金曜日, 6月 25, 2004

Dr. Seuss in Japan

      Thanks to my friend Musashi's good advice about using the Dr. Seuss tongue-twister book "Fox in Socks" to teach English pronunciation to Japanese students, I got some good results using Dr. Seuss in my English classes, and I started to wonder why he is not better known in Japan. When I first mention his name, everyone looks completely blank. Why?

      To answer this question, I started reading Dr. Seuss' authorized biography by Judith and Neil Morgan, "Dr. Seuss and Mr. Geisel." I was mainly looking for anything concerning Dr. Seuss and Japan. And I found some surprising things. First of all, he drew some political cartoons during WWII that negatively depicted Japanese-Americans. These cartoons are also mentioned in the Wikipedia article on Dr. Seuss. Could that be one reason why Dr. Seuss books aren't used here (while many other, less talented writers' offerings are) to get students interested in English?

      It's an interesting idea. But there's more. Dr. Seuss (Ted Geisel) actually spent time in Japan, including 3 weeks in Kyoto, after the war, on an assignment for Life magazine. His project was--get this--to visit schools in Kyoto, Osaka and Kobe and collect students' drawings. I will quote from page 137 of his authorized biography:

"Ted's assignment was to learn how the years of American occupation had changed the aspirations of Japanese schoolchildren. His Dartmouth friend, Professor Donald Bartlett, with close diplomatic ties to Japan, had arranged with teachers in Kyoto, Osaka, and Kobe to have their students draw pictures of what they hoped to be when they grew up. About fifteen thousand drawings were submitted and Ted saw that Westernization had indeed invaded their minds."

      The biography goes on to comment that although relatively few of the drawings showed the students in kimono, the ones that did formed a high proportion of the ones published by Life magazine. Mr. Geisel was critical of the way that Life presented his findings, saying that the editor was "anti-Japanese" and "raped the article."

      On page 145, while describing how Mr. Geisel was inspired to write "Horton Hears a Who" in the fall of 1953, it says:

"The theme of the book--"a person's a person no matter how small"--had grown out of visits to Japanese schools, where the importance of the individual was considered an exciting new concept. Ted dedicated the book to his "great friend" Mitsugi Nakamura, a Kyoto university professor whom he had met through Donald Bartlett."

      I remember reading "Horton Hears a Who" as a young child, and I would never have guessed that it had anything whatsoever to do with Japanese schools. Was there some kind of subliminal programming in the rhymes that subconsciously drew me to a teaching position in what could be one of the very same Kansai-area schools he visited?

      All of that, and schoolchildren in the very same Kyoto, Osaka and Kobe fifty years later have never heard of Dr. Seuss, probably the most celebrated children's picture book author ever to write in English.

      In my research I also discovered some amusing Dr. Seuss parodies. I like "Fox in Socks, Prince of Denmark."