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Japanese Studies Spotlight: Performing Nationalism in UBC’s Kamishibai Propaganda Plays

by Paula Curtis on 2023-06-21T11:25:02-04:00 | 0 Comments

The NCC is collaborating with institutions and scholars to release a monthly series on our blog entitled Japanese Studies Spotlight. These features showcase exciting online collections available to researchers and students in Japanese Studies, introducing the archive or project, describing their contents, and demonstrating how they can be usefully engaged in research or in the classroom. If you are interested in submitting something to the series, please contact Paula R. Curtis, NCC’s Digital Media Manager, at

Ai Yamamoto, PhD Candidate, Department of Asian Studies, University of British Columbia

Kamishibai Propaganda Plays is a digitized archive of 52 kamishibai 紙芝居 (“paper theater”) plays in UBC Open Collections, the University of British Columbia’s open access digital library. Kamishibai is a performance art with accompanying pictures and storytelling usually performed on the street. Cardboard cards with a hand-painted or lithographed illustration on one side and a script on the other were placed inside a wooden frame, and a performer would read the script of each card and then pull it out to reveal the next image/script. UBC’s kamishibai digitized collection focuses on plays created between 1938 and 1945, when there was strict military censorship in Japan. Kamishibai functioned as an effective tool for wartime propaganda because of its medium. With its appealing images, colors, and spoken communication, propaganda messages could easily reach everyday people, such as women and children, who may not have been habitual readers (Fig. 1).

Figure 1. Kamishibai performance at Fujiyama Kokumin Gakkō, August 1942. Collection of Ube-shi Kyōiku Iinkai, Ube-shi Dejitaru Myūjiamu

This digital archive was created from the personal collection of Dr. Sharalyn Orbaugh, Department Head and Professor of Modern Japanese Literature and Popular Culture in the Department of Asian Studies, UBC. As one of Dr. Orbaugh’s PhD students, I was fortunate to be able to become a collaborator on the kamishibai digitization project from 2021 to 2022. My role consisted of assisting with research on each play to facilitate copyright clearance and create metadata for the digital archive. In the process, I learned an immense amount about the history, function, and characteristics of kamishibai.

While kamishibai is usually thought of as a medium mainly for children, a majority of propaganda kamishibai actually targeted adults or mixed age audiences. This is evident on close inspection of the contents of the collection, which includes many kamishibai plays whose contents do not seem to be for children. For example, Jissen fujin 実践婦人 (Practical Wife) is about a woman who strictly follows the government’s mandated rules on food distribution and is actively engaged in the role of a housewife. The play begins with Japan’s declaration of war against the United Kingdom and the United States, calling the audience to remember a more important war, “an economic war.” Although the story is composed of humorous conversations and cartoonish pictures, the content is obviously not for entertaining children. A description from its front page declares that it is a “keizai dōgi kōyō kamishibai 経済道義昂揚紙芝居 (kamishibai to uplift economic morality)" (Fig. 2). This description clearly shows the aim of this kamishibai, and, when possible, the digital entries for the archive includes this kind of additional information for researchers and students to access further context about the content.

Figure 2. A scene from “Jissen Fujin” by Hyōgo-ken Keizai Hoan Kyōkai. Kamishibai Propaganda Plays Collection, University of British Columbia Library

One possible occasion where this kamishibai may have been seen is the meeting of tonarigumi 隣組 (neighborhood associations). Although local neighborhood associations had existed in previous centuries, during wartime they became government-managed as a way to mobilize local groups of households for cooperative efforts in support of public security, enforcement of policies, and the promotion of government-sanctioned moral and spiritual values. This made tonarigumi an effective means to propagate nationalistic messages. With its low cost of production, kamishibai was an ideal tool for spreading its messages, as they could be performed for a group of people already gathered together for a common cause.

Although the kamishibai in the collection feature numerous stories about brave soldiers in the battlefields that were created to uplift fighting spirits in the home front, two plays among them that struck me focus instead on women during wartime. The first one, Haha wa manzaishi (My Mother Was a Manzai Performer), features a woman who acts bravely in the battlefield, even carrying a wounded soldier to safety on her back (Fig. 3). She is a performer who does stand-up comedy paired with her husband but comes to the battlefield for the purpose of entertaining soldiers at the front, leaving her only child behind in Japan. During her visit, the Japanese troop she is visiting is attacked, and she is shot, dying in her husband’s arms. With its focus on her life and actions on the battlefield, this kamishibai play works to show the bravery of Japanese people in a way that is not limited to the activities of male soldiers.

Figure 3. A scene from “Haha wa Manzaishi” by Satō Tairōshi. Kamishibai Propaganda Plays Collection, University of British Columbia Library

The other kamishibai focused on women is Mokuran jūgun 木蘭從軍 (Mulan Joins the Army), seen in Figure 4. This story, familiar in popular culture today from its Disney adaptations, is based on the famous Chinese historical figure of Mulan, a girl who disguises herself as a man and joins the army in place of her father. The script for this play has both Japanese and Chinese versions, so it was clearly intended to be performed at different times for both Japanese audiences and groups of Chinese speakers in areas of China that were colonized or occupied by Japan. Given that both kamishibai depict women on battlefields despite the fact that women never became soldiers in the imperial Japanese army, these stories may seem unusual or even unrealistic subject matter. However, they still present viewers with role models of bravery and love for their families and nation, which were the qualities women on the homefront were also expected to embody. These kamishibai plays thus provide a glimpse into the rhetorical techniques appearing in propaganda messages both in Japan and in Japanese colonies.

