Japanese Fairy Tale Books

April’s Treasure of the Month is a collection of Japanese fairy tale books. They are part of the Japanese Fairy Tale Series published by Hasegawa Takejir­­ō, starting in 1885 (Meiji Era). Our museum collection has a total of 21 books from the series, and all of them were on display in the Children’s Department of Rosenberg Library for a time after they were first acquired by the library in 1918.

 Japanese Fairy Tale Books
76.092.1-5, Illustrated Books, Japanese Fairy Tales Series

Chirimen-bon (Crepe-paper books)

Hasegawa Takejir­­ō specialized in publishing books on Japanese subjects in various European languages. The Fairy Tale series began as a way for young Japanese children to learn English, at a time when Japan had just recently reopened trade with the West after 300 years of isolation. Hasegawa hired Europeans residing in Japan to translate well-known Japanese folk tales into English and other languages, and had notable Japanese artists do the illustrations for each story. The series quickly became popular among Westerners who lived in or visited Japan and was eventually exported to booksellers overseas.

In publishing these books, Hasegawa also created a new style of book called chirimen-bon, or crepe-paper. The text and illustrations were printed on washi (a type of Japanese paper) using hand-carved woodblocks, and the paper was then crinkled to create chirimen and bound together into book form using silk thread. The result of the crinkling process is a very soft, textured paper that feels almost like cloth. In fact, chirimen was used to make kimono, furoshiki (wrapping cloth), and other items centuries before chirimen-bon were first produced.

Folk Tales: East & West

Hasegawa’s fairy tales were released in two series between 1885 and 1903, with a total of 28 volumes. Each volume has one fairy tale. The first five volumes contain what are often referred to as the Five Great Fairy Tales in Japanese tradition: Momotaro, or Little Peachling; The Tongue Cut Sparrow; Battle of the Monkey and the Crab; The Old Man Who Made The Dead Trees Blossom; and Kachi-Kachi Mountain. Japanese folk tales were traditionally passed down orally rather than in writing, which resulted in many different versions of each story in different regions, but these five stories seem to be the most frequently repeated and widely known – much like Cinderella and Snow White in the West.

 Japanese Fairy Tale Books
Interior page of 76.092.1, Momotaro, Japanese Fairy Tales Series

There are a few key differences between Eastern and Western fairy tales. Japanese stories especially focus on philosophical and spiritual elements, with ghosts, demons, and other spirits appearing frequently. Animals also feature prominently as protagonists. In contrast, Western stories often portray individual heroes overcoming a struggle, and are very action-focused.

Fairy tale endings are also different: Western fairy tales usually have what we consider a happy ending, where good triumphs over evil and the princess marries the hero. Japanese fairy tales, on the other hand, often resolve on a note of melancholy, with the hero reflecting on their journey or contemplating the beauty of nature.

The Treasure of the Month is located on the 2nd floor of Rosenberg Library in the Grand Hallway. It can be viewed during regular library hours, 9:00 AM to 6:00 PM Monday, Friday, and Saturday and 9:00 AM - 8:00 PM Tuesday through Thursday. For museum questions, call 409.763.8854 Ext. 125 or email museum@rosenberg-library.org. For press inquiries, contact the Communications Coordinator.

Past Treasures