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The Representation of Language & Cultural Identity in U.S. Picture Books, A Series (1)

Intro to the Series

We are so excited to bring attention to this blog series written by students in Dr. Margaret Boyle's "Teaching Languages and Culture" course at Bowdoin College. The series highlights the Diverse BookFinder (DBF), not only as a great tool for educators, librarians, and parents, but as an invaluable space where new and important inquiries about racial and cultural representation in children's books can be asked, investigated, and shared. As a comprehensive and continually growing digital collection -- painstakingly coded by a team of trained undergraduate students and graduate interns -- the DBF is a rich resource for both public scholarship and academic research & teaching. This series offers multiple exciting examples of the kinds of important inquiries that can arise when mining the DBF's publicly-accessible data. These range from explorations of picture book portrayals of diverse Japanese identities, to the importance of books in translation in the development and celebration of non-Anglophone identities and cultures, to a critical investigation of how to read "activism" in books for younger children. ~ Dr. Andrea Breau is a feminist youth studies scholar who received her Ph.D. in Women's, Gender, and Sexuality Studies from The Ohio State University in 2018. She served as Project Coordinator for the Diverse BookFinder from 2018 - 2020 and now sits on our Advisory Council.

Diverse Representation of Japanese Identity

By Rosemary Nguyen

Rosemary is a student at Bowdoin College. In the fall of 2020, she was a volunteer at Kate Furbish Elementary with the Multilingual Mainers program.

I first heard of Diverse BookFinder through an education course I had taken this past semester. Diverse BookFinder is a collection of children’s picture books that features Black and Indigenous people and People of Color (BIPOC) within diverse context. Their vision is: “We aspire to be a go-to resource for librarians, educators, parents, book creators, and publishers who seek to create collections in which all children can see themselves -- and each other -- reflected in the picture books they read.”

As a component of the course, we discussed the lack of diversity within Maine’s population, and how the lack of diversity could limit younger children’s understanding of the world around them. Resources like Diverse BookFinder offer alternative options for both educators and parents to bring diversity into their classrooms and their homes. We learned in the course that children as young as three years old are capable of understanding race. By exposing younger children to a diverse collection of picture books, these children are able to develop awareness of various cultures and different people living in the world around them.

As an Asian Studies major with a concentration in Japan, I have both studied the language and learned about Japan’s history and culture. Similar to Maine’s homogenous population, Japan also lacks a diverse population as it is a country where the majority of its population is Japanese. Through the Diverse BookFinder collection, I am interested to discover how Japan’s lack of diversity affects the representation of Japanese identity in the characters from these picture books.

The History and Population of Japan

During the Edo period (1603-1867), or the Tokugawa Period, Japan was under the rule of the Tokugawa shogunate. The Edo period marked a time period of peace and stability for the country as well as cultural prosperities and economic growth. In fear of other countries’ influence over Japan and the importance of preserving Japanese culture, the country of Japan closed its borders to foreign trade and went into isolation for 214 years from 1639 to 1853.

The opening of Japan’s borders marked the beginning of the Meiji period (1868-1912) under the rule of Emperor Mutsuhito. Influenced by Western powers, the leaders of the Meiji period focused on establishing Japan’s economy and expanding its military powers. In the 1870’s, the Industrial Revolution began in Japan as the Japanese government desired to reform the country in preparation for further development.

After several conflicts with and invasions of Korea, the country of Korea fell and became a colony under the Japanese Occupation during 1910 to 1945. During the Japanese Occupation, many ethnic Koreans had to assimilate to Japanese culture. They were forced to change their names and take Japanese ones, forced to learn Japanese and prohibited to speak their native tongues. The term “Zainichi” Koreans is used to describe individuals of Korean descent who are residents of Japan but have not obtained Japanese citizenship.

Japan’s history has influenced the diversity of its current population. Even though Japan is an ethnically homogenous country, with a population of 98.4% Japanese, there are individuals who are classified as resident aliens from China, South Korea, and many other countries. About 0.5% of the population is from Chinese descent, and about 0.4% of the population are Koreans.

Diverse BookFinder Collection & Search Engine Categories

As I was browsing the Diverse BookFinder’s collection, I became drawn in by their collection search engine. In particular, I was fascinated by the categories and key terms they used for their quick search and filter system. Below I have listed six categories that I found of interest and wanted to explore in the context of Japanese identities. I was also able to compile data from the search engine based on the categories of interest and keyword specific searches.

Categories & Content Codes of Interest (definitions taken directly from Diverse BookFinder):

Categories (3 of 9)

  • Beautiful Life: Books featuring BIPOC in which race, ethnicity, tribal affiliation, culture, im/migration, and/or religious, sacred, or origin stories are central to the story. These books explicitly focus on the diverse expressions of human experience, depending on these elements to drive the storyline.
  • Cross Group: These books portray relationships between characters across racial or cultural differences
  • Race/Cultural Concepts: These books explore and/or compare specific aspects of human differences, inviting readers to consider varying perspectives related to race, ethnicity, culture, or tribal affiliation

Content Codes (3 of 9)

  • Bi/multilingual: These books are dual and/or multi-language books that include non-English words.
  • Diverse Family: These books feature multiracial or multicultural families.
  • Gender Non-Conforming: These books feature characters who express gender in ways that do not conform to the prevailing gender binary.

Statistical Data from Diverse BookFinder Current (2020) Collection (**This data changes constantly as new titles are added.)