Figure 4. A scene from “Mokuran jūgun” by Dabei Chen. Kamishibai Propaganda Plays Collection, University of British Columbia Library

Mokuran jūgun, having been adapted into numerous poems, theater plays and films, also illustrates the intermedia approach of kamishibai. Many kamishibai are based on original works such as folk tales, works of literature, or movies. In the case of Mokuran jūgun, it had a film adaptation in 1939 that was well known both in China and Japan. As such, kamishibai could take advantage of existing popular media to propagate its messages to broader audiences.

These intermedia approaches also worked in the other direction. The kamishibai play Kyūrī fujin den キユーリー夫人傳 (The Life of Madame Curie), for example, is a biography of the Polish scientist Madame Curie, who was responsible for groundbreaking research on radioactivity (Fig. 5). Her story was often used for educational purposes. This kamishibai was made by Nippon Kyōiku Kamishibai Kyōkai 日本教育紙芝居協会 (The Japanese Association for Educational Kamishibai), which was established in 1938. Since kamishibai could reach people who often might not have access to other media, it likely helped stories prevalent in other media to spread to a wider audience at that time.

Figure 5. A scene from “Kyūrī Fujin den” by Nishihara Hiroshi. Kamishibai Propaganda Plays Collection, University of British Columbia Library

One of the benefits of using kamishibai as a form of storytelling media was its much lower cost and the ease of production compared to other media. To create dynamic narratives that entertained audiences in spite of its simplicity, it used interesting techniques to create motion and move stories forward. For example, in Mokuran jūgun, we see the sashikomi 差込 technique, which uses an insert to change a part of the illustration (Fig. 6). As seen below, a smaller panel is placed over one of the cards and then removed to present a before and after of a bird being shot with a bow and arrow. This kind of insert allows narrators to simultaneously express movements in a single picture. The Kamishibai Propaganda Plays collection contains many examples of sashikomi works.

Figure 6. A scene from “Mokuran jūgun” by Dabei Chen. Kamishibai Propaganda Plays Collection, University of British Columbia Library

One of my jobs assisting in the process of making digitized versions of kamishibai freely accessible in the UBC Open Collections was to find the authors, illustrators, and other content creators’ information for each play and subsequently to deal with copyright issues. In Japan, a copyright subsists for a period of 70 years after the death of the author. For kamishibai, these issues are complicated by the fact that there are several creators (both writers and painters) for each work, many of whose death dates may be unknown. In order to provide effective metadata for researchers and students in our kamishibai database, it was important to research each piece as thoroughly as possible.

These searches often began with the resources of the National Diet Library, where one might expect to find a wealth of information on people who also generated other works. Some kamishibai creators were well known for other literary works, so their biographical information could be easily found; however, for many others it was necessary to search for news articles, hoping to find obituary notices. For those about whom I could not find information, I sought answers by corresponding with organizations in Japan that are involved in researching and preserving kamishibai, such as Kamishibai Bunka no Kai 紙芝居文化の会 (International Kamishibai Association of Japan), Kodomo no Bunka Kenkyūsho 子どもの文化研究所 (Institute of Children’s Culture), and Kanagawa Daigaku Nihon Jōmin Bunka Kenkyūsho 神奈川大学日本常民文化研究所 (Institute for the Study of Japanese Folk Culture, Kanagawa University).

I was also tasked with crafting subject keywords of the materials in our collections to make them more accessible. This required careful engagement with and analysis of each kamishibai play to better understand how it might be best represented in a scholarly database. Researchers looking for resources may already have a sense of what they are looking for, and they might be seeking specialized, historical vocabulary (such as the aforementioned tonarigumi), or they might be casually browsing our digital collection. With the help of Tomoko Kitayama Yen, Japanese Studies Librarian at UBC’s Asian Library, we used authorized subject headings from the National Diet Library to provide Japanese keywords and those from the Library of Congress for English (Fig. 7).

Figure 7. The Kamishibai Propaganda Plays interactive tool for exploring its subjects over time.

Terms like tonarigumi have no corresponding English words, but we included them in our archive as keywords to help multilingual researchers searching either in Roman or Japanese scripts to locate what they’re looking for. These keywords also enabled us to generate interactive visualizations like the one above to allow users to gain a holistic perspective on the contents of our collection by subject or temporal scope. We hope these keywords will help users explore various themes of kamishibai in the archive, both expected and unexpected.

Although there are a number of organizations in Japan that research kamishibai and many scholars with an interest in both propaganda and wartime media, even organizations dedicated to kamishibai do not have complete collections. As wartime media, too, kamishibai were not necessarily meant to be preserved. By digitizing the Kamishibai Propaganda Plays archive and making it accessible, our goal is to help future researchers of kamishibai obtain the resources they need. With this in mind, all of the scripts and images have been made available for download. Although English translations of all scripts are not available, full translations of Hogaraka butaiki (Record of the Cheerful troop), Okome to heitai (Rice and Soldiers), Goken no tegami (The Nine-meter letter), Mumei no haha (The Unsung Mother) are available in Dr. Orbaugh’s book Propaganda Performed: Kamishibai in Japan’s Fifteen-Year War (2015), which was published based on her reading of about 200 kamishibai plays.

The digitization of Dr. Orbaugh's private collection of these rare and fragile kamishibai plays was made possible by a generous grant from the Toshiba International Foundation, with additional funding from the Office of the Dean of Arts and the Department of Asian Studies at UBC. We encourage users to explore all that the Kamishibai Propaganda Plays archive has to offer.

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