Kamishibai Men – a Japanese storytelling tradition

On Saturday, March 26th, The Henry Brothers had the pleasure of being invited to Bursa Nilufer Egitim Kurumlari to present at their 7th ELT conference, ‘On the Threshold of Excellence.’ to a packed auditorium of around 400 enthusiastic teachers and as always a superbly organized event. Thanks to all concerned.

We did the opening presentation and this year we’re championing the cause of Kamishibai which means ‘paper theatre’ in Japanese. It’s a form of street performance that was popular in Japan from the 1930s through to the 1950s. During this period it was one of the most popular forms of mass entertainment in the cities of Japan. Many of the performers had worked as silent film narrators (benshi) but with the arrival of ‘talkies’ they were forced to find alternative employment.

The Kamishibai performer would strap a wooden stage to the back of his bicycle and would cycle from town to town. He announced his arrival by hitting wooden clappers together and the children would come running to hear the latest instalment of a tale told in serial fashion. Cliff hanger endings made the children hungry for more and the kamishibai performer made money from selling the children sweets. Stories usually ran to thirty episodes and there were an average of 10-12 hand painted story cards per episode.

We first got interested in kamishibai through Allen Say‘s excellent book, Kamishibai Man (Houghton Mifflin Co., 2005). The story is based around the memories of an old man who used to work as a kamishibai storyteller, cycling from town to town with his box theatre strapped to the back of his bicycle. Times have changed and the small shops and parks he once knew have now been swamped by tower blocks and traffic.

He was forced to retire with the advent of television and its moving pictures, but the former storyteller discovers that the grown-ups who used to come to see him perform and listen to his stories still have fond memories of his visits. They are happy to see he still has the same old sweets and they’re eager to hear the stories they remember so fondly from their childhood.

In his foreword Say remembers the kamishibai man of his childhood, ‘As he told the stories, the kamishibai man would slide out the picture cards in the stage one by one and put them to the back, like shuffling a deck of cards. The stories were actually one never-ending tale, with each installment ending with the hero or heroine hanging from a cliff or getting pushed off it.’

Indeed, kamishibai was a community activity and this is how it differs from the independent act of simply reading a book. The kamishibai storyteller performs the story for his audience and as all good storytellers know the rendering of a story can change dramatically according to the mood of the listeners. It is this sense of community, of listening and interacting with a story that is so important and is one of the reasons why kamishibai is enduring something of a resurgence both on the street and in schools.

If you want to find out more about kamishibai visit Tara McGowan’s excellent website. Tara is a storyteller, teacher and visual artist interested in all forms of picture-storytelling who has worked and studied in Japan for many years. She also has a book out entitled “The Kamishibai Classroom: Engaging Multiple Literacies through the Art of ‘Paper Theater.” It is based on workshops and residencies she’s done in schools and libraries in the US over the past decade and also about her experiences working with storytellers and artists in Japan.

Another great site is Margaret Eisenstatd’s excellent Kamishibai for Kids.

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About The Henry Brothers

We are English teachers involved in ELT publishing in Turkey, and also touring the country giving workshops and presentations to English teachers, mainly on the use of poetry, storytelling and other lively activities in the classroom. We can be contacted by e-mail to istanbuljohnm@hotmail.co.uk.
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One Response to Kamishibai Men – a Japanese storytelling tradition

  1. Pingback: Our blogroll. Who are these people? | The Henry Brothers' Jim Jam Slam

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