the Olympics are coming! it’s time to explore Japan!

The beleaguered 2021 Summer Olympics are set to begin on July 23rd.

There have been many quirks and setbacks in the history of the modern Olympics, but the devastating pandemic, year-long delay of the games, and debate over whether or not they should be held at all this year will surely mark these games *Unusual* in the annals.

My family has loved watching these tremendous athletic displays through the years and despite the controversies associated with them this year, we will certainly be tuning in once again. For those of you who are also looking forward to celebrating the triumphs of the human body and spirit, I’ve been collecting titles — since last year! — to help ratchet up your enjoyment.

Japan may be small in land mass but it has played an outsized role in the world. It’s the home of an ancient civilization and a complex, contemporary culture, and I expect those tuning into Olympics coverage will see many aspects of both old and new referenced in opening and closing ceremonies as well as journalists’ special interest stories.

Getting a head start learning about this fascinating country can help us better appreciate these glimpses as they come our way.
So today I’ve got a big batch of books to help you and the readers you love — ages 3 through adult — do just that.
Next week I’ll have a batch of books focusing on the Olympic games themselves, as well as the Paralympic Games and the five new sports featuring in Tokyo 2021.

Today you’ll find:

books cataloguing a myriad facets of Japanese culture geared to preschoolers through middle-schoolers;
a wee introduction to the Japanese language;
books zeroing in on iconic Japanese traditions from ramen to sumo to Zen gardens;
an introduction to some stand-outs from Japanese history including a samurai warrior, a haiku master, and a prolific painter;
and several books exploring the trauma of WWII and the atomic bombs dropped on Nagasaki and Hiroshima

All About Japan: Stories, Songs, Crafts and Games for Kids
 written by Willamarie Moore, illustrated by Kazumi Wilds
published in 2011 by Tuttle Publishing
63 pages

This book is your one-stop shop for dipping your toes into Japanese culture and history.

Discover where famous sites are located on the long stretch of thousands of islands that make up Japan. Celebrate cherry blossom season, write haiku, read a Japanese creation myth, tour a house, learn to use chopsticks, cook up some of the included recipes, follow some kids on their typical days, read about important holidays, make nenga-jo greeting cards…and that’s just some of what’s crammed inside this volume!

There are lots of rabbit trails to follow once you’ve been introduced to the country and culture but even if this is the only book you read together you will be the richer for it. Tuttle Publishing specializes in introducing Asian cultures and places to those of us in the English-speaking world. This is a great resource for ages 5 through much-older.

My Japan, written and illustrated by Etsuko Watanabe
first American edition 2009 by Kane Miller

This smaller guide to all things Japanese is a colorful option especially geared for young children ages 5-8.

Seven-year-old Yumi shows us what life looks like in a contemporary Japanese city. We peek into various rooms in her house, walk through a day in school, go on summer vacation, ride the subway, visit the public baths, celebrate seven holidays, and get a brief glimpse of Japanese writing systems.

Interesting details with plenty of kid-appeal, minimal text, plus simple directions to make a few paper crafts such as a samurai hat and paper lantern.

My Awesome Japan Adventure: A Diary About the Best 4 Months Ever
written and illustrated by Rebecca Otowa
published in 2013 by Tuttle Publishing
48 pages

For slightly older readers, ages 9 and up, this diary as written by Dan, a 5th grade boy spending several months visiting a pen pal near Kyoto, brings contemporary, youthful Japan into view with a fresh, casual voice.

See Japan through the eyes of a first-time visitor. Eat breakfast, go to school, help with a rice harvest, attend Athletic Day, learn bowing protocol, enjoy a tea ceremony, visit a Ninja Village, and gobs more. It’s packed with intriguing, brief entries, and energetic, colorful illustrations.

Tokyo City Trails, written by Anna Claybourne
published in 2017 by Lonely Planet Kids
102 pages

The Lonely Planet City Trails guides are colorful, energetic travel guides with curated sightseeing tours especially appealing to kids.

