Pre-World War II Christian Propaganda Kamishibai Poster Set
Kamishibai (Japanese: 紙芝居?, “paper play”) is a form of Japanese street theatre and storytelling that was popular during the Depression of the 1930s and the post-war period in Japan until the advent of television during the twentieth century.
Kamishibai was told by a kamishibaiya (kamishibai narrator) who traveled to street corners with sets of illustrated boards that he or she placed in a miniature stage-like device and narrated the story by changing each image.
Kamishibai has its earliest origins in Japanese Buddhist temples where Buddhist monks from the eighth century onward used emakimono (“picture scrolls”) as pictorial aids for recounting their history of the monasteries, an early combination of picture and text to convey a story.
Not long after the “new kamishibai” was invented, a Christian social worker by the name of Imai Yone returned to Japan having spent several years training as a missionary in the United States. Imai began teaching Sunday school classes but soon discovered that many of her would-be pupils cut class as soon as they heard the clappers (hyōshigi) announcing the arrival of the kamishibai man. When she followed her students out into the streets, she immediately recognized kamishibai as a powerful and mesmerizing medium for communication that could be adapted to her purposes of spreading the Christian faith. She hired kamishibai artists to create dramatic stories from the Bible, such as the story of “Noah and the Flood,” “The Good Shepherd,” “David and Goliath,” and “Daniel in the Lion’s Den.”
Imai emulated the rental system of the street performance artists so that her stories could reach a wide audience. By 1933, she had organized a troupe of performers called the “Kamishibai Missionaries” (kamishibai dendō dan) and had co-founded the Kamishibai Publishing Company (kamishibai kankō kai). Imai made several significant innovations to the kamishibai format. She increased the size of the cards to what we now consider the normal size for the standard kamishibai stage (10 ½ X 15 inches), nearly double the size of the cards used by street performance artists. She wrote complete scripts for the stories that could be read from the backs of the cards with instructions for how they should be performed, and she developed kamishibai stories with images that could be published in journal format. These pages could be taken out, colored in, and glued to stiff cardboard so that they could be assembled and performed even in remote areas of Japan.
Although Imai wrote the scripts for the stories herself, she commissioned street performance artists to create the images for her stories because she recognized that their flamboyant, cinematic style would make the Bible stories come to life for young audiences. These stories are also sometimes referred to as Gospel Kamishibai (Fuku-in kamishibai). Kamishibai, cartoons and comics became substantially popular during the Great Depression of the 1930s and after the Japanese surrender to the Allied Forces in August 1945 at the end of the Second World War. This period is known as the “Golden Age” of kamishibai in Japan.
Kamishibai produced and narrated over this period gives insight into the mindset of the people who lived through such a tumultuous period in history. Contrary to the hardships imposed by the depression, in 1933 there were 2,500 kamishibaiya in Tokyo alone, who performed ten times a day for audiences of up to thirty children, equalling a total of one million children a day. The Depression years were the most prosperous and vibrant for kamishibai, with 1.5 million unemployed in Tokyo in 1930 it provided a great job opportunity for many people.