Transcript of Episode 27: Japanese Children’s Literature

Find out more about Episode 27 of the Read Literature podcast on the episode page.

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This is Read Japanese Literature. My name is Alison Fincher. Read Japanese Literature is a podcast about Japanese fiction and some of its best works. All the works we discuss are available in translation, so you can read along if you want. And you can find out more at

A quick correction from our last episode: Thank you to a listener who pointed out that I made a mistake. Astrid Lingren and her Pippi Longstocking stories are Swedish and not Norwegian. I’m glad to have an opportunity to make that correction today because, in honor of World Kid Lit Month, we’re going to be discussing Japanese children’s literature.

  • The history of children’s literature in general
  • The history of children’s literature in Japan in particular

And Sachiko Kashiwaba and Temple Alley Summer—it’s a story that’s about Japanese children’s literature (at least a little bit!).

[1:25] I want to make clear from the get-go that this episode is still very much relevant to you, my almost-certainly-adult listener, for at least two reasons that aren’t “you might someday want to buy a book for a kid in your life”.

#1: Children’s books aren’t just for children. Yeah, this is a bit of a cliché, but it’s worth saying again. Children’s books can be hugely enjoyable for adults, both for nostalgic revisits and fresh reads. They also offer different perspectives than adult novels.

For example, I’ve never read a book for adults that deals with death and grief as well as some children’s novels do. Temple Alley Summer is a fantastic example of a book that deals with deal in some really nuanced ways—we’ll talk about that a little more toward the end of the episode.

The second reason you might want to read children’s literature from Japan, particularly for fans of Japanese culture in general, is that this literature can give you a window into the world of Hayao Miyazaki and Studio Ghibli.

I’m not going to go into the Ghibli connection too much today. I’m going to save that for an entire episode later this fall. I want to do something around the same time that we non-Japanese residents can finally get access to Miyazaki’s most recent “last film” outside of Japan. Anyway…

[3:00] I’m going to start with the story of children’s literature in Europe because Europe was the first place to have an industry of printed children’s literature. (Not, obviously, because Europeans were the first people to tell their children stories—I believe that’s a fairly universal part of parenting and living in community with children.)

European—and later American—children’s literature also had a lasting influence on Japanese children’s literature.

People like to trace the oldest children’s stories in any literature back to that literature’s folktales and fairy tales. It’s certainly true that children would have been a part of the audience for those kinds of stories—virtually everyone was a part of the audience for those kinds of stories. You sit around in the evening as a group and entertain yourselves with a nice folktale—with a nice fairytale.

But I tend to side with J. R. R. Tolkien on grouping these kinds of stories (the stories he calls “fairy-stories” just as a group) with children’s stories—it’s bad literary history and a bad plan in general.

According to Tolkien, “Fairy-stories have in the modern lettered world been relegated to the nursery, as shabby or old-fashioned furniture is relegated to the play-room, primarily because the adults do not want it, and do not mind if it is used”—not, he goes on to explain, because they belong there. In other words, fairytales aren’t particularly good for kids. It’s just that adults aren’t especially interested in them anymore.

[4:50] If we’re looking for texts specifically for children, the earliest records only go back to the fifteenth century. These stories were not for children’s enjoyment. One of the earliest surviving “children’s books” in English is an English adaptation of a Latin text called Puer ad Mensam (“A Boy at the Table”) called The Babees Book. It’s an instruction manual for waiting at table for the lord of a manor.

Many English and American children learned how to read from the King James Bible.  Lucky children learned to read from chapbooks, cheaply printed editions of popular stories. And again, these weren’t printed for children, but they often had the kinds of stories we associate with children today—folktales, fairy tales.

Other children were handed books like James Janeway’s 1671 classic A Token for Children: An Exact Account of the Conversion, Holy and Exemplary Lives and Joyful Death of Several Young Children. Believe it or not, this book sold well for over a century.

One of the first “big breaks” for child readers was actually the work of philosopher John Locke. He’s the modern Englishman who popularized the idea that children are tabula rasa—blank slates—and ought to be molded into the right kind of people. In his 1691 Thoughts on Education, he suggested that children should learn to read something (*gasp*) pleasant like Aesop’s Fables.

A generation later, a handful of publishers revolutionized books for children. And this is really why the English language is so central to the story of children’s literature. It’s in England that this generation of publishers does the work to make printing books for children an industry for the first time. The most celebrated of these publishers is John Newbery.

