Naoko Uehashi

Hans Christian Andersen Award Winner Acceptance Speech

Tales of Coexistence

Nahoko Uehashi

I am honored and profoundly grateful to receive this award. There are so many people I would like to thank for having made this possible.

Let me begin by thanking the Directors of the International Board on Books for Young People, IBBY Founder Ms. Jella Lepman, and the Jury of the Hans Christian Andersen Award for their tireless promotion of peace and international understanding through the medium of children’s literature.

Thank you to JBBY, which selected me as the candidate from Japan, and to Cathy Hirano, who has done such a wonderful job of translating my work, including this speech, into English, and who has supported me in many ways.

Thank you to all the terrific editors and staff from Kasei-sha, Kodansha, Rironsha, and Shinchosha who made sure my works were published.

Thank you to my family and to my partner, who have helped me to grow and who support me in all that I do.

Thank you to the many authors whose works have enriched my life and nourished me, and thank you to my readers who enjoy the stories I write.

I am deeply grateful to all of you.

Let me also add, “Congratulations!” to fellow award winner, Roger Mello.

When the Award was announced, my editor called me from Italy. It was eleven-thirty at night in Japan, but I could hear loud cheering in the background and felt myself whisked away from the night into the bright Italian sunshine. And it suddenly hit me that on the other end of the phone, it was just as surely “here and now” in Italy as it was for me in Japan. At that same moment, it was noon, night, and morning, and people all over the world were living their lives.

Later, when I learned that the Jury had chosen me for this award because my works depict complex worlds and peoples with diverse value systems and environments, because they convey love and respect for nature and humankind, many episodes from my own life rose into my mind.

And a thought, deep and sure, washed through my heart like a wave against the shore. The thought that if any one of these episodes had not occurred—if I had not met that specific person, encountered that particular book, done that certain thing—I would not be experiencing the joy I feel today.

I grew up in an area of Tokyo known as shitamachi (literally, “downtown”). It is a very old area of the city that still retains its traditions and festivals and a sense of past eras, despite being located in the center of an ultramodern metropolis. As a child, I was physically weak and was often stuck in bed with a fever. But that proved to be a blessing in disguise. Because I was often bedridden, my grandmother told me many tales, and my parents read me many books to help me pass the time. As a result, by the time I was five or six, I was completely addicted to stories.

In this photo (photo_1), you can see me sitting on my mother's lap with my hand raised regally in the air. It must have been a special occasion, such as my birthday, because my mother is dressed in the traditional kimono which she almost never wore. My grandmother is sitting on the left, holding my teddy bear.

My grandmother came not from Tokyo but from southern Japan. She was a treasure-trove of folktales and a superb storyteller. Throughout my childhood, I would rest my head on her knees and listen to her rich repertoire of Japanese tales. The stories she told were not specifically for children but rather were oral traditions of actual events that had taken place in the area from which she came.

These included such tales as that of a cat who kidnapped a baby from a farmer’s wife, carried it to the top of a tree and raised it. My grandmother told me that when cats disappear, which they often do, they are usually on a quest for knowledge. A wandering cat might dance and play with a master shape changer and learn some magic. Never despise a cat that comes back, she told me, because it may have learned how to change into a human being.

The animals in my grandmother’s tales, often cats and foxes, had wisdom and emotions just as we do, and their stories fascinated me. Perhaps that is why I have always felt that insects, plants and even stones have lives of their own. As a child, when I would raise my foot to kick a pebble there were times when I would suddenly find myself inside the stone looking up at myself. “Oh, if she kicks me, it’ll hurt,” I would think.

That feeling is still there in the depths of my heart, even though I am now grown up. If I have a love and respect for nature, it is not for nature as something outside of myself but, rather, for the whole universe of which I feel myself a part.

In addition to my grandmother’s stories, a rich reading heritage also nourished my soul and shaped my worldview. For centuries, the Japanese people have cherished the pleasure of reading. From the mid-nineteenth century, Japanese translations of books from many languages became widely available. This meant that as a child, I could read not only books by Japanese authors but also those by authors from many different countries. And that is why and how, during my teens, I could encounter those books that were destined to change my life.

I devoured such books as the Swallows and Amazons series by Arthur Ransome, Philippa Pearce’s Tom’s Midnight Garden, Alison Uttley’s A Traveler in Time, Astrid Lindgren’s Bill Bergson detective series, Barbara Bartos-Höppner’s The Cossacks and Save the Khan, Reginald Ottley’s Boy Alone, and Ursula Le Guin’s Earthsea series. At seventeen, I read The Children of Green Knowe and was so captivated by the beauty of that story that I went to visit the author, Lucy M. Boston, in Cambridge. This photo (photo_2) is from that visit. At the time, Mrs. Boston was well over eighty years old.

I loved reading and read many books in translation, but of these, the ones that made the greatest impact on my life were Rosemary Sutcliff’s historical novels, such as Eagle of the Ninth, The Lantern Bearers, and Knight’s Fee, and J.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings.

Sutcliff’s stories often depict friendship between young people of different cultural and historical backgrounds.

Eagle of the Ninth vividly captures the deep cultural divide, the gap in social status and the differences in the personal histories of a young Roman centurion named Marcus and a youth from one of the indigenous tribes conquered by the Romans. 

The gap between the two was enormous, yet I felt that Sutcliff wrote this story with the vision that such differences can be transcended and bonds of deep and enduring friendship established. This was a great inspiration to me. Our world is inhabited by peoples of such diverse cultures, ethnicities, histories and social circumstances that perhaps conflict is only natural. Nevertheless, Sutcliff’s works gave me the hope that we can transcend these differences and peacefully coexist.

I went on to study cultural anthropology at university and to conduct my doctoral fieldwork in Australia, living with the Aboriginal people for many years. For my path in life, I chose to explore the meaning of multicultural coexistence, and Sutcliff’s works played a decisive role in my making this choice.

This photo (photo_3) was taken during the early days of my fieldwork. The aboriginal woman pictured here shared many wonderful stories with me.

Like Sutcliff’s historical fiction, Tolkien’s masterpiece of high fantasy The Lord of the Rings also powerfully proclaims the need for tolerant coexistence among diverse peoples as it follows the quest to “discard” a ring made to bind hobbits, dwarves, elves, and humans under a single, absolute value system.

Both these authors swept me into their worlds from the first page of their works. I shared the agony of Frodo as he wandered Middle Earth and traveled the frontiers of Britain with Marcus. As a teenager, I was enthralled by the power of these stories and longed to write such tales myself.

Stories give us the ability to be someone else.

The moment we open a book, it opens the door to a completely different culture and environment; it gives us the chance to become the protagonist of the tale, to live another’s life, to see the world through other eyes and to experience it through other senses.

This is very similar to what I experienced as a child when I found myself sucked inside a pebble and looking up at myself. The power of imagination is what makes this possible. We all possess this ability, every one of us on this planet, so surely we can find some way to walk together in all our diversity.

Books that you just can’t put down, tales that make your heart race, stories that make you feel what each character feels, that let you walk beside them to the end and find yourself in a different place from where you started—that is the kind of tale I want to tell. And with that longing in my heart, I will carry on writing.

Thank you so much.