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From The Asian Reporter, V15, #21 (May 24, 2005), page 17.
Japanese tales edify as they entertain
Japanese Children’s Favorite Stories
Compiled by Florence Sakade
Illustrations by Yoshisuke Kurosaki
Tuttle Publishing, 2003
Hardcover, 109 pages, $16.95
By Oscar Johnson
Wisdom simple enough for a child to understand, and engaging enough to entertain, best describes this collection of some of Japan’s best-loved children’s stories.
From the antics of "Silly Saburo" and the wackiness of "The Bobtail Monkey" to the diligence of "Mr. Lucky Straw" and the awe-inspiring gratitude of "The Grateful Statues," every giggle, gasp, or curious question this book evokes in its intended audience is sure to be as edifying as it is fun.
Back by popular demand since its first publication in 1953, the third edition of Japanese Children’s Favorite Stories comes in honor of the compilation’s golden anniversary. This time, add the endearing art of Yoshisuke Kurosaki to round out each four- to five-page tale with vivid illustrations that convey movement, innocence, and a cuteness that is a staple of today’s Japan. Folkloric in flavor and feel, this book is a child’s gateway to a magical realm where "good" and "bad" are not cemented in the externals of garb and appearance but most often exude from the kindness characters bestow — or not — on others. Yet even its absence seems easier to upgrade than a pointy black hat or a mouse-drawn pumpkin.
Among the book’s 20 stories can be found such classics as "Peach Boy" and "Little One-Inch." After all, no stature is too slight, no fortune too far from reach. The fable of "The Long-Nosed Goblins" reminds us, as sure as a goblin or ogre helps focus young minds on a good bedtime story, what ill fate befalls jealousy and envy — monster or not.
The most memorable of the book’s tales — most parents might hope — are those such as "The Tongue-Cut Sparrow." With an old woman as cantankerous as her spouse is kind and gentle, grumpiness taken to the extreme of cruelty is not only shown to reap its own rewards, but in a way that reminds readers that it’s never too late to change.
Similarly, in "The Crab and the Monkey" listeners — and readers — are reminded that even the slickest, most fast-talking monkey will someday have to contend with the social repercussions of his self-centered deeds. It would seem that admitting as well as seeing one’s errant ways is key to a lesson well learned.
Like "The Spider Weaver," "The Sticky-Sticky Pine" offers a valuable lesson that seems all but lost on the likes of modern-day Tokyo: love, appreciation, and respect for the natural world should always trump personal desire — lest we suffer the consequences.
Because many of the lessons are universal, it should be no surprise when the familiar is spied in these stories so steeped in old-world culture. In addition to the Tom-Thumb-esque "Toothpick Warriors" that help the little princess learn the value of cleaning up after herself, the kindness exalted in "The Rabbit in the Moon" is not so far from countless other tales in which helping a stranger in need is the true and ultimate prize to be won from the contest at hand.
After all, many of these stories remind us, the true test of character is a matter of the heart. It is there, rather than in the prince’s castle, a glass slipper, or fortunes of gold that we are likely to live happily ever after.