Of Madness, Murder, and Measles: The Meiji Period (1868-1912) Craze for Pictorial Dictionaries

By Dr. Tara M. McGowan

The beginning of the Meiji Reformation is typically traced back to 1853 when Commodore Matthew Perry arrived in his famous “black ships,” opening Japan to trade with the West after more than 200 years of relative seclusion. Prior to Commodore Perry’s arrival, only limited trade had been allowed with the Dutch and Chinese, primarily through the Island of Dejima off the coast of Nagasaki. By 1858, however, Japan had agreed to open five new ports in Hakone, Yokohama, Nagasaki, Niigata, and Kobe over the following six years.

Figure 1. Western steamships, in Ijin Seiyo shi 異人西洋誌 (An illustrated guide to the foreigners of the West) by Kanagaki Robun and artist Utagawa Yoshiiku. Yushima: Yoshidaya Takichi, circa 1870-1880. (Cotsen 99393)

By the beginning of the Meiji Period (1868-1912), the floodgates to foreign trade had been opened, leading to a surge of interest among the general public to learn English and other Western languages. A “mania for sideways writing” (yokomoji ryūko 横文字流行) inspired humorous and sometimes ill-judged attempts to meet the demand by authors with little to no knowledge of the language.

Figure 2. Foreigners on the streets of Yokohama, in Ijin Seiyo shi. (Cotsen 99393)

Among the many Meiji-period pictorial dictionaries held in the Cotsen Children’s Library collection, there is a particularly intriguing incomplete set of two volumes (of an original three-volume set), titled Dōkai Eigo zue 童解英語圖會 (Illustrated English for children). The first volume also contains a parallel title in English: The Pictoral [sic] English and Japan Language. Printed between 1870 and 1871, these volumes became available right around the peak of production for these manuals (Meiji 4-5, i.e., 1871-1872), but what makes them notable is the caliber of both the artist and author in their respective fields. The former was a well-known ukiyoe artist and the latter, a popular Edo-period gesaku fiction writer. The artist, illustrating under the name Keisai Kanjin 蕙齋閑人 is better known as Ochiai Yoshiiku 落合芳幾 (1833-1904) (or Utagawa Yoshiiku), a student of the now world-renowned ukiyoe artist Utagawa Kuniyoshi 歌川国芳 (1798-1861). After Kuniyoshi’s death, Yoshiiku succeeded him in his reputation for humorous and satirical prints, but he was also known for frequent collaboration with popular gesaku writers, including Kanagaki Robun 仮名垣魯文 (1829–1894) (Figs. 1 and 2), and Jōno Saigiku 条野採菊 (1832-1902), the compiler of Illustrated English for Children, who appears here under the pen name Rōgetsutei Chinjin 弄月亭陳人 but also published under the name Sansantei Arindo 山々亭有人.[i]

Although it is clear, even from the misspelled title, that neither of these artists had a particularly firm grasp of English, their combined efforts provide a great deal of valuable information for scholars about prevailing cultural ideas in Japan at the time. The fact that they jumped together on the bandwagon of demand for language manuals of this sort also illustrates the nail-biting pressure faced by artists at this juncture to reinvent themselves in the face of rapidly changing media formats, as well as audience expectation, amidst the Meiji government’s rush to Westernization at all levels of society. Over the brief span of less than a decade, these two artists went from having well-established careers in the Edo-period popular arts of ukiyoe and gesaku fiction to publishing illustrated language manuals and later to co-founding the longest running newspaper in Japan, which they called the Tokyo Nichi Nichi Shinbun, precursor to today’s Mainichi Shinbun (Daily newspaper). To varying degrees, both men were able to bridge these drastically different historical periods rather nimbly, compared to many of their contemporaries, but their achievements have been largely unacknowledged until recently.[ii]

Jōno is actually presented as the “extractor,” or selector (shōsatsu 抄撮) of the English vocabulary, rather than the author, but he uses his verbal prowess in the introductions to these volumes to poke fun at both his own profession, as a gesaku writer, and less directly at the Meiji government’s push for Western-style enlightenment. In Volume I, he writes:

A certain Master Mei (明) was on the road when he saw a man carrying his parent on his back, and he gave him a reward. When he heard his attendants nearby commenting that the man was not a true Confucian and his actions did not deserve a prize, the Master said, “Even if he is just copying filial piety, isn’t it better to give him a prize, when copying bad behavior is so much on the rise?” If one were to make a clever comparison, those who try their hand at writing in the style of gesaku advocate making literary adaptations of old classics. They are always wrestling with one another over their talent for extracting excerpts. In this work, we are treating the study of translation as a form of transient child’s play. If the child remembers words, even as baby talk, it will still in some small way give a little boost to the international communication of the present day and nudge enlightenment (kaika 開化) forward a tiny bit. If that happens, isn’t that better than copying uncouth (Chinese) histories that act as vulgar intermediaries? (leaf 1; my translation)

Interestingly, Master Mei, whose name seems a barely concealed reference to Meiji (明治), rewards Confucian filial piety—a Chinese philosophy—at the same time that Chinese histories, which had formerly been the foundation for much of Japan’s popular literature, are now dismissed as “uncouth” and “vulgar.” Jōno also seems to suggest that since the Meiji government’s push for Western-style enlightenment is nothing more than copying anyway, the choice comes down to whether one copies good or bad behaviors.