(That name might ring a bell if you’re a connoisseur of children’s literature. John Newbery is the namesake of America’s most coveted prize for children’s literature, the Newbery Medal. We’ll talk about the Newbery Medal again in just a minute.)

Newbery actually made most of his money selling patent medicines and publishing for adults. But he made enough money selling stories for children that he changed the game—publishers realized people would buy stories written specifically for children. Newbery is responsible for the A Little Pretty Pocket-Book—it’s often cited as the first book explicitly created to actually entertain children. 

Over the next century, publishing for children became more of an international project. Swiss author Johann David Wyss published The Swiss Family Robinson in 1812. The Danish writer Hans Christian Andersen published his first collection of Fairy Tales Told for Children starting in 1835.

I want to make note of two things about all of the stories I’ve mentioned so far. One, is that they all have obvious lessons to teach their young readers. The Swiss Family Robinson is about family and self-reliance and manly virtue. The Little Mermaid is about sacrificial love.

 Many children’s stories continued to have a strong moral element.

The other thing I want to point out is that many Anglo-Americans don’t think about stories like The Swiss Family Robinson or The Little Mermaid as translations—as part of any culture outside of our own. For several decades, children’s fiction was a more international enterprise. 

Bu today, very Anglo-American children read very little in translation. And when Anglo-American do, they often still don’t realize they’re reading a translation. 

I mentioned Astrid Lingrid and Pippi Longstocking, although, again, I got the language wrong—it was written in Swedish.

I suppose many people do realize Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s The Little Prince was translated from French, though almost no one knows that it was translated by Richard Howard.

And this is true of even more recent fiction. Marcus Pfister’s The Rainbow Fish was originally written in German, translated by J. Alison James. Michael Ende’s The Neverending Story was translated from German by Ralph Manheim. And Cornelia Funke’s Inkheart was translated from German by Anthea Bell.

[9:52] 1865 was a game-changing year—it’s the year Charles Dodgson (aka Lewis Carrol) published Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. Alice was the first widely-read work of children’s literature that was pure delightful nonsense—no morals, more-or-less nothing to teach, just fun. (In case you’re wondering, the first Japanese translations of Alice appeared in 1911 and 1912.) It was really only after Alice that we get original works of pure fantasy written specifically for children—and especially books about leaving “our world” and escaping into a fantasy world.

The post-Alice, late 19th century is regarded as a golden age of children’s literature:

When we come back to Japanese children’s books in a few minutes, keep in mind that these are the first Western children’s books to come into Japanese hands. These are the models of “modern” children’s literature to the Japanese—almost always in English translation.

The “Golden Age of Children’s Literature” really ended with World War I—and I think it’s safe to say that newer Anglo-American children’s books were also less influential on Japanese children’s books for the next several decades as well. So you can keep that in mind in the next section of the episode.

My discussion here is also going to become more focused on US children’s books. They become more influential. Children’s fiction becomes less international in general (at least from an English-language perspective). And US children’s books are what I grew up with.

There were, of course, important developments in the world of children’s books. In 1922, the American Library Association started awarding the John Newbery Medal for the “most distinguished contribution to American literature for children” each year. (That “American”, by the way, is increasingly controversial. The Newbery is maybe the world’s most prestigious prize for children’s literature. Today—always—it’s limited to US citizens and residents.)

In 1937, the ALA started awarding the Caldecott Medal specifically for picture books, which almost never win the Newbery.

By the way, I’m mostly avoiding using the words “picture book” versus “chapter book” versus “middle grade fiction” versus “young adult fiction” today. They aren’t relevant until relatively late in our story. They don’t translate perfectly between Anglo-American markets and Japanese ones. But I can’t avoid them entirely. So I’ll give you a very brief explanation right now:

Today, a picture book is the sort of book that relies heavily on illustrations. It’s usually intended for preschoolers and young primary or elementary schoolers.

A chapter book is a step up in difficulty for early readers—in the US, 1-3rd graders or so. Short chapters, large print. Think Nate the Great or The Magic Treehouse.

A middle grade fiction book is usually what comes to mind when people say “children’s literature”—it’s a book written for independent primary or elementary school readers and tweens. Most “children’s classics” that aren’t picture books probably qualify as middle grade fiction.

