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Taro Yashima: Artist for Peace

Taro Yashima is the assumed name of children’s author and illustrator Jun Atsushi Iwamatsu. Born in the Japanese countryside to a local doctor and his wife, as a young man he found the rise in militarism prior to his country’s invasion of China and attack on America to be very much against his personal beliefs. He and his wife Tomoe, also an artist, joined peaceful protest groups called “culture clubs” that used their art to make anti-authoritarian statements about Japan’s government and the harsh conditions people lived under to support the military as it readied for war.

Imprisoned

“At artists’ meetings there was always a crowd of policemen, ready for trouble. Speakers were arrested for using a word like ‘oppression.’” -- The New Sun

Jun, his wife, and their friends were eventually rounded up and taken to jail for their protests. There, along with many innocent people, some of whom just happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time, they were kept under truly deplorable conditions without trial. Their jailers demanded false confessions, and those who gave them were set free. Jun and his wife, who was pregnant, would not do this. They waited months before being seen by authorities and then suffered for their lack of cooperation in very rough interrogations.

In America

When he and his wife were finally free, they were eventually able to go to America just before the war broke out to continue their studies. They left behind their six-year-old son, who would grow up to be the well-respected actor Mako, in the care of his grandparents. Jun changed his own name to Taro Yashima to protect their child from retaliation, which was almost certain to come, as he and his wife went to work for the U.S. military. After World War II, the couple were granted citizenship by act of Congress, and the family was reunited and stayed in the United States. Taro Yashima, as he was now known, went on to become a famous children’s book author and illustrator.

Writing and Illustrating

“I thank the America which lets me talk and write freely about people and events which I shall never forget.” -- author’s dedication in The New Sun

His first two books, however, were for adults. The New Sun was written in 1943 and tells of his experiences as a young man under the harsh Japanese regime. It is a kind of proto-graphic novel. Each page has only one or two sentences on it but each also has an accompanying, very expressive illustration.  The New Sun was followed by Horizon Is Calling, published shortly after the war and recounting the events that happened after the first book. The New Sun is as poignant as the much later breakthrough graphic novel Maus which told of that artist’s father’s experiences in Nazi concentration camps.

Cover to UmbrellaIn 1953, Jun wrote his first children’s book, The Village Tree, in response to his daughter’s questions about his boyhood in rural Japan. He would go on to write several more books featuring his daughter: Umbrella (a present for her 8th birthday); Momo’s Kitten; and Youngest One--a story about Momo helping a younger boy over his shyness.

Three of his books won Caldecott Honors: Crow Boy; Umbrella; and Seashore Story. All of them are gentle books showing a world of loving care and concern even, as in the case of Crow Boy, when the world seems rather cruel.

Taro Yashima, who survived much to create his stories and art, left a legacy for future generations. His work did have a message, and it is one worth passing on for it is one of hope:

“Let children enjoy living on this Earth, let children be strong enough not to be beaten or twisted by evil on this Earth.”*

Fast Facts:

Born: September 21, 1908 in Kagoshima, Japan

Married: Tomoe (an artist); children: Mako (son), Momo (daughter)

Immigrated to the U.S.: 1939

Education: Studied art at the Imperial Art Academy, Tokyo, 1927-30, and at the Art Students League, New York City, 1939-41

Career: Freelance artist, illustrator, and writer: several individual shows; collections include Phillips Memorial Museum, Washington, D.C. Director, Yashima Art Institute, Los Angeles, 1950s.

Major Awards: Crow Boy (1956); Umbrella (1959); and Seashore Story (1968) all won the Caldecott Honor. Crow Boy and Umbrella were both Junior Literary Guild selections. Seashore Story was named one of the New York Times’ Best Illustrated Children’s Books of the Year.

Died: June 30, 1994

His Works:

The New Sun (1943) followed by Horizon Is Calling (1947)

The Village Tree (1953)

Plenty to Watch (1954--co-written with his wife)

Crow Boy (1955)

Umbrella (1958)

Momo’s Kitten (1961--co-written with his wife)

Youngest One (1962)

Seashore Story (1967)

One-Inch Fellow (1989)

Illustrated for Others:

Which Was Witch? written by Eleanore Myers Jewett

Soo Ling Finds a Way, written by June Behrens

The Golden Footprints, written by Hatoju Muku

The Sugar Pear Tree, written by Clyde Robert Bulla

The Fisherman and the Goblet, written by Mark Taylor

From CRRL Research Resources:

"Jun Atsushi Iwamatsu." Contemporary Authors Online. Detroit: Gale, 2003. Biography In Context. Web. 29 Aug. 2013.

"Jun Atsushi Iwamatsu." Major Authors and Illustrators for Children and Young Adults. Gale, 2002. Biography In Context. Web. 15 Aug. 2013.

"Taro Yashima." St. James Guide to Children's Writers. Gale, 1999. Biography In Context. Web. 29 Aug. 2013.

Taro Yashima’s books that are no longer owned by the CRRL, including The New Sun, may be requested through our interlibrary loan service.

On the Web:

BookDragon: The New Sun by Taro Yashima
This Smithsonian blog entry discusses the book's importance and has a bit about the author's life.

Crow Boy on YouTube
A partial reading of his award-winning book about outcasts and acceptance.

”Taro Yashima: An Unsung Beacon For All Against ‘Evil on This Earth’”
An excellent article from Japan Times that details Yashima’s life both in Japan and America.