All the various dictionaries from the Meiji period in the Cotsen collection (for a list, see the annotated bibliography that follows) can be placed on a continuum from a more Western frame-of-reference on one end to a Japanese (or Eastern) frame-of-reference on the other. Volume I of Illustrated English for Children firmly places the reader on the Japanese end of the spectrum, beginning, not with the alphabet, as one might expect, but rather with a Romanized transcription of the poem Iroha いろは (Fig. 3), used since the Heian period to teach the Japanese syllabary. This is followed by the four seasons, the months of the year, and the animals of the Chinese zodiac.

Figure 3. Detail from Illustrated English for Children, Volume I, leaf 2. (Cotsen N-000864)

It is here that we can see that the Edo-period practice of “extracting excerpts” (i.e., copying) was not limited to writing. The Cotsen collection also has a colorful ukiyoe print of illustrated English words by Utagawa Yoshitora 歌川芳虎 (active 1850-1870), the oldest student among Utagawa Kuniyoshi’s many disciples and Yoshiiku’s senior. Although the three unbound sheets of prints are undated, making it difficult to tell definitively which came first, it seems likely that Yoshiiku copied Yoshitora, who also begins by offering a Romanization in all-caps of the iroha poem used to teach the Japanese syllabary and the twelve zodiac animals. Several of Yoshiiku’s zodiac animals are almost identical to Yoshitora’s, although Yoshitora’s “English” (actually a mix of German and English) is decidedly more problematic, especially in this instance: bull 牛= A tiger?! (Fig. 4)

Figure 4. Detail from English Words with Illustrations by Yoshitora. (Cotsen 102875)

This error reveals the pitfalls of extraction because Yoshitora most likely had copied from someone else before him. By looking at Yoshiiku’s more comprehensive treatment of the zodiac (Fig. 5)–even though it likely came later–we can see how easy it would be to make such a mistake, simply by confusing the labels: “A Cow” comes directly before “A Tiger.”

Figure 5. Illustrated English for Children, Volume I, leaf 3. (Cotsen N-000864)

More than half of the 115 or so items squeezed onto Yoshitora’s prints are extracted, almost directly, or otherwise emulated by Yoshiiku and Jōno in Volume I of their Illustrated English for Children, but they are careful to update and correct as needed. For instance, the older Yoshitora draws the “lion” as an auspicious, fanciful creature called a shishi 獅子, which was commonly found in Edo-period depictions (Fig. 6, left), whereas Yoshiiku’s lion (also labeled shishi) looks much more realistic (Fig. 6, right).

Figure 6.
Left: “lion” in Yoshitora’s print;
Right: “lion” in Illustrated English for Children, Volume I, leaf 5. (Cotsen N-000864)

Although Yoshiiku updates and corrects Yoshitora’s version, he also offers a wealth of loose interpretations of his own, as in his depiction of a “piano,” which is translated as koto 琴 (Fig.7, left) and “crown,” which takes the shape of the lacquer headdress (kanmuri冠) worn by the emperor (Fig. 7, right). These are not really “mistakes” as much as reinterpretations of a concept to suit the frame of reference of the reader—for a Japanese audience of this period, the koto was the nearest equivalent to a piano and a kanmuri was their version of a royal crown.

Figure 7. Details from Illustrated English for Children, Volume I. (Cotsen N-000864)
Left: “piano” (leaf 6);
Right: “crown” (leaf 13).

These reinterpretations to suit a different cultural framework become even more interesting as Yoshiiku and Jōno move beyond objects and animals in their Illustrated English for Children to depicting adjectives, verbs, and complex concepts. It is here that Yoshiiku’s deftness at developing a visual shorthand comes to the fore. For instance, how would a Japanese audience of the period immediately recognize the concepts of “mad(ness)” or “murder” in what amounts to a thumb-nail sketch?

Figure 8. Details from Illustrated English for Children, Volume I. (Cotsen N-000864)
Left: “mad” (leaf 10);
Right: “murder” (leaf 14).

“Mad” is a disheveled woman with her fan hanging from a stick, and “murder” (misspelled as “onser”?) is a man, bleeding profusely from the chest as he runs away screaming.

Volume II of the Illustrated English for Children takes both visual and verbal language to a new level by presenting whole scenes with a series of related words. This is a departure from anything to be found in the other English illustrated dictionaries available in the collection, which tend to keep words as individuated concepts, sometimes arranged thematically, but usually sectioned off in separate boxes. Jōno alerts the reader to this progression in his introduction to Volume II, where he compares the English alphabet, which is finally introduced here, to the entangled vines of the morning glory:

If a novice takes the seeds of the morning glory, which a gardener has grown, and plants them in the soil, the shape of the flower may look similar but the petals will be small and the luster dull; but if they see one grown by an experienced gardener, they will most certainly feel ridiculous. If it is made easy for children to see Western writing, which looks like the vines of that same morning glory, it will—like the bamboo poles that are used to prop up the vines—give a little boost to the entanglement (of the vines). From where do the linkages (entanglement) of knowledge begin, if not with the 26 letters of the alphabet, which are the foundations of the great learning (fertilizer/manure) in which this humble work abounds. It may be that if this is viewed by a seasoned scholar, parts (of the work) would make him laugh uncontrollably, but I would be honored if it could be seen as what is called a fleeting “evanescent glory” of child’s play thing. (leaf 1; my translation)

