Keynote Speech by Her Majesty Empress Michiko of Japan
for 26th Congress of International Board on Books for Young People(IBBY) in New Delhi
- Reminiscences of Childhood Readings -
In connection with the opening of the 26th Congress of IBBY in New Delhi, I unexpectedly received an invitation to be the keynote speaker. Unfortunately, I am unable to attend the Congress in person, and it transpires that I am making my speech in this manner. From far-away Japan then, I congratulate you on the opening of this New Delhi Congress, and I thank you heartily for your kind invitation.
I have many fond memories of the Land of India where the present Congress is being held. In 1960 I visited India, accompanying His Majesty who was still Crown Prince then. At the time, I was twenty-five and the young mother of a nine months old baby. In India, which some thirteen years earlier, after long years of hope, had at last achieved independence, it was the time of President Prasad, Vice-President Rada Krishnan and Prime Minister Nehru. The days I listened with deep feeling to the conversation of these distinguished people, - their thoughts on freedom, democracy and peace-; the warm welcome in which people enveloped us: the days of travel in Calcutta, New Delhi, Agra, Bombay, Bodh Gaya and Patna: all these I recall with keen nostalgia, and I pray with all my heart for the success of this IBBY Congress in India.
Regarding the theme of the Congress, - Peace Through Children's Books-, what kind of speech can I make? Since that day three years ago, when in March 1995 I received a letter from Mrs. Jafa, Head of the Indian Branch of IBBY, I have put myself this question any number of times.
Like so many other people, up to this day I have received numerous benefits from books. In childhood, I enjoyed children's books as one sphere of play. Since I grew up, I have been reading grown-up books and, although their number is not great, I continue to enjoy some children's books. After marriage, I was blessed with three children, so I had the happiness of rereading with them the children's literature I had loved as a child, as well as the joy of getting to know new works of children's literature. I consider myself very fortunate indeed.
If I had not had children, even though I knew about Little Red Ridinghood and Heidi of the Alps and the jungle where the boy Mowgli lived, I might never have encountered Marie Hall Ets' boy who played hide-and-seek with the animals deep in the forest, or Leo Lionni's 'Little Blue' and 'Little Yellow', and I might never have known the history of Virginia Lee Burton's '... Little House'. Also, it was after I had already become a mother of children, that I came to know J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S.Lewis, Rosemary Sutcliff and Philippa Pearce. But as I said earlier, I have gone through only a limited number of books, and I lack the capacity to speak from the viewpoint of the research scholar or the specialist. Again, regarding the present theme of Children's Literature and Peace, I fear I can only make the connection between the two things in a roundabout way. Children's literature and peace are not necessarily bound closely and directly together. Also, it goes without saying that no one book or number of books can be the key that will open wide the doors of peace.
Today then, on this occasion, if there is something I can do, it may be to look back over my reading experiences in my own childhood, to recall a few books which left 'buds' as it were in me, that burgeoned later within me into ways of thinking and of feeling; might I not try to talk about all that? Then, however little, I hope some thought can be devoted to all this in the context of 'peace' which is the theme of this Congress.
From the time they are born, people must build bridges one after another to all around them, deepening their links with other people and things, thus creating their own world to live in. If such bridges are not built, or even after building if the bridge fails to fulfil its function, or if the will to build bridges is lost, people become helplessly isolated and lose their peace. I think too that our bridges must reach not only outward but inward, continuously connecting one to one's inmost self, discovering one's true self, and being an incentive to the proper setting up of the individual self.
Although I was caught up in evacuee life because of the war, the protecting hand of my elders was always there, so my childhood was a time of relative tranquillity. Nevertheless, in that situation, the repeated changes of life environment were hard to bear for a child, and I sometimes felt ill at ease with my surroundings and even was at odds with my own self, and I remember there were times when I was quite exhausted. At such times, how much did I enjoy and how greatly was I encouraged by a few books that I had by me, which, though they could not solve each and every problem, helped me to go on! Although I fear that my limited experience may not be of much help to anyone, I shall talk about it, just as it comes back to mind.
