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Jump into Japanese Storytelling: Kamishibai and Ukiyo-e

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This is a guest post by a Young Readers Center intern, Tyus Sheriff, who is a rising freshman at Yale University. He was residing in Kyoto, Japan during his virtual internship. 

People from many cultures around the world have invented a variety of storytelling formats, whether it’s epic poetry, intricate tapestries, clay tablets, or tales whispered around a fire. One such tradition is an ukiyo-e, a style of Japanese woodblock printing that gained popularity in the Edo Period (1603-1868). Each ukiyo-e is meant to depict a “floating world,” allowing viewers to briefly escape their daily realities through fantastical narratives and beautiful sceneries. According to Library of Congress curator Katherine Blood, ukiyo-e was a “popular form of mass entertainment” for Japanese people at the time. You might already notice the similarity between ukiyo-e and manga or anime based on their respective entertainment values as well as art styles.

Horyukaku, created between ca. 1820-1870. Print shows two men fighting with swords on the roof of a tower. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Collection

The Prints & Photographs Division in the Library of Congress houses more than 2,500 ukiyo-e. You can find a searchable database of the digitized prints online or download these coloring sheets of ukiyo-e.

Another storytelling tradition is kamishibai, which translates to “paper plays.” They first started in Japan in the late 1920s and became popular during the Great Depression. It only requires 12 to 16 large (15” x 10.5”) cards with illustrations, a storyline, a storyteller, and an audience. Many kamishibai featured artwork similar to ukiyo-e. 

Here’s how it works: when the audience has settled in to listen, the storyteller begins by showing the first illustrated card, the title page. After the storyteller introduces the premise of the story, they will move to the next card, moving the card on display to the back. Each card depicts an important scene in the overall story; think of them as “frames” in a movie or manga, or illustrations in a picture book. The storyteller will share the story, going card by card, until they reach the end. The crucial part is that none of the pictures on the cards (other than the title) should have writing on them—they are meant solely for illustrations. This way, kamishibai can be appreciated by anyone, even those who haven’t yet learned how to read.

In some kamishibai performances, the storyteller will use a kiwaku or wooden frame. These aren’t necessary, but they make it easier for performers to slide through each card. Below is an example of a kiwaku from the Library of Congress collections.

An example of a wooden frame, or kiwaku, used in kamishibai performances. Library of Congress, Asian Division. Photo by Cameron Penwell.

This is an example of the writing found on the back of each kamishibai card for the story “Te o furu kikansha” [The Hand-Waving Locomotive]. Japanese collection, Asian Division, Library of Congress.
Some storytellers can recite the tale simply by looking at the artworks, but if you want to read from a text, you can! In most kamishibai, the text that accompanies each card is written on the back of the last card in the deck. For example, if you were showing the first card to your audience, you would read from the back of the last card. Then, as you go to the second card, you’ll bring the first card to the end of the deck. You then read from the back of the first card, and the process continues. If you’d like to see an example of how kamishibai works, this video from the Miami Children’s Museum is a fantastic place to start.

Kamishibai can be performed anywhere, including libraries, street corners, and video calls. Eiichi Ito, Reference Specialist for the Japanese Collection in the Library’s Asian Division, fondly recalls watching kamishibai while growing up in Japan during the 1960s. He says that a performer would come to his neighborhood by bicycle every day and gather children in parks or alleys. The performer would make money by selling “sweets, candies and other ‘junk food’ before performing kamishibai” for around 15 minutes.

Although I’m not much of an artist, I was inspired by this story to make my own kamishibai based on Rapunzel. Here’s one scene and its accompanying text as an example:

The drawing (left) was inspired by the image on Page 10 of Grimm’s fairy stories. Text (right) is from Page 130 of the same title. You can access the book in its entirety here).

I encourage everyone to try making their own kamishibai! This can be a great activity for families. You can create as many story cards as you like — you can even challenge each other to tell a story with as few cards as possible. Alternatively, family members can collaborate on one big kamishibai by creating their own cards for key scenes in a new or familiar story. And make sure to perform these kamishibai for an audience! It will help develop both artistic and performance skills.

The traditional arts of ukiyo-e and kamishibai show how visual storytelling has always played a crucial role in Japanese society. It has fostered the creative spirit of not only the Japanese people, but also countless learners across the world. I hope you try out Japanese story-telling for yourself!

To explore more ukiyo-e, discover something great in this the online exhibition The Floating World of Ukiyo-e: Shadows, Dream, and Substance. You can also scroll through this detailed story map: The Colorful World of Ukiyo-e: Color in Japanese Woodblock Prints. If you find a print that you love, share it with us in the comments!

Works cited:

How to Make Ukiyo-e.” Kids Web Japan, Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Japan

“Kamishibai for Kids: Homepage.” Kamishibai for Kids.

McGowan, Tara. “Kamishibai – A Brief History.” Kamishibai for Kids.

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