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)

Miniatures-in-Miniature: Early Experimental Kamishibai in the Cotsen Children’s Library Collection

By Tara M. McGowan

Kamishibai (紙芝居), literally “paper theater,” is a form of street-performance art that was first invented in Japan in the late 1920s as a way to both entertain and sell treats to children. Hailed as a precursor of animé and manga, it has been receiving increasing attention worldwide, as artists, educators, and performers of all kinds, inspired by the candy peddlers of the 1930s, strap stages to bicycles or otherwise transport them to schools, streets, museums and parks to entertain audiences of all ages. There are now international kamishibai festivals from Mexico to Slovenia and kamishibai workshops and symposia being offered from Australia to France. A French organization D’Une Langue A L’Autre (DULALA) will be initiating an international Plurilingual Kamishibai competition this year to promote multilingualism through kamishibaiIn the city of Numazu (Shizuoka, Japan), the 7th Annual Street-Performance Kamishibai Competition will be held this July, and contestants will be traveling from Brazil, Germany, and Mexico.

Figure 1. Seventh Annual Street-Performance Kamishibai Contest in Numazu Promotional Poster

With so much global interest, it goes without saying that the history of kamishibai and how it developed, as a miniaturized version of the “big screen,” has become familiar to many (McGowan, 2010; 2015). When silent film first entered Japan, it was never really silent because movie narrators, known as benshi 弁士, or katsudō benshi 活動弁士, were almost invariably standing alongside, explaining the (often foreign) films to avid fans (Dym, 2003). In some cases, the movie narrators were more popular than the movie stars!  Street-performance kamishibai cards were designed so that the images could be animated through dramatic transitions from one card to the next, as the performer pulled the cards out of the stage while narrating the soundtrack alongside. When talkies came to Japan in the 1920s, it is said that many of these film narrators took to performing kamishibai in the streets to make a living (Orbaugh, 2015).

Figure 2. Kamishibai Man by Allen Say. Houghton Mifflin, 2005. (Cotsen 151969)

The typical image of a kamishibai street performer (Fig. 2), popularized by illustrator and author Allen Say in his picture book Kamishibai Man (2005), is of a man selling candy to children off the back of his bicycle and then telling stories to a captivated crowd. Figure 3. “Kamishibai,” poem by Saijo Yaso, illustrated by Hatsuyama Shigeru. In Kodomo no kuni, Vol. 11, No. 14 (December, 1932). (Cotsen 30591)

Another depiction (Fig. 3), which was published in 1932 in the popular Japanese children’s magazine Kodomo no kuni (Country of children), however, paints a rather different picture and suggests a diversity of performance styles in this early phase of kamishibai’s development. In illustrator Hatsuyama Shigeru’s (1897-1973) distinctive geometrical style, this kamishibai man is depicted with the stage strapped to his chest and a box of candy (あめ), hanging from his hip decorated with a Japanese flag. He beats his hyōshigi 拍子木 (wooden clappers) to gather the children about him, while, on the left-hand side, a mother reaches into her purse to find some change for her impatient child. Other children, already sucking their sweets, watch him performing the Chinese classic of The Monkey King (or Journey to the West).

The poem translates as follows:

Chakkin, chakkin, he beats the hyshigi, gathering the children “Now Kamishibai is about to begin!”  Ha, chakkin, chakkin, chakkin na.

The candy peddler’s “Lloyd glasses” shine in the evening light; He coughs a big, big cough. Ha, chakkin, chakkin, chakkin na.

And now they appear: the Monkey King, Pigsy, and Tripitaka the monk, coming along, coming along, and coming along on their journey together, but then, here comes a monster! Ha, chakkin, chakkin, chakkin na.

Come here, little boys! Big boys, step back a little. Everyone must get along as you line up, line up, and line up kamishibai. Ha, chakkin, chakkin, chakkin na.

Chakkin, chakkin, the ginkgo leaves fall at the street crossing. Sweet-tooth, eat your candy, eat, eat and eat kamishibai. Ha, chakkin, chakkin, chakkin na.

The sound of the wooden clappers reverberates throughout the poem, punctuating the kamishibai man’s narration and grabbing the children’s attention on the busy street corner. The poem captures the multisensory experience of street kamishibai, where the audio-visual performance was combined with the sweet taste of candy and the cramped space shared with others!

