First of two parts
A little boy cannot be found at his village school. He is hiding under its floorboards. His name is Chibi, which means “little tyke.” He cannot make friends. The other children will not play with him.
Chibi stares at the ceiling for hours. He loves all kinds of yucky insects. No one can read his handwriting. Everyone calls him “stupid” and “slowpoke.”
But when he is in the sixth grade, a new teacher, Mr. Isobe, recognizes his talents. Chibi is so intimately in touch with nature that he can commune with it. One day he performs for Mr. Isobe and all his classmates, revealing his hidden gift. Chibi can imitate the voices of crows, from the calls of hatchlings to those of the mother and father crow.
This is the story of “Crow Boy,” written and illustrated by Taro Yashima.
Yashima’s is not a name that many Japanese readers, even those of children’s books, are likely to be familiar with today. But his own story is remarkable and, in spirit, not unlike that of his creation, Chibi.
He was born Atsushi Iwamatsu on Sept. 21, 1908, in Nejime, a small village on the coast near Cape Sata, where Kagoshima Bay, in southern Kyushu, flows into the ocean. (Nejime has now merged into the larger entity of Minami Osumi-cho.) His father was the village doctor and an ardent collector of Asian art. Mr. Isobe in the story is modeled on two of the author’s teachers at Kamiyama Elementary School — Takeo Isonaga and Miyoshi Ueda.
The young Yashima exhibited significant talent as an artist. At age 13, his satirical manga were being published in the Kagoshima Shimbun daily newspaper, today’s Minami Nihon Shimbun. At 19, he gained entrance to Tokyo Fine Arts School in Ueno. (That school merged, in 1949, with Tokyo Music School, becoming today’s Tokyo Geijutsu Daigaku, or Tokyo University of the Arts.)
Yashima refused to participate in military exercises at the school and, in 1929, he was expelled for insubordination. He became an active participant in anti-fascist political causes and sketched the death mask of the proletarian writer Takiji Kobayashi when the latter’s corpse was released by his jailers with visible signs of torture on it.
Yashima himself was also repeatedly jailed and beaten in prison for his political activism, as was his wife, Tomoe, whom he had married in 1930.
Finally, in 1939, both managed to leave Japan for the United States, where they arrived in New York having left their 6-year-old son, Makoto, with his grandparents in Japan. Yashima wasn’t to see his son until after the war, when he returned, in 1945, as a member of a U.S. strategic bombing survey team.
In New York, both the Yashimas continued their art studies at the prestigious Art Students’ League on West 57th St. But when war broke out between the U.S. and Japan following the Pearl Harbor attack on Dec. 7, 1941, Yashima enlisted in the U.S. Army and was posted first to the Office of War Information and then to the Office of Strategic Services (OSS), the predecessor of the CIA.
It was then that the Yashimas abandoned the birth-name Iwamatsu, for fear of repercussions against their son and parents in Japan. Being so fearful of retribution back home, Tomoe — whose prewar pen name was Mitsuko Arai — took on the name Mitsu.
Yashima spent some months of the war years in India on intelligence missions. Upon his return to the U.S. he wrote and illustrated handbills in Japanese that were dropped over battlefields bearing the phrases “Don’t Die!” and “Papa, Stay Alive.” To charges in Japan that he was a traitor, he later remarked that his sole aim was to save Japanese lives.
“At the time it was easy to say I was one who was against his own country,” he explained. “That’s the most terrible thing, because my feeling was, I’m doing it because I love my country.”
It is that genuine love of country, so powerful that it urges people to act against its evil excesses, that is rarely celebrated in Japan. It did exist, and the lives of Taro and Mitsu Yashima attest to it.
Yashima published two illustrated autobiographical books in the 1940s, “The New Sun” in 1943 and “Horizon is Calling” in 1947. In those he detailed his and his wife’s maltreatment by the Japanese secret police. Yet he also conveyed what he considered his message to Americans at the time: that all Japanese are not “wild monkeys.”
Several picture books followed in the succeeding decades, including “The Village Tree” in 1953, “Crow Boy” in 1955 and “Seashore Story” in 1967. The tree in “The Village Tree” is the home of “all sorts of bugs on the leaves, and places to play in the branches.” That book, and all the others by Yashima, hark back to a Japan in which nature was cherished and children felt it to be their constant friend.
In 1948, Makoto joined his parents in the U.S., and Mitsu gave birth to a daughter, Momo. As Momo grew up, her parents created exquisite picture books for her, such as “Momo’s Kitten” and “Umbrella.” I love “Umbrella.” It captures the simple thrill of a little girl who gets an umbrella for the first time. When she grabs hold of it, she lets go of her parent’s hand, the first sign of self-reliance.
By 1954, the Yashimas were living in Los Angeles, having settled in the poor Boyle Heights district of the city. They established the Yashima Art Institute, where they taught. But the couple separated and Mitsu moved to San Francisco, where she lectured at the University of California, Berkeley, on “People’s Art in Japan” and taught art, in the 1970s, at Kimochi, a community center in the city that continues to bring together younger and older Japanese-Americans.
At that time, too, Mitsu — having never forsaken her activism — took part in the Women Strike for Peace movement against nuclear weapons and the Vietnam War.
Taro Yashima suffered a stroke in 1977, eventually passing away in hospital in Los Angeles in 1994. His motto for his books should inspire young people around the world today: “Let children enjoy living on this Earth, let children be strong enough not to be beaten or twisted by evil on this Earth.”
In 1983, Mitsu returned to Los Angeles to live with Momo, who had become an actress. (Momo Yashima Brannen was in the 1979 movie “Star Trek: The Motion Picture,” and has had roles in television shows including “The Beverly Hillbillies,” “L.A. Law” and “ER.”) Mitsu’s death in 1988 preceded her husband’s by six years.
Yashima’s works are held in Japan primarily at the Iwasaki Chichiro Art Museum, which has two sites — in Nerima Ward, Tokyo, and in Azumino, Nagano Prefecture; and at the Kagoshima City Museum of Art in Kyushu.
The artwork in the couple’s books is lovely. He worked primarily in watercolor and ink; she in charcoal, pencil and soft pastels. The stories themselves have qualities of natural wonder and self-discovery that children in today’s world of shock and dysfunctionality would surely benefit from encountering.
As for the Yashimas’ son, Makoto, he became the famous screen and stage actor Mako Iwamatsu. I knew and greatly admired Mako, and it is about him — one of America’s and Japan’s most underappreciated actors — that I will write in this column next week.