While I was still a little girl, I was told a story of a snail. Since my memory of it is blurred, I will talk about it following the book on which it was probably based: 'The Sorrows of a Little Snail' by Niimi Nankichi.
Suddenly one day, a snail became aware that the shell upon his back was stuffed full with sorrows and went off to see his friend, saying he could no longer go on living and pouring out his tale of woe. But his snail friend said: 'You are not alone in that. The shell on my back too is filled full of sorrows'. The little snail went to another friend and then another friend and told them the same tale of woe but from every friend the same reply came back. So the snail at last came to realize that everyone had his burden of sorrows to bear. 'It is not only me: I too must bear my own burden of sorrows'. The story ends when this snail decides to stop bemoaning his lot.
What age would I have been at that time? Since Mother, and Grandfather who was Mother's father, and my uncles and aunts read to me and told me tales up to about my second year in elementary school, I think I would have been between four and seven. At that age, I had not yet known anything you could call a great sorrow. For that reason no doubt, when I learned that in the end, the little snail had stopped bemoaning his lot, I simply thought 'oh, good!'. That was all. I gave no special thought to the whole matter.
But afterwards, time and again that story kept on coming back to mind : it would seem that the sorrows that filled the shell quite full, and the sudden awareness of this, and the anxiety that made the snail feel he could no longer go on living, were all indelibly engraved on my memory. As I grew a little older, unlike my response to the first hearing, I could not simply conclude 'oh, good!', and I even had at times some vague uneasy intimations that just to go on living was no easy thing. In spite of that, I certainly did not dislike this story.
The war broke out around the time I entered elementary school. This was in 1941. About the time I was promoted to 4th Year, the war situation deteriorated and the school-children respectively sought the help of relations or joined school groups, and were evacuated to the countryside. As for my family, my father and my elder brother stayed behind in Tokyo, while I and my younger sister and brother were taken by my mother to the seaside first and then to the mountains, moving from one house to another, and we greeted the end of the war at our third evacuation home.
Such repeated moves and changing schools etc. are stressful for a child. Not a few memories come back to me of finding myself at something of a loss during this evacuee-life period, trying to adapt to different surroundings, different customs, and different dialects. However, I who had been rather delicate up till then, grew strong and healthy from living in the country. I did such things as raising silkworms and cutting grass for fertilizer, and incidentally, I even rose to the challenge of fulfilling the school assignment norma, which involved bringing in 4 kilograms each of leaves of wild geranium and meadow-rue gathered and well dried for herbal use. To carry 8 kilograms of dried plants by hand was too much for me. Mother tied the bundles on my back and then I carried them all the way to school. When there was no milk to be got, Mother kept a goat for my little brother, and it made me so happy that the chores of minding it and milking it were left to me.
At that time when apart from school textbooks, there was so little reading matter to be had, what a happiness it was to get the books which Father, now and then, would bring from Tokyo ! Since I had so few volumes, I would read every bit of them and prized them highly. There was one volume among them, - I do not now recall the exact title-, which was a book of Japanese myths and legends for children. Telling about the early ages at the dawn of Japanese history, all these tales are found in two books written down in the 8th Century, the Kojiki and the Nihonshoki. No doubt my book was a retelling of the tales, adapted for children. Was it because I was a child myself? - I read with absorbing interest, these tales of the childhood of our race. I think that the myths and legends of any one country, while they may not be accurate, factual history, symbolize the people of that country in a strange and wonderful way. When we add to this the world of folklore, we can perceive, albeit faintly, how the people of the different countries and regions responded to nature ; what was their view on life and death; what they valued; what they feared.
