03 November 2009
If young readers today know anything about Japan, I would speculate that their knowledge base consists of Pokemon, Hello Kitty, and Naruto. Possibly, if they are manga readers, they know that the Japanese read from right to left. And they might have heard of ninjas. But do they really have any idea just how different every-day life in Japan is from every-day life in the West? That even though children in Japan go to school, and like to shop, and go on vacations and play sports, that the details are simply different?
My Japan introduces readers to Yumi, a 7 year old girl living with her parents and younger brother in a Tokyo suburb. This is a bone-fide "informational" book. There is no narrative. The reader is given a look at the day to day activities and notable celebrations of a typical Japanese family. The first thing readers will learn is how compartmentalized everything is in Japan. Sometimes this compartmentalization is practical (separate rooms for men and women in the public baths,) sometimes it's functional (the picture of Yumi's mom getting dinner ready in the kitchen shows how every space is efficiently utilized for storage,) sometimes it's for uniformity (girls have red school bags, boys have black,) and sometimes it's just....here's that word again......different (there are no street names in Tokyo--only district names.) Readers will also learn that Japanese students clean--and by "clean" I mean scrub--their school every day. They will learn that Japanese bathrooms have two types of toilets: a Japanese and a Western variety, and neither one really works like the ones in America. They will learn that 3 and 7 year old children have their own holiday (Shichi-Go-San,) that every public bath (which is not for cleaning yourself, by the way) seems to have a painting of Mount Fuji in it, and that there are three different types of writing in Japan--two of which are presented at the back for ambitious readers to try and replicate.
Cultures are, of course, different from one another, which is what makes learning about them so much fun. But there is something unexpectedly unusual about My Japan, because on the surface, it doesn't look different at all. The cover of the book shows Yumi and her brother standing under a tree--just a couple of kids, like the audience at which the book is aimed. It's not until you start to read that you get the impression that the differences between Yumi's world and a Western child's world involve not just types of food or sleeping on a futon as opposed to a bed. They involve holidays evolved out of a feudal system of which we have nothing to compare. They involve knowing when and where to wear a kimono. They involve buying pet stag beetles at department stores (I somehow cannot imagine Macy's hopping on that bandwagon!) When you read this book you really get the impression of looking through the window at a foreign culture. If such an impression was made on an adult reader like myself, imagine the impact on the mind of child, curious and open to a different way of learning and living.
Yumi's seven year old life is rich with details to share and discover. And My Japan is nothing if not child-centric. The illustrations are full of smiling faces, toys and games, and easy to follow instructions for making paper chains and origami. While some pages are illustrated catalogs (thing's in the kitchen, things in the bathroom, necessities for school, to name a few,) others, like the the two page spread of an underground subway stop, are ripe with i-spy opportunities. And, just like the kitchen, every inch of the book is used efficiently: even the back cover provides a learning opportunity, with a map of Japan showing the five (of over 3000) largest islands which make up the country, as well as the 47 prefectures. This is a book to be revisited, because there is an amazing amount of information in here. It is compactly organized, cheerfully presented, and intriguingly different.