Even though we are armchair travelers, this small, jam-packed volume showcases a superb array of what makes Tokyo such a special city. Want to check out all the kawaii elements? Then visit Pompompurin Café, Sanrioworld, the Moomin House, and other darling places. Or maybe you’re interests lie more in the techie side of things. This guide will steer you towards the cool robotics featuring all over Tokyo and even the Toto Toilet Showroom where you can see for yourself how techno a toilet can be!

With 19 different tours focusing on everything from fish to art, cartooning to earthquakes, you’ll come away with your head spinning over just what a fascinating city this is. Ages 8 and up.

Dodsworth in Tokyo, written and illustrated by Tim Egan
published in 2013 by HMH Books for Kids

Looking for an easy-reader entry point to Japan? Head to Tokyo with our favorite globetrotter, Dodsworth, and his sidekick the duck. Dodsworth is worried about Duck’s knack for wandering into trouble wherever he goes. Can he keep his bill clean this time?

Visit some of the famous landmarks in Tokyo, sample some tasty food, learn to play with a wooden toy called a kendama, and take part in the Sanja Festival in this lighthearted, funny story for advanced beginning readers.

First Words: Japanese, illustrated by Andy Mansfield and Sebastien Iwohn
published in 2018 by Lonely Planet Kids

If it sounds fun to try picking up a few words of Japanese, the folks at Lonely Planet make it easy!

This stout little book consists of zingy-bright, simplified illustrations on one page of each spread, and on the other side the corresponding word written in English and in katakana/hiragana characters. It’s also romanized, or written in Latin script, and a basic pronunciation is spelled out.

Since we anglophones would almost assuredly get the pronunciation wrong even with those helps, Lonely Planet offers a free online guide where you can hear each word clearly spoken. Learn dozens of everyday words from noodles to airport along with your kids!

Magic Ramen: The Story of Momouko Ando
written by Andrea Wang, illustrated by Kana Urbanowicz
published in 2019 by Little Bee Books

One Japanese food that many an American kid will have eaten is ramen! That makes this story a great bridge into learning more about Japan, and learning about a truly fascinating man as well.

In the grim days following WWII, Momofuko Ando’s heart went out to the impoverished people he encountered in Osaka, desperate for food. Surely he could come up with a way to create nutritious food that would be inexpensive and easy to make after a weary day of work. For a year, Ando tirelessly experimented with systems of creating these noodles, eventually landing on the perfect recipe.

Grab some ramen from the grocery store and settle in for some slurping and a sizzling good story! Ages 5 and up.

Ojiichan’s Gift, written by Chieri Uegaki, illustrated by Genevieve Simms
published in 2019 by Kids Can Press

Mayumi van Horton spends two months every summer in Japan with her grandfather, Ojiichan, where the two happily work together in the graceful, serene garden he’s created in her honor.

When Ojiichan’s health means he must move out of his home, thoughts of the abandoned garden sadden both of them. Mayumi’s clever, loving solution brings about a sweet resolution. Pristine illustrations, a bi-cultural family, the balm of nature, and an introduction to Zen gardens, all make this a treat for ages 6 and up.

Sumo Joe, written by Mia Wenjen, illustrated by Nat Iwata
published in 2019 by Lee & Low Books

I can hardly believe we will proceed from opening to closing ceremonies without an appearance from some Japanese sumo wrestlers.

This is one of those pieces of Japanese culture that can look merely silly to those of us without any knowledge.  Read this energetic, warmhearted, brief story of some boys practicing their sumo moves in a makeshift ring, then find out more of the sport’s religious origins and traditions in the Author’s Note and glossary. It’s a super helpful, upbeat introduction for ages 4 and up.

Okay, now moving on to some historical titles, beginning with events from the 1100s:

Samurai Rising: The Epic Life of Minamoto Yoshitsune
written by Pamela S. Turner, illustrated by Gareth Hinds
published in 2016 by Charlesbridge
236 pages

This is the book on today’s list geared toward the oldest readers, ages 15 to adult. It’s an award-winning biography of Minamoto Yoshitsune, Japan’s most famous samurai.

