An Image of Japan and its People in 1920s Soviet Children’s Literature

Polina Popova, our roving correspondent on Russian- and Ukrainian-language children’s books, has written a new essay for the Cotsen curatorial blog based on her research when she was in residence at Princeton several years ago.  In this post, she looks at how Japan has been represented in the former Soviet Union.  Thank you, Polina, for bringing our attention to many different dimensions of illustrated children’s books in the Russian language.

Russia and Japan—there have never been the easygoing political relationships between the two countries. In the early 20th century, Russia was defeated in the Russo-Japanese War —the war ended with the Treaty of Portsmouth of 1905. At that time, in 1905 and later in 1911, the Japanese allied with Britain and maintained good relationships with the United States, but tensions with Russia continued because Russia controlled (not legally but de facto) parts of Manchuria, for example, the Chinese Eastern Railway and the regional capital city of Harbin.

Russia and Japan signed a series of treaties in 1907 and later—first, about fishing rights for Japan within Russian territorial waters; and in 1916—a treaty of mutual defense. However, in the 1910s, especially after the American entry into World War I, public figures in Japan embraced phrases like jikan no sūsei (“trends of the times”) and sekai taisei (“world situation”).[1] The 1917 Russian revolution greatly influenced Japanese foreign affairs: the coming to power of the Bolsheviks in Russia both unnerved many Japanese but made others “dizzy” with the potential collapse of Russian central authority opening the door to the extension of Japan’s political reach on the mainland.

Plans for Japan to intervene politically and militarily in Siberia began to form mid-November of 1917 as the news of the Bolsheviks’ seizure of power spread around the world. Organizations like the National Destiny and the Amur River Society began to advocate Japanese intervention into Siberia and even the incorporation of some Siberian territories into the Japanese empire.[2] The international law professor Ninakawa Arata from Kyoto was one of the Japanese public intellectuals of the time who saw Japan as a future leader of the “new Orient.” In March of 1918, in an article (in English) for the Japan Magazine he wrote: “Now that China is helpless and Russia [is] on the verge of disintegration Japan has no formidable rival to prevent her rise to a supreme place in the Orient…”[3] However, Ninakawa’s plans came to naught as the Bolsheviks established Control of most cities of Eastern Siberia.[4]

In the late 1920s, and especially the early 1930s, Soviet leader Joseph Stalin was mostly preoccupied with Soviet industrialization and the First Five-Year Plan, thus, the Soviets attempted to negotiate a Non-Aggression Pact (NAP) with Japan, similar to the ones signed with Germany, Finland, and the Baltic states). In early 1926, the Soviet Consul-General, Grigorii Bessedovsky, pursued negotiation of an NAP with the Japanese government, but without success.[5] In 1927, some commercial pacts were signed. In the 1930s, a new region—Mongolia (the Mongolian People’s Republic)—became a battlefield of Soviet-Japanese diplomatic relations. The Soviets won that battle, culminating in the 1936 pact of mutual assistance between the USSR and the MPR signed in Ulan Bator. But the Soviet leaders understood that Japan was not neutralized by the pact and, in fact, Russians grew increasingly worried about the growing closeness between Japan and Germany.[6]

The uneasy political and diplomatic atmosphere hanging over the early Soviet Union were reflected in the Soviet children’s literature of the time. And Cotsen Children’s Library has some unique materials that demonstrate how the literary and artistic imagination of Soviet children’s writers and illustrators imagined Japan and its people in the 1920s.

The 1924 fairy tale Mai i Oktiabrina (“May and Oktiabrina”) written by Lev Zilov and illustrated by Vladimir Orlov in grotesque black and white style shows an unsympathetic racialized image of Japanese children who are poor and malnourished. A Japanese boy explains to the Soviet boy and girl (Mai and Oktiabrina) who magially travel to Japan that Japanese children are exploited in sweatshops and factories and often become homeless.

Illustration 1. Terrible working condition of the Japanese children in the 1924 Soviet fairy tale Mai i Oktiabrina.