In the sense that it taught me how, aside from our individual families, the people have a common ancestry, the book of myths and legends that my father brought, gave me a something very like a root. Sometimes a book can give a child the root of stability and security. Other times it seems a book gives wings to soar and fly just anywhere. However, the root which that book gave me then was only enough to enable me to dimly perceive where I belong. Later on, it would appear to be no more than the first stage in nurturing the greater root of self-definition.
Also, - and this is something I realized long afterwards-, that book showed me the very prototype of the Japanese tale. It was the powerful prototype in whose spreading hems, children's literature would eventually be born. And my childhood encounter with this prototype was the starting point in me of that desire I have, when I try to get to know a foreign land, to learn before all else its ancient tales. For me, Finland is first of all the country of the Kalevala, Ireland the country of the Children of Lir and of Oisin, India the country of the Ramayana and the Jataka, Mexico the country of Popul Vuh. Of course, such tales as these are not the everything of those countries, but they do make us feel familiar with other lands, and in addition, I think they are a most enjoyable way into them.
For the past twenty or thirty years, words like 'internationalization' and 'globalization' have come to be very often heard. But might it not be said, that over the past several decades - perhaps for more than a century - this had been started, though in an elementary way, in the world of children through their books? In 1996, the IBBY poster made for 'Children's Book Day' had a picture of a boy reading a book with obvious pleasure, as he lightly floated in the upper air above a lot of roofs that symbolized the homes of the world. In far distant places here and there around the world, for years and years already, children have been jointly reading the same tales, and have become familiar with the same storybook heroes.
In the book of ancient tales my father gave me, there was one story that I never can forget. Precise dates cannot be determined, but it is the story of a prince who lived before the 6th Century. The prince, - called Yamato Takeru no Miko (The Prince-Brave of Yamato) - when he made an expedition to a remote area, by command of his father the Emperor, to put down a rebellion, having succeeded in subjugating the rebels, would make a triumphal return. But his Emperor father, as if he felt threatened by the power of his son, would then command him to go forth on yet another mission, without giving him the slightest rest or respite.
His heart wrapped round with sadness, the Prince set out once more on what was to be his last campaign of putting down rebellion. On the way, the seas grew rough and the prince's boat could not go forward. Then his consort, Princess OtoTachibana who was accompanying him, declared that she herself would go into the sea to appease the wrath of the god of the sea-crossing. She wanted the prince to be able to carry out his mission successfully and return with his report. With that, she cast herself into the stormy waters, which immediately grew calm, and the prince's boat was able to sail on to his appointed destination. At that time, OtoTachibana sang a lovely parting poem:
Sagamu no ono ni
Moyuru hi no
Honaka ni tachite
Toishi Kimi wa mo
Some time before this, while Takeru and OtoTachibana were crossing a withered plain, their enemy devised a cruel stratagem of setting fire to the grass, leaving them engulfed in raging flames, fleeing this way and that, in peril of their lives. OtoTachibana's poem, meaning 'You my Lord who at that time, in the middle of the raging fires, showed such thought for my safety', was composed in a spirit of gratitude for the tender solicitude shown towards her by the prince in his own hour of gravest danger.
Even before this, I already knew a few sad 'sacrifice' stories. However, the v'victim' in this story was somewhat different. OtoTachibana's words and actions, --how can I best express this?--, imply that she was fully associating herself with Takeru's mission: somewhere one senses inference of firm, conscious will. OtoTachibana's poem, -- I cannot now rightly remember whether it was given in a modern rendering or in the original Old-Japanese with explanations attached--, seemed to me a thing of surpassing beauty. In this poem she made as she faced the cruel fate of sacrificial victim, taken on, moreover, by her own self, she no doubt sang the moment of her life which she remembered as overflowing with the greatest love and gratitude. Rather than a deep impression, its effect on me was a strong shock. Although I could not put it into precise words, somewhere inside of me I got the perception that love and sacrifice were not simply very close, but rather were inseparable, two facets of one selfsame thing : it was for me a strange experience. I continued to be drawn to this story for its beauty, but at the same time, it oppressed me with a nameless sense of unease.
