A folk tradition that has almost entirely disappeared from the Japanese landscape is kamishibai. Kamishibai was a dramatic/narrative art of storytelling practiced by a traveling showman on bicycle who visited the neighborhoods and villages of Japan throughout the early Showa period. The kamishibai man would announce his arrival in a particular place by clapping two pieces of wood together. All of the children in the area would gather around the wooden-framed stage mounted upon the handlebars of his bicycle and listen while the kamishibai man told a story which he illustrated with brightly-colored cards that he inserted in the wooden frame. After the story was over, the children would pay some small coins for the entertainment and then perhaps buy some of the candy and sweets that the kamishibai man had to offer.

Although TV and video games effectively killed off this cultural tradition, ask any Japanese over forty about kamishibai, and you are sure to get a nostalgic response. Either the person themselves has some fond childhood memory of kamishibai or, more likely, they have heard their parents or grandparents talk of it. However, it is an endangered species that needs to be protected and nurtured if it is to survive.

A great way to teach English

Children of all ages love stories, and kamishibai combines the beauty and the power of narrative (the Once upon a time. . . or Mukashi, mukashi,. . . magic) with the visual and auditory forms of drama. As children often have short attention spans, it is very difficult for language teachers to keep their students interested and engaged in something unless the learning activity is both participatory and visual. Kamishibai English allows students to take part in a learning activity that is visual, dramatic, and fun. At the same time that we are teaching language, however, we are also helping to revive kamishibai by integrating this traditional form of culture into language teaching.

Available resources

Here in Japan, there are many preprinted sets of kamishibai cards in English available through Doshinsha Co., Ltd. In the United States the same titles are distributed by Kamishibai For Kids, a New York company with their own website. This website contains an online catalogue, background information on the history of kamishibai, and plenty of beautiful illustrations. A small wooden kamishibai stage complete with curtain is available from Jakuetsu (t:088-626-2110) for yen14,900 plus tax.

Although the preprinted kamishibai cards are a good place to start, I have found the English texts to be a bit difficult for some audiences. Consequently, you might want to consider making your own kamishibai cards. Just choose your favorite children's story (or try writing one of your own), simplify or expand the vocabulary to suit your needs, and design your own cards. As this project can be very time-consuming (and challenging if your artwork is as poor as mine is), you might want to try making it a class activity. For the past two years, I have assigned kamishibai projects to the third year university students in my English Oral Communication class, and the results have often been more effective than what is commercially available.

“Kamishibai English.” The Language Teacher 26.2 (2002): 33-34.

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