Beyond Momotaro: Using Fiction about Japan in the Elementary Classroom

Mary Hammond Bernson

Can works of fiction play an important role in introducing elementary and middle school students to other countries and cultures? Think of poor Momotaro, the Peach Boy of Japanese folklore. The boy must sally forth to do battle with the wicked ogres who steal from his village, while at the same time bearing on his young shoulders the weight of innumerable classroom introductions to Japan. Is that fair? Or is it just too much to ask, even of a hero who proclaims himself "the best in Japan"?

I believe that stories can play an essential role in a social studies unit about Japan if the fiction is carefully selected, its use is tied to social studies themes and skills, and it is just one among many components of the curriculum. A good place to begin thinking about how to use stories effectively is by reading Gloria Alter's "Toward a Diverse, Caring Community: A Curriculum Plan Using the Social Studies Standards."1 Mark each social studies theme for which a work of fiction can help achieve your goals for your students. Some criteria for choosing good works of fiction, based on the suggestions of many teachers who are using them effectively in their classrooms, appear in the box in this article.

Patterns will emerge as you seek appropriate literature. The names of reliable authors, illustrators, and publishers appear on numerous lists, and you can be confident that their works will appeal to students while also satisfying reasonable standards of accuracy. For example, many teachers are familiar with the award-winning novels of Katherine Paterson, but may not know that she wrote three historical novels set in Japan, all of which lend themselves to use in a social studies unit. The Master Puppeteer is an exciting adventure story that entices students into an examination of the social issues of hunger and civil disorder while simultaneously exploring bunraku puppetry, which uses nearly life-sized puppets.

Paterson also wrote a folktale-like story for younger readers, The Tale of the Mandarin Ducks, illustrated in a style adapted from woodblock prints. What is a "folktale-like story"? Because a market has developed for books about other cultures, many authors have rushed in with original material that may or may not provide students with an accurate depiction of a different place and time. Many of these books are good literature, but they are neither history nor great resources for social studies unless the authors--like Paterson or Lensey Namioka--are scrupulous about research. Check the publication information to see if the book is classified as "fiction," "folklore--Japan" or another category such as "self-confidence--fiction."

The jacket of one new release announces that it is an "originaquot; folktale, but a folktale, by definition, is a prose story that was once passed down orally. A folktale generally has many variants and can reveal cultural values because it has stood the test of time through repeated retelling. Two useful folktales are The Loyal Cat and The Moon Princess, both of which have ancient roots. Authentic folktales like these can stimulate students' imaginations, inspiring curiosity and helping them develop skill at making comparisons and perceiving patterns. Yet some contemporary stories, masquerading as folktales, reveal only the cultural values of the 1990's United States. It does students a disservice to imply that contemporary American values are universal and eternal.

Cooperation in Japan and The Rabbit in the Moon from the SPICE Project at Stanford are two carefully-constructed units that help elementary teachers use folklore and original literature to convey deeper meanings to students.2 In Cooperation in Japan, students encounter the concept of cooperation so fundamental to Japanese values by means of a story about a class making a giant carp kite. The Rabbit in the Moon introduces several folktales as well as principles for making effective use of them, also highlighting connections among different Asian cultures.

Choices of fiction should reflect reality, whether it be an age-appropriate treatment of the story of Hiroshima victim Sadako, or deceptively simple but very challenging books like Grandfather's Journey and Tree of Cranes. Even young students are aware that the world is not free of conflict and that not all stories have happy or predictable endings. Books can provide a safe place to work out feelings and to examine conflict and its outcomes.

Grandfather's Journey is particularly powerful because its title character, the grandfather of author/artist Allen Say, challenges the assumption that all those who immigrated to the United States chose to stay here. A deep examination of our identity as a nation of immigrants can follow. One teacher recently commented that Say's books, more than those of any other author, provoke interesting class discussions. Just remind your class that while Japanese-American stories can provide a bridge to Japan, one must cross that bridge to find out about Japan itself.