Now no longer ancient times, in our own day the thought that calming stormy seas could be done by calling for the sacrifice of someone's life is inconceivable. Therefore, human sacrifice is something that I had no need to fear. But I then felt there was some timeless symbolism in OtoTachibana's story, something that made my breathing difficult. When I think about it now, I see that it may be because the thing called love can sometimes take severe and cruel-seeming forms, and my unease may well have been my awe and fear of that indivisibility of love and sacrifice that I have described.
Because I was still just a child, I felt everything in only a vague and confused way and this sense of choking that I could not understand, ran together with the image from the story of sinking under water, and I remember being perturbed by this old tale for quite some time.
Among the books my father brought me during the evacuation, are three others that still stay in memory. These belonged to my elder brother and I had been wanting to read them sometime, so I had asked my father to borrow them for me. All three volumes were included in the series 'Library of Books for the Younger Generation'. They were 'Masterpieces of Japanese Literature' in one volume, and 'Masterpieces of World Literature' in two volumes.
This series was first published in 1936 when my brother was five and I was just two. The revised edition came out in 1942. Judging from my brother's age, the books, which Mother had bought for him, would have been of this revised edition.
'Masterpieces of World Literature' had such inclusions as Karel Capek's 'A Postman's Story', Tolstoy's 'What Men Live By', various tales from round the world, and the letters of a number of writers.
There were also some poems of a level that children could understand.
Karl Busse, Francis Jammes, William Blake, Robert Frost..... and also it was from the pages of this book that I first learned the name of India's poet Rabindranath Tagore. His poem 'The Flower-School' was one of the selections. In later years, what was my joy when I rediscovered it in his collection titled 'The Crescent Moon'! There, 'The Flower-School' led me straight away to other poems of the same poet; 'Baby's Way', 'The Judge', 'The Champa Flower'.
Erich Kastner's 'The first Despair' was an excessively sad poem. A little boy with a one mark coin tightly clutched in his sweaty fist, goes trotting off to buy some bread and bacon. All of a sudden he notices that the money he had in his fist is gone. One after another, the show-window lights go out, and everywhere the shops are closing doors. The boy's father and mother, tired out after a long day's work, are waiting for their child's return. That child has come as far as the house, turned his face to the wall, and goes on standing there perfectly still. The mother, who does not know this, begins to worry, so she goes out to look for him and finds him there. "Where ever have you been?", she asks him, but the child just bursts out sobbing and crying. 'His suffering was greater than his mother's love:/Sunk in dejection, they both went into the house.' With these words the poem ends.
In the 'Masterpieces of the World' selection, apart from this 'First Despair', there was another sad story by the Russian writer, Sologub, called 'Body-search'. It is a story of a child from a poor home who is suspected of theft at school. He is made to undergo a thorough search of his person; his pockets, his socks, and even under his clothes. While this is going on, the stolen article turns up elsewhere, and he is cleared of suspicion. This day, when he gets home, his mother listens attentively to all he has to tell, and then makes the bleak rejoinder: "Ah, you can't say anything. Remember, when you grow up, you'll have to face far worse than that. In this world anything can happen, you know !"
I remember that during the war, in order to raise the people's spirits, stirring tales of valour were the usual fare. In such a situation, why the editor of this series chose to include pieces like 'The First Despair' and 'Body-search' is a matter of deep interest to me. Is it that he thought it necessary from a certain time in their lives, to prepare children to face the many inescapable griefs they would be troubled with as long as life would last ? And also, did he perhaps feel he wanted children to learn, like the little snail in the story, that everyone has his own burden of sorrows ?
