Guest Post: What We’re Missing: Gems of World Kid Lit #2.
It is my supreme pleasure to welcome back again to the blog David Jacobson. As you might recall, David began a series on this blog to shine some attention on issues in the field of children’s literary translation. His previous post Beyond 3 Percent: Translation Children’s Literature in the U.S. came out at the end of last year. Today, his co-authors are Minjie Chen (originally of China), Jongsun Wee (originally of Korea), and Reiko Nakaigawa Lee (originally of Japan).
Many thanks to all four authors for the following piece:
The Japan-China-Korea Peace Picture Book Project
by David Jacobson, Minjie Chen, Reiko Nakaigawa Lee, and Jongsun Wee
During 2005 and 2006, amidst a sharp deterioration of Japan’s relations with her Asian neighbors, four Japanese picture book authors and illustrators called on their colleagues in China and Korea to address their mutual lack of trust–with picture books. Their intent was to “document the past honestly, share today’s sorrow, and create a peaceful tomorrow together.” The result was the Japan-China-Korea Peace Picture Book Project, comprising 11 titles — 4 from Japan, 3 from China, and 4 from Korea – to be translated and published in all three countries.
The writers and illustrators from each country shared their work prior to publication and made comments on each other’s drafts. According to Japanese participant Keiko Hamada, it seemed as if each writer had to rewrite his or her manuscript as many as 10 times!
We will highlight several books from the series, as well as discuss some of the issues that were faced in the three countries in this ambitious and sensitive project.
The first of the series was Flower Grandma (꽃할머니) by Korean author-illustrator Kwon Yoon-duck. Published in Korean in 2010, it is based on the true-life story of Shim Dal-yeon, who had campaigned for years on behalf of tens of thousands of Korean “comfort women”, a euphemism for the young girls forced into sexual slavery by the Japanese military during World War II. Their plight was not acknowledged by the Japanese government until the 1990s, thanks to Shim Dal-yeon and other survivors. The title refers to Shim’s love of flowers, which she also brought to her campaigning.
Initially, Doshinsha, the Japanese publisher that had courageously agreed to release all the titles in the series, said it would “of course” publish a book about a comfort woman, despite knowing that controversy might ensue. But the illustration of Japanese soldiers directly abducting girls proved to be an issue over which Kwon and Doshinsha could not agree. This is something the current Japanese government vehemently denies happened. Doshinsha seems to have worried about being sued and whether it would incur right-wing harassment, and ultimately decided not to publish Flower Grandma.
Doshinsha’s concerns are understandable. Publishers have come in the crosshairs of the Japanese government, which has taken an increasingly hard-line stance on the comfort women issue. In 2015, the conservative government of Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe even put pressure on U.S. publisher McGraw Hill to remove a passage about comfort women in a textbook used by high schools in California.
Thanks, however, to the determination of the Japanese initiators of the project, Korocolor Publishers, a small publishing house founded by an anti-hate speech activist, agreed to publish Flower Grandma in Japanese. It raised the necessary funds through a successful crowdfunding effort, which brought in 1.88 million yen ($17,226) from only 202 individuals, and the Japanese version was finally released in April 2018. Sadly, Shim Dal-yeon died in 2010, and never saw the book, but her story lives on.
When Shim was thirteen years old, she and her sister were abducted while digging for edible grass in a field. They were forced into a truck, then transported by ship, along with other Korean girls. She did not know where they were being taken, but after several days and nights, she found herself at a “comfort station.”
Kwon illustrates Shim’s extremely sad historical trauma with soft color tones. She depicts the sexual abuse by the Japanese military by presenting faceless soldiers identified only by their uniforms. Her illustrations include details of the inhumane living conditions of the comfort women, and of their subsequent rejection by Korean society when they returned. In an interview, Kwon disclosed that in a later edition, she had to change her illustrations of the two soldiers who abducted Flower Grandma to make them look like civilians. Kwon’s journey to creating Flower Grandma was later made into a documentary film in 2013 titled “The Big Picture” by Kwon Hyo.
Out of the 11 titles, 3 are not yet available in Chinese. The exact reasons for the delay are not known, but a Japanese source close to the Project suggests that war-era slogans in Seiichi Tabata’s Cherry Blossoms「さくら」may have been a sticking point for the Chinese publisher – the publisher requested they be removed, but Tabata was not willing to do so. The other two titles, both from Korea and among the last in the series to be completed, might have been affected by China’s official policy to reduce the number of imported children’s books. The source believes the Chinese publisher has no objections to their content, and that they may still be released.
Like Flower Grandma, the Chinese titles in the Peace Picture Book Series draw heavily upon personal stories to reimagine wartime life. They join a growing body of Chinese children’s literature that moves away from idealizing heroic military combat in favor of depicting the civilian experience during World War II.
For example, Blazing City: 1938 (火城：一九三八) is about the destruction of the ancient city of Changsha by fire during the war. The author Cai Gao, a native of Changsha, and a veteran producer of picture books, has blended her grandfather, uncle, and aunt’s accounts of the great fire with her own childhood memory of the city and teamed up with her daughter Cai Aozi to illustrate the book.
The year is 1938. Chinese cities have fallen one by one into the grip of the Japanese army. Residents in Changsha are packing and getting ready to evacuate. However, in the dead of night, fire tears through the city, blazing for days before reducing it to a vast expanse of scorched ruins. The story is narrated by a little girl who yearns to reunite with her soldier father but relishes her life in the bustling city. In alignment with the young narrator’s limited knowledge, the book does not delve into the cause of the tragic fire (The Chinese army planned the fire itself in a desperate attempt to minimize resources that might be seized by the advancing army, but apparently lost control in execution). Dark brown charcoal drawings present the city in busy panoramic views, capturing the comforting warmth of life before the disaster, the escalating chaos, and the nightmarish, unrecognizable ruin in the aftermath.
