The little engine that could

Do you remember the children’s story about the Little Engine that had to fill in for the broken-down Big Engine? The train was full of Christmas toys for children on the other side of the mountain. But, “Could the Little Engine make it over the mountain pulling the heavy load?” As a child, I loved reading the Little Engine’s lines: “I think I can, I think I can, I think I can…” as it chugged up the mountain.

Learning to read Japanese may seem like a similarly daunting task. I was shocked when I first arrived in Japan in 1974 and could read nothing! There was no way to quickly match the strokes of Japanese characters and figure out whether I was buying sugar or salt! However literacy is important, especially in a country as literate as Japan.

Literacy has always played an important role in the life of Christians. When Daniel and his friends were selected for special training, they were to be taught the “language and the literature” of the Babylonians. And Paul quoted writers of his day in his address to the Athenians at the Areopagus (Acts 17:28 and Titus 1:12).

Language learning through children’s books

Reading Japanese picture books and using their textbooks is a wonderful way to begin to feel comfortable reading Japanese. You can build vocabulary by beginning with simple books and gradually advance to more challenging ones.

Children’s literature is full of colorful expressions that describe actions or situations—like crash, boom, or ouch. Knowing these words helps in telling Bible stories.

Your public library is a good place to start. Look for lists of recommended books for various age levels. The Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare [厚生労働省) has a poster entitled 「子どもたちが読んでほしい本」 “Books We Want Children to Read.” The All-Japan School Library Association also has a poster of favorite books graded for different age levels:「全国学校図書館協議会選定よい絵本」. In addition, Japanese graded school textbooks are available in most bookstores.

Resources to help with ministry

When it comes to learning Christian vocabulary, Christian children’s resources can be very helpful, not just for learning to read, but for church ministry.

Children’s literature, Japanese or translated, has great potential for helping people understand God’s Word. Donguri to Yamaneko by Kenji Miyazawa illustrates the foolishness of trying to decide who is the greatest. Kuroneko no Okyakusama by Ruth Ainsworth recounts the story of the widow of Zarephath feeding Elijah. Tolstoy’s Hito ni wa Dore Dake no Tochi ga Iru Ka speaks against greed.

Every three months, the CS Seicho Center (Sunday school textbooks) publishes a teacher’s guide for their Sunday school literature. They include an article called “Ehon no Izumi”—roughly translated, “The Wellspring of Picture Books” —which introduces a (mainstream) picture book in each issue, along with its application to Christian life.

Don’t feel shy about going to the library and browsing through the children’s books. Reading them will build vocabulary, improve your reading fluency, and give you a wider understanding of Japanese thinking. And you will soon be saying, “I thought I could, I thought I could, I thought I could…”

Mary Clift (US) served Japan with TEAM from 1974. She married Peter Clift in 1990 and joined Christian Mission in Many Lands. Presently they are church planting in northern Nagano.