A young adult (or YA) book is for… young adults… usually on topics grown-ups think are too mature for the middle grade crowd.


The 1950s are really when these types of labels started to matter. When people got really invested in the experience of reading a book as a part of a child’s education. That’s because there was another big shift in publishing for children. The 1950s inaugurated a new era of children’s literature.

I want to mention two particular trends in “contemporary” children’s fiction. (And yes, I know “contemporary” here is one of those broad uses that essentially means “within the lifetime of Baby Boomers”—but I didn’t choose the term.)

One trend is a growing willingness to address difficult issues—especially issues faced by kids who aren’t white, suburban, and middle class kids. In a few minutes, you’ll see that this trend—a willingness to address difficult, “real-life” issues—held true in Japan, too.

Another trend is a growing effort to include more diverse voices in children’s literature. In 1975, Virginia Hamilton was the first black person to win a Newbery Award with her M. C. Higgins, the Great.

In 2016, Matt de la Peña won the first Newbery Award to go to a Latino author with Last Stop on Market Street. This one is a rare picture book to win the Newbery and it’s definitely worth a read. Several Latina authors have won since.

Children’s publishing has also (slowly) become more open to LGBTQ+ authors and authors with disabilities.

[16:00] The story of Japanese children’s literature looks a lot like the story of European children’s literature. You could say that the oldest Japanese children’s stories are the setsuwa (fables) from Heian and medieval we talked about a long time ago. But just like in Europe, the setsuwa were stories for everyone. Children just happened to be part of the audience.

The Edo Period saw a growth of printing in general. [Learn more in RJL’s episode about “High and Low Literature in Edo Japan,” marked mature.] Children were especially associated with a kind of printed book called an akahon or, literally “red book”. Akahon were woodblock printed books that dominated the print market between about 1660 and 1750. They often included folktales. While there was text, the big draw for lots of people—maybe especially kids, we don’t know—was the illustrations. Kids liked them, but like European chapbooks, they weren’t for kids. They were used as tools to help teach people to read. And gradually, akahon readership shifted from children to adults.

The first big revolution for children’s literature in Japan is tied to that major political and cultural change in mid-19th century Japan—the Meiji Restoration. The Meiji Restoration brought about radical and rapid social change. And some of the biggest changes to come to Japan were in the realm of education. As you might expect, huge cultural change means… new norms about what grown-ups want children to read.

[17:45] By 1868, Japan was a comparatively literate country already. It seems likely more Japanese people had some level of literacy than their contemporaries in Europe. And it seems like even Japanese commoners loved books in a way that European visitors noted and remarked on. Lev Mechnikov, a Russian political exile who lived in Japan in the 1870s related that “few are the common laborers, grooms or rickshawmen who do not hide in their underwear or belts some work of light literature.”

But a modern country is a fully literate country, and Meiji Japan was desperate to be a modern country. (I should point out that none of the “modern countries” with which Japan was then interacting were fully literate. But…)

In 1872, the government of Japan made it official policy that all boys and girls had to attend school—at least for elementary school. This increase in literacy—and this increase in promoting literacy—created a new demand for books for children.

But Japanese writers didn’t begin producing original children’s literature until around 1890. Some of the earliest Japanese literature explicitly for children was translations from Europe and the US. 

This is where I want to come back to the role of Meiji-era women. (We did an entire episode on Meiji-era women writers in season one.) There are really fascinating developments for women’s rights and women’s roles in society in the late 19th century. After the Meiji Restoration, the daughters of the people at the very top of society attended not only elementary school and not only middle school but also high school. Some of them become the first generation of women writers to feature prominently in Japanese culture for almost 700 years.

Of course these highly-educated women weren’t supposed to be writers—they were supposed to be ryōsai kenbo—good wives and wise mothers. As you can imagine, being a “good wife, wise mother” doesn’t leave a lot of room for becoming a great writer. 20-30 years of social developments really killed off the positive social developments that spurred the first generation of Meiji women writers.

For women born a little bit too late for this brief shining moment for women’s writing, translation turned out to be a culturally-sanctioned alternative. If women who translate is a topic you’re interested in, you might want to pick up a copy of Anne’s Cradle: The Life and Works of Hanako Muraoka, Japanese Translator of Anne of Green Gables by her granddaughter, Eri Muraoka (and translated by Cathy Hirano). It catalogs the life of a highly-educated woman of the Taisho and early Showa Eras who wrote and translated for children. It’s extremely informative.