Although not actually shown in the illustration, the reference to the kamishibai man’s “Lloyd glasses,” named for the silent film actor Harold Lloyd (1893-1971), connects the kamishibai man to the big screen and also dates the poem to the 1930s when these glasses became all the rage. What is unclear from this depiction is how the performer actually pulled the cards out of the stage while holding and beating the hyōshigi clappers with both hands. His stage is a simple frame with what appear to be actual cloth curtains blowing in the wind.  Standard kamishibai stages today open on the left side (from the audience’s point-of-view, see Fig. 2), and the movement of the cards is from right to left, as they are pulled out of the stage. In the early 1930s, however, this does not appear to have been fixed. There are photographs of early stages where the cards were pulled out of either side of the stage or even up through the top, as is depicted here on a small promotional fan, produced by the Sasaya bookstore.

Figure 4. Promotional fan, front and verso (5 inches in diameter), Sasaya Honten, circa 1940. (Cotsen 71689374)

In this instance, the kamishibai man is wearing the Lloyd glasses referenced in the poem and, just like in the earlier example, he holds clappers, one in each hand, suggesting that clappers played an active role in telling the story, as they do in the poem above. In this case, however, his stage is on the back of a bicycle with no candy in sight, and he appears to be telling a war propaganda kamishibai story. As will be described in greater detail later, kamishibai was used extensively for purposes of propaganda during Japan’s fifteen-year war, the period between 1931 and 1945 (Orbaugh, 2015), and in this image, we see a bomb going off in the foreground nearly missing the battle ship to the right, as fighter planes and Zeppelin circle in the skies overhead. The children practically have their noses up against the stage, which is consistent with photographs of performances from the time. In this instance, however, it seems clear that the cards are being pulled up through the top of the stage and not from the side, as has become common practice today.

What is not visible in the romanticized (some might even say sanitized) images of the kamishibai men above, is any evidence of the heated controversy, which surrounded street-performance kamishibai almost immediately; namely, kamishibai’s potentially corrupting influence on children. By 1937, kamishibai was so widespread that one survey claimed there were two thousand storytellers in the city of Tokyo alone and that around 800,000 children were watching these performances on a daily basis (Uchiyama & Nomura, 1937). Complaints from educators and parents about the salacious content of the stories, the lurid colors used by the artists, and the unhygienic practices of the candy peddlers started to reach the ears of authorities, and by 1938, the plot of the stories had to be marked on the back of the cards so that content could be monitored.

Some educators and religious leaders, however, recognized that the mesmerizing power of kamishibai and its evident popularity with child audiences could be channeled for more elevated purposes. It is hardly surprising that purveyors of children’s culture—advertisers, children’s magazines, bookstores and toy companies—would also want to cash in on this mania. From the 1930s to 40s, toy versions of the format proliferated so that children could entertain themselves or family and friends at home. The Cotsen Children’s Library has several fascinating examples of these miniatures-in-miniature that encapsulate forgotten moments of kamishibai’s history and shed important light on kamishibai’s evolving place in Japanese popular imagination.

Figure 5. Kamishibai ehon by Miyashita Fumio, front and inside cover. [Japan] : Kokkadō, between 1930 and 1940. (Cotsen 100694)

The first example is titled “Kamishibai ehon” (Paper theater picture book) (Fig. 5, left). It presents itself as a picture book, when, in fact, the cover doubles as a miniature kamishibai stage. A rectangle for the stage opening is punched out of the back cover and then folded to create a pocket to hold the cards (Fig. 5, right).

Figure 6. Kamishibai ehon by Miyashita Fumio, back cover, constructed as a stage with dimensions 7.5 x 10.5 inches and with an opening of 4 x 6 inches. (Cotsen 100694)

In this case, the user has followed the instructions which are visible on the back of the stage pocket (Fig. 6). There are no openings on the sides of the pocket, so the cards would have been pulled up out of the stage, one at a time, just like in the image on the fan above. The red string, which was originally meant to hold the stage open, has since been re-attached, most likely because of the torn left corner.

In spite of rough treatment, the stage exudes elegance with its red frilly curtains and, at bottom, a gold and red sign, which reads “Children’s Theater” (子供座). The ornate style is well suited to the accompanying cards, which are an adaptation of the Victorian children’s classic Little Lord Fauntleroy by Frances Hodgson Burnett, first serialized in Japanese translation in a popular girls’ magazine between 1890 and 1892 by Wakamatsu Shizuko. The style of the illustrations, however, suggest that this kamishibai version may have been more closely based on the hugely popular 1921 silent film version of the story, starring Mary Pickford, or the 1936 sound version, starring Dolores Costello.

Figure 7. Card 1, front and verso, of Kanashiki shōkōshi (Sad little Lord Fauntleroy) by Miyashita Fumio. (Cotsen 100694)

The kamishibai follows much the same story as the films, beginning when the main character Cedric Errol (Cedie), the only son of a New York widow, suddenly finds out that he is the Earl of Dorincourt’s sole heir. Cedie leaves his mother in New York City to take up residence with his grandfather, the Earl, who plans to turn him into an aristocrat. An incident with a fortune-hunting impostor, who tries to push her own son into Cedie’s place, makes the grandfather realize the virtues of Cedie’s real mother, and son and mother are reunited in the end.

