Kamishibai

Kamishibai is a form of picture storytelling that originated in Japan. Tara McGovern on the Kamishibai for Kids website explains that:

“Kamishibai, (kah-mee-she-bye) or “paper-theater,” is said to have started in Japan in the late 1920s, but it is part of a long tradition of picture storytelling, beginning as early as the 9th or 10th centuries when priests used illustrated scrolls combined with narration to convey Buddhist doctrine to lay audiences. Later, etoki (picture-tellers) adopted these methods to tell more secular stories. Throughout the Edo period (1603-1867) and on into the Meiji period (1868-1912), a variety of street performance styles evolved, using pictures and narration.”

Eric Nash in his recently published book Manga Kamishibai: The Art of Japanese Paper Theater provides a wonderfully illustrated and detailed history of Kamishibai.

Kamishibai was most popular in the 1920s and 30s before the introduction of television. Children would gather in the streets to buy sweets from the “Kamishibai Man” and listen to his stories. The Kamishibai men travelled on bicycles which had specially made boxes with a “stage” for the picture cards and drawers for the sweets.They would use hyoshigi (hyoh-shee-ghee) wooden clappers to call attention and beckon the children to gather ’round for the stories.

Allen Say’s beautiful book Kamishibai Man recounts the story of a Kamishibai man and his memories of days spent riding around sharing stories.

Kamishibai stories are told using large picture story cards. There are usually anywhere from 12 to 20 cards per story. It is a wonderful way to share stories with students and we have had fun in our library creating and sharing our own Kamishibai stories. I recently used Kamishibai with Kindergarten children in their unit of inquiry on storytelling. We learned about traditional fairy tales then explored the many ways they have been retold. We focused on the Three little Pigs and learnt about some of the fun versions including the Three Horrid Little Pigs. Each Kindergarten class created their own Kamishibai horrid little pigs story. The children enjoyed seeing their artwork in the final product!

The Grade 2 children also enjoy Kamishibai when we share traditional Japanese tales as part of their Banzai Japan Unit of Inquiry. They create their own versions of tales such as Momotaro, the Peach Boy.

I have been disappointed that there are not more Kamishibai stories available in Japan with English translations. There are few options available to those of us who need the English text. I buy Japanese language Kamashibai cards and ask my Japanese friends to translate them for me. It is easy to attach the English translations to the back of each card next to the Japanese text. The Kamishibai story cards are readily available in bookstores here in Japan and average around $20 US per set.

The Kamishibai for Kids website provides great information and resources about Kamishibai. They are based in the US and do sell several translated Kamishibai stories as well as the Kamishibai boxes and wooden clappers. It is unfortunately an expensive option for those outside the US as the international shipping costs are high.

The International Kamishibai Association of Japan (IKAJ) also has a helpful website with information, links and highlights of how Kamashibai is being used by its members throughout the world.

Kamishibai is a wonderful way to encourage and develop reading, writing and performance skills for children and language learners of all ages!

I plan on gathering stories and taking them, along with my newly acquired Kamishibai box and clappers, back to Australia when I return.

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