Japan Storytellers' Saga Is Ending

CLICK! CLACK! CLACK! Sadayoshi Morishita is beating wooden clappers together in a small Tokyo park. It's a beckoning sound, and one that is vanishing rapidly in Japan.

Mr. Morishita is about to begin kamishibai, the 60-year-old traditional art of storytelling with pictures.

The click-clack is the signal for children (and sometimes adults) to come and listen to colorful tales told by a professional storyteller. The listeners also buy his rice crackers, lollipops, and fried noodles - small payment for an afternoon of entertainment.

But as audiences have diminished over the decades, many of Japan's old-time storytellers have given up their craft. Morishita attracts only a dozen or so children on average.

``Until the television arrived in 1953, movies and kamishibai were the only fun,'' says 75-year-old Morishita, who used to amuse 50 to 100 children and adults every day.

``Since kids were hungry for fun, they waited for me, anticipating what would come next,'' he says.

But the pressure to attend university has led even grammar school children to spend time after school attending special cram courses. In addition, says Morishita, ``There are many more types of food and fun, such as video games.''

Forty years ago, an estimated 30,000 people in Japan earned a living by telling stories and selling sweets on the street. But, as Japan developed industrially, many storytellers, including Morishita, left for better jobs. Morishita knows of only a handful of other storytellers. He resumed storytelling five years ago.

Every day, he takes to the street on an old bicycle with his self-made wooden chest filled with sweets and pictures.

``I do this because I want to exercise and earn some money,'' he says with modesty. But he also clearly enjoys enchanting young audiences with a voice that changes from cheerful boy to feeble princess to threatening thief.

``Children say to me, `Old man, you are very good at telling stories, aren't you?''' he says with a full smile on his face.

The most popular part of his kamishibai is the last part, a quiz. ``What kind of fish has no bone?'' he asks. A boy shouts, ``Tuna!'' But the correct answer is sashimi (a raw-fish dish).

``If we answer correctly, we receive a treat,'' says fifth-grader Tomoki Miyashita. But, after a few moments, he excuses himself to go to cram school.

(cho) Morishita updates his quiz questions with ideas from newspapers and TV. ``I educate myself through kamishibai,'' he says. During the Gulf war, for instance, he asked about the cost of a Tomahawk missile. It's his way of attracting today's media-conscious kids.

Morishita usually starts a tale with the antics of a boy named Chon-chan, and then follows with the story of a samurai warrior. With so few original kamishibai pictures left from the 1930s - when the craft first became popular - Morishita must use only color copies.

``These stories and pictures are well-made and survive over many years,'' he says.

Many children today are attracted to kamishibai not for the stories, but for the cheap snacks, says kamishibai expert Chizuko Kamichi at the Children's Culture Center in Tokyo.

`CHILDREN are not necessarily excited by the stories themselves,'' says kamishibai expert Chizuko Kamichi of the Children's Culture Center in Tokyo. Indeed, a samurai story 30 years old can be quite outdated for youths who wear Western clothes and eat McDonald's hamburgers.

Then why do they come? For the inexpensive snacks, perhaps. ``I think it's fun for kids to bring a hundred yen [75 cents] and buy three 30-yen sweets while they play,'' she says.

Kamishibai, which evokes feelings of nostalgia from many older Japanese, was once a target of criticism. Commuters complained that the street shows with their big audiences blocked transportation. Parents were concerned about the cleanliness of the sweets and possible sensational pictures.

During World War II, storytelling was used by the government for propaganda purposes. Morishita's father, for example, used kamishibai to exhort Japanese to live a frugal life and unite in the war effort.

But educators such as Kamichi cite positive aspects of kamishibai and hope to preserve it. Today, children may see kamishibai pictures in schools or libraries.

``For small kids who find it difficult to understand a story ... only by reading it, kamishibai helps them create an image about the story,'' she says. And, compared to reading a picture book, ``You can really talk to children in kamishibai,'' she adds.

Kamishibai's chief benefit may be the generation-bridging effect it has. Kazuhiro Matsuzaka, another fifth-grader, says he comes to kamishibai almost every day because of Mr. Morishita. ``I like that guy because he talks to me with such friendliness,'' he says.

But most likely, no one will follow in Morishita's footsteps. With a laugh to hide his sadness he says, ``I guess this aspect of Japanese culture will naturally disappear.''

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