Learning Japanese History from Children’s Books

I read a lot of children’s books. It’s not by choice, I assure you. But given my current Japanese language level, books with simpler grammar and limited word choice seem to work out better. Therefore, when it came time to find a book that would introduce me to the basics of Japanese history (日本にほん歴史れきし), I naturally wandered over to the kid’s section at my local Kinokuniya bookstore.

I might as well have been looking for the story of Goldilocks and the Three Bears. Most of the books were too hard. A few were too easy. But I finally landed on one that was just right. If you have been reading Japan Everyday regularly, you have already had a taste of what the book I selected has to offer. The article on the Jōmon Period that appeared earlier this week is based in part on some of the prehistory information from that text.

The name of the book is 小学しょうがく&中学ちゅうがく入試にゅうしまとめ上手じょうず 日本にほん歴史れきし年代ねんだい: 要点ようてんがひとでわかる (Proficient Summary of Japanese History by Date for Elementary and Middle School Entrance Exams: Get the Gist at a Glance). The title would be enough to ward off any mediocre Japanese student like me. But what it lacks in savvy cover design it more than makes up for in clarity and simplicity of content.

As the title makes clear, the book’s basic structure lists out key events in Japanese and world history by date, from prehistory up through 2011, briefly identifying the salient facts. For example, the entry for 1997 documents the return of Hong Kong to China (ホンコンが中国ちゅうごく返還へんかんされる), describing the entire world-changing event in two short bullet points. The text rushes through history at a brisk pace, with some entire centuries only hosting a handful of key events.

The book might not give a fully nuanced view of history. But for our purposes, that of gaining general cultural literacy about Japan, it’s a perfect tool. The goal of the book, as published, is to summarize the key historical events that every Japanese elementary and middle school student needs to know to be prepared for adult life, adult conversations, and adult reflection. Of course, the students won’t view it that way; they just want to pass a test. But for immigrants trying their best to acclimate to everyday Japanese life, having at least a passing familiarity with these moments in history is vital.

I will be using entries from this book to help craft many of the history articles that you will soon see on the Japan Everyday web site. If you would like to get your own copy of the book to join in on the fun of discovery, you can obtain it from Amazon.co.jp, Kinokuniya, or most major booksellers in Japan.

[Image Credits: まぽ/photo-ac.com]

Tim Odagiri

Tim Odagiri is an author, software developer, and the host of Japan Everyday. He has published more than a dozen books and hundreds of articles covering technology, current events, and now life in Japan. Find his latest books at OwaniPress.com.

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