An educational tool? Japanese children's books were more than that
It was long thought that the early development of Japanese children's books served mainly as a propaganda tool of the state: the literature was supposed to have been written to shape children into perfect citizens. PhD student Aafke van Ewijk nuances this image. Children's book writers wanted to have their own say. PhD defence 1 September.
For a long time, Japan led a rather isolated existence. With the exception of trade relations with the Netherlands and China, the country was virtually cut off from the outside world. When Japan opened up completely in the middle of the nineteenth century, an internal armed struggle took place that resulted in the overthrow of the existing regime.
After the establishment of a new government under Emperor Meiji (1868), Japan wanted to become a nation state, just like the West. This initially involved practical matters such as a constitution, conscription and a school system, but at the end of the nineteenth century, the question arose of how to create a Japanese identity and loyal citizens,' Van Ewijk comments.
Children's book as educator
One of the means that played a role in forming this new citizen was children's literature, at the time a new literary genre. ‘Before that, illustrated books for the general public included books aimed more at children, but it was not until the end of the nineteenth century that children's literature emerged as a new, modern genre,’ Van Ewijk says.
Children's magazines and book series in particular quickly became popular in Japan, with the notable feature that they often praised well-known characters from history. ‘This was a reaction to the canon of national heroes that emerged in primary education,’ Van Ewijk explains. Japanese educationalists argued that stories about historical icons could teach children about the history of their country as well as good citizenship. The heroes were loyal and their actions served the nation, not the individual.
In this case, children meant above all boys: a canon was forming in the history books in which there was ultimately only room for one famous Japanese historical woman, the writer and lady-in-waiting Murasaki Shikibu (c. 978-1014). Magazines, too, were aimed primarily at boys. In the early twentieth century, there were also girls' magazines, but the basis was indeed quite patriarchal,' says Van Ewijk. In the textbooks, the mother of a famous hero sometimes served as an example, but she often did not have a name. That's a bit like The Handmaid's Tale.'
Because many children's books are so strongly aimed at educating the ideal citizen, it was long thought that the pioneering Japanese children's book writers were kept in check by the government. According to Van Ewijk, however, the situation was more complex. ‘The most attractive thing about children's literature was precisely that it could present different ideas about citizenship, and preserve elements that were in danger of disappearing from the culture elsewhere. The popular warrior legends did not fit into the new image of modern literature for adults. Rewritten and packaged as children's literature for future citizens, they acquired a new importance. With that excuse, a part of the culture could be preserved through children's literature.'
More explicitly, children's book authors also showed that they did not always bow to the government. Van Ewijk: 'Authors discussed what good children's books were and how best to write for children. The author Iwaya Sazanami (1870-1933), who was insanely popular among young people, wrote in his essays that the government was engaged in a kind of navel-gazing nationalism. Due to a strict and unimaginative upbringing and education, Japanese boys would be too timid to represent the mature Japanese nation-state later. In contrast to the Ministry of Education, Iwaya turned his favourite historical heroes into wayward and sometimes even unruly boys. He clearly had his own vision of children and his country.