The fascinating world of 12th-century Japan is unveiled for us in this account of Yoshitsune’s short, turbulent life. It’s a world teeming with emperors and samurai, peasants and entertainers, beauty and sorrow, bitterness and revenge, thunderous war horses and black lacquer scabbards, golden temples, haiku, seppuku,…and piles of bloody corpses.  This samurai business was a brutal one so make no mistake, Yoshitsune’s story flows with spilled blood and severed heads.

Turner has crafted a thoroughly-researched narrative of this determined, unflinching, proud warrior whose life has been the subject of copious “songs, Noh dramas, Kabuki plays, and Bunraku puppetry…modern novels, short stories, poems, movies, manga, anime, visual novels and video games” in his homeland of Japan. She spins his saga with one of the most engaging voices you’ll ever encounter in nonfiction, studding the telling with moments of wry humor and copious colorful details, and adding extensive, helpful back matter including organized lists of family members, time lines, and explanatory notes. In fact the story itself only occupies 163 of the 230+ pages.

Hinds’ brush and ink drawings add a surge of power and vivid Japanese ambience to the pages. I do think, though, that the choices of paper, typeface, and formatting here mean that if one simply grabs this book and flips through it — it can look pretty dry, which is the exact opposite of the extraordinary, action-hero, marauding-warrior, wild ride that’s lurking inside.

Japan is a nation of contradictions like every human society. It has a pacifist constitution and a population crying out for peace in the post-WWII era, yet still valorizes the ferocity of samurai warfare. A strange juxtaposition. Honestly, I much prefer reading the lives and stories of those pursuing peace and creating beauty to a battle-filled history such as this — but even I found this book extraordinarily compelling.

Grass Sandals: The Travels of Basho, written by Dawnine Spivak, illustrated by Demi
published in 1997 by Atheneum Books for Young Readers

Speaking of peaceableness, Matsuo Basho is perhaps the most beloved of the Japanese haiku poets. He lived in 17th-century Japan and composed poems about the places he admired as he traveled through the lovely Japanese countryside.

This lyrical biography of Basho describes some of his travels, through air a-flutter with cherry blossoms, along seaside and over mountains, under starry skies and through iris-strewn fields. Accompanying the prose narrative are a number of his haiku verses. The exquisite artwork, created in colored ink using Oriental brushes, whispers over pages that resemble rice paper.

The whole package is an elegant introduction to a genteel strand of Japanese history and culture for ages 5 and up.

Yuki and the One Thousand Carriers
written by Gloria Whelan, illustrated by Yan Nascimbene
published in 2008 by Sleeping Bear Press

Continuing in the 17th century, this dream of a book takes a look at the provincial governors’ annual trek between Kyoto and Tokyo, narrating the journey from the viewpoint of the governor’s young daughter, Yuki.

Travel along with her aboard a palanquin for 300 miles of extraordinary sights, sounds, tastes. The long train of 1000 carriers moves through all sorts of terrain, weather, lodging. Yuki spends time in an enormous variety of homes and composes a little haiku each day. Gorgeous, inspired illustration work and fascinating details about this long ago time and beautiful land will capture the fancy of ages 4 and up.

Heart of a Samurai: Based on the True Story of Manjiro Nakahama
written by Margi Preus, illustrations by Manjiro, Kawada Shoryo, and Jillian Tamaki
published in 2010 by Amulet Books
282 pages

This outstanding, Newbery-Honor-winning novel tells the incredible, true story of a 14-year-old Japanese boy who was caught at sea in a storm that changed the course of not only his life, but his homeland.

In 1841, a small fishing boat carrying Manjiro and four other fishermen was caught in a storm off the coast of Shikoku, Japan that left them shipwrecked on a deserted island.  The men barely survived their six months on the island before being rescued by an American whaling ship.  Youthful Manjiro was less suspicious of these foreigners than his fellow fisherman. He was befriended by the American captain and eventually chose to go home with him, becoming in all likelihood the first Japanese person to set foot in America.  He arrived in New Bedford, Massachusetts at age 16.