Abandoning the dividing lines used in Volume I, Yoshiiku designs whole pages of interlinked visual vocabulary, most obviously here in the depiction of an intergenerational family:

Figure 9. Illustrated English for Children, Volume II, leaves 5-6. (Cotsen N-001262)

At the top, nearest to the cabinet of drawers in the upper left-hand corner sit the grandparents with the words for gold 金 and silver 銀 followed down the side of the right-hand page by father, mother, two brothers, and one grandchild. Significantly, the grandchild is at the bottom of the page nearest the roof (lower left-hand corner) of the “treasury” (金庫). The implication being perhaps that grandchildren are an investment for the future, or possibly that big, intergenerational families require money! The grandchild is playing with toys that reappear near the end of the volume, indicating that the associative linkages Jōno describes in the Introduction are not just across double-page spreads, but even across the volume as a whole.

Figure 9. Illustrated English for Children, Volume II, leaf 5: detail of “grandchild” (Cotsen N-001262)

Near the child’s feet, we can see a denden daiko, or a hand-held drum that makes a sound when spun because the beads attached to threads on either side hit the central drum. What the child is kicking with his other foot is harder to decipher here, but it becomes clear on the next-to last page (Fig. 10).

Figure 10. Illustrated English for Children, Volume II, leaves 16-17. (Cotsen N-001262)

The double-page spread above has a different set of drawers at the top, this time a medicine cupboard. The words “pill,” “lotion,” “ague,” and “heal” are close by. Below right, we see a man feeling for the woman’s heart-beat with the words “lean” (as in thin–痩せる) and “touch.” On the left-hand side, we see the denden daiko again, only this time held by a woman, who is making noise with it next to a child. This is accompanied by the word “Measles.” Directly below the woman, to the right of the child, is the object that the grandchild was kicking over in the earlier illustration (Fig. 9). Here, we can see that it is a daruma doll, but it is labeled “smallpox.” Meanwhile, the grandchild is in a pose of distress labeled “crazy,” while the man above him is labeled “scream.” This juxtaposition of ideas would probably have been (and still is) meaningless to a non-Japanese reader, but the readers of Illustrated English for Children would have known that red toys, especially daruma, were typically placed next the pillow of a child with smallpox to distract the demons who had brought the disease. Also, daruma are dolls that can right themselves when they are knocked over, so they are associated with recovery. The denden daiko was similarly associated with driving away measles with the noise it makes. Over time, these toys became visual shorthand for the diseases they were thought to drive away.[iii]

Most intriguingly, on the upper right-hand side of the left-hand page is a concept with no visual equivalent: “love.” It may be that this indicates that the various actions surrounding it are illustrative of the concept so it needs no further explanation. But there are many other intriguing associative puzzles to be solved in this slim volume, many that would seem to be beyond a child’s comprehension.

Figure 11. Illustrated English for Children, Volume II. (Cotsen N-001262)
Left: leaf 7;
Right: leaf 12.

On leaf 7 (Fig. 11, left), for example, we see a man and woman near a rumpled futon mattress and surrounded by the concepts: “floor or (second) story,” “stupid,” “say,” “false,” “true,” “jug,” and “ale.” Notably, the concept “true” is near the woman, and the concepts “say” and “false” are near the man. Later, on leaf 12 (Fig. 11, right), we see a similar couple near a gate with the words: “dark,” “secret,” “asleep,” “letter,” “bash” (embarrassed), and “mistake.”

The scene on leaf 12 seems a continuation of what happened on leaf 7 because the woman is attempting to hand a letter to her lover, who is, through his “bashful” gestures, pushing the letter and woman away, while scratching his head, as if he can’t imagine how this “mistake” could have happened. (Is he the “false” man in the earlier illustration?) In Japanese, the word “mistake” is more precisely translated “mistake of the heart” (心まちがい).

These associative groupings raise questions about whether the intended audience for Illustrated English for Children was really (or exclusively) children, as Jōno keeps insisting in his introductions. Although the Japanese title also would have us think that it is designed “for children to understand” 童解, a look at a different book by this same combination of Yoshiiku (artist) and Jōno (author), published around the same time, and held in the East Asian Library collection (PL676.D66 1870) suggests a broader understanding of the concept of “child” (童). Published in 1870, Dōmō hitsudoku Kango zukai 童蒙必讀漢語圖解 is an illustrated language manual designed for what Jōno describes in his introduction as fuyō dōmō 婦幼童蒙 (literally, “women, children, and those in the darkness of ignorance”) in order for them to learn the necessary Chinese to understand literary references in the Chinese histories and romances on which popular literature (i.e., gesaku fiction) was based. This sounds to modern readers like Jōno is openly insulting his audience, but, in fact, it is very similar in concept to a popular series found frequently in bookstores today: “English Language (or Chinese Literary References) for Dummies.” These language manuals were popular precisely because Jōno and Yoshiiku knew their audience from a long career of writing and illustrating Edo-period gesaku fiction, and they offered these readers a humorously self-deprecating and non-threatening way to ease into the new reality of rapid Westernization. This popular audience would have included children, women, and, no doubt, a great many less-educated men. In Tsuchiya Momoko’s study of Jōno, she argues that his work in the Meiji period represented a continuation from the Edo-period more than disruption.[iv] Illustrated English for Children would seem to bolster this claim, as Jōno deftly adapted the new genre of the English-language dictionary to entertain very much the same popular audience he had appealed to before the opening of Japan to the West. Today, these materials provide a gold mine of information for scholars to begin to understand the visual sensibilities and cultural associations of that popular, but often underrepresented, late eighteenth-century audience.


