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Firechick's Book Reviews: Totto-chan: The Little Girl at the Window



I give one of Japan's best selling autobiographies...a 70/100.

I was bored, so I decided to look up books online and see if I can satisfy some reading cravings. Totto-chan was one of the books that caught my interest. I ordered it at Barnes and Noble over my vacation and now I own it. So what do I think of it? Well, I think it's a nice little autobiography about schooling, sterile education, passionate teachers, and World War II, but there were times when the events that happened in the book, which are explicitly said to have happened in real life, seriously baffle me to no end. I can see why this is such a bestseller, and I do like it, but I'm not quite sure if certain elements in this book would fly past censors if it managed to get published today, and how certain parts flew past the censors back when it was translated in 1984 is beyond me.

So the bulk of the book is about the author's childhood experiences in an unorthodox--as in outside the norm or not like the rest of the traditional Japanese schools--school called Tomoe Gakuen. After she gets expelled for her bad behavior, Tetsuko, affectionately nicknamed Totto-chan by family and her peers, is transferred to the new school, which isn't like all the other schools. The headmaster, Sosaku Kobayashi, eschews traditional Japanese norms regarding education and pretty much lets kids do their own thing, such as make up their own school schedules for studying, lets them play outside and doesn't worry about them getting dirty, tries to understand and accommodate every child, allows them to discover the wonders of nature, allows them to be themselves, and doesn't believe in shunning even the disabled or foreign, even though certain religions and handicaps were not considered acceptable by Japanese society back in World War II, especially if the emperor of the time, Hirohito, didn't approve of it.

Strangely enough, the novel is extremely episodic in nature, and all of the chapters, which are very short bordering on 2-3 pages long at most, are about Totto-chan's life both in and out of school and her experiences. There's one chapter about her teaching a kid with polio how to climb a tree, another about an incident about her dog biting her by accident, another about her raising chicks, another about kids swimming in the school's pool, etc. This is rare for a novel, especially an autobiography, as usually an episodic format is reserved for children's TV shows or Japanese dramas, and novels usually have overarching storylines and big events that keep people interested. But for the most part, the chapters are very short, short enough to breeze through without missing anything, and the prose is extremely accessible, not too beige but not purple either, so it's pretty easy to read. I'm sure children between the ages of 8-14 can read it easily. I'm sure I would have if I ever read this back when I was young. Plus, there isn't much that happens throughout the novel, as it's mostly just a series of random chapters detailing Totto-chan's life and some things she experienced in her younger days, so there's no real beginning, middle, or end, and it feels more like you're there watching a bunch of kids play in the park, which is fitting since that's what the book is about. I do like how it doesn't really follow a typical three-act structure.

The illustrations are really simplistic, as they're basically just watercolor paintings of Totto-chan and others sprinkled throughout the book. They look rather haphazard, like someone tried to paint kids but instead made them look like aliens that came out of a river, but they're not bad. They're pretty simplistic enough for kids to enjoy, and they still barely manage to toe the line between cartoony and realistic. Plus, it does add to the childlike nature of the story, since we're reading the story through the eyes of a child, and it's a pretty safe bet that if kids were to make watercolor drawings, the illustrations here would be eerily reminiscient of what most kids would attempt to paint.

Since the book is so episodic, there's not much room for actual character development, as the only ones who get a lot of focus are Totto-chan, her parents, some classmates such as Yasuaki, and the headmaster. But they're all relatively good characters in their own right and since this is a slice-of-life story, and an autobiography no less, they don't really need to develop, as they're all portrayed realistically, shown as people just going about their lives even though World War II is sneaking up on them. I did find Totto-chan to be pretty funny, as she's pretty much a gigantic tomboy, and an imaginative girl who explores her neighborhood despite the consequences, would much rather play outside and watch street musicians rather than sit at a desk all day, throws tantrums if she doesn't get what she wants, causes trouble, and doesn't always realize her actions can get herself in trouble, but she's still shown as a genuinely good kid who wants to make her friends happy and do the right thing, such as helping her friend climb a tree and pleads for her parents not to euthanize her dog Rocky bit her. She's the kind of girl I'm sure you've run into at least once in your life, and I could definitely relate to some of her experiences, such as when her baby chicks die despite trying to raise them, and when Rocky dies while she's out on a trip, and when her parents try to hide things from her but she knows something's up and won't stand to be kept in the dark. It ties into the themes of education and how children are smarter than people give them credit for.

