Kids Books About Japanese Culture

Back in the seventh grade, my mom took me on an overnight trip to Columbus, Ohio. The state capital was about 70 miles from our small, rural-ish town and represented cosmopolitan magic and sophistication. We dined at a family-owned sushi restaurant, and I was absolutely hooked. I remember that the slightly-sweet tamago (egg) was a favorite, but I was a little unsure of the tako (octopus).



After over a decade in the San Francisco Bay Area, Japanese and Japanese-American traditions are a much bigger part of my daily life than in my midwestern childhood, but I’ve always been grateful that my mom took the opportunity to introduce me to an aspect of this culture, which was so far from my own.

The picture book and kids art inspiration in August’s KidArtLIt delivery have helped me open my children to Japanese culture, too. It includes materials and instructions to share process-oriented takes on the traditional art form ikebana (flower arranging) and the paper-folding craft shiori ningyo (bookmark dolls). These projects are inspired by the wonderful new-release picture book Grandmother Thorn by Katey Howes and Rebecca Hahn.

We know that Grandmother Thorn’s rural Japanese setting, captivating characters, and important lessons will be inspiring for your family, too. If you want to read beyond the box—and we bet you will—here are ten picture books that celebrate Japanese and Japanese-American culture.


Grandmother Thorn
Katey Howes, illustrated by Rebecca Hahn
(Ages 5 to 7)

Grandmother Thorn treasures her garden, where not a leaf, twig or pebble is allowed out of place. But when a persistent plant sprouts without her permission, Grandmother begins to unravel. “Her hair became as tangled as the vines on her fence. Her garden fell into disrepair. One morning, she did not rake the path.” A dear friend, the passage of seasons, and a gift only nature can offer help Grandmother Thorn discover that some things are beyond our control, and that sweetness can blossom in unexpected places.


Take Me Out to the Yakyu
Aaron Meshon,  illustrated by Aaron Meshon
(Ages 4 to 8)

You may know that baseball is the Great American Pastime, but did you know that it is also a beloved sport in Japan? Come along with one little boy and his grandfathers, one in America and one in Japan, as he learns about baseball and its rich, varying cultural traditions.


Suki's Kimono
Chieri Uegaki,  illustrated by Stéphane Jorisch
(Ages 4 to 8)

 The joyful story of a young girl who dances to her own drumbeat, and in doing so teaches others about the richness of diversity. Suki's favorite possession is her blue cotton kimono. A gift from her obachan, it holds special memories of her grandmother's visit last summer. And Suki is going to wear it on her first day back to school --- no matter what anyone says.


 Wabi Sabi
Mark Reibstein,  illustrated by Ed Young
(Ages 4 to 8) 

Wabi Sabi, a little cat in Kyoto, Japan, had never thought much about her name until friends visiting from another land asked her owner what it meant.

At last, the master
Says, "That's hard to explain." And
That is all she says.

This unsatisfying answer sets Wabi Sabi on a journey to uncover the meaning of her name, and on the way discovers what wabi sabi is: a Japanese philosophy of seeing beauty in simplicity, the ordinary, and the imperfect.


One Leaf Rides the Wind
Celeste Mannis,  illustrated by Susan Kathleen Hartung
(Ages 5 to 8)

 Filled with lush illustrations, this counting book reveals both the pleasure and the tranquility of the Japanese garden, while introducing haiku poetry, with eleven poems that are simple and easy to follow. Follow along as the young girl explores the beauty of the garden, and discover the fun of haiku


Japanese Children's Favorite Stories: Anniversary Edition
Florence Sakade,  illustrated by Yoshisuke Kurosaki
(Ages 9 to 13) 

In this treasure trove of much-beloved Japanese children's stories, you'll meet charming characters drawn from folklore and passed down for generations. These tales about playful goblins with long noses, walking statues, and a delightful hero who just happens to be one inch tall speak of the virtues of honesty, humility and hard work. What better way for a parent to teach than through stories that thrill their children!


I Live in Tokyo
Mari Takabayashi
(Ages 4 to 7)

Far away, in the Pacific Ocean, Tokyo is a busy city of color, activity, celebrations, gigantic buildings, and much more. Seven-year-old Mimiko lives in Tokyo, and here you can follow a year's worth of fun, food and festivities in Mimiko's life, month by month. Learn the right way to put on a kimono and see Mimiko's top ten favorite meals.


First Book of Sushi
Amy Wilson Sanger
(Ages 3 And Under)

 Miso in my sippy cup, tofu in my bowl! From tekka maki to wasabi, tasty treats await young readers in this colorful, rhyming ode to Japanese cuisine. With pages full of tummy-tempting foods, the books in the World Snacks series are a delicious way to introduce even the littlest eaters to cuisines from all around the globe.


Sumo Boy
Hirotaka Nakagawa, illustrated by Yoshifumi Hasegawa
Ages 2-5

Meet Sumo Boy, an expert sumo wrestler who fights for justice! When he hears a little girl’s cry of despair, he jumps to the rescue…with an OPEN HAND PUSH, an INSIDE LEG TRIP, and an OVER-ARM THROW! This book is sprinkled with the true Japanese customs of sumo wrestling and includes a section with photos that explore the art in greater depth.


Drawing From Memory
Allen Say
(Ages 10 to 13)

 Drawing From Memory is Caldecott Medalist Allen Say's own story of his path to becoming the renowned artist he is today. Shunned by his father, who didn't understand his son's artistic leanings, Allen was embraced by Noro Shinpei, Japan's leading cartoonist and the man he came to love as his "spiritual father." As WWII raged, Allen was further inspired to consider questions of his own heritage and the motivations of those around him. He worked hard in rigorous drawing classes, studied, trained—and ultimately came to understand who he really is.


 Origami Finger Puppets: Fun Origami for Pinkies, Pointers, and Thumbs
Muneji Fuchimoto

 This fun kit includes an instruction book and sheets of origami paper to fold an array of finger puppets. Recreate the characters from your favorite movie or storybook, or let your imagination guide the characters you create.