[i] Due to the complexity of Japanese artists’ names at this time, I will refer to the illustrator as Yoshiiku and the author as Jōno throughout. Otherwise, I follow Japanese name order with surname appearing first.

[ii] In 2009, for example, Tsuchiya Momoko published her dissertation titled Edo to Meiji o ikita gesakusha Sansantei Arindo/Jōno Saigiku Sanjin (The popular fiction writer Sansantei Arindo/Jōno Saigiku Sanjin, who lived from Edo to Meiji), (Tokyo: Kindai Bungeisha), reassessing Jōno’s contributions to the field of literature. In 2018, the Ota Memorial Museum of Art in Tokyo had a comprehensive show of Ochiai Yoshiiku’s works, stating that in spite of his importance to the history of ukiyoe, he has been largely overlooked in favor of other well-known ukiyoe artists, namely Tsukioka Yoshitoshi, Kobayashi Kiyochika and Kawanabe Kyōsai.

[iii] See discussions on these healing practices involving toys in McGowan, Tara M. “The Designs of Kawasaki Kyosen Envisioning the Future of a Vanishing World Through Toy Pictures (omocha e).” The Princeton University Library Chronicle, Vol. 74, No. 3 (Spring, 2013): 320-365.

[iv] Tsuchiya, Edo to Meiji, 2009.

Other pictorial dictionaries of interest in the collection, sorted by date:

Taisei kunmo zukai泰西訓蒙図解官版 (German-English-French-Japanese dictionary). Tokyo: Monbusho, 1871. Fore-edge on left. (Cotsen 98881)
Published by the government, this two-volume set is divided into categories, such as various houses, table utensils, rural occupations, domestic and wild animals. The title literally means “Illustrated Western enlightenment.”

Eifutsu tango zukai英佛單語圖解 (English-French illustrated word dictionary), translated by Chikayama Shōichi and illustrated by Nakamura Munehiro. Tōkyō: Yūjitsudō, 1872. Fore-edge on right. (Cotsen N-000168)
Each vocabulary word is illustrated in a box on the right with the Japanese translation in Chinese characters and katakana alongside. The corresponding English and French translations are provided in Romanization with katakana pronunciation listed in a box on the left.

Eikoku tango zukai英國單語圖解 (Illustrated dictionary of English terms), by Ichikawa Ōha, 1872. Fore-edge on right. (Cotsen N-000129)
Terms are presented in English, katakana pronunciation of the English term, a Japanese translation, and then the pronunciation of the Japanese term. Text is in black ink, images in a rusty brown. This is the first of two volumes. Divided into four sections, with a particularly interesting treatment of illness and the human body.

Seiyo ebiki setsuyoshu西洋画引き節用集 (Japanese-English vocabulary). Osaka: [Onogi, Ichibei], 1872. Fore-edge on right. (Cotsen 82795)
This picture dictionary is organized by the Iroha syllabary, starting with words in Japanese beginning with i (以) and then moving on to ro (呂), ha (波), and so on. This makes it easy for a Japanese reader to search familiar words.

Kaichū eigo hitorigeiko: Eiwa taiyaku懐中英語独稽古: 英和對譯 (Flashlight English-German self-study: with English and Japanese translation), originally by Gustave Chouquet and translated by Saita Ryōji. Ōsaka: Akashi Chūshichi, 1885. Fore-edge on right. (Cotsen N-000131)
This is actually a compilation from various sources. The first section provides alphabets in different scripts and an illustrated dictionary of terms under various subjects, such as “elements” and “cloths and dress,” which are not included in Chouquet’s original. Chouquet’s Easy Conversations was in French and English parallel translation. The second section of this volume is an excerpt from Chouquet’s volume, only in English and Japanese parallel translation.

Eigo zukai英語圗解 (Illustrated English vocabulary charts), illustrated and published by Fukuda Kumajiro. Tōkyō: Kōto Shuppansha, 1887. (Cotsen 102865, available online)
English words are grouped semantically, illustrated, and explained in Japanese; pronunciation guides in katakana are provided on top of each word. Each sheet is numbered and dated.

Gospel and War Propaganda Take to the Streets! The Rise of “Educational Kamishibai” (教育紙芝居)

By Dr. Tara M. McGowan

Japanese “Paper Theater,” or kamishibai 紙芝居, was invented around 1930 as a street-performance art. The performers, known as gaitō kamishibai shi 街頭紙芝居師, were candy peddlers, who would travel from neighborhood to neighborhood on their bicycles and sell candy or other treats to children before entertaining them with stories. The early kamishibai artists and performers were inspired by silent film. In Japan, silent films almost always had live narrators called katsudō benshi 活動弁士, telling the story alongside. The kamishibai storytellers emulated the popular movie narrators by orally dramatizing the stories, while pulling a series of illustrated cards out of a wooden stage strapped to the backs of their bicycles. The artists who painted the street-performance cards were also inspired by cinematic visual effects that mesmerized their young audiences and made them come back to hear episode after episode. Before the advent of television in 1953, kamishibai was the primary form of popular entertainment for children, especially of the lower socio-economic classes. It was so popular, in fact, that television was called “electric kamishibai” when it first entered Japan.

