by Sheena Sasaki
When does education start? The official education may start from the enrollment of elementary school; however, education itself has begun long before. One of the educational tools for children under age of elementary school is picture books and verbal stories. It is not rare to see the scene where mother is telling bedtime stories to her children. The story and picture book the mother chooses deeply influences the children’s education. This post focuses on three well-known bedtime picture books/stories in Japan, and examines the influences of the picture books, stories, and the character of the story to shape children’s beliefs and education.
How do Japanese children learn morals and values, and why do they decide to follow such social rules? Without a question, a person or people who raised the child would significantly influence shaping the base of the child’s moral belief. My mother used the picture book, Ehon: Jigoku by Tsuguo Miya (1980) as part of moral education. The book vividly illustrates many different parts of jigoku, the place similar to the underworld of Greek mythology. In this place, dead people are judged by Enma-daio, the judge of jigoku, about their behaviors when they were alive. Ehon: Jigoku uses very detailed and brutal pictures to graphically explain how the dead are punished for certain bad conduct and crime. Miya (1980) writes in the preview that the purpose of Ehon: Jigoku is to embed the idea “death is very fearful” into children’s mind since fear against death may be coming from human instinct, however, is possible to strengthen through education. He continues that people who lived during the period with underdeveloped medical science taught their children to stay away from danger and to feel deep attachment to their lives by showing pictures telling stories of jigoku. Thus, Miya (1980) concludes that the book may be one of the sagacities that ancient Japanese have created.
The book gives the readers a great impact of punishments for certain misbehaviors. Children who read the book may be traumatized by brutal pictures and strongly feel that they do not want to go to jigoku. As they grow older, those children may not believe in the life after death anymore; however, sense that they are being watched by somebody remains.
The key of jigoku is that people are being punished there. No matter how much people deny and hide their bad conduct and crime, the judge knows. As a result, many children behave better to appeal to Enma-daio that they do not deserve to be sent to jigoku. Thus, building sense of being watched by somebody is important to lead children to follow moral and rules. Without that sense, children may misbehave since their mothers are not watching, and such children may accept shoplifting when no one is near and quickly drive away when they runs over a person with a car.
There is a phrase in Japan which means, “there is ear on the wall and eye in the door.” The phrase addresses that it is almost impossible to have privacy since there is always a third person behind the curtain. Thus, Japanese adults tend to care very much about their behaviors in the public and reputations. Although children will not read picture books after they become adults, nonetheless, the sense which had been planted during their youth that there is invisible judge remains. Hence, picture books largely influence children to build moral beliefs and to follow social rules.
In his book Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism, Benedict Anderson (1983) states, “to serve the narrative purpose, [the ongoing mortality rate, exemplary suicides, poignant martyrdoms, assassinations, executions, wars, and holocausts] must be remembered/forgotten as ‘our own.’” (p. 206) He argues that people’s memories and images towards history are at many times purposely constructed by the others especially the ones in power. The bedtime stories are also a part of memory construction.
When being taught about World War II, the information given to Japanese children tends to lean towards the Hiroshima bombing. Along with the story of the thousand paper cranes, children are told story of a girl named Sadako Sasaki who survived the bombing itself but passed away due to the effects of radiation exposure.
The story starts with explanation of character Sadako, how she was energetic and healthy elementary school girl. However, she falls extremely sick. Sadako wished upon the paper cranes she folded during her hospitalization that someday she will recover her health. After her death, she became the heroine of a moving tale, as a girl who fought against leukemia and never gave up hope. Today, the story of Sadako is known throughout Japan, and her statue of raising a big paper crane was built as a representation of hope and peace.
However, the story does not end as just the moving tale. Her story overly emphasized Japan as a victim of the World War II, not a fighting actor. Hence, Sadako makes Japanese “remember” about the Hiroshima bombing and the terrifying influence of nuclear weapons. On the other hand, it makes the citizens unconsciously “forget” that Japan also fought during the war and killed innocent children like Sadako. With the use of child’s story, the nation cunningly victimized her citizens and successfully represented herself as poor and weak being.