Manjiro’s life reads like fiction. It includes whaling expeditions, daring sea ventures, wrathful sea captains, mutineers, imprisonment, falling in love, panning for gold, and becoming a samurai. Eventually, he returned to Japan and when Commodore Perry, the American naval commander charged with opening Japan up to the West after 250 years of isolation, arrived there, Manjiro’s knowledge of English and American culture meant that he became the advisor to the shogun, filling a unique place in history.

A riveting story, gorgeous block print illustrations, back matter including an epilogue about Manjiro’s life, historical note, and glossary for Japanese words, sailing lingo, and whaling terminology, all make this an ace read for ages 11 and up.  It could be a great family read-aloud as well.

Manjiro: The Boy Who Risked His Life for Two Countries, written and illustrated by Emily Arnold McCully
published in 2008 by Farrar Straus Giroux

The same story of Manjiro is told for a younger audience in this magnificent, lengthy picture book biography by one of my long-time-favorite author/illustrators, Emily Arnold McCully.

Her beautiful watercolors accompany a well-told narrative of his life. It could be read aloud to children as young as 5 if taken a few pages at a sitting, though it’s of plenty interest for adults as well.

The Old Man Mad About Drawing: A Tale of Hokusai
written and illustrated by François Place, translated by William Rodarmor
originally published in France in 1997; first US edition 2004 by David R. Godine
106 pages

Truly one of the most beautiful books on the shelf, this is a fictionalized portrait of the life and artistry of Japanese printmaker/painter Hokusai as seen through the eyes of a young boy named Tojiro.

The story sweeps us into 19th-century Edo, ushering us into Hokusai’s studio and introducing many elements of Japanese culture.  Sparkling details enliven our journey as we learn the art of woodblock printing, stop in at a Kabuki theater, watch a sumo match, and visit a Shinto shrine.

François Place’s exquisite ink-and-wash illustrations go hand-in-hand with the text. Their sure line and rich, saturated pigments captivate us while their historic detail reveals Hokusai’s fascinating world. An illustrated glossary defines a number of Japanese terms.

All told, this is a jam-packed, gorgeous window into art history and Japanese culture. Read it aloud to ages 6 and up or hand it to readers 9 and up.

Hokusai: The Man Who Painted a Mountain, written and illustrated by Deborah Kogan Ray
published in 2001 by Farrar, Straus and Giroux

This beautiful picture book biography is out of print now, but if you’re looking for an account of Hokusai for younger children, you might check your library for it. I very much enjoyed it when I was able to read it a number of years ago. It’s long for a picture book, but if you can find it, it’s a super choice for ages 7 and up.

The Secret of the Blue Glass, written by Tomiko Inui, translated by Ginny Tapley Takemori
published originally in Japan in 1959; English edition 2015 by Pushkin Children’s Books
183 pages

With this unique novel, we make the leap all the way up to World War II.

Tatsuo Moriyama is 10 years old when he first meets Balbo and Fern, two Little People, just five inches tall, brought to Japan from England many years earlier and now left to his care. Over the next 30 years, Tatsuo, his wife, and their children shelter this tiny, Borrowers-esque family, developing a strong, loyal bond of friendship with them. Now it’s 1943 and the grim arm of war is about to reach in and disrupt their tranquil arrangements.

This extraordinary story provides a fascinating window onto domestic life in WWII-era Japan as both Tatsuo’s human family and their wee friends experience terribly difficult alterations in their lives. Coal and food supplies dwindle and Tatsuo’s youngest child, Yuri, is evacuated out of Tokyo into the countryside in anticipation of Allied bombing, hauling the household of Balbo and Fern with her. The war’s progress and the increasing suffering that accompanies it makes Yuri’s task of caring for the Little People more and more difficult. Meanwhile, in contrast to his younger son’s zealous, toxic nationalism, Tatsuo’s anti-war political views land him in prison. It seems that due to the long decades of faithfully caring for the Little People, “something took root in his heart that affects the way he sees the world.”  What will the outcome be for them all?