Alarmed by the sensationalistic stories, lurid colors, and general lack of oversight, parents and educators called on the authorities to control the content of street-performance kamishibai, much as we see with video games today. But not everyone took this punitive approach. One young Christian missionary named Imai Yone[1], recently back from studying in the United States, saw the potential of this new medium to enhance her missionary work. She promoted the format, and inspired others to eventually develop what has come to be called “educational kamishibai” (教育紙芝居). Thanks to the generosity of the Friends of Princeton University Library, the Cotsen Children’s Library has recently acquired nine rare kamishibai sets published by Imai Yone, as well as five sets by other notable pioneers in the field of educational kamishibai.

Imai Yone (今井よね, 1897-1968) was born in Mie Prefecture and moved to Tokyo for secondary school in 1917. She was baptized the following year at the age of 21. During the Kansai earthquake of 1923, she met Kagawa Toyohiko (賀川豊彦, 1888-1960), a priest and social activist, who had studied at Princeton Theological Seminary (1914-1916) and was later nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize. Imai joined his relief efforts for the victims of the earthquake and, in 1926, led the opening of his “Friends of Jesus Nursing Mission” (イエスの友看護婦ミッション) in Osaka.[2] In 1927, she traveled to the United States to study as a missionary and did not return for four years, during which time street-performance kamishibai was not only invented, but was rapidly gaining in popularity. When Imai tried to open a Sunday school in 1931 in Tokyo, many of her would-be pupils cut class as soon as they heard the wooden clappers (hyōshigi 拍子木), announcing the arrival of the kamishibai man. Imai followed her students out into the streets and immediately recognized that kamishibai was a powerful medium for communication and persuasion that could be adapted to her purposes of spreading Christianity.

From 1932, Imai began hiring kamishibai artists to create dramatic stories from the Bible, beginning with “A Christmas Story,” which was published in 1933. Imai emulated the rental system of the street performance artists, where the same stories were circulated by many storytellers, so that her stories could be disseminated to a wide audience. By 1933, she had organized a troupe of performers called the “Kamishibai Missionaries” (kamishibai dendō dan 紙芝居伝道團) and had co-founded the Kamishibai Publishing Company (Kamishibai kankō kai 紙芝居刊行会) to publish “Gospel kamishibai.” In 1934, she published a book titled The Reality of Kamishibai (Kamishibai no jissai 紙芝居の実際), which not only encouraged the use of kamishibai in missionary work but also contained a valuable survey of the state of the street-performance art and artists at the time.

Imai Yone, performing kamishibai around 1933. (Image source: core100.net)

Imai made several significant innovations to the kamishibai format. She increased the size of the cards to what we now consider the normal size for the standard kamishibai stage (10 ½ x 15 inches), nearly doubling the size of the cards used by street performance artists. She also doubled the length of the stories her audience would hear in one sitting. Whereas the street-performance artists typically told episodes of about 10 cards each over what could sometimes continue for hundreds of episodes, Imai’s stories are usually 20 cards in length. Imai wrote the scripts for the stories herself, but she commissioned street-performance or manga artists to create the images because she recognized that their cinematic visual techniques would make the Bible stories come to life for audiences young and old.

Seven of the nine recent acquisitions of Imai’s kamishibai sets fall into the category of Gospel Kamishibai (Fukuin kamishibai 福音紙芝居). These sets include intriguing indications of Imai’s various efforts to promote and improve upon kamishibai at the time. The last card of her “Tale of Baby Moses” (1934) features an advertisement for stages she designed in two colors—dark green recommended for outside performances and subdued yellow for inside, particularly at night. Later sets advertise Imai’s book The Reality of Kamishibai, describing her as “standing on the forefront of the streets” and touting kamishibai as a “huge sensation for social education and missionary work.”

What may have accounted in part for the “huge sensation” was Imai’s use of street-performance kamishibai artists’ talents to visually tell a tale. One distinguishing feature was their use of outlining to ensure that large audiences of 50 or more people could see the stories from a distance. In his illustrations of “Tale of Baby Moses,” one of the earliest sets, published in 1934, artist Yuzuki Kaoru 柚木芳 experimented with multicolored outlines to soften the effect, and his depictions of Moses’s sister Miriam (left) and Pharoah’s daughter (right) clearly evoke ideal Hollywood beauties of 1930s films. Miriam, also depicted on the right of Pharaoh’s daughter in the second image, illustrates the challenges of visually maintaining consistent characters over sequential narratives and the notorious difficulty of human anatomy (what happened to her bosom?).

From “Tale of Baby Moses” (幼児モーセ物語). Kamishibai kankō kai, 1934. (Cotsen 11586438)

Other techniques taken from film were zooming in, panning out, and approaching the scene from different camera angles, as can be seen in “Tale of Baby Moses” when Yuzuki zooms in on the iconic scene of Moses being found in the boat of rushes (left) and on Miriam’s feet as she dances for joy (right).

From “Tale of Baby Moses” (幼児モーセ物語). Kamishibai kankō kai, 1934. (Cotsen 11586438)

A year later, in 1935, Imai employed Yuzuki’s talents again when she published “The Life of Jesus” over several sets, of which Cotsen has acquired volumes 3 and 7. In Vol. 3, Yuzuki switches to the more typical black outlining, although his style is immediately recognizable in the dramatic episode where Jesus saves the boy possessed by a demon.

