this was roughly the same period in the wake of WWI (1914-1918) that Swedish designer and social reformer, Ellen Key dubbed “The Century of the Child,” where the creation of spaces that would allow children to thrive, both emotionally and physically, and also to develop as artists in their own right became a matter of world-wide concern. In Japan, too, artistic activity increasingly focused on creating an imaginative world, almost exclusively for children. One of the most significant children’s magazines from this period was in fact called “The Land of Children” (Kodomo no kuni). Started in 1922, toward the end of the Taishō period, Kodomo no kuni ran until 1944—a total of 287 volumes—visually chronicling the development of Japanese modernism and rapidly changing definitions of childhood in the lead up to World War II (Nakamura and Iwasaki 5). Thanks to a generous gift from the Friends of the Princeton University Library, the Cotsen Children’s Library recently acquired 72 volumes of this legendary magazine, greatly adding to the completeness of its holdings (a total of 225 volumes).
Kodomo no kuni stood out in what is often called the “golden age” of Japanese children’s magazines because of its high artistic standards and the long duration of its publication. Child psychologist and prominent educator Kurahashi Sōzo (倉橋惣三, 1882-1955) was brought on as the chief consultant for the magazine, which reflected his progressive ideas about the importance of comprehensive engagement in the arts to develop children’s self-expression and quality of life (International Library of Children’s Literature). Illustrator Okamoto Kiichi (岡本帰一, 1888-1930), poets Kitahara Hakushū (北原白秋, 1885-1942) and Noguchi Ujō (野口雨情, 1882-1945), and lyricist Nakayama Shinpei (中山晋平, 1887-1952)—all artists at the pinnacles of their respective fields—were brought on as editors and contributors. Iwaya Sazanami (巌谷小波, 1870-1933)—the “father of children’s literature” in Japan—also contributed frequently. Combining pictures, stories, songs, dance, drama, and crafts, the magazine offered artists opportunities to collaborate with one another and even with their young readers. In line with its child-centered philosophy, the serial was published on large (26 x 18.5 cm), thick paper that withstood rough treatment from little hands and allowed for the high-quality, color printing, which still remains vibrant today (International Library of Children’s Literature).
Just as authors and lyricists were intent upon creating a literature of poetry and songs (dōyo 童謡) and stories (dōwa 童話) for children, illustrators set to work developing a new kind of children’s imagery (dōga 童画). Kodomo no kuni was at the forefront of these efforts because it was the first magazine to commission multiple illustrators, instead of just hiring one in-house artist. In the process of collaborating and exhibiting their work collectively, these illustrators formed Japan’s first Association of Children’s Illustrators (日本童画家協会) in 1927 (Horie and Taniguchi 100). Between 1922 and 1932, Kodomo no kuni boasted over 100 contributing artists, about a quarter of whom were women (International Library of Children’s Literature).
The primary audience for the magazine was the children of a new and growing urban middle-class, who had access to the best that both Western and Japanese cultures had to offer. Artists imagined for these children a fashionable world that consciously combined Japanese and Western styles and motifs (和洋折衷) (Horie and Taniguchi 6). In this illustration, Shimizu Yoshio 清水良雄 depicts a girl, who voices the accompanying lyrics by Kuzuhara Shigeru 葛原滋 (set to music by Motoori Nagayo 本居長世). With her white chapeau, shawl, and mantle—given to her by a favorite uncle—she compares herself to that most often cited symbol of Japan—Mt. Fuji—and says she no longer needs to fear going out in the cold and the elements.
Western styles of clothing freed both girls and boys from former constraints on physical movement, and in Kodomo no kuni they can be seen engaging in all manner of outdoor sports together.
The importance of exercise was emphasized in schools through the institution of a yearly sports field day (運動会), which began at the end of the Meiji period (1868-1912) and continues in Japanese public schools today.
Artists like Okamoto Kiichi and Takehisa Yumeji (竹久夢二, 1884-1934) did not just depict the children they saw around them, they reimagined and redefined a fashionable and active lifestyle for educated children of the urban middle-class. In Kodomo no kuni, children are often shown in charge of themselves and empowered to take control of their modern, urban surroundings.
In “Moving Picture Show,” Iwaya Sazanami writes about a boy named Gorō, who just received a movie projector as a gift for his birthday, yet again from “an uncle,” as in the Mantle song above. In silhouette, Gorō is showing movies to his friends on a rainy day when they can’t go outside.
Along with physical freedom and agency in their modern setting, the magazine encouraged children’s freedom of expression through various arts competitions. Winning entries would often be published at the end of the volumes. In the examples below, we see a sampling of children’s artwork. On the left page below, six-year-old Okumura Fukuko 奥村富久子 has drawn a girl playing with a mari (bouncing ball) and, on the right, is seven-year-old Hagihara Kunio’s 萩原邦夫 drawing of okagura, a sacred shrine dance performance.
Although vetted by judges, who were also contributing artists of the magazine, these peeks into actual children’s lives both complement and contrast in intriguing ways with the world depicted in the illustrations by prominent artists of the period.
The interactive aspects of the magazine also included collaborations between the magazine’s artists and child contributors. In the poem titled “My Mother” below, six-year-old Toda Tamae 富田玉江 writes about seeing her dead mother, who came back to her in a dream. The wistful scene in this prize-winning poem is romantically portrayed by female artist Tōyama Yūko 遠山陽子.
As this poem demonstrates, the editors of Kodomo no kuni were not entirely indifferent to the harsher realities of children’s lives, but the fact remains that the brightly-lit modern and fashionable world often depicted in its pages represented the lives of only a very small proportion of children in Japan at the time. Even for families who could afford the magazine, the “Land of Children” was a realm they could only dream about. During the Taishō and early Shōwa periods (1926-1989), the rift between rich and poor widened, and many Japanese children, especially in rural areas, lived in extreme poverty. In the shadows, children of the very poor were being sold into servitude or slavery and a high proportion of children suffered from endemic diseases, such as tuberculosis (Horie and Taniguchi 82). This shadow side of the history of childhood only darkened as Japan continued its military aggression in the Pacific, greatly depleting its resources at home. Quality paper became scarce by the 1940s, and this decline can be traced in the gradual deterioration of materials and printing standards of the magazine by 1944 when it was discontinued after only 3 volumes. Having a nearly full run of this important children’s magazine allows historians to trace this tumultuous transitional period in Japan between wars, and, as such, it is an invaluable resource for scholars of all aspects of Japanese social, cultural, and visual history. The innovative artists who brought Kodomo no kuni to life continue to inspire and inform the work of artists and illustrators, designers and animators, working in Japan today. Thanks to the generosity of the Friends of Princeton University Library, this rich and delightful resource is now available for the Princeton community and Japan scholars and enthusiasts everywhere.
 All Japanese names are presented in Japanese order with last name first.
Horie, Akiko, and Tomoko Taniguchi. Kodomo paradaisu: 1920-30 nendai ezasshi ni miru modan kizzu raifu [A paradise for children: Modern kids’ lives, as depicted in picture magazines from the 1920s to 30s]. Tokyo: Kawade shobō shinsha, 2005.
International Library of Children’s Literature, National Diet Library. “Kodomo no kuni: Artists and Children’s Books in 1920s Japan.” http://www.kodomo.go.jp/gallery/KODOMO_WEB/index_e.html. Accessed January 29, 2019.
Nakamura, Etsuko, and Mariko Iwasaki. ‘Kodomo no kuni’ sōmokuji [The complete index for the Kodomo no kuni magazine]. Tokyo: Kyūzansha, 1996-1998.