Let me now talk rather about joy, the joy I got from books. To be sure, learning that so many kinds of grief are to be found all round us, sometimes made my heart grow heavy, plunging it in gloom. But children have a strange resilience that rights their balance. Thus, at the same time that I was saddened by my vicarious experience, through books, of the sorrows of this life, similarly, in books, I was discovering great joys that made my spirits move in a most lively way, making something like gratitude for being alive well up in me; might I call it a sensation of delight ?
The first time I got this perception was, in those war days, when I came upon a tanka poem in a little book my father had in his bag. It was a lovely poem heralding the coming of Spring, composed in the conventional form of 5/7/5/7/7 syllables, and as I read it over and over, it seemed to set my heart dancing: within this rhythmic frame which the Japanese have loved from ancient times, the very words seemed to glow and sparkle, luminous with felicity. This was when I glimpsed for the first time, the delight and exaltation that poetry can give to people's hearts. Earlier, I spoke about the 'root' that books had given me, but the 'joy' I have here described, together with the powers of imagination I will now touch upon, are for me like mighty 'wings' that let my heart go soaring to the heights.
The editor of 'Masterpieces of World Literature', together with sad poems that made the spirit sink, did not forget to select poems that made the heart dance for joy. One of the poems which gave me that kind of joy, was a translation of Robert Frost's 'The Pasture'. Since it is a short poem, I will read it.
I'm going out to clean the pasture spring;
I'll only stop to rake the leaves away
(And wait to watch the water clear, I may):
I sha'n't be gone long. - You come too.
I'm going out to fetch the little calf
That's standing by the mother. It's so young.
It totters when she licks it with her tongue.
I sha'n't be gone long. - You come too.
I cannot adequately explain in what consists this poem's source of joy. Of course, the poem's content imparts a pleasant feeling, but in the words here used, a number of mysteries seem to lie concealed: words that lead to delight, such as 'pasture', 'spring', 'leaves', 'water clear' and the refrain that winds up each stanza, 'I sha'n't be gone long.-You come too.'
Some seven or eight years after I first read this poem, I came across it again, this time in English, in the University library. Would it have been in an anthology of American poetry? Just as it occurred to me that I had read the poem before somewhere, I saw that the refrain in the last line of both stanzas, fitted exactly over the same two lines in the Japanese version which now came back to me. Robert Frost, the poet of Vermont whose name I first learned through this poem, seemed to be calling out to me from the page.
When I read the poem in English, I took even greater delight in the words, like the accumulation of liquid L sounds in 'clean'; 'leaves'; 'clear'; 'lick'; 'little calf ' etc. Be that as it may, however, what stirred my heart with wonder and admiration, even as I read the original, were the excellence and beauty of Abe Tomoji's Japanese translation that I read so long before.
At the time I read this poem, education in English was proscribed because it was the language of the enemy. I heard later that there were also certain restrictions on the books that could be carried by students leaving for the battlefront. I myself, child that I was, unequivocally thought of Britain and the United States as the enemy. The poetry of Frost and Blake : if I had realized that these poets belonged to those countries, perhaps I would have read them with some bias.
In the '30s and '40s, when the world was in such an unsettled state, it was most fortunate for the children of Japan who could get these books, that there were editors who wanted them to be widely read in world literature. The people who compiled the books must have been impelled first of all by a desire to have children come in touch with beauty, and again, they must have wanted to incite children to ponder many things, as they came deeply in touch with the sorrows and the joys of human beings. Incidentally, the books had in their first pages, photographs of Japanese and world paintings and sculptures, although only in black and white.
Being a child at the time, I am not sure to what degree I was able to take in the editors' desires, but at least, right in the middle of the dark days when our country was at war, those books, without distinction of national borders, raised my imagination so that I could get a glimpse of just how other people lived in life environments different from my own. Thanks to a few books and my father's love, I was the alter ego of the boy in IBBY's poster, happily reading as he floated airily above the world's roofs.
The war came to an end in August 1945. Our family stayed on in the country for a little while, and then came home to our Tokyo house which had escaped war damage. It was already my last year of elementary school.