Figure 8. Card 12 of Kanashiki shōkōshi (Sad little Lord Fauntleroy) by Miyashita Fumio. (Cotsen 100694)

The adaptation of this worldwide classic to the kamishibai format, and even the presentation of it as a “picture book,” reveals the publisher’s evident desire to elevate the medium in the eyes of prospective consumers — middle-class parents, who might otherwise associate kamishibai with unclean street-entertainment for children of the lower socioeconomic orders.

Another example of adapting the classics to miniature kamishibai format for middle-class children is this extremely rare “Invisible Ink Fairytale Paper Theater” (Aburidashi otogi kamishibai) set. The box the cards come in doubles as the stage with the opening again at the top. The image on the back of the box illustrates both how the invisible ink would have been made to appear through a process of exposing it to heat and how a kamishibai man might perform the cards in a similar (but much larger) stage for an audience of children.

Figure 9. Aburidashi otogi kamishibai. Dimensions 4 X 6 inches. (cards 3.5 x 5.5 inches) (Cotsen)

Here, the performer could easily be a school teacher, rather than a street-performer, because the performance appears to be occurring in an interior space with the stage perched on a table, and the children, who are neatly dressed Western-style clothing, are watching in orderly rows. The kamishibai man’s stage is designed exactly like the box with its flap up, suggesting that, like the toy, these cards would have been pulled up through the top in performance.

Figure 10. Aburidashi otogi kamishibai. Front of stage with curtain card displayed. (Cotsen)

The stage is complete with a curtain card, depicting faces of the main characters from all the stories, and the words, otogi kamishibai (fairy-tale paper theater) at the bottom. The set contains five Japanese classic fairy (or folk) tales of six cards each, including Momotaro (The Peach Boy), Issunboshi (The One Inch Boy), Kachi kachi yama (The Burning Mountain), Hanasaka jiji (The Old Man who made the flowers bloom), and Saru kani kassen (The battle between monkey and crab).

Figure 11. Aburidashi otogi kamishibai. Cards of “Momotaro.” (Cotsen)

It is unlikely, however, that these cards were ever performed. There is no text on the backs, and the process of making the invisible ink appear by holding the cards over the brazier has left them brittle and even burned in places. The pleasure of the toy may have been in seeing the images emerge and recognizing the familiar scenes depicted. It is truly remarkable that these ephemeral objects still exist as an almost complete set!

The smallest of the mini-kamishibai stages in the Cotsen Collection (2 x 2.5 inches, when constructed) is part of a promotional gift package distributed by Takeda Chōbee Shōten in 1940. The package was designed as an advertisement for medicine and other health products, as well as a celebration of the 2600th year (1940) since the founding of the Japanese empire by the legendary Emperor Jimmu. The decorative banner is made to look like a string of lanterns, on one side of which is written the characters for the celebration of 2600th year, as well as the slogan, “Let’s become strong children and give our best for our country.” On the other side, the lanterns are decorated with the Japanese flag and several different medications and supplements manufactured by the Takeda company.

Figure 12. Omiyage (Gift). Takeda Chōbee Shōten, 1940. (Cotsen 71687659)

The gifts also include a matchbox-sized wooden interlocking block set, a balloon, a card with a moveable image of a fisherman, a set of origami papers, a coloring book, and two cards depicting a miniature kamishibai with stage to be cut and assembled. The twelve miniature kamishibai story cards depict the series of victorious battles and events, starting with the 1937 Marco Polo Bridge Incident at the start of the Second Sino-Japanese War (1937-1945) and ending with the founding of the puppet regime, the so-called Reorganized National Government of the Republic of China (1940-1945). The promotional pamphlets educate customers about the importance of vitamin B1, the availability of hormones for women, and how to maintain health from autumn into winter. All the gifts contain advertisements for Takeda products.

Figure 13, “Heitaisan yo, arigatau” (Thank you to our troops) in Omiyage, 1940. (Cotsen 71687659)

Oddly, the words for each card are printed in tiny blue characters on the right-hand side of each card, making it impossible for the performer to read them until they are removed from the stage. The dominant use of Chinese characters and difficult historical details suggests that this mini-stage may not have been designed for a child audience, and it may also explain why it remains uncut after all these years. The stage (Fig. 14) is decorated with a Japanese flag and military trumpet and the words, “Thank you to our troops” (Heitai san yo arigatau). As the instructions indicate at the bottom left, this is the only miniature stage of those in the Cotsen collection that is designed with an opening on the right-hand side (standardized stages today open on the left).