I’d like to point out that Meiji-era translation was fairly… creative? Today, translators are expected to preserve a certain fidelity to the text. Judy Wakabayashi at Kent State University, though, describes a different status quo 150 years ago, when translation included “domestication, omissions, additions, and changed endings” that were supposed to “make the foreign more familiar and acceptable to Japanese children” and the adults who read along with them.

[21:30] When we start talking about Japanese children’s literature written in Japan for Japanese children, you can roughly divide Japanese children’s literature into two periods—and this is a division I’m taking from sources by the Japan’s National Diet Library—the age of dōwa and “contemporary children’s fiction” (which, like in the Anglo-American world, means children’s fiction beginning after World War II).

Dowa is a category of children’s writing made of poetic and figurative language, often in a fairy tale world. It’s often aimed at younger children—picture books or the younger-aged readers of middle grade fiction. And it came into its own in the 1910s and 20s. That’s when educational reformers began to demand products specifically targeted to Japanese children.

Dowa saw some of its greatest successes in literary magazines. We talked a lot about literary magazines in a different episode in season one. In Japan, magazine publication became serious business during the Meiji and Taishō Eras.

There were some Meiji-era children’s magazines. Shōnen en (“Children’s Garden”) launched in 1888. It was followed by a handful of other successful magazines.

The Meiji-era children’s magazine par excellence was Shonen sekai (“Children’s World”), edited by novelist Sazanami Iwaya. Iwaya wrote the tale that is sometimes regarded as the Japanese language’s first modern story for children, “Kogenamaru” or “A Dog Named Kogane” in 1891.

The first recognized dowa children’s story was “Akai Fune” or “Red Boat” by Mimei Ogawa.

You might have caught the word shonen in both of these titles. Shonen is written with the characters for “few and years”. But most often it’s translated as “boy”. But the Meiji Era is also the origin of shojo media—media targeted at girls. In Meiji Japan, the concept of shojo most obviously evolved at girls’ boarding schools. The end of the Meiji Era saw the first magazines explicitly for shojo—magazines like Shojokai (“Girl’s Circle”) or Shojo sekai (“Girl’s World”) or Shōjo no tomo (“Girl’s Companion”).

I also want to note that writing for children didn’t just show up in these children’s magazines. Many women’s magazines carried stories for women to read to their children. And these stories were often translations from foreign stories. For example, Jogaku zasshi published Frances Hodgson Burnett’s Little Lord Fauntleroy between 1890-1892. It was translated by a female translator named Shizuko Wakamatsu.

The first translation of Beatrix Potter’s The Tale of Peter Rabbit to appear in any language besides English was in a Japanese farming magazine in 1906! The magazine didn’t include Potter’s name. And in an example of that creative style of translation, it called Mr. McGregor Grandpa Mokubei and described him as “more fearsome than red and blue ogres”.

[24:45] As in Europe and the US, the 1910s and 20s closed the first great age of children’s literature in Japan—the great age of the dowa.

Kenji Miyazawa is maybe the most fascinating author of children’s literature from the Taisho and early Showa Periods, even though his genius wasn’t recognized at the time. I’d like to do an entire episode on Miyazawa, maybe later this season.

Miyazawa’s The Restaurant of Many Orders: Children’s Stories of Ihatov was his only collection for children published during his lifetime—and it was mostly ignored. Ihatov was a fantastic version of what is now Iwate Prefecture in the Tohoku Region, where he lived.

Today, he is best remembered for Ginga Tetsudō no YoruNight on the Galactic Railroad or Milky Way Railroad—which he finished in 1927 but wasn’t published until after his death in 1933.

Broadly speaking, the Pacific War was a low-point for Japanese writing in general. No surprise it was a low point for Japanese children’s writing. Keep in mind that dōwa literature is supposed to teach children moral values. In the 1930s, those values would be the values the Japanese state wanted to encourage—things like patriotism, martial enthusiasm, loyalty to the emperor…

Nevertheless, there were some excellent children’s books to come out of the mid-1930s . I want to mention one book in particular that found itself banned in the later 30s and 40s—that’s How Do You Live? by Genzaburo Yoshino, published in 1937 [and translated by Bruno Navasky]. The novel is a coming of age story for fifteen-year-old Copper. It’s mostly episodic, but the central external conflict is the rise of bullying by older students at the school judo club in the name of “school spirit”. The bullies insist the prodding is necessary because, “Once they enter society, students with no love of school will surely become citizens with no love of country. People who don’t love their country are traitors. Therefore, we can say that students who don’t love their schools are traitors in training.”

