September 2002 : "The Visible and Invisible Worlds", at the Congress in Basel, Switzerland, organized by IBBY(International Board on Books for Young People)
[The Visible and Invisible Worlds]
In my childhood spent in an old quarter of Tokyo sixty years ago, I remember that the visible and the invisible worlds were very closely linked. I believe it had something to do with the houses we lived in.
The traditional Japanese house is built by the post-and-beam method. The spaces between the posts are filled in with solid or moveable walls, usually leaving many openings. Rather than providing solid shelter against the unknown enemy, it is essentially open to and merged with its natural surroundings.
People who live in such houses are closely attuned to nature and to its unseen forces and spirits. The natural sounds from the out-of-doors were part of our indoor life. Perhaps this is why our language and literature are particularly rich with onomatopoeia expressing the sounds and impressions of our natural environment.
And just as we came and went freely between the natural landscape and the human-created space of our homes, we thought of the invisible or mystical world and the visible or real world as closely linked. I think even today the spirits of nature and of the deceased are part of our daily consciousness and customs.
In mid-summer, for example, we observe the customs of what we call Obon. In the seventh month, we celebrate the visit to our homes of the spirits of family ancestors. In the evening of the first of the three days of Obon, the family members assemble and light a signal fire for the spirits. The spirits are thought to travel on wisps of smoke from the invisible world to the visible world. In my home, we would open up all the sliding panels and doors of our house to greet the spirits. Compared to Santa Claus, who always came in through the chimney, they could come in from almost anywhere!
Since my mother died when I was four, I thought only of the spirit of my mother when Obon came around. My father, pressing his hands together in the direction of the smoke from the signal fire, would murmur as he prayed: "Welcome back, our esteemed ancestors. We raised the floor a little higher this year--be careful not to stumble," or "We shifted the furniture, so please don't lose your way." As a small child listening to him, I was thoroughly convinced, even though I could not see my mother, that she was really back with us at Obon.
Influenced by this way of building houses with numerous openings, the "invisible world" was always right there, close by, and it was linked to our own world. The two worlds existed side by side and were on good terms.
The advancement of science and civilization has greatly modernized and improved our lives in many respects. But that advancement drove away all worlds other than this world. People of the days before modern times believed that there was another world that existed back-to-back with this world. That must have been true even in the West before it entered the modern age ahead of other parts of the world. With modernization, the distance between the visible and the invisible worlds increased, and people's interest gradually became fixed only on the world they could see with their own eyes. People began to place higher value on clear-cut answers, numerically calculated things, and efficiency first.
Can we go on like this? It was having those two worlds, in fact, that made human beings different from other animals in the first place!
One of my stories is about a 13-year-old witch who is a link between these two worlds. It is entitled Kiki's Delivery Service. Kiki has been reared in the modern world, so there is only one kind of witchcraft she can use: flying through the air on a broom. The important role she can play, however, is to show people that there is still mystery and magic in this world.
Using the one kind of witchcraft she knows, she starts a delivery service. She transports not just things you can see but things you cannot see. She is, in other words, an intermediary between the visible and the invisible worlds.
It makes me somewhat uneasy, actually, to speak of two separate worlds using the words "visible" and "invisible." The two are, after all, inseparably mingled, just as I felt them to be when I was a small girl at the time of Obon.
Imagine a small child's wonder gazing at a flower or a pebble: A single flower is the visible and the invisible together--the whole mystery of life! One small pebble embodies a whole history in its making.
As part of the normal process of growing up, a child learns to discern the difference between the visible and the invisible. Gradually, we lose our sense for and capability to see the invisible, but still, the whole mystery of creation is there within everything.
Kiki carries parcels of various kinds from one person to another, and in the process she becomes aware of the rich world of things you cannot see with your eyes. It is the story of her growth from these experiences. What Kiki discovers--or rather re-discovers--is that both the visible and the invisible are indispensable in our lives. They nourish our imaginations and our empathy and respect for one another. Stories, moreover, cannot even begin without the visible and the invisible worlds.
Next year the original story of Kiki and her delivery service will be published in English and in Italian translation. I hope that many of you will have a chance to read it.
Children's literature cannot transform the world overnight, but I believe that it does possess the power to change our world. Children's literature must not be touched by ideology. Its role should rather be to quietly and unobtrusively afford encounters with mystery, arouse curiosity, and nudge creativity, nourishing and supporting the experiences that are different for each and every one of us.