Kids' culture in back alleys
Immediately after World War II, children enlivened the back alleyways of Japan with their play. A culture of children's play began to emerge around 1950, as Japan began to pick itself up from the rubble of the war and shortages of various necessities began to ease. This culture, which was new even among children, grew up in back alleyways and empty lots--places that were out of the sight of adults.
Mom-and-pop stores offering sweets and toys at low prices opened in these back alleyways throughout Japan. You entered the store by opening a single wood-framed sliding door with a paper screen, and called out to get the attention of the shopkeeper. Once you slid that door open, you entered a whole different world, a tiny space crammed with menko (a game with cardboard pieces with pictures on them), begoma (a top made of iron), lotteries, and brightly colored sweets packed into bottles and wooden boxes. A small allowance from their parents put these delights within the children's reach. The sweet shops also served as "social salons" and tiny temples of consumerism, where kids could become friends with those attending other elementary schools.
The back alleys also had book-lending shops where kids could borrow comic books for a pittance. Though these comic books were printed on coarse paper because of the paper shortage, children were bewitched by the wildly improbable sci-fi tales and the jungle or desert adventures they contained.
The joy of stories was also available to children through other sources besides book-lending shops. Several times a week, a storyteller, typically a middle-aged man, would come to an empty lot or back alley and tell stories with the aid of picture boards. The storyteller would arrive on a bicycle carrying not only his boards but also a wooden box packed with candy and rice crackers. To get the kids' attention and draw a crowd, the storyteller would stand on the street corner and bang a pair of wooden clappers together. Once he had an audience, the storyteller would start by selling candy and crackers for the kids to eat during his performance. After the exchange of snacks and money, the performance would begin. As he told his story, the storyteller showed the picture boards to the children in order, using hand gestures, facial expressions, and body movements for maximum effect. The storyteller held the children in thrall with his antics, whether the story happened to be a tear-jerker about a fatherless family or a lively tale of the exploits of a masked, gold-headed superhero.
Picture-board storytellers, who peddled candy and rice crackers while providing entertainment, disappeared with the advent of television (1953; Shinkawa-Town, Nishikasugai-gun, Aichi Prefecture).
The Children Research Institute has been doing research on the culture of children's amusements for over 30 years. The center's director, Hideo Takayama, has this to say about the appeal of postwar children's amusements: "The sweet shops and picture-board storytellers reached the kids directly, rather than through the intermediary of parents or teachers. This was truly a back-alley culture that grew up out of desolate ruins."
Kids could find many playmates in the alleys. Every town and village had its own group of children, ranging in age from preschoolers on up to the "kings" of the playground. Shoichi Kimura, an illustrator who was born in Aichi in 1947 and is the author of an illustrated history of baby-boomer games, comments, "A lot of the amusements that entertained us as kids were handed down from previous generations. When we were toddlers with runny noses, we were in awe of the big kids, the bosses. We envied their polished skills, and as we grew up, we dreamed of someday becoming just like them."
As a meeting place for friends and as a venue for various kinds of fun, back alleys and empty lots were to the children of those days what video game arcades are to kids of today.
Children in the media age
The rapid economic growth that began in 1960 brought dramatic changes to Japanese society. One of the distinguishing features of the country's prosperity was the diffusion of the three "sacred treasures": the television set, automatic washing machine, and electric refrigerator. As these three household appliances came into increasingly widespread use, the privileged American lifestyle that Japanese people had once worshipped from afar became a reality. And one of the three, the TV set, exerted a strong influence on children's play.
In 1963 Osamu Tezuka's popular comic strip Mighty Atom (known in the English-speaking world as Astro Boy) was made into an animated cartoon and broadcast on Japanese TV. This was Japan's first anime, but others soon followed. During the same year, a succession of superheroes, including Iron Man Number 28 and Eight-Man, made their TV debuts and won children's hearts.
The spread of television in Japan kindled nationwide crazes among children. For example, kids all over the country took to imitating the superhero Ultraman by yelling, "Shu-wattch!" This is what Ultraman, the guardian of justice, always yelled before he took off and flew back into the sky, having slain a monster. Thus, the influence of TV swiftly transformed children's culture into a culture of the masses.
According to Takayama of the Children Research Institute, yesterday's cartoon characters were the prototype for today's merchandise tie-ins. "The sponsors for almost all of those animated programs," Takayama points out, "were large manufacturers of sweets and snacks. When popular comic strips were made into anime and broadcast on TV, the sponsoring companies used the cartoon characters in ads for their products."
For Japanese children, computer games are now a part of everyday life. Games can be played on the TV set, at a game center, or even on mobile consoles (AZpark Family Town, a game center in Nagoya).
Children's play became colored by the superheroes that dashed and swooped their way through comic books and TV cartoons. There were Astro Boy stickers, Iron Man emblems, and Ultraman dolls. Meanwhile, a revolution in toymaking materials was also taking place; celluloid was replaced by petroleum-based plastics. At the same time, a vast industry of products designed expressly for children--including stationery, sporting goods, and clothing--was also emerging.
Chips and kids
In 1973 Japan's phenomenal economic growth was stopped short by the oil crisis. Saving resources
and energy became urgent national priorities. This period witnessed the sudden development
of electronic products built around the semiconductor.
These technologies also made their way into the realm of children's play through toys. The die was cast in 1983, when Nintendo home computer games became a smash hit. The Super Mario Brothers game cartridge, which went on the market in 1985, sold a record-breaking 8 million copies, and all at once the game box became an everyday household appliance. Home video games continued to be a booming business, and in more recent years, the boom has spread beyond Japan to the United States and other countries. A current example is the universally popular Pokèmon game and characters.
Takayama offers the following analysis of the recent worldwide surge in the popularity of Japanese home computer games: "These games contain, in condensed form, the essence of what universally appeals to children. Pokèmon satisfies the urge to collect insects and stamps; Dragonquest (a role-playing game) offers the fun of exploring caves, and so on."
Another key to the popularity of video games is that they are perfectly suited to the lifestyle of today's kids. Japan's phase of sharp economic growth led to the predominance of the nuclear family and the disintegration of a sense of regional community. Nowadays kids after-school hours are filled with "cram school" and other obligations that cut into what once was a vast expanse of leisure time. Computer games, which allow players to stop and save their place anytime, are a perfect fit for this tightly scheduled world.
From around 1960 the old mom-and-pop sweet shops and book-lending shops, which offered kids low-cost amusement, began disappearing from the alleys of Japan. Where once were empty lots, buildings now stand. But for today's kids, the Sanrio character shop (purveyor of Hello Kitty and Keroppi goods) plays the role once filled by the sweet shop, and the neighborhood video game center is now the "back alley" where friends meet up and play.
(Photo by Makoto Iwafuji, Text by Shin'ichi Okada)