Kamishibai are generally acknowledged as a great tool for encouraging literacy in young children. Many mothers can be still be seen riding to and from the public libraries with a few packs of kamishibai storyboards in their mama-chari bicycles. Many of my daughter’s preschool mates were addicted to the kamishibai in their preschool days, and their parents used the storyboards as cheap free substitutes for bedtime storybooks. Merely using the storyboards without the stage equipment, kids often learn to read fairly quickly with the aid of the storyboards because the pictures are accompanied by large simple texts.  

Kamishibai (紙芝居), literally means “paper drama”. It is a traditional form of storytelling through pictureboards or cards. The tradition originated in Japanese Buddhist temples in the 12th century, where monks used e-maki (picture scrolls) to convey stories with moral lessons to a mostly illiterate audience.

Kamishibai Man by Allen Say

Kamishibai Man by Allen Say

Kamishibai as a storytelling method has surpassed most other oral traditions (the other one being rakugo still in the running).  Captured in nostalgic movies, is the character of gaito kamishibaiya, or kamishibai storyteller, who went from village to village on a bicycle equipped with a small stage, perhaps the equivalent of the Punch & Judy man in the west. The storyteller announced his own arrival by using two wooden clappers, and children would rush for the best seats which ordinarily went to those who bought his candy.

Once his audience was settled, the storyteller using a set of illustrated storyboards to tell several stories. Each storyboard would be inserted into the stage and withdrawn one by one as the story was told. The stories were often serials so that the children could look forward to new episodes with each of the storyteller’s visit to the village/town neighborhood.

The kamishibai tradition took a beating along with paperformat books being overtaken in popularity by other forms of media, but recently (in 1920s, and again most recently) enjoyed a revival in Japanese libraries and elementary schools – especially with the formation of  yomikikase (readalouds) volunteer groups led by parents.

The tradition today still holds a lot of nostalgia for each generation that grows up, though it is now mostly associated with one’s preschool period of life.

The news article below gives an account of how efforts are being made to preserve the traditional art of storytelling …
Picture-card storyteller teams up to pass down the traditional art

By MAKOTO KONDO Kyodo News Tuesday, April 7, 2009

OSAKA — A professional picture-card storyteller and a planning and advertising firm are teaming up in Osaka to preserve and hand down the old-time art of picture-card shows.
Professional storyteller Yushi Yasuno, 65, and Manga Artists Network Inc., led by Fumio Miki, plan to produce the next generation of storytellers, which the company will employ as regular workers and send them out to perform at events.
“There’s no age limit in this job. We’ll be able to help increase employment in our own small way,” Yasuno said.
Yasuno, from Tsuruoka, Yamagata Prefecture, and active chiefly in the Kansai region, has been a picture-card storyteller for about 40 years. Dressed in “hakama” skirt and dark hat, he uses clackers to attract kids to his show, typical of such storytellers.
“These days, children just aren’t satisfied with only the classics,” he said. To keep their attention, he throws in the occasional quiz.
More and more performance requests are coming in for the five-man Yassan Ichiza troupe, which Yasuno leads.
Yasuno worries picture-card storytelling will be forgotten unless it is firmly established as a profession instead of seen as a volunteer activity.
Manga Artist’s Miki agreed to help out and decided to employ five to 10 people as trainees with a monthly salary of about ¥130,000.
Manga Artists Network anticipates that most of those hired will be the newly retired.
After the war, up to 50,000 picture-card storytellers, many who had been repatriated, traveled around the country by bicycle telling stories with the aid of picture cards. They also sold candy and snacks to help attract their youthful audiences.

 Recommended related kamishibai resources:

Kamishibai Man” by Allen Say is a lovely children’s picturebook that fans of Allen Say’s books will absolutely cherish. Particularly if you cherish the kamishibai tradition too.

Kamishibai for Kids

Otakuworld kamishibai program

Atelier Kamishibai Artist Community

Doshin-sha kamishibai books (Japanese)

Storycard Theater

Accursed Toys’ Kamishibai Picture Drama Play (computerized version)

Wikipedia’s Kamishibai page

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