Japan: A Literary Adventure

Little One-Inch and Other Japanese Children’s Favorite Stories.  Compiled by Florence Sakade.  Illustrated by Yoshisuke Kurosaki.  Tuttle Publishing. Tokyo, 2008.  50 pgs.  Ages 4-10.

The Tale of Genji (Penguin Classics)By Murasaki Shikibu.  Edited and translated by Royall Tyler.  Penguin Classics, 2006.  352 pgs.  Ages 16-up.

Today marks the beginning of another series for this year: Literary Adventures, in which we’ll take stories from cultures around the world and investigate them from a Christian worldview.  A while back, I described reading an African folk tale to my kids, and in the post (read it here), I found that I really struggled to interpret the story for my kids.  Not only did the tale seem strange and even immoral to my kids–I just didn’t get it.  But I really want my kids to be exposed to literature beyond the latest Fancy Nancy book.  So, I decided I would go to the people who understand foreign cultures best–Christians from that culture, missionaries working with them and/or Christian professors–and ask them for help.  Even if you’re not a classical homeschooler who will be reading foreign folktales as part of a literary curriculum, I hope that the project will help broaden both our children’s idea of what literature and culture are, as well as bring Christ into focus in those stories

I’m starting with Japan for several reasons–one, because it has such a rich literary heritage.  But more importantly, because I have an excellent resource at my fingertips: Roger and Abi Lowther who are missionaries there.  Sometime Wednesday, I’ll be sitting down with one or both of them to get the scoop on Japanese literature and how it reflects Christ and the seeking after God described in Acts 17.  (“From one man he made all the nations, that they should inhabit the whole earth; and he marked out their appointed times in history and the boundaries of their lands.  God did this so that they would seek him and perhaps reach out for him and find him, though he is not far from any one of us.”)  Hope to report back to you guys next week sometime.

Until then, I wanted to recommend a couple of resources for those of you who’d like to participate.  First, Little One-Inch and Other Japanese Children’s Favorite Stories, is part of a series of Japanese story picture books, and while it’s aimed at young children aged 4-10, I’d actually recommend it for any age.  Like American folk tales, these were originally crafted for audiences of adults and children, so even for adults, these short tales are a delightful entry point for learning about Japanese history and culture.  Plus, the illustrations are fantastic.

If you’re ready for something a little richer, The Tale of Genji (Penguin Classics) penned in the eleventh century, is apparently the grandfather of all Japanese Literature.  Here’s how Roger Lowther puts it in his article “Beauty through Japanese Eyes”,

The 2000 yen banknote even features a scene from the novel. Written over 1,000 years ago, the book reflects Japanese sensibilities to a depth I am just beginning to understand. It is common for high school students to write essays on why The Tale of Genji is the foundation of Japanese literature. When novelist Yasunari Kawabata gave his acceptance speech upon receiving the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1968, he cited The Tale of Genji as ‘the highest pinnacle of Japanese literature. Even down to our day there has not been a piece of fiction to compare with it.’

In the next week or so, I’ll report back about my interview with Roger on this book and other important Japanese works.  Until then, I hope this whets your appetite not only for the exquisite storytelling that Japan has to offer, but also the hope of Christ that they in some way embody.

For more folk tale reading, see Janie’s Tall Tales, our review of Jonathan Rogers’ Charlatan’s Boy, and my somewhat snarky review of a modern heroine, If Olivia Comes to Visit.



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  1. Sherry on January 10, 2012 at 8:18 pm

    I am very interested in following this series. You are right that stories and literature from some cultures seems not only foreign, but downright weird when I read it without any help from someone who understands the culture in question better than I do. Even than bridging cultures is sometimes a tricky thing to do.

  2. emily on January 10, 2012 at 8:40 pm

    I’m glad to have piqued your interest, Sherry. Next month, we’ll cover African literature, hence my participation in your culturally broad-minded reading challenge. Hoping to pick up a few ideas for book reviews from your site on that score. https://www.semicolonblog.com/?p=16551

  3. Gently Mad on January 10, 2012 at 11:46 pm

    I’ve read Tale of Genji. Although I think to fully appreciate it you’d 1) have to be able to read it in the original Japanese and 2) be familiar with all the lore and poetry that apparently the aristocracy constantly referred to in their dialogue with each other.

    Still, it offered much insight to the culture of Japanese upper crust, their views of marriage, roles of men and women and the belief system-which seemed to be mainly Buddhist at the time.

    As far as looking at it from a Christian world view, I couldn’t help but see the hopelessness the women felt as they were subject to roles that left them at the mercy of the whims of men.

    I finished the book feeling grateful for my own Christian values that demand a husband be faithful and women are to be respected and not only treated as chattel.

    I’ll be interested to read your post on this book.

  4. Gently Mad on January 10, 2012 at 11:49 pm

    OH! I hope you’re going to review Shirobamba by Yasushi Inoue also. That’s a GREAT book!!

  5. Hayley on January 11, 2012 at 9:44 am

    What a small world! I know the Lowthers; I attended the same church in Tokyo! Thank you for doing this series, Emily. I’ll be looking forward to new installments!

  6. emily on January 12, 2012 at 6:07 am

    Hayley, that’s neat! I met them through friends when they came to our church raising funds a year or two ago. Why were you in Tokyo again? Were you there during the earthquake?

  7. Hayley on January 12, 2012 at 9:24 pm

    Hey Emily, I did have an internship working in Tokyo. It was supposed to be from January – August of 2011. I was there during the earthquake and headed home after the US government recommended US citizens leave Japan. It was quite an experience!

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