At this point, I would like to revert to the fact that nearly all the books I have mentioned up to now, were books I read in a quite unique environment, during the evacuation.
At that time, I had only a few books. Those books, few in number,--which had come to me through the hands of adults, and were in a sense quite educational--, I read with far more than usual concentration, in what was a very special period.
Before entering on my life as an evacuee, the relative importance of my reading was not so very great. I did not have many books of my own. I used to freely go to the fairly well-stocked bookshelves of my brother, three years older than myself, and pick out whatever book looked interesting. My reading ability was acquired thus, mostly through books written with young boys in mind : stories of master-swordsmen, detective stories, comics, and what were called in the Japan of those days, humour novels, which were both amusing and delightful.
A child starts reading, first of all, when it feels "I want to read". Just like Heidi,--who could not learn her letters at all under Fraulein Rottenmeier's guidance,--through wanting so much to read the book Clara's grandmother had given her, and then the other additional motivation of wanting to read it to Peter's blind grandmother, was soon able to read any book she liked.
It is so important to familiarize oneself with the printed letter at an early age. If I had not been able to stand up to a certain amount of reading, and if I did not feel nostalgic for the books and printed word that suddenly were gone from round me, I would not have been able to add reading to my memories of my evacuation life of more than one year and a half.
Looking back on it now, what did my childhood reading do for me?
Above all, it gave me pleasure and then laid the foundation for my later reading during adolescence.
At times it gave me roots : at times it gave me wings. These roots and wings were a great help to me as I threw bridges out and in, expanding bit by bit and nurturing my own personal world.
Reading gave me opportunities to ponder over joy and sorrow. It was through reading books, with many kinds of grief delineated in them, that I could come to know how deeply people other than myself can feel, or that I could perceive the many hurts they bear.
When I think that there are children who go through so many griefs and pains beyond comparison with mine, maybe I should refrain from saying that in my own sheltered childhood too, there were such things as sorrows. But, in any life whatever, there is pain and sorrow. The tears of every single child have their specific weight. For me, when I was caught up in my own small sorrows, it was a blessing to be able to find joy in books. Learning of life's sorrows adds to some extent more depth to one's own life, and deepens one's thought for others. Similarly, coming in touch with joy in books, the joy that was the wellspring of creative works by writers past and present, imparts the joy of living to the reader, and when at times he is overcome by helplessness, may help restore his hope in life, providing wings for him to take flight once again.
In order that children may cope with life in this world of sorrows, as well as preparing them to endure sorrows, I think it is so important to foster in them hearts susceptible to joy, hearts sensitively turned to joy.
I would like to add one more thing, including my gratitude to books. Reading taught me that life is surely not a simple thing. We must recognize and face life's complexity. In person to person relations. In country to country relations too.
It is truly regrettable that, having received your kind invitation, I cannot attend this New Delhi Congress in person. For you, the organizers of the Congress; --Chairperson Mrs. Manorama Jafa and the members of AWIC, IBBY President Mrs. Carmen Dearden, General Secretary Mrs. Leena Maissen, and your supporters, the members of the various IBBY branches,-- the way to this 26th Congress was surely not a smooth and easy road. Yet, beset by many complicated problems, with composure and unflagging perseverance, you continued preparations for this day. Believing that whatever be the political situation in a country, as long as there are children, IBBY has a role to carry out, I have participated, although in this manner, in this New Delhi Congress '98. Please continue, as you have done up to now, IBBY's important work of linking books and children, in the belief that books are children's valuable friends and are a help to them.
- So that children have firm roots within themselves :
- So that children have strong wings of joy and of imagination :
- So that children know love, accepting that at times love calls for pain :
- So that children have strong wings of joy and of imagination :
So that children see and face the challenge of life's complexities, fully taking on the life given to each, and finally, upon this earth which is our common home, become, one day, true instruments of peace.
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