With childish naïveté and boastful straightforwardness, the Soviet children reply that in the Soviet Union children—even those who are homeless—live in almost luxurious conditions. They conclude that in the USSR children always “go first” (“… у них вместо дома хоромы, И тепло, и сыто, и пригоже. У нас дети на первом месте…”). After that laudatory tirade, the Japanese children all decide they want to live in the Soviet Union. At the end of the book, Japanese children join others (Africans, Indians, etc.) who are led by Mai and Oktiabrina in a collective parade which demonstrates a simplistic internationalism that the early Soviet children’s writers promoted through racialized lenses of the “affirmative action empire.”[7]

Puteshestvie Charli (“The Travels of Charlie”) by Nikolai Smirnov and Galina and Olga Chigarova is another book from 1924 which also depicts Japan. The book is famous among scholars and collectors of Russian children’s literature for rendering, in avant-garde, absurdist style, madcap travels of Charlie Chaplin around the globe. The book contrasts dramatically with Mai i Oktiabrina both aesthetically and ideologically: Puteshestvie Charli is funny, amusing, and mostly apolitical. Charlie travels from New York City to Europe by boat, through Europe by plane, through the USSR by train, and to Vladivostok by submarine, before hopping on a rickshaw in Japan.

Illustrations 2 and 3: Charlie Chaplin travelling through Japan using different modes of modern transportation.

Charlie was sent by the Japanese to San Francisco on another modern kind of transport—a hydroplane; there the actor traveled by motor boat, automobile, and tram right to his house. The next morning, Charlie wrote thank you notes to all the sailors, pilots, machinists, and drivers who took him on his journey around the world. The book ends on a positive though ideologically straightforward note: “I send my hello to the workers of all countries!” (“Мой привет рабочим всех стран!”)

The last book is Japonskie deti (“Japanese children,” 1929), by Aleksandr Solodvnikov with realistic lithographic illustrations by Vasilii Vatagin and Mikhail Ezuchevskii. The book is quite unusual for its time, as it was one of the rare ethnographic and encyclopedic works created for Soviet children to introduce them to ethnographic origins and traditions of world regions. Solodovnikov, and one of the illustrators, Ezuchevskii, also teamed up to create a similar book about how children in China are raised, nurtured, and educated. (Ezuchevskii illustrated books related to the history of pre-historic times and about children of Africa, too.)[8]

Illustration 4: Reminiscent of the Japanese-style paintings of Claude Monet, the cover of the Soviet children’s book Japnoskie deti.

The book begins with an explanation of how Japanese parents carry their babies and then portrays different episodes in lives of the Japanese children—from how they play to how they help their parents and dress up for the occasions. The illustrations are orientalist and Monetesque, but with careful attention to details of Japanese clothing, traditions, and customsIllustration 5: First page of the Soviet children’s book about customs and traditions of Japanese children’s upbringing.

All three books exemplify different tendencies in the Soviet children’s writers’ representation of the Japanese people: one that presented Japanese children as political “others” living in the conditions where working class people, especially children, are treated badly (and Soviet children are represented as the saviors of all children of other races and ethnicities); another one that shows Japan neutrally as simply a geographical neighbor of the USSR near the city  of Vladivostok; and a third one, an ethnographic, almost scientific study of the Japanese children’s upbringing and family customs. To generalize, the books analyzed above represent three aesthetical and literary tendencies of the Soviet children’s literature of the 1920: explicitly ideological books that harshly criticized non-communist societies (and empires); experimental, avant-garde, somewhat absurdist books that had ideologically neutral tone; and encyclopedic books that were educational in nature.

[1] According to the historian Paul Dunscomb, “these phrases generally served as euphemisms for respect for constitutional democracy at home and an embrace of the spirit of Wilsonian internationalism in foreign relationships.” See Paul E. Dunscomb, Japan’s Siberian Intervention, 1918-1922: “A Great Disobedience Against the People” (Lanham, Boulder, New York, Toronto, Plymouth, UK: Lexington Books, 2011), 32.

[2] Dunscomb, Japan’s Siberian Intervention, 1918-1922, 33-36.

[3] Arata Ninakawa, “Japan’s Policy Positive,” Japan Magazine, vol. 8, no. 11 (March 1918), 625.

[4] Dunscomb, Japan’s Siberian Intervention, 40.

[5] Jacob Kovalio, “Japan’s Perception of Stalinist Foreign Policy in the Early 1930s,” Journal of Contemporary History, Vol. 19, No. 2 (Apr. 1984), 319.

[6] Brian Bridges, “‘An Ambiguous Area’: Mongolia in Soviet-Japanese Relations in the mid-1930s,” Modern Asian Studies, vol. 54, no.3 (2020), 730, 746.

[7] Here, I am using historian Terry Martin’s description from his book, The Affirmative Action Empire: Nations and Nationalism in the Soviet Union, 1923-1939 (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2001).

[8] This information was taken from the web site of the Russian State Children’s Library’s electronic database: (Accessed on January 14th of 2023).