Figure 14. “Heitaisan yo, arigatau” (Thank you to our troops). Illustration of stage, when constructed. (Cotsen 71687659)

All of the above examples indicate that kamishibai as a medium was still in a fluid form during the 1930s and 40s that allowed for all manner of experiments with the format. During the war years when kamishibai was used as a mass media for propaganda purposes, experimentation with hybrid formats seemed even more popular. One of the most intriguing examples is this pop-up “kamishibai talkie,” which would have come with a record of the performer’s voice (now missing).

Figure 15. Kodomo chokin butai (Children’s savings corps), Kōa Bunka Rokuon Kabushiki Kaisha, between 1942 and 1945. An updated edition with narrative text. (Cotsen 102950)

Unlike a typical kamishibai set, these cards were performed without a stage and are actually bound together with tape at the bottom (missing in Fig. 15). The audience would place the cards on a surface and pull them up, one at a time, to reveal the pop-up (tobidashi, literally “pop-out”) character connected to the next scene. On the original version from 1942, there is no text, so the audience would have relied on the accompanying record for the story.

Figure 16. Kodomo chokin butai (Children’s savings corps). Card 1 with pop-up character, conducting the troop. The slogan 一億一心 (Ichioku isshin) is on his backpack. Note that the pop-up in the foreground is connected to both the front of Card 1 and the back of the next card so the cards cannot be separated. Kōa Bunka Rokuon Kabushiki Kaisha, 1942. (Cotsen 68469)

At the center of the story is a group of children, who are working together to save money for the Japanese armed forces, inspired by the nationally unifying slogan–ichioku isshin (literally, “one billion, one spirit”). A wealthy boy in town refuses to join their group, selfishly spending money on toys. When he falls ill, the children’s savings corps visits his sick bed and offers him money for a speedy recovery. He is so moved by their generous spirit that he joins with them. The 1942 edition is labeled Shinan tokkyo: Kamishibai tōkī, meaning “A new initiative with special permission: Paper-theater talkie,” indicating that it is most likely the first of its kind to be sanctioned by the Japanese government. By 1942, the military government tightly controlled and censored publication in any medium, and it actively produced kamishibai cards to educate the civilian population about the divinity of the Imperial lineage and other aspects of the war effort, such as how to construct bomb shelters and how best to support the troops. This “new initiative” kamishibai talkie must have been deemed a success because Cotsen also has a later edition, which has been labeled with the words “Endorsed by the Ministry of Finance, Citizen Savings Division” (Fig. 15 and 17)

Figure 17. Later edition of Kodomo chokin butai published between 1942 and 1945 with narrative text, Card 8. (Cotsen 102950) As the credits on the final card (lower left) indicate, by this time, there was a whole series of stories created in this format.

The innovative formats and variety of performance styles illustrated by these few examples of early toy kamishibai from the Cotsen Children’s Library collection are of interest today, as kamishibai experiences a renaissance around the globe and questions about what “traditional” kamishibai should look like come to the fore. There are many published explanations available for how kamishibai should be created or performed, but the question arises: who gets to decide what is traditional? Even this small selection of objects complicates the notion of a single “tradition,” in a period when so many different groups in Japan—storytellers, educators, advertisers, government officials, and publishers—were all actively appropriating kamishibai for different purposes. Whether it was for profit, pedagogy, propaganda, or even just for fun, artists and illustrators were experimenting with the format from the very beginning and continue to do so today. Rather than searching for one right or wrong way to perform kamishibai, these intriguing glimpses into the range of early experiments with kamishibai invite and challenge kamishibai performers and artists around the world today to look for ever more interesting and engaging ways to bring this interactive and dramatic format to new audiences.

Further reading about kamishibai (in English):

Dym, J. (2003) Benshi, Japanese Silent Film Narrators, and Their Forgotten Narrative Art of Setsumei: A History of Japanese Silent Film Narration (Edwin Mellen Pr)

Friends of Silent Film Association (2001) The Benshi—Japanese Silent Film Narrators (Matsuda Film Productions)

McGowan, T. (2010) The Kamishibai Classroom: Engaging Multiple Literacies through the Art of ‘Paper Theater.’ (ABC-CLIO)

McGowan, T. (2015) Performing Kamishibai: An Emerging New Literacy for a Global Audience (Routledge)

Nash, E. (2009) Manga Kamishibai: The Art of Japanese Paper Theater (Abrams Press)

Orbaugh, S. (2015) Propaganda Performed: Kamishibai in Japan’s Fifteen-Year War (Brill)

Say, A. (2005) Kamishibai Man [picture book] (Houghton Mifflin).

Tara M. McGowan catalogs the Japanese collection at the Cotsen Children’s Library.