Children at play during WWII
Full confession: I bought “Totto-chan, the Little Girl at the Window” almost four years ago and it sat on my shelf ever since. It is one of those classics of Japanese literature that I thought I ought to have read–pretty much every Japanese person I know has read it and recommends it–but I wasn’t looking forward to the actual reading. It looked like one of those sugary sweet books that might make an impression on an 8-year old girl but not on a 40-year old guy.
After reading it, I am reminded once again that classics are classics for a reason. And just like “Anne of Green Gables” there are some books that resonate past age and gender.
From the first page I was hooked on the stories of Totto-chan and the unusual Tomoe school that she attends. Even more so when I read that this book is entirely non-fiction. Author Kuroyanagi Tetsuko (Totto-chan herself) assures us that each event is as true as she remembers it, even if her memory is the fuzzy memory of an adult looking back on her childhood.
The books is written without an ongoing plot, but consists of little snacks of story like “Winnie the Pooh” and “Anne of Green Gables.” Kuroyanagi presents those events that stick out in her memory, that made an impression on her or that she learned something from. The stories can be as irrelevant as her first time in a swimming pool, or when her dog accidently bit her while they were playing a game, to more poignant episodes like the funeral of a friend. Her alter-ego, the child Totto-chan, does progress through the years of the book, but there is very little linking of the story.
And just as wonderful as the little stories is the existence of Tomoe school itself. During the hardships and horrors of WWII, a time when Japan was at its very worst both ideologically and economically, this idealist Kobayashi Sosaku created a progressive school that encouraged children to think and feel, to love life and music and nature. To really appreciate how amazing that is you have to juxtapose it with the fact that in the rest of Japan children were being trained to be tiny drones, obeying ritual and form and submitting their own personalities to the will of the state. Truly, for the fifty students of Tomoe school, Kobayashi created an island of calm in the midst of a sea of madness.
Some of Kobayashi’s ideas would be too radical even today, like having all of the children swim naked together so that they wouldn’t be ashamed of their bodies and so that the physically handicapped children would grow up without complexes. Some of his ideas are pure simplicity, like his rule that every lunch consist of “something from the hills, something from the ocean.” Some of them I can see in progressive children’s education today, like schools that allow children to pick their own course of study and progress at their own rate, rather than trying to enforce a single curriculum on a diverse student body. Kobayashi’s ideas only work in a small school like Tomoe, with fifty students spread across first to sixth grade. But for those fifty lucky students it was life-changing.
Another piece I loved about “Totto-chan, The Little Girl at the Window” was the epilogue. Kuroyanagi catches up with some of her old friends–each of whom was a character in “Totto-chan”–to see how they are doing as adults. Predictably, they have lead different lives. One became a world-class physicist. One an expert on orchids. But most were just housewives and office workers like the rest of us. But they all looked back fondly on their days at Tomoe school, as would I if I had been lucky enough to attend.