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)