From “The Life of Jesus” (イエス傳), Volume 3. Kamishibai kankō kai, 1935. (Cotsen 11586429)

In volume 7, artist Miura Hiroshi 三浦浩 takes a distinctive approach to black outlining in his depiction of Jesus turning water into wine, using it selectively to direct the viewers’ eyes to particularly significant movements or gestures.

From “The Life of Jesus” (イエス傳), Volume 7. Kamishibai kankō kai, 1935. (Cotsen 11586444)

Imai frequently switched back and forth between the New and Old Testaments, publishing a series of “Biblical Tales” (聖書物語) in 1934, which included the story of Abraham and the humorous tale of Zacchaeus of the sycamore tree, both illustrated by Miura.

From “Biblical Tales: Abraham” (聖書物語: アブラハム). Kamishibai kankō kai, 1934. (Cotsen 11586463)

In “Abraham” above, Miura depicts the dramatic moment when the Holy Ghost appears to stay Abraham’s hand, just as he is about to sacrifice his own son at God’s behest. Note how the edge of his sleeve on the left is flying upward in that harrowing moment, mirroring his knife. In the next scene, the Holy Ghost swoops in to push the knife from his grasp.

From “Biblical Tales: Zacchaeus and the Sycamore Tree” (聖書物語: 桑の樹のザアカイ). Kamishibai kankō kai, 1934. (Cotsen 11586452)

In the story of Zacchaeus, Miura changes his use of black dramatically to bring out the buffoonish qualities of Zacchaeus, a notoriously short sinner, who converts to Christianity after climbing a sycamore tree to catch a glimpse of Jesus over the heads of the crowd.

One of the most memorable, if horrifying, examples of cinematic visual effects is Saitō Toshio’s 齋藤敏夫 “Moses, Man of God” published in 1939. Saitō relies less on black outlining and more on creating an electric effect with background textures and colors, as we can see in the plague of the locusts and the appearance of the Angel of Death in the night sky.

From “Moses, Man of God” (神の人モーゼ). Kamishibai kankō kai, 1939. (Cotsen 11469471)

Whereas bold outlining brings the audience into close proximity to the action, Saitō’s technique is particularly effective for depicting the monumental scope and distance of the miraculous dividing of the Red Sea and then the tumultuous closing on Pharaoh’s unsuspecting army.

From “Moses, Man of God” (神の人モーゼ). Kamishibai kankō kai, 1939. (Cotsen 11469471)

“Noah’s Flood,” by Hirasawa Sadaharu 平澤定治, which came out the same year is tame by comparison and harkens more to Disney’s and other film cartoons of the time.

From “Noah’s Flood” (ノアの洪水). Kamishibai kankō kai, 1939. (Cotsen 11586478)

Of course, the text on the backs of the cards, which was written by Imai herself, had to match the nature of the images, and it is clear that she experimented with different methods to make the archaic biblical language accessible to viewers. In some cases, she summarized the story at the beginning or quoted directly from the passages in the bible before launching into the more streamlined, conversational style of kamishibai storytelling.

As the advertisement for Imai’s stages suggests, Imai and her traveling kamishibai missionaries actively took to the streets, spreading the Gospel and promoting the kamishibai format. On one fateful visit to the Tokyo University “settlement,” a community where Tokyo University students helped to educate the children of the poor and underprivileged, an idealistic young man, named Matsunaga Kenya (松永健哉, 1907-1996), saw one of the performances. Matsunaga had strong Communist leanings and was eager to improve the plight of the children of the proletariat. He became obsessed with kamishibai as an educational tool and in 1937 founded the Japanese Educational Kamishibai Federation (日本教育紙芝居連盟). By 1938, his organization was renamed the Association of Japanese Educational Kamishibai (日本教育紙芝居協会). Just three months later, Matsunaga was sent as a war correspondent to southern China, where he continued to develop kamishibai in the languages of Japan’s occupied territories.

One of the Association’s co-founders, who assumed the editorial role, was Saki Akio (佐木秋夫, 1906-1988), a similarly left-leaning scholar of religion, who had graduated (like Matsunaga) from Tokyo University. Progressive, leftist ideas were increasingly at odds with the Imperialist government’s agenda and Saki spent time in jail in 1934 for violating the Peace Preservation Law. Amidst increasing pressure, however, Saki and the other members of the Association started publishing kamishibai that aligned with government propaganda supporting the war. As WWII escalated, both Saki and Imai joined the kamishibai division of the government’s Cultural Association for Little Japanese Citizens (日本少国民文化協会), which was set up with the explicit purpose of generating propaganda for the war effort. [3]

It is easy today to condemn Imai and Saki for what appear to have been drastically shifting allegiances or, alternatively, to sympathize with them for succumbing to what must have been intense government pressure. However, the situation at the time was complicated on many levels. For one thing, it must be remembered that these early proponents of kamishibai were all pushing against a tide of negative public perception about the format, and it was an uphill battle to make ends meet with their own publishing efforts. The government’s interest and financial support must have seemed like a positive development, at least initially. Furthermore, as many of the propaganda materials in the Cotsen collection reveal, Japanese wartime propaganda directed at Japanese civilians, and even at people in the occupied territories, could be quite subtle and may have even appeared to promote their idealistic goals. In leaflets, toys, postcards, and picture books, Japan consistently depicted itself as the beneficent oldest brother in a Greater Asian family (the Greater Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere), whose primary role was to protect its younger sibling nations from the inevitable encroachment of evil western powers. Given its limited natural resources, Japan was actively opening up opportunities for children of farmers in Japan’s poor rural areas by grabbing up land in China and offering parcels of it to young Japanese “pioneers.” These large stretches of fertile land offered an unprecedented chance of upward mobility for the children of large, impoverished farm families in Japan, the very children whom Matsunaga and Saki had been trying to assist through their educational reforms. Whatever their complicated motivations may have been, there is little evidence that either Imai or Saki resisted pressure to develop propaganda kamishibai during the war years (Orbaugh, 56).