Again, it’s remarkable to me that Yoshino was able to publish this book in 1937. And I’m not the only one to note this. Many Japanese people fondly remember How Do You Live? as a childhood favorite.

The post-war period saw a flowering of new magazines for children. Two of the most popular were Red Dragonfly and The Milky Way. In the early 1950s, publishers also began to issue a new series of children’s books called the Iwanami Children’s Library, a collection of classics and contemporary children’s fiction from abroad. The books not only entertained their intended audience, they also inspired a new kind of children’s literature in Japan.

The inspiration helped lead to the end of “Dōwa” Period of children’s literature in Japan. Remember that dowa had been about imaginary landscapes and poetry and idealized worlds; new “contemporary” children’s fiction was about the real world kids lived in, written in prose. And that  “real world kids lived in” is a world that just finished a brutal war.

There are two novels are credited as the first works of “contemporary” children’s fiction in Japan. One is Satoru Sato’s The Tiny Country That Nobody Knows. And the other isnd Tomiko Inui’s Yuri and the Little People. Yuri and the Little People is a rare children’s book from this period of Japanese literary history you can read in English. Ginny Tapley Takemori translated it into English in 2016 as The Secret of the Blue Glass. Because it has been translated, I’ve actually been able to read it—which means I can comment on it—which is nice.

It’s maybe… slower… than a book written for an audience of 2000s kids? But it is typical of this new “contemporary” Japanese children’s literature. It’s about a little girl in a slightly fantastical situation. But her world is more or less “the real world”. And she’s dealing with the problems kids faced during World War II—evacuation… food shortages…

[29:20] Japanese literature in English translation has exploded in the last decade. We’re still seeing only a tiny fraction of what’s available, but Japanese is one of the most popularly translated languages into English today. But there still isn’t a lot of children’s fiction being translated… especially not the kind of “middle grade fiction” I’ve been focusing on today.

So I want to wrap up the discussion of Japanese children’s literature by mentioning three contemporary Japanese children’s writers you can read in English—they aren’t the only children’s writers, but I think their work is some of the most widely read and some of the work that most safely qualifies as “children’s” writing rather than young adult:

First up is Eiko Kadano. Kadano is a hugely prolific Japanese author. I believe, though, only one of Kadano’s books has been translated into English. It’s a big one: Kiki’s Delivery Service, translated most recently by Emily Balistrieri. As I mentioned, I’m hoping to do an episode on Hayao Miyazaki and Studio Ghibli later this season, and I think it’s going to focus on Kiki. But I will mention here that Kiki is a series with eight sequels, none of which are available in English—which I think is a real shame and really upsets my 9 year old daughter. By the way, the most recent sequel was published last year, in 2022. Eiko Kadano is currently 88. 

The next author I want to mention is Miyuki Miyabe. I briefly mentioned her in the episode about Japanese science fiction as an example of a fourth generation SF writer. A lot of her books are children’s literature. (Be careful what titles you grab for the kids in your life—some of her books are detective fiction for adults.) 

I’ve only read Brave Story, which is maybe her best-known work of children’s fiction in English. It’s about a bullied fifth grader who escapes into the fantasy world of Vision. Brave Story was also loosely adapted into a series of video games and an anime film.

The last author I want to mention, certainly not the least, is Sachiko Kashiwaba.

[31:45] Sachiko Kashiwaba was born in 1953. That makes her a few years younger than Izumi Suzuki (and Haruki Murakami), a few years older than Hiromi Kawakami. She’s from Iwate Prefecture—a part of the Tōhoku Region.

We’ve talked about the Tohoku Region in our episodes about “Japan’s Have Nots” and “Fukushima Fiction”. It was the region most affected by the March 2011 Triple Disasters. Tohoku has remained very dear to Sachiko Kashiwaba’s heart. She has lived there almost her entire life. And her most recently translated work, The House of the Lost on the Cape (translated by Avery Fischer Udagawa) is a touching piece of Fukushima fiction for children.