This book was written by a highly-esteemed author who pioneered children’s fantasy in Japan and won multiple, prestigious awards in her lifetime. Despite the rather electric quality of the cover image, it’s often marked by a somber tone as she forthrightly addresses the toll of war. It is not a fantasy that happens to take place in wartime, à la Narnia, but a war story seen through the lens of fantasy. At the outset in particular, there is an old-fashioned formality to its style. This softens a bit as the story proceeds, but I’ll be honest with you — I almost gave it up in the first 40 pages or so. Let me assure you that by pressing on I discovered an intriguing, thought-provoking, deeply moving story. Other than accounts of the bombing of Hiroshima, I cannot think of any other book that allows us to experience WWII from the vantage point of ordinary Japanese people.

War does not make for happy endings particularly when you’re on the losing side, so let that guide you as you consider this story. I’m recommending it for ages 11 and up and suggest that any child-reader will need some historical context as it was written for a Japanese audience and assumes some knowledge of the war years. It’s an apt choice for adult readers as well.

A Bowl Full of Peace: A True Story
written by Caren Stelson, illustrated by Akira Kusaka
published in 2020 by Carolrhoda Books

Japan’s people and culture were forever marked by the atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. No other nation speaks with their particular voice, from their grievous perspective, in the worldwide conversation about peace.

The Japanese have a special name for survivors of these bombings — hibakusha. This is the powerful, moving story of one, Sachiko Yasui. We meet her in the seaside Nagasaki neighborhood of her childhood, chasing dragonflies with her siblings, gathering around the table with her family. An heirloom bowl, passed down for nobody-knows-how-many-generations always sits in the middle of the dinner table, filled with good food to share.

Sachiko’s story moves on to include more and more war, and less and less food. Still, thankfulness is the hallmark of every family meal. On that fateful day, August 9, 1945, when the family flees to an air raid shelter, grandmother’s bowl is left behind. Incomprehensible ruin and death rain down on Sachiko’s home and family. Years later, digging through the rubble of their home, miraculously the bowl is found “without even a chip or crack.” Over her lifetime, the bowl becomes an object to commemorate those lost, to express thankfulness for what remains, and to beckon people toward peace. This profound story is followed by lengthy author and illustrator notes which extend our understanding and appreciation. Share it with children ages 7 and up.

Sachiko: A Nagasaki Bomb Survivor’s Story, by Caren Stelson
published in 2016 by Carolrhoda Books
144 pages

A much fuller, weightier account of Sachiko’s life and the experiences in general of those who bore the terrible results of the Nagasaki bombing is contained in this title for ages 14 or 15 and up.

The Peace Tree from Hiroshima: The Little Bonsai with a Big Story
by Sandra Moore, illustrations by Kazumi Wilds
published in 2015 by Tuttle Publishing

Finally, this story which touches on the bombing of Hiroshima, yet does so in a gentle manner making it accessible to children ages 4 and up.

An ancient Japanese bonsai tree, almost 400 years old, stands in the National Arboretum in Washington, D.C.  After reading this book, I would love to visit the arboretum and see it!
It arrived in 1976, part of a gift of 50 bonsai trees from the Japanese people to celebrate America’s bicentennial.

Extraordinary enough, that such a peaceful and beautiful gift should be exchanged by two nations who were once enemies. Yet the story of this particular tree is made more remarkable by its long history.
Follow the life of the Yamaki Pine as it sprouts on the island of Miyajima, is transplanted by a man named Itaro in the days of medieval Japan, and is passed down and cared for by this one family for over 300 years. Watch it survive the attack on Hiroshima and continue to flourish until its gentle owner dedicates it as a Peace Tree to be given to the United States.

Vibrant, beautiful illustrations bring the entire history to life. Included are fascinating facts about bonsai which are sure to spark an interest in this ancient art form.


I hope you find something helpful and interesting for yourselves and the readers in your lives.
Come back next week to discover the thrills and spills of Olympic-class athletes!

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