RP2 Background on Kamishibai From kami (“paper”) shibai (“drama”)
The Japanese tradition of storytelling with pictures dates back to 12th century Japan. During the Heian period, Buddhist monks used pictures to teach about the history of their temples and deities, probably to illiterate audiences.
The earliest predecessor to kamishibai is emaki, or “scroll picture.” A scroll was pulled across a screen, viewed by nobility as a form of entertainment in the 11th-12th centuries. The most famous was an emaki adaptation of the long work of fiction, The Tale of Genji.
Kamishibai disappeared after the Heian period, returning eight centuries later, in the early 20th century.
20th Century Kamishibai
The Gaitō Kamishibaiya, “kamishibai storyteller,” rode into a neighborhood with a stage hooked onto the back of his bicycle. Built into the stage was a chest of drawers to hold sweets—the kamishibai man was really a candy vendor.
After parking his bike, the storyteller pulled out his hyōshigi, wooden clappers he used to announce his presence, much like ice cream trucks today play music to alert customers. At the sound of the hyōshigi, children came running. The kamishibai man proceeded to sell candy to the children. Those who purchased the most were permitted to stand closest to the stage for the best view.
The kamishibai man would present his stories in installments, ending each day with a cliff-hanger so that his customers would keep coming back and buy more candy. Early kamishibai cards were hand-drawn by the storyteller, with just the suggestion of a storyline on the back. The kamishibai man was a storyteller more in the oral than the literary tradition. In time, the storyteller could purchase published series of kamishibai stories. Some included text; others were simply images, so the storyteller had to improvise.
Kamishibai was hugely popular in Japan during the Showa era, what we know as post-depression Japan. There were some 25,000 gaitō kamishibaiya in the country—3,000 in Tokyo alone. But with the advent of television in 1953, kamishibai lost its audience.
Kamishibai did not altogether disappear—it took on new forms. One of the Japanese legendary superheroes, Golden Bat (Ōgon Bat), got his start as a kamishibai character. Installments of this popular series went on for 10 years! When the Golden Bat left the kamishibai stage, he leaped into the pages of graphic novels, having influenced Japanese manga comic book artists, and later, Japanese anime.
Today, kamishibai is enjoying a renaissance in Japan, and also in the U.S., where it has been introduced as a storytelling art. In fact, kamishibai has made it to the Internet, and now intergenerational kamishibai communities are popping up online. The storytellers are no longer candy men, but children and adults who create their own story boards and perform throughout Japan.
Lesson Plan: Kamishibai Storytelling
Target Grades: 2-3
State Standards of Learning
English 2.1, 2.7,
Students collectively produce a kamishibai story based on a classic Japanese folktale. After illustrating parts of the story, they gather to perform it.
What are some of the common elements in fairy and folktales around the world?
How do Japanese tales compare with the stories we know?
Students will recognize the elements of folk and fairytales in Japanese stories.
They will read closely for details in order to illustrate the story part they are assigned.
They will participate in a dramatic reading of the kamishibai story.
Indoor or outdoor activity (kamishibai is traditionally a form of street entertainment)
Large group collaboration
Copy of the picture book story Kamishibai Man by Allen Say
Kamishibai stage (optional)
Hyōshigi (wood blocks used as clappers)
Color markers, including black
Japanese printed papers (optional) for screen
Read the Background on Kamishibai resource page (RP #2).
If you are using a kamishibai stage, cut the poster boards to fit inside (10 ½” x 14 ½ “).
Type up the text of a Japanese folktale (e.g., Inch Boy or Peach Boy), or find a version online. Print 2 copies.
Cut apart one copy of the story into as many sections as you have students (or have two children illustrate each story part). Number each part. Put the uncut version aside.
Read aloud Kamishibai Man. Talk about the history of this once-popular street art.
Explain that the class will produce and perform a kamishibai together based on a Japanese folktale.
Give a quick summary of the story so students will understand where their part of the story fits in. Ask them to compare the Japanese tale with stories they know. How are the stories the same? How are they different? What are the common elements of a fairy or folktale?
Distribute the story parts, story boards and markers. Have students read their part to themselves, then choose the most important idea or action to illustrate.
Give them 10 minutes to pencil-sketch and then color in their boards with markers. Remind them to write their names and the number of their story part on the back of the card.
Gather for a performance of your class kamishibai. Collect the story cards. Stack them in numerical order and insert them in the stage. Collect the story parts and put them in numerical order as well.
Ask one child to bang the hyōshigi, announcing that it is story time.
Ask another to manipulate the story cards, pulling them through the stage one by one while a third student reads aloud from the uncut copy of the story. The job of storytelling can be shared by several readers.
Divide the class in half. Have one group create a kamishibai based on a Japanese story, and the other on an American folktale. After the two performances, compare and contrast the stories.
Have older children research a story from another country. Have them retell the story in their own words using kamishibai cards as props.
Kamishibai storytellers were really candy vendors. Bring treats the children can pass out to the audience before performing their stories.
Suggest that children might want to create a kamishibai as a creative book report project.