Kashiwaba trained as a pharmacist. She wrote part-time until her children were born. And after she started a family with her husband, she became a homemaker and writer. Her first novel was 1975’s Kiri no Mukō no Fushigi-na Machi, translated by Christopher Holmes as The Marvelous Village Veiled in Mist. Director Hayao Miyazaki was actually in talks to acquire rights to the story before he made Spirited Away. There are a lot of similarities between the two stories. There were accusations of plagiarism… that’s all outside of the scope of this episode.

Today, I’ll be talking about Kashiwaba’s story Temple Alley Summer, translated by Avery Fischer Adagawa. Temple Alley Summer debuted in Japan in 2011, shortly after the March 11 Triple Disasters.

I decided to talk about Temple Alley Summer for two reasons.

First, because it’s a fantastic story by an excellent (and important) writer, translated by a great translator.

And second, because, at least a little bit, it’s a story about the last 50 years of children’s writing from Japan. I’ll explain as I go.

I’m going to provide a lot of spoilers from the first half or so of the book because they’re necessary to get into the meat of what I want to talk about today.  I’m not going to give away the ending. I’m not going to give away the “story-within-a-story” that’s central to the book. So when I’m finish, you’ll still have many reasons to pick the novel up on your own when I’m finished.

The protagonist of the story is a boy in the fifth grade—Kazu. He’s also the narrator and the opening paragraph introduces us to his really distinctive voice:

“I never dreamed my house had a secret unknown to my parents or me—and believe me, when I discovered it, I had no plans to get involved. I am a scaredy-cat.”

Within a few pages, our narrator is peeing out his second-story window because he watched a bunch of scary movies and he’s too terrified to go downstairs to the bathroom by himself.

But when he looks out the window, he sees a girl about his age leaving his own age in traditional Buddhist funeral garb—white kimono, white sash, bare feet. The only color are these red plastic baubles in her hair. Could she be a ghost?

The morning after Kazu sees the girl leaving his house, he has a new classmate… except no one else realizes she’s new… and she has red plastic baubles in her hair.

He asks his friend, “Why is she here?”

And his friend is baffled: “Her name’s Akari. You’ve known her since kindergarten—no, before kindergarten.”

And Akari isn’t the only mystery facing Kazu. He has also just learned that his street was once named Kimyo Temple Alley, and he’s decided to find out why for a school research project. After all, Kimyo is written with the characters for “come back” and “life”. That just can’t be a coincidence, right?

His investigation of Kimyo Temple Alley takes him to the apartment of an elderly neighbor named Ms. Minakami. Ms. Minakami claims not to know anything about Kimyo Temple, but she’ll become one of the most important characters in the book.

Eventually Kazu thinks to write his historian uncle an email: “Did Grandpa tell you anything about Kimyo Temple?”

He did.

His uncle writes back, “Apparently, there’s a kind of folk religion where people pass a Buddhist statuette from one family to another. The followers might have a temple structure some place, but they mainly make offerings to the statuette… The idea with the statuette was that if you prayed to it, someone could come back from the dead… The person who died also had to want to come back. But they would not come back to their own family; they would come back to an unrelated family.”

To top off all this news, Kazu’s uncle informs him that his family has been hiding and treasuring just such a statuette in his own home for several generations.


When Kazu goes to look for the statuette, though, he discovers that it has gone missing… and he has every reason to suspect that Ms. Minakami has stolen it. Kazu confronts Ms. Minakami about the theft, and Ms. Minakami threatens to destroy the statuette. If she has it. And she won’t say she does.

She makes a surprisingly compelling argument. And this is where the novel gets into some of its nuanced thinking about death: “Everybody in this world gets one lifetime, Kazu. One chance. We all try to live in such a way that we have no regrets… People have to live as if there is no second chance—so they’ll make the most of every day.”

Now that the statuette is in danger, Kazu thinks he has to confess everything and warn Akari. He tells her he knows that she’s come back from the dead. She tells him that she’s always wanted to be a doctor. Kazu says, you might not be around that much longer. What can I help you do right now? And Akari confesses she’d love to read the rest of a serialized story she encountered in her first life.

[37:57] Here we get to the Japanese children’s literature!