Statistical Data from search for “Japanese”   (in 2020: 111 books total)


Content Codes

Diversity of Books Depicting Multiracial & Multicultural Concepts and Identities

After exploring matched books with the keyword “Japanese,” I found that there was a fairly diverse collection of books that depicted multiracial or multicultural concepts about Japanese culture and identity. I also discovered that many of the picture books within the Diverse BookFinder collection are often cross-listed with other categories. I narrowed my selection to the following six books. I found that each of these books portrayed unique characteristics of Japanese culture and identity:

My first book of Japanese words


by Michelle Haney Brown

Japanese is one of the most popular languages to learn in our multicultural society, and this book introduces it in a playful and gentle way. Organized in a familiar ABC structure, everyday words and expressions as well as words that have special significance in Japanese culture offer even very young children an enticing glimpse into Japanese daily life. This delightfully illustrated preschool book shows each word in Kanji and Hiragana as well as in Romanized form. Teachers and parents bilingual and English speaking only alike will appreciate the book's cultural and linguistic notes, while Kenji and his friends encourage young readers to join the fun!

Beautiful Life Informational Race/Culture Concepts

My First Book of Japanese Words takes the familiar concept of the ABC structure, and common everyday words and phrases and incorporates a perspective of Japanese daily life and also highlights significant markers of Japanese culture. This book also depicts each vocabulary word in two of the three Japanese writing systems: Kanji and Hiragana as well as English and a Romanized form.

For The Favorite Daughter and The Way We Do It in Japan, these books describe a similar conflict of living with a Japanese American identity in different settings, one in the U.S. and the other in Japan. Yuriko, the main character from The Favorite Daughter, is “teased at school for her unusual name and Japanese ancestry,” and at one point she asks her father if she could change her name to one that sounded more “American.” However, at the end of the book, Yuriko learns to accept and appreciate her name and her family heritage. Due to his father’s job transfer, Gregory, the main character from The Way We Do It in Japan, is placed in uncomfortable situations where he feels like he does not belong at his new school in Japan. One situation describes Gregory on his way to school seeing other students pointing, laughing, and commenting that he is a “gaijin,” which means foreigner. At the end of the book, Gregory and his classmates grow closer as they all explore different aspects of American and Japanese culture.

With Sumo Joe, there are two points that I want to mention. First, out of the 111 books that matched with the keyword “Japanese,” this was one of the few books that depicted brown-skinned characters with a Japanese identity. And second, this was also one of the few “Japanese” books matched with the “Gender Non-Conforming” category.

Although both Hiromi’s Hands and Tea with Milk do not have tags for the “Gender Non- Conforming” category, these two biographies depict aspects of resisting the gender binary that Japanese society has placed. Hiromi’s Hands is a biography of Hiromi Suzuki, a Japanese American woman, who with the guidance of her father was able to train and become a sushi chef. In an article by The New York Times called “She Has a Knife And She Knows How to Use It,” Hiromi is quoted saying, “This is what my father has heard—that women can’t make sushi because they wear perfume and makeup, and the smell of the perfume and makeup will ruin the food, and that women can’t become sushi chefs because behind the counter is a sacred area, and that women are all silly.”

Tea with Milk is about a young Japanese woman who struggles and feels out of place when she returns home with her parents to Japan. The book distinguishes socially acceptable behaviors in a Japanese and American context as well as a gender binary context. One significant cultural aspect that stood out to me was when the main character described her job as an elevator operator being boring and mundane. It also seems like her job was not intellectually challenging enough and that she was unable to fully utilize her English-speaking abilities.

Lack of Diversity of Gender Non-Conforming Books and Half-Japanese Characters

Even though there was great diversity in Japanese-related books featuring variation of the Japanese identity, I found two categories or groups to be underrepresented in the Diverse BookFinder collection. One issue is with the lack of “Japanese” books with the “Gender Non-Conforming” tag. The family structure of Japanese society is generally patriarchal where the husband/father is the breadwinner in the family, and the wife/mother is responsible for managing the household. This gender binary aspect does not only apply in a home context but also in the workforce. As reported in “Health in Japan: Social Epidemiology of Japan Since the 1964 Tokyo Olympics,” gender inequality still exists in Japanese society, and is more prominent within the workforce. Even in recent times, Japanese women are limited to service and clerk types of occupations.

The second issue is a lack of diversity of BIPOC half-Japanese characters. In a couple of the stories that I have selected, most of the characters that were half Japanese were Japanese American, to be more specific White-Japanese Americans. This lack of BIPOC representation limits the narratives of individuals whose identities do not fit with the “typical” image of being Japanese or half Japanese. Both the lack of diversity of Gender Non-Conforming and BIPOC half-Japanese characters in these children’s books reflect current Japanese society.

Diverse Stories in Homogenous Communities

Particularly for homogenous countries like Japan, it is important to have diversity in representation; whether it is being ‘Japanese,’ ‘Japanese-American,’ or ‘half-Japanese.’ By limiting these narratives to mainstream experiences, it leads to an incomplete representation of the range of Japanese identity. One thing I want to see in the future is even more diversity when it comes to portraying Japanese identity. I want these future books to challenge the idea of a “typical” Japanese person or a “typical” half-Japanese individual and extend these portrayals to include Japanese characters from various mixed heritages.

Similarly, these ideas can be related back to Maine and its homogenous population. Even though Maine is becoming more diverse, rural areas in Maine still lack a diverse representation in the community. And this is where picture books can play an important and critical role in younger children’s development. By having a diverse picture book collection in the classroom or at home, especially for younger children, it can aid in developing awareness of various cultures and different groups of people in the world around them. Even picture books that depict diverse representations of what it means to be a Mainer — from Indigenous to “native” to “non-native” —could help in diversifying the representation of Maine’s population.

Many of the cover images on this site are from Google Books.
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