One of the big supporters of publishing Flower Grandma, and the originator of the idea of the Peace Picture Book Series, is Japan’s Seizo Tashima. A prominent author-illustrator since the 1960s, Tashima is currently on the short list for the 2020 Hans Christian Andersen Award. [disclosure: David Jacobson helped in the preparation of Tashima’s dossier for his 2018 application for the Hans Christian Andersen Award].
Tashima’s contribution to the Peace Picture Book Series is Can You Hear My Voice?「ぼくのこえがきこえますか」, which is on the 2018 Hans Christian Andersen Award Committee’s recommended list. In contrast to the Korean and Chinese titles, Tashima presents an abstract depiction of an anonymous boy’s experience in the war, described in very simple terms. “‘Fight for our country!’ the people urged. And so I went to war. Only my mother cried.” Very early in the text the boy is killed by a bomb, after which his brother goes to war too, fired by a thirst for revenge. He also dies, and the narrator, now a spirit, leaves us with an impassioned plea: “For whom do you kill? For whom are you killed? For what do you die?”
The accompanying watercolor illustrations are abstract and stark; they stand out conspicuously from the others in the series but underline the author’s heart-felt message. “I thought that I could make an appeal,” Tashima says, “not only to children but adults, to transcend differences of nation and ethnicity in protest of the cruelty of war. I believe it is a work that would not have been possible in any other media than the picture book.”
What, truly, is peace? We don’t make war. We don’t drop bombs. We don’t destroy houses and towns. Because we want to be together with our friends and loved ones. We want to be able to sing our favorite songs in front of others. Peace means it was good that I was born. And it was good that you were born. And that you and I can be friends.
That is the message—and a synopsis of much of the text—in Keiko Hamada’s What Is Peace?「へいわってどんなこと？」. The book has sold 110,000 copies in Japan. Originally translated into simplified Chinese script by Yilin Press in 2012, it is not currently available on store shelves in mainland China but is expected to be reprinted. This past December, however, it was re-released in a new translation in traditional Chinese script by Cotton Tree Publishing House in Hong Kong, which felt an urgent need to introduce it to the children of Hong Kong, amidst the ongoing political tumult there.
Interestingly, Hamada edited her piece drastically before final publication, as a result of collaboration with the other members of the Peace Picture Book Project. Initially, she wrote the text in the passive voice, from what she considered to be a child’s point of view. Peace is where “Jet fighters don’t come. Bombs don’t fall” and where “No houses or towns are destroyed,” she wrote. But the Korean authors and editors told her that Asian readers wouldn’t accept that text, because they would see it as Japan portraying itself, yet again, as the victim of war, not the perpetrator.
Though she knew, of course, the appalling history of Japan’s occupation of Asia, Hamada was totally shocked by the comments. But after long and deep consideration, she realized that children are actually more independent than she gave them credit for and can instinctively feel each life as precious and equal. Children could even tell grown-ups not to start wars. So she changed the narration to the active voice.
Hamada selected yellow as the symbol of peace in this book. It is the color of light, the image of hope, she says. Using simple words and images from children’s daily lives, she shows us that peace is not just the absence of war, but also the ability to live freely, without discrimination or oppression.
From its inception, the founders of the Peace Picture Book Project have wanted to expand the project beyond Japan, China and Korea. To date, however, only two of the titles have been published in English or outside East Asia: Cai’s Blazing City (Xanadu Publishing Ltd, 2016) and Uk-Bae Lee’s When Spring Comes to the DMZ, translated by Chungyon Won and Aileen Won (Plough Publishing House, 2019). For additional summaries of books included in the project scroll to the end of this post on Chinese Books for Young People, a blog co-hosted by Helen Wang, Minjie Chen, and Anna Gustafsson Chen.
David Jacobson is a writer, Japanese translator, and author of Are You an Echo? The Lost Poetry of Misuzu Kaneko. A board member of the Global Literature in Libraries Initiative, he is currently researching the biographies of Beate Sirota Gordon and Jella Lepman.
Minjie Chen is a librarian at Princeton University’s Cotsen Children’s Library and author of The Sino-Japanese War and Youth Literature: Friends and Foes on the Battlefield. She writes about Chinese children’s reading materials at the Cotsen Curatorial Blog.
Reiko Nakaigawa Lee specializes in translating children’s literature from English to Japanese. She co-translated Newbery Medal honor recipient Lauren Wolk’s Wolf Hollow as well as titles in the popular Diary of a Wimpy Kid and Wonder series. Now living in Hong Kong, she assisted with the 2019 translation and re-publication of Keiko Hamada’s What Is Peace? in Chinese.
Jongsun Wee is associate professor of elementary and early childhood education at Winona State University in Winona, MN. In the summer of 2019, she studied picture books about war as a fellow at the International Youth Library in Munich, Germany.
Next time: A look at a graphic novel about divorce by a prominent Greek political caricaturist, and a novel about an 8-year-old Swiss boy who suffers from a rare condition: having dreams so vivid dreams that they spill into his life.
Filed under: Guest Posts
About Betsy Bird
Betsy Bird is currently the Collection Development Manager of the Evanston Public Library system and a former Materials Specialist for New York Public Library. She has served on Newbery, written for Horn Book, and has done other lovely little things that she'd love to tell you about but that she's sure you'd find more interesting to hear of in person. Her opinions are her own and do not reflect those of EPL, SLJ, or any of the other acronyms you might be able to name. Follow her on Twitter: @fuseeight.
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