The issue lies where children do not notice the hidden “remember and forgetting” purpose of the story. Their impression would simply be “poor Sadako” as the government has intended. Thus, from youth, people are forced to see and believe an extremely narrow field of vision. They are blinded by the parents, teachers, stories, education, and nation sometimes unconsciously and at many times, consciously.
Bedtime story heroes are also used to serve the purpose of government. Momotaro is the most famous hero from didactic fiction in Japan. The story is very simple. Momotaro, who was born from a peach, decides to rescue a princess from creatures. With his three friends—a dog, a monkey, and a pheasant—Momotaro reaches the island of the creatures, defeats the evil, and becomes a hero.
The message of the story is similar to Ehon: Jigoku that the evil will be punished. Additionally, the story also holds the message righteous justice wins. Children are taught from the story to help others. However, this hero was used by the Japanese government in propaganda films during World War II.
Momotaro no Umiwashi and Momotaro: Umi no Shinpei were both directed by Seo Mitsuyo and released consecutively in 1943 and 1945. The earlier movie, Momotaro no Umiwashi is based on the bombing of Pearl Harbor. The main character Momotaro attacks the island of the evil with air force and results in victory. The second film Momotaro: Umi no Shinpei illustrates the civilization and colonization of Japan with musical. The hero Momotaro defeats the creatures controlling over poor animals, takes land away from the evil, and civilizes the animals.
Since both films were animated and used Momotaro as main hero, children and even adults repeatedly watched the film. Pretty characters and comical battle scenes enabled Japanese citizens to watch a war movie without hesitation. However, unlike the original story, creatures were represented in human form, and to be more specific, the Americans and British. The film visually shifted the antagonist from creatures to human foreigners. Thus, children are planted with information foreigners (especially Caucasians) are evil and it is necessary to fight against such evil “people.”
Both films are now considered well-made propaganda films. However, the audiences back in the time did not recognize the films as propaganda. Joseph Goebbels, Adolf Hitler’s famous propagandist, once stated “Propaganda should be popular, not intellectually pleasing. It is not the task of propaganda to discover intellectual truths” (Goebbels, 1928, para. 31). His propaganda principle also argued “To be perceived, propaganda must evoke the interest of audience and must be transmitted through an attention-getting communications medium” (Doob, 1950, p.426). According his theory, a good propaganda movie is one which would not be recognized as propaganda film. Both movies used a popular hero, evoked interest of the audience with animation and musical, and were transmitted through the communication media of film. As a result, a bedtime hero became a propaganda hero.
In summation, before their schooling, children are educated with bedtime stories which construct their core images of the world. Brutal pictures of life after death structures and make them follow the social rules. Additionally, as tool for “memory and forgetting,” bedtime stories based on real events sometimes are used to victimize the nation during wars the nation also fought.
The character of the story may turn into propaganda hero to make children feel familiar with war. At the level of globalized society today, it is possible to break the wall of “memory and forgetting” of nation’s history and education. However, the study of internationalization and globalization is still considered to be “high level” and is not taught in elementary school. Students face difficulty changing the core beliefs that were planted during childhood; the magic casted by the stories strongly remains in heart.
- Anderson, B. (1983). Imagined communities: Reflections on the origin and spread of nationalism. New York, NY: Verso.
- Doob, L. W. (1950). Goebbels’ Principles of Propaganda. Public Opinion Quarterly,14(3), 419-442.
- Goebbels, Joseph. (1928, January 9). Erkenntnis und Propaganda (R. Bytwerk Trans.). Speech presented at the Hochschule für Politik, Berlin, DE.
- Miya, T. (1980). Ehon: Jigoku [Picture book: Jigoku]. Japan: Futohsha.
- Seo, M. (Director). (1943). Momotaro no umiwashi [Momotaro’s sea eagles] [Motion picture]. Japan: Geijutsu Eigasha.
- Seo, M. (Director). (1945). Momotaro: Umi no shinpei [Momotaro: Sacred sailors] [Motion picture]. Japan: Geijutsu Eigasha.