As visual materials become more and more important in our society--taking over some of the territory once staked out by the written word--a careful look at the visuals in books becomes a necessity. For many students, visual messages are far more powerful than those conveyed in words. Some illustrations fairly shout "strange" or "boring." Yet, good illustrations of folklore can create a compelling, artistic, and accurate image of the farms and villages of traditional Japan. The Loyal Cat and The Moon Princess, in the editions cited below, authentically reveal the worlds of temples and ancient palaces while introducing two different Japanese artistic traditions. Such illustrations can free students from the trap of present-mindedness, which is such a barrier to the development of an interest in the past.

It is very difficult to find books with good contemporary images of Japan, such as the ones in Grandpa's Town, which reveal traditional ways through the eyes of a boy from a city. Take a quick survey of the images of Japan that students see in your classroom. Do a kimono count. Then ask yourself--if the kimono count is high--how you will help students understand that their Japanese counterparts live in a country of school uniforms and blue jeans, computer games and cartoon shows, hamburgers and fried chicken, and very few kimono. Classroom use of contemporary books and pictures, tied to discussions and comments about life in Japan today, enables students to grasp the very difficult concept that other modern societies can be quite different from their own.

If fiction about Japan is a new addition to your teaching, or if it is hard to imagine how it could fit into your crowded curriculum, turn to Tarry Lindquist, a truly wise teacher whose books may convince you that everything is possible in your classroom. Her ideas really work, and her students learn from, as well as about, other people and cultures. When her students make the Japanese story-telling cards called kamashibai, they are developing research, writing, and illustrating skills; learning information about Japan; exercising historical imagination; and acting on the belief that good ideas can be found in other countries than our own.3

Even the simple act of bringing fiction and folklore--from Japan and other countries--into the classroom sends the message that we are all sharing this globe on which we live, although we do not all share the same history and traditions. And that adds up to good social studies. v


1. Gloria Alter, "Toward a Diverse, Caring Community: A Curriculum Plan Using the Social Studies Standards," Social Studies and the Young Learner (September/October 1997).

2. Stanford Program on International and Cross-Cultural Education (SPICE) (Stanford, Ca.: Author, 1990). Cooperation in Japan is a teaching unit that demonstrates how fiction, in this case a Japanese children's story, can be used to teach an important concept about a country. Rabbit in the Moon: Folktales from China and Japan is a collection of folk tales that includes guidance on how to use the stories to deepen students' understanding. ERIC source: ED 399 207.

3. Tarry Lindquist, Ways That Work: Putting Social Studies Standards into Practice (Portsmouth, N.H.: Heinemann, 1997). An experienced teacher introduces ideas that really work to bring world cultures into the classroom and integrate social studies with other subjects. On kamishibai, see also Education about Asia (Ann Arbor, Mich.: The Association for Asian Studies, Spring 1997), a new journal that explores effective ways to teach about Asia at all grade levels, and Kamishibai for Kids, a bilingual collection of Japanese stories, traditional and contemporary, presented on oversized picture cards for group viewing, and including a teacher's guide. P.O. Box 20069 Park West Station, New York, NY 10025-1510. Tel. 212-662-5836.


Bernson, Mary Hammond and Linda S. Wojtan, Eds. Teaching about Japan: Lessons and Resources. Bloomington, IN: Social Studies Development Center, 1996. ERIC source: ED 401 223. A collection of K-12 lesson plans and a guide to resources on Japan.

Social Education, "1996 Notable Children's Trade Books," special supplement to Volume 60, Number 4 (April/May 1996). Updated annually, an annotated bibliography keyed to social studies themes. ERIC source: EJ 530 101

Books for Children

Coerr, Eleanor, with illustrations by Ed Young. Sadako. New York: The Putnam Publishing Group, 1997. This version of the favorite story of the thousand paper cranes is especially for younger readers.

McCarthy, Ralph F, with illustrations by Kancho Oda. The Moon Princess (a.k.a. The Bamboo Princess) retold by Ralph F. McCarthy and illustrated by Kancho Oda. Tokyo: Kodansha International, 1993. This retelling with beautiful illustrations of the ancient Japanese story of the Moon Princess (a.k.a. The Bamboo Princess) is reprinted from an edition first published more than 50 years ago.