Two of the new acquisitions at the Cotsen Children’s Library are examples of Imai’s propaganda kamishibai. Both show how historical precedent was frequently used to justify Japanese occupation or inspire audiences to sacrifice self for the larger goal. Although Japan’s militaristic regime would appear to be antithetical to Christian values, Imai’s choice of stories is not completely inconsistent with her biblical interests. The story of Ginō Sakubee (義農作兵衛, 1941) is reminiscent of the sufferings of Job from the Old Testament. Based on a true story, Ginō Sakubee is a hard-working farmer, who lived during the Edo period (1603-1868). He builds his way up in the world by avidly cultivating his rice fields. When his wife dies, a series of crop failures—floods and locusts—leaves him and his children at death’s door from starvation. When a neighbor carries him home after he finds Sakubee collapsed in his rice field, he discovers that Sakubee has kept a barrel of seed rice untouched, even though he and his children were starving. When asked why he chose not save himself from death, Sakubee answers that it is his duty to think of the coming generations, who could plant that rice, which would multiply and continue to provide for generations to come. The moral of this tale from a war propaganda perspective is that the current sacrifice of self and of one’s children (i.e., soldiers) is important for a greater, long-term cause, but it also aligns with Christian ideas of sacrificing self for the greater good.

“Ginō Sakubee” (義農作兵衛). Kamishibai kankō kai, 1941. (Cotsen 11586531)

Illustrated by Kyōgoku Kaseki 京極佳夕, both of Imai’s propaganda kamishibai evoke a distant past through a more classical nihonga (Japanese traditional painting) style.

The three newly acquired examples of kamishibai edited by Saki Akio, by contrast, demonstrate the range of genres for propaganda stories at the time.[4] Some stories had unequivocal messages to promote the war effort, whereas others were created with a greater emphasis on entertaining or comforting the beleaguered Japanese troupes.

Japanese soldiers rehabilitating in a military hospital in China were treated with a kamishibai show. In Photographic Reports on the Front Lines Taken by Soldiers (兵隊の撮つた戦線写真報告), page 72-73. Tōkyō: Asahi Shinbunsha, 1940. (Cotsen Cohn200906 Box J6 Item 5)

One such kamishibai is based on the famous rakugo (humorous oral storytelling) tale, “The Case of the Bound Jizo.” Ooka Echizen, an Edo-period samurai judge, who notoriously came up with clever solutions to difficult cases has a stone statue of Jizo tied up and brought into custody in order to create a sensation and uncover the true culprit. Ooka Echizen continues to be a popular figure in film and television today.

From “The Case of the Bound Jizo” (しばられ地蔵), edited by Saki Akio, drawings by Nishi Masayoshi 西正世志. Nippon kyōiku kamishibai kyōkai, 1941. (Cotsen collection)

In a much more serious vein, “The Total Destruction of the British Pacific Naval Fleet” (英東洋艦隊全滅す) spreads the news from the Japanese perspective of the sinking of the British naval ships “Prince- of-Wales” and “Repulse,” as well as announcing of the attack on Pearl Harbor just a few weeks after the event. A year later, Saki would also be involved in developing a kamishibai about the bombing of Pearl Harbor, which is already part of the Cotsen collection (Cohn200812 Box J15 Item 20).

From “The Total Destruction of the British Pacific Naval Fleet” (英東洋艦隊全滅す), illustrated by Koyano Hanji 小谷野半二. Nippon kyōiku kamishibai kyōkai, 1942. (Cotsen collection)

To add a human touch to the destruction, the story ends with mirrored images of children, praying at a shrine, and Japanese naval troops saluting their flag. The slogan “One Hundred Million Japanese Citizens” (Ichi oku kokumin 一億国民) is used repeatedly to emphasize how civilians and troops were united in one “sacred” cause.

From “The Total Destruction of the British Pacific Naval Fleet” (英東洋艦隊全滅す), illustrated by Koyano Hanji 小谷野半二. Nippon kyōiku kamishibai kyōkai, 1942. (Cotsen collection)

Kamishibai were also designed to promote practical messages of health and hygiene. In “The Friendship Village” (仲よし部落), which was created under the direction of the Ministry of Health and Welfare (厚生省), we learn that “Friendship” is a misnomer for a village where they actually quarrel all the time. It is the rice-harvesting season, however, so all adults are needed in the fields to work, even pregnant women. The public health nurse warns against it, and sure enough the heavy work in the fields makes one of the women in the village go into early labor. The problems force neighbors to help each other so that by the end, they can all agree on cooperation through collective work and collective cooking. Although such stories were meant to rally communities to work together for the war effort, they were also not far from Saki Akio’s (and Matsunaga Kenya’s) earlier socialist or communist ideals.

