Doctor Takashi Kawashima is Professor of German literature at Kyoto University, a
specialist of the work of Kafka and Johanna Spyri. He was invited to the last Salon du Livre in
Geneva where he participated in a discussion on the reception of Heidi in Japan. Jean-Michel Wissmer,
author of a recently published essay on the « myth » of Heidi, took part with him in this
presentation and has taken the opportunity to ask him a few questions on this « love story »
between Heidi and his country.
JMW. Dr. Kawashima, how did you become interested in Heidi ?
TK. As a book-loving child, I read a lot of Western classics of children’s literature and Heidi
was among them. But when I grew up, I was shocked by the fact that other people had a totally
different image of Heidi – because they knew only the animated cartoon by Isao Takahata
(1974) and I only the original novels by Johanna Spyri. That is why I got interested in this theme,
namely the diversity of images of Heidi.
JMW. Can you explain in a few words why Heidi is so popular in Japan ?
TK. There are many reasons, and you must distinguish the animated TV series from
the novel Heidi. After the Second World War, this novel became very popular in Japan and countless
translations were published. A possible explanation for this is the rise of the democratic culture
after the war, based on a strong yearning for the Occident, which encouraged Japanese people to
read more Western classics.