Namioka, Lensey, with illustrations by Aki Sogabe. The Loyal Cat. San Diego: Harcourt, Brace and Company, 1995. Papercut illustrations embellish this retelling of a Japanese folk tale with a moral to convey. See also Namioka's novels.

Nomura, Takaaki, translated by Amanda Mayer Stinchecum. Grandpa's Town. Brooklyn: Kane/Miller Book Publishers, 1991. This bilingual book, illustrated by the author, follows a young Japanese boy from the city as he visits the town where his grandfather lives.

Paterson, Katherine. The Master Puppeteer. New York: HarperCollins, 1989. This is a novel about an apprentice puppeteer swept up in tumultuous events in 18th-century Osaka.

----------, with illustrations by Leo and Diane Dillon. The Tale of the Mandarin Ducks. New York: Lodestar Books, 1990. A folktale-like story illustrated in the style of Japanese wookblocks.

Say, Allen. Grandfather's Journey. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1993. In prose and pictures, this book tells the story of the emigration of the author's grandfather from Japan to the United States, and his subsequent return to Japan. See also Tree of Cranes, about Say's mother and how her two cultural traditions intertwine at Christmas during the years of World War II.

About the Author

Mary Hammond Bernson is associate director of the East Asia Center at the University of Washington. She frequently conducts workshops on this topic and leads study tours to Japan.

Criteria for Selecting Children's Literature

Many sources of book recommendations are readily available, including rosters of winners of prestigious awards and the list of "Notable Children's Trade Books" produced annually since 1972 by National Council for the Social Studies and the Children's Book Council. Reflecting the trend toward using fiction to teach or reinforce content in the social studies, the Notable list now includes annotations about the social studies themes to which each book most closely pertains. The committee evaluates over 200 books each year, selecting only those that meet the highest standards of quality and accuracy in both text and illustration.

The following list of questions can serve to guide teachers as they evaluate books for use in the classroom:

> Is the book compelling and powerful? Adults expect books to be of high literary quality, or to be a "good read," and children deserve those qualities, too.

> Is the book a folk tale, a retelling of a folk tale, an "originaquot; tale set in ancient times, or something else altogether? You may want to use any of these. Just be aware of what you have. Try to make connections between the past and the contemporary world. Select supplementary materials that reinforce the message that those whose stories took place long ago and far away have descendants about whom we should learn.

> Does the book allow Japanese characters to speak for themselves, or is every voice American? Does the book avoid the assumption that Japanese and Japanese-Americans speak with one voice?

> Is the book accurate? This is a particularly difficult aspect for busy teachers to research, but it is extremely important.

> What claims are made for the book by those who write the dust jacket or the publicity materials? Many "authentic tales" are full of eccentric projections of the fertile imaginations of American authors.

> Is the book free of misconceptions and stereotypes? In addition, if it is one of few books children will ever see about a country, does it contribute to a broad understanding of that country?

> Is the language well-chosen, well-written standard English? Some translated materials, as well as some original stories, create false exoticism by word choice, such as using the term "master" when talking about a teacher, instead of simply "Mr." or "Ms."

> On a continuum from exotic to blandly homogenized, where does the book fall? Does it emphasize atypical aspects of a country which are most different from the United States? Or does it err in the other direction, treating all peoples and their cultures as being "just like us?" Pictures often reinforce the extremes, ranging from scary depictions of Asians amidst gratuitous exotic details to series in which all people are painted in the same round-eyed dreamy style, with a generic universal skin tone which looks as if it were chosen by committee.

> Does the book avoid the pitfalls of equating "Western" with "modern?" Does it avoid the assumption that traditions are something others have, something that they will give up when they "progress" toward being just like us?

> If the book conveys a moral, is it appropriate to the culture in which the story is set? Think twice about using a book about a little girl, set in long-ago Japan, which conveys a contemporary American self-esteem message in the best tradition of the little engine that could. "I think I can; I think I can" would not have made that little girl a government official. Books that set contemporary American values in Asian settings lead students to assume that everyone shares those values.

Excerpted from Fiction about Japan in the Elementary Curriculum by Mary Hammond Bernson, a Japan Digest. Bloomington, IN: National Clearinghouse for United States- Japan Studies, September 1997.