Akari had enjoyed reading a story in a magazine called Daisy. As far as I can tell, Kashiwaba made the magazine up, but it’s close enough to the sorts of magazines that really existed for Japanese girls in the 1970s.

Kazu finds several issues of the magazine later, and this is how he describes them:

“On the covers, girls… struck cute poses, touching their cheeks with one finger and so on. Inside, girls who must have been famous back then posed in clothes that were once trendy. [There was] a page of horoscopes and an advice column to a reader who had quarreled with her friend. Three different manga stories. Three fiction stories. The people who made the magazine had thrown in a little of everything.”

The story Akari loved was a serial story called “The Moon Is on the Left”. There was an installment published in each issue of the magazine. Kazu suggests that maybe, when the story was finished, the magazine published it as a whole in book form. This is a reasonable course of action. Popular serials were often published as books. Kazu gets the idea from manga, where it’s a lot more common. But there are still serials in Japanese magazines and newspapers and they still later get published as books. It turns out, there isn’t a book called “The Moon Is on the Left”.

A friend eventually clues Kazu in that the next course of action is to call the publisher. (It’s fun to imagine a relatively clueless 5th grader doing all of this to help a friend. He does, and it’s realistic because Kazu stays very much in character.) He calls the publisher and finds out Daisy shuttered in 1975. The publisher now considers it the “forerunner” to their manga magazine Chocolat. This, too, is consistent with real Japanese literary history. There are far fewer fiction magazines today. Japanese children (and people in general) are much more likely to buy and read manga magazines.

The publisher offers to send Kazu issues of Daisy with the story, but he finds out that Akari has already read all of the story ever written. The story was never finished. There’s only a message to readers that “the story is on hold, due to the author’s circumstances.”

Kazu also learns some things about the author. She was an aspiring mangaka—manga artist—but her career never quite got off the ground. Again, historically realistic—there were very few female manga artists at the time, so her story is not surprising. The editors claimed her cartoons weren’t quite right for Daisy’s audience, so the editors encouraged her to write a story and illustrate it instead.

Kazu is able to find copies of every published installment of “The Moon Is on the Left”. He reads and loves the story. He passes the copies on to Akari. The reader gets to experience “The Moon Is on the Left,” too. 

It is very much in the tradition of Japanese stories heavily influenced by Western fairy tales. It actually reminds me a lot of the stories written by the 19th-century Scottish writer George MacDonald. And it is completely different than Temple Alley Summer in both tone and narrative voice. (I think that’s quite an accomplishment not just for Sachiko Kashiwaba, but also for translator Avery Fischer Udagawa.) I’m not going to spoil “The Moon Is on the Left”, but I will say that there is a lot of thematic overlap and it develops the main plot of the novel.

I hope everything I’ve just mentioned explains why I think Temple Alley Summer’s sort of “side quest” about Japanese children’s literature is so fascinating. We get to see how children’s literature has changed between Akari’s first lifetime and Kazu’s—and really that’s a glimpse into how much children’s literature has changed in Kashiwaba’s lifetime. We get a behind-the-scenes glance at those two moments in Japanese publishing. And we get to see examples of two different kinds of Japanese writing for children.
I don’t want to give away any more of the book, but I hope you can see that Temple Alley Summer has a lot to say that’s worth a look for readers of any age. It’s also quite a page turner. We still don’t know how “The Moon Is on the Left” ends. If the characters get to find out. If we get to find out. And we don’t even know if Akari is going to get to finish her second life or not. How many children’s books leave an existential threat like that hanging over a character for more than half the book?

[42:42] So why read Japanese children’s literature?

As I mentioned at the beginning of the episode, Japanese children’s literature is full of great stories for everyone. I’ve truly enjoyed Sachiko Kashiwaba’s stories that are available in translation. Kiki’s Delivery Service is a delight. And children’s stories are the source material for some of the most popular or important anime movies coming out of Japan.

Buying and reading translated children’s literature also clues publishers in that English readers are interested in expanding what’s available. As we’ve discussed, there’s been a real boom in Japanese fiction for adults in the past decade. With any luck, we might convince publishers that English readers of all ages are excited to pick up children’s titles, too.

I’ve been reading from Temple Alley Summer by Sachiko Kashiwaba, translated by Avery Fischer Udagawa. Buy your books from our page to support the podcast.

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And thank you as always to Producer Khaim for today’s music, @khaimmusic and

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