Unfortunately, this book isn't perfect, even though I did enjoy reading it. The episodic nature can definitely turn people off, especially if you're expecting something big to happen like someone gets kidnapped and is enslaved by a psycho for ten years, or bombs come falling down and destroying everything. While it's true that most autobiographies detail events that happened in the author's life, such as the wars, the Holocaust, a bad experience such as being kidnapped or enslaved or sexually abused by a psycho, it's unrealistic to think that that's the only experiences people go through in their lives. True, Totto-chan is set during World War II, and the ending definitely solidifies this, but that's not what Totto-chan is about. So...yeah, if you're looking for detailed accounts of someone going through a terrible time in their life, this isn't the autobiography for you.

Now I think it's time I address the elephant in the room, the thing that keeps me from actually LOVING the book to high heaven. There's one chapter where Totto-chan and the kids go swimming in the pool at Tomoe, but none of them have their swimsuits, so the teacher allows them to...swim naked. One pool, full of nude kids aged 6-8, both boys and girls, naked in a big pool with a male teacher. Yeaaaaahhhhh...to be fair, the book DOES provide a decent explanation: the teacher feels that children shouldn't be ashamed of or overly curious about the differences between their bodies and felt that people taking pains ro hide their bodies just didn't feel natural. He wanted to teach the kids that all bodies are beautiful, ridding the kids of feelings of shame and prevent them from developing inferiority complexes. Understandably, the chapter does address parents being uncomfortable with this, and while I do applaud the teacher's intentions, and understand that Japan has always had different cultural views on children and underaged nudity, if someone attempted something like this here in America, they'd be accused of being a budding pedophile no matter their intentions. There might have been better ways to teach kids that rather than let boys and girls swim in a big pool in their birthday suits supervised by a male teacher. But the good thing is, the chapter is only two or three pages long and doesn't affect the story in any way, so you can easily skip it and not miss out on anything. But if you're easily offended by this stuff to the point where you'll drop something like this entirely...I don't know what to tell you.

However, I don't think the book should be dropped just because of that. Other than a couple of boggling writing choices, Totto-chan is actually a very subtle critique of Japan's stubbornly conformist and conservative education system, and it still holds up even to this day. Japan and America have different views on education. American kids go to school but are allowed individual freedom to decide what they want to be. The Japanese, however, mostly feel that all members of their society should conform to a certain ideal and aim for the same goal, and anyone who doesn't conform or adhere to society's views or values is considered an outcast or deemed a hindrance, a burden, or a blemish on their traditionalist reputations. Totto-chan's main lesson is that no matter where you come from, education should be to allow children to grow, to allow them the freedom to become their own individuals, as stifling them with rules and conformist views that'll make them feel ashamed to be themselves won't help them become productive members of society. Especially so since it's because of Kobayashi that Tetsuko Kuroyanagi became the famous writer, TV personality, and UNICEF goodwill ambassador that she is. Granted, Japan is still pretty rooted in its very traditionalist and even backward views on issues such as education and even sexual harassment, but the fact that Totto-chan has sold 5 million copies before 1982, at the time becoming the best selling book in Japanese history, says a lot about the book's overall impact and how true the message rings to not just the Japanese, but to the whole world.

In the end, it's not a perfect book, but it's still a very good book with a very important message and a good outlook on what it means to educate and what it means to be a child and to allow someone to become an individual.
Tags: autobiography, book, reviews, totto-chan
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