The Kamishibai Man

A kamishibai performer

My mother's sleepy hometown was only about an hour away by train from the bustling Tokyo suburb where we lived when I was young, but a world away in many ways. There was no supermarket within walking distance from my grandparents' house, and the local butcher sold no beef since people there only ate pork and chicken unless it was for a special occasion. The huge bath tub was made of rough cast iron - it was filled with water and heated from below with a wood fire, and to get in it one had to stop on the wooden lid and slowly sink it down, to avoid burning ones feet. (Until I was about 10 I was too small to sink that lid alone, and could only take a bath with an adult.) The local farmers came around regularly to sell whatever they had harvested that day.

While the house had a television - like many other people, my grandfather had bought it in order to watch the 1964 Tokyo Olympics - it was positioned in the "back room" of the first floor, which consisted of 3 rooms that were separated by shoji screens that opened up to create one big room. The "back room" was my grandfather's domain though, and there was no question of watching turning on the TV during the day, as we could at home. So my cousins and I had to find other entertainment. We ran rampant around the neighborhood; played with the dog, an ever-patient Akita; or caught insects in the fields. And whenever the adults gave us some pocket money, we'd go to see the kamishibai man.

Kamishibai, which means "paper theater", is a form of entertainment with roots that are more than a thousand years old. There has always been a tradition of storytelling with pictures in Japan; in The Tale of Genji, published in the early 11th century, there are depictions of court ladies entertaining each other by telling stories while showing emaki, scrolls with paintings. In the Edo period (1603-1868), a kind of puppet theater with drawn backgrounds and paper figures stuck onto sticks emerged, which was called kamishibai, and the 1890s the type of kamishibai that we know today - a series of colorful pictures in a box with an opening in front that are shuffled as the storyteller narrates the tale - was born.

In the 1920-30s kamishibai was a hugely popular form of entertainment for children in urban Japan, shown on street corners by men who were good at dramatic storytelling. Many of these kamishibai men were former movie theater narrators who had lost their jobs due to the advent of the talkies. A kamishibai business was cheap to get started in; by this time mass produced story sets were readily available, and all you needed were a few story sets, the "stage" box and perhaps a bicycle or cart.

A kamishibai man never charged his young audience admission - he made his money by selling dagashi, sweet or savory snacks were small and cheap enough for kids to buy with their pocket money. If you couldn't afford to buy a dagashi the kamishibai man would shoo you away, although the more resourceful kids tried to sneak a peek by hanging from nearby trees and so on.

While storytelling with pictures may sound like a wonderful way for children to pass the time to modern sensibilities, some adults considered kamishibai to have a bad influence. There was some concern about the cheap dagashi which ruined kids' appetites, but the bigger worry was with the content of the stories, which included heart-pounding adventures featuring superheroes like The Golden Bat, gruesome tales of ghosts and monsters, and other fare that entrance kids everywhere. Decades later those kids would grow up to tut-tut about the bad influence of manga, TV and anime for their children...and those children in turn fret about the bad influence of video games and the internet.

As the 1930s progressed and the military-led government took over, kamishibai was used as propaganda tools, to "educate" children to become good, obedient Japanese citizens, willing to give their lives for the emperor. Many of the purely fun stories were banned or fell into obscurity. But as the war went on, sugar and other supplies became too scarce to make dagashi, and operating a kamishibai itself became too dangerous in many cities.

After the war, kamishibai's popularity bounced back with a vengeance. Children in devastated urban areas were starved for both entertainment and a taste of sugar. My late father, who was born in 1936, had been evacuated with his school class, separated from the rest of his family, to the countryside during the last couple of years, where he had been hungry all the time. Things were not much better when he returned home to Tokyo. He accompanied his mother (since he was the oldest) when she walked for hours out to the countryside to try to buy or beg some vegetables from farmers. He used to hang around the American GIs with other kids hoping for a piece of gum or a chocolate bar to be tossed their way. And if by chance he had a coin or two, enough to buy even the cheapest snack sold by the kamishibai man he would run there. He barely remembered the stories decades later, but he still remembered the taste of those snacks.

Kamishibai was so popular amongst kids that the occupying Allied Forces (GHQ) focused on it too. They kept an eye on the stories and clamped down on those that they deemed too nationalistic or otherwise unacceptable to them. They also had plans to publish stories that spread their views of the world, although it doesn't seem that that was ever widely executed before their attention was shifted to the Korean peninsula.

Kamishibai continued to be a popular form of entertainment for children for the next decade and a half. My mother, who was born in 1941 and has no memories of bombings or starvation unlike my father, still recalls the excitement when kamishibai finally made it to their sleepy town. The stories were by then free of government intrusion and were probably as exciting and dramatic as any current day anime is. And of course there were those forbidden fruit, the dagashi. My mother's favorite was something she still buys for the sake of nostalgia sometimes - two round wafers with a glop of mizuame, a sticky, syrupy candy made from potato starch, in the middle. The mizuame is cloyingly sweet, and the wafers stick to the roof of your mouth in a most satisfying way.

While televisions were introduced in Japan in 1953, most households couldn't afford one so kamishibai continued to be popular. But the 1964 Tokyo Olympics were a turning point, with many households getting their first set to be able to watch it. (Incidentally, television was called "electric kamishibai" in a derogatory way by some commentators in the '60s, who considered it equally bad for kids.) Kamishibai men still survived into the 1970s, but their audiences dwindled steadily; not only did TV sap them away, but this was also the the Golden Age of manga. By the 1980s, kamishibai men had disappeared from the streets of Tokyo and the rest of Japan.

Nowadays, the two parts of the kamishibai - the picture-show itself and the dagashi sold there - survive separately. The kamishibai form of storytelling with pictures is used as an educational tool in schools and libraries, and there are many interest groups who work to preserve the art form. Dagashi shops, which became a fixture in urban areas in the 1950s, themselves largely disappeared during the '80s-'90s, but have made a small comeback; dagashi can be even be bought online these days.

It is still possible to spot a kamishibai man now and then, but their audiences are more likely to be tourists rather than children. I myself haven't seen a kamishibai in person for decades. But I occasionally pick up a piece of dagashi, which still only costs 30 to 40 yen or so each, or as much as a small kid can afford to buy with pocket money. It doesn't actually taste good I suppose, but the memories make it so much sweeter.

Postscript: This originally appeared on a site called Cultures and Cuisines with the title "Nearly Forgotten: The Japanese Kamishibai Man". Unfortunately the site itself seems to have gone out of business - at least it's no longer there and their Facebook page hasn't been updated since 2016. I have put the article up here since I think it's worth keeping. The photo is from Wikimedia Commons. And yes, I know about Allen Say's book - it's what inspired the editor of Cultures and Cuisines to ask for this article in the first place. ^_^.

(Commenting is turned off for reasons. Please comment if you like on Twitter or Facebook.)

If you enjoyed this article, please consider becoming my patron via Patreon. ^_^

Become a Patron!