From “The Friendship Village” (仲よし部落), illustrated by Kihara Yoshiki 木原芳樹. Nippon kyōiku kamishibai kyōkai, 1941. (Cotsen collection)

The final two acquisitions are propaganda kamishibai by publishing companies not connected to Imai Yone or Saki Akio but still indicative of the many roles kamishibai played during the war. One set, titled “The Comings and Goings of Bonds” (債券往来), was published in 1943 by The Association for Picture Dramas Promoting a Culture of Government Support (翼賛文化画劇協会) run by Yamaguchi Kiyoo 山口清雄. Like the “Friendship Village,” this tale is meant to educate the audience on a practical level about the importance of purchasing war bonds. At the same time, much like the Ooka Echizen story, it is a rakugo kamishibai (落語紙芝居) for entertainment, indicating that kamishibai was by no means the only medium adapted for the war effort. The story follows the misadventures of a foolish young man, who goes door to door selling government bonds and, in the course of explaining them to the people he meets, also explains them to his audience.

From “The Comings and Goings of Bonds” (債券往来), illustrated by Kishima Takeo 木島武雄. Yokusan bunka gageki kyōkai, 1943. (Cotsen collection)

Finally, “A Child of the Japanese Empire” (皇国の子), written and illustrated by Kaneko Shirō 金子士郎, was published in 1944 to encourage civilian support of wounded Japanese soldiers, who were by then returning home in ever increasing numbers. A youth named Yoshio meets a blinded soldier, who is trying to buy sushi to share with his war comrade, who will be passing through Tokyo station early the next morning. There is no sushi to be had, so Yoshio asks his mom to make simple rice balls and brings them to the station the next day. The wounded soldiers are touched by Yoshio’s devotion and sincerity but forget to ask his name. Thereafter, the blind soldier waits on the street corner, hoping to meet Yoshio again and thank him.

From“A Child of the Japanese Empire” (皇国の子). Dai Nippon gageki kabushiki kaisha, 1944. (Cotsen collection)

After Japan’s defeat in 1945, the GHQ, as the American Occupational Forces were called, worked to cleanse all media of the taint of propaganda, including kamishibai. Saki Akio was one of the kamishibai publishers to testify at the GHQ hearings. Just five years later, however, Saki was writing in a very different vein about the important role kamishibai had to play in the “new education” (新教育) with its emphasis on audio-visual learning. In volume 3 of a series of “New Books on Audio-Visual Education” (聴視覚教育新書), which was devoted to the topic of kamishibai, Saki writes that there are broadly four types of education, characterized in order by 1) Feudalism, 2) Capitalism, 3) Fascism, and 4) Social liberalism. He goes on to argue that Japan has passed through the first three phases and now needs a “new education” for democracy and social liberalism. He claims that kamishibai is an educational medium uniquely suited to develop students’ freedom of expression. It appears that Imai Yone did not continue her kamishibai efforts after the war, but the seeds of educational kamishibai had been sown nonetheless and continue to flourish to this day.

The new acquisitions at the Cotsen Children’s Library both complement and add immeasurably to the Princeton Library’s current kamishibai holdings. We thank the Friends of Princeton University Library for their generosity in helping the library to acquire these important materials, which will greatly contribute to researchers’ understanding of the complexities of this turbulent and troubling time in Japan’s recent history.


[1] I will use the Japanese name order with last name appearing first.

[2] http://core100.net/lab/pdf_siryo/hirao_01.pdf; accessed 8/19/2019

[3] For an excellent in-depth treatment of War propaganda kamishibai in English, see Sharalyn Orbaugh’s Propaganda Performed: Kamishibai in Japan’s Fifteen-Year War (Leiden: Brill Press, 2015)

[4] For a list of “Types of Propaganda Plays,” see Orbaugh, page 102.


Hatano, Kanji, ed. Chōshikaku kyōiku shinsho III Kamishibai (聴視覚教育新書III紙芝居). Tokyo: Kaneko shobo, 1950.

Ishiyama, Yukihiro. Kamishibai no bunkashi: shiryō de yomitoku kamishibai no rekishi (紙芝居の文化史資料で読み解く紙芝居の歴史). Tokyo: Hōbun shorin, 2008.

Kamichi, Chizuko. Kamishibai no rekishi (紙芝居の歴史). Tokyo: Kyūzansha, 1997.

McGowan, Tara. Performing Kamishibai: An Emerging New Literacy for a Global Audience. New York: Taylor and Francis, 2015.

Nash, Eric. Manga Kamishibai: The Art of Japanese Paper Theater. New York: Abrams Comicarts, 2009.

Orbaugh, Sharalyn. Propaganda Performed: Kamishibai in Japan’s Fifteen-Year War. Leiden: Brill Press, 2015.

Suzuki, Tsunekatsu. Media toshite no kamishibai (メディアとしての紙芝居). Tokyo: Kyūzansha, 2005.

Yasuda, Tsuneo. Kokusaku kamishibai kara miru nihon no sensō (国策紙芝居から見る日本の戦争). Tokyo: Bensei shuppan, 2018.

More Titles of Interest:

The Notehelfer collection of Christian kamishibai (1930s – 1954) in original art and prints. Painted by T. Yoshioka and others. Formerly owned by Fred G. Notehelfer; gift of J. Karl Notehelfer. (Cotsen)