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May 31, 2004

Personal bonds key in 'Amy and Ken'

Amy and Ken Visit Grandma

Personal bonds key in 'Amy and Ken'

Amy And Ken Visit Grandma (Kon to Aki)
Written and illustrated by Akiko Hayashi
Fukuinkan Shoten
Translated by Peter Howlett and Richard McNamara
RIC Publications

Amy and Ken Visit Grandma by Akiko Hayashi is certainly one of Japan's most popular storybooks. One picture book Web site, EhonNavi.net, ranks this title as now being the fifth most popular. Hayashi has written and illustrated numerous books, some of her best-known being There's a Hippo in My Bath (Ofuro Daisuki) and Miki's First Errand (Hajimete no Otsukai), and she is today considered to be one of Japan's leading picture book illustrator-writers.

Her endearing pictures and gentle texts have captivated many children not only in Japan but the world over, for her books have been translated into more than 10 languages, this particular title into French, Korean, Dutch and Chinese. Here is a story filled with some of the best qualities of a storybook: exciting adventure, tenderhearted fun and deep friendship. The story goes as follows:

Ken, an overall-clad stuffed toy fox, is a gift from Grandma to Amy, her soon-to-be-born granddaughter. Amy is born and as she grows up, she and Ken become the best of friends and constant companions. Then one day, a seam on Ken's arm splits open. He says "I'm all right, I'm all right, but I will have to go to Grandma's to get her to mend me."

Amy begs to go along and together they jump on the train that goes to Grandma's town: Sakyumachi, or Dunetown in English, situated next to a seaside sand dunes (most likely the ones in Tottori Prefecture).

On the way there, the duo have a number of close calls. First, when the train makes a brief stop, Ken dashes out to buy some box lunches, but just barely makes it back on the train, getting his tail caught in the train door. "I'm all right. I'm all right." says the good-natured Ken as the conductor bandages his tail.

Next, as they are walking across the sand dunes, Ken is snatched up and buried alive by a dog. But finally, just when the sun is about to set, they arrive at Grandma's house. Grandma stitches up the bedraggled Ken, and after a long hot Japanese bath together they all feel refreshed and squeaky clean. Staying a few days with Grandma, Amy and Ken return home, agreeing that it sure was good to visit Grandma.

Here is a story about the deep bond that develops between a child and her stuffed animal. What is magical about this storybook is that in the first few pages, Ken is nothing more than a stuffed toy sitting motionless next to the crib, yet it enthralls as the story progresses, and by the end anyone would swear that this fox was really alive.

There are other bonds that this story touches on: the bonds between grandparents and grandchildren. This bond can be seen in the big hug Grandma gives Amy when she comes running into her arms after a long day of adventure. Furthermore, although Hayashi doesn't mention this in the book, she has revealed elsewhere that Ken actually was made of late Grandpa's old jacket, and this is very heartwarming.

This story also gently opens many "cultural windows" on Japan. As one third of this story takes place on a train, it first and foremost introduces the whole culture of trains in Japan--the hard seats, the starched linen head rests, and the conductor's kind and courteous conduct. Trains play a very important role in travel and the transport of passengers, still accounting for about one fourth of Japan's transport-passenger kilometers.

The whole cultural tradition of ekiben, box lunches sold at train stations, usually containing local specialties, is depicted vividly in this story. With more than 2000 varieties of ekibens nationwide, this culture is still very much a part of Japan today, although the very brief station stops of the Shinkansen no longer allow for the thrill of jumping off the train to buy your ekiben on the platform.

The most difficult parts in translating this story were the very beginning and the very end. The very beginning--the title of this story--in Japanese is Kon to Aki, Kon being the fox's name and Aki being the girl's name. Kon in Japanese is a very foxy name in that kon-kon is the onomatopoeia for the yelping sound a fox makes.

Kenji Miyazawa (1896-1933), for example, names one of his foxes in Crossing the Snows (Yukiwatari) Konsaburo or "Kon Boy." A more direct translation of this name might be "Yelper," but this would be too distracting. And the name Kon, most likely pronounced the same as Con in English, doesn't exactly have the best connotations: Con is short for "convict" or "confidence trick."

Aki is a very nice Japanese girl's name, but just to keep the feeling of this story very familiar, we decided to call these two Amy and Ken, names that work both in English and Japanese.

Next, the very end of this story in the original and our translation is as follows.

Omakeni, dekitatenoyoni kireina kitsune ni narimashita. Soshite tsugino tsuginohi, Kon to Aki wa, uchi e kaerimashita.
Yokatta!"

He looked and felt like a brand new fox. After staying two more nights with Grandma, Ken and Amy returned home.
"It was so good to see Grandma, wasn't it?" said Ken.
"Sure was!" said Amy.

Hayashi ends her text with the word Yokatta! (Great!). This is a beautiful finish for this happy-ending adventure, simple and to the point. The whole story is summed up in this one Japanese word and leaves the reader with a warm feeling. Yet, if we tried the same in English, it wouldn't work. If we ended with "That was great!" it would be too abrupt and it would lack the feeling of closure so necessary in English.

So, we chose to end it with this short dialogue between Amy and Ken. This closing was in fact a point of great discussion between us and the original publisher, and we hope we have been successful in conveying the same feeling into English.

In Japanese or in English, here is a gem of a storybook. A storybook that captivates and invites the reader, young or old, to join Amy and Ken on their journey to Grandma's and home again. A reassuring tale reminding us that there is nothing more precious than a good friend.


Howlett, born and raised in Hokkaido, teaches at Hakodate La Salle Junior and Senior High School, while McNamara, a British-trained psychologist, is a lecturer at Kumamoto Prefectural University. Their translation works include the Guri and Gura series. This article was originally published in The Daily Yomiuri on May 4, 2004.



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