One of my favorite ways to introduce kids to other cultures is through high-quality children’s literature. These books about Japan for kids touch on common, familiar themes like food, sports, housing, games- and many also introduce some Japanese words. Let’s explore Japan through books!
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My Awesome Japan Adventure: A Diary about the Best 4 Months Ever! by Rebecca Otowa. I highly recommend this incredible cultural gem- my kids poured over the pictures and text. Absolutely packed with cultural information: geography, breakfast, school, origami, history, rice harvest, food, pastimes, customs, tea ceremony- and much, much more! It’s unique layout and and illustrations (see above) cover so many aspects of Japan- and mix the authentic information with the fictional journal of a 5th grade boy.
My First Book of Japanese Words: An ABC Rhyming Book by Michelle Haney Brown. Such a sweet book that introduces a kid-friendly Japanese word for every letter of the alphabet, in rhyming prose. The painted illustrations are colorful and whimsical that keep the kids interested.
I Live in Tokyo by Mari Takabayashi. I love this book about a year in the life of seven-year-old Mimiko, who shares her festivals, food, and activities month by month. The colorful illustrations and the Japanese words throughout highlight diverse aspects of daily life and special occasions, and keep kids interested throughout the entire story. Written from a child’s perspective, this captivates young readers and keeps them interested throughout.
Japanese Children’s Favorite Stories and More Japanese Children’s Favorite Stories: Anniversary Edition by Florence Sakade. These collections of Japense stories have been adored by children for more than 60 years! The fables, adventures, and traditional tales are delightfully illustrated and masterfully written to pass on Japanese culture and wisdom while engaging children and adults. What I especially love is sitting down with the kids and letting them each choose a story; at 3-8 pages each, they are short, sweet, and very interesting, keeping the kids’ attention (and hungry for more!).
Japanese Nursery Rhymes: Carp Streamers, Falling Rain and Other Traditional Favorites by Danielle Wright. This lovely book and CD include both traditional (Warabe Uta) Japenese nursery rhymes and games, and more modern children’s songs (Dōyō). The verses are written out in Japanese and English (see below picture), and sung in both languages on the CD. What a beautiful way to introduce Japanese culture to children: even just playing the songs in the background while kids play will accustom their little ears to the difference cadence and tone used in Japanese.
Here’s a close-up of one of the pages in the Japanese Nursery Rhyme Book:
All About Japan: Stories, Songs, Crafts and More by Willamarie Moore. What a treasure trove of cultural information about Japan for kids!! This book is packed with activities and descriptions of geography, celebrations, everyday life, language and more. This interactive reference guide has so many great ideas that would be perfect for a Japan unit of study or to investigate different aspects of Japanese culture- a must have for libraries and schools looking for multicultural references.
Yoko’s Paper Cranes by Rosemary Wells. Illustrated with origami, paints, stamps, and gold leaf artwork, the story tells the story of Yoko (the cat!) who moves from Japan- and her loving grandparents- to California. The story not only explains a bit of Japanese culture, but also is a sweet story that highlights the relationship between Yoko and her grandparents.
The Way We Do It in Japan by Geneva Cobb Iijima. A young child whose dad is from Japan and mom is from the US moves to Japan: this cute story is packed with cultural information specifically for kids like houses, furniture, school, food, and Japanese words. This will appeal to kids, especially from families who are multiethnic or expats (but really anyone!).
Moshi Moshi by Jonathan London. Two brothers spend the summer with their penpal and learn some Japanese words and all about Japanese customs. My kids really enjoyed the illustration, which showed scenes of daily life in both urban and rural settings.
Erika-San by Allen Say. A little girl spends her childhood imagining life in a small town in Japan, and one day her dreams come true in a quaint teahouse. The illustrations of Japanese life- from the bullet train in Tokyo to riding bikes through the rice paddies- enthralled us!
Tea with Milk by Allen Say. May lives in San Francisco with her Japanese parents, and grows up straddling American culture and traditional Japanese culture. When the family moves back to Japan May struggles to fit in until discovers what really makes a place a “home.” The author explains at the end of this lovely book that this is the true story of his parents!
Crow Boy by Taro Yashima. Based on a true story from the author’s life, Crow Boy is a young boy from the rural mountains who travels to go to the village school every day. He is made fun of and ostracized until a new teacher discovers and exposes his talent tot he children. The children recognize their cruelty and make amends in the end, as the book wraps up with a moral lesson on compassion and appreciating our uniqueness.
Animal-Themed Japan Books for Kids
Hachiko: The True Story of a Loyal Dog by Pamela S. Turner. You might have heard the story (or seen the film) about the loyal dog Hachiko, who faithfully went to the train station every day (for more than 10 years!) to wait for his owner who had passed away. Animal lovers will adore Hachiko!
Turtle Bay by Saviour Pirotta and Nilesh Mistry. Two children learn about how sea turtles lay their eggs and later hatch on a Japanese beach, from a wise, old man who follows their annual journey and prepares the beach for their arrival. This book would pair well with the Sea Turtle movie and craft activity we did earlier.
The Beckoning Cat: Based on a Japanese Folktale If you’ve ever gone to a Japanese restaurant, you might have seen a status of a white cat with its paw up, “beckoning” you inside. In this traditional Japanese folktale, we learn the story and symbolism behind the good-luck cat, who repays the kindness of a poor boy. Once you read this book you will notice the symbol of the beckoning cat where you never saw it before!
Wabi Sabi by Mark Reibstein and illustrated by the fabulous Ed Young. The complex Japanese philosophy of Wabi Sabi is introduced to kids in this clever and simple book about a cat searching for the meaning of its name (Wabi Sabi). According to the introduction of the book:
Wabi Sabi is a way of seeing the world that is at the heart of the Japanese culture. It finds beauty and harmony in what is simple, imperfect, natural, modest, and mysterious… It may be best understood as a feeling, rather than as an idea.
The reader becomes absorbed with the paper-cut illustrations and the haikus written within the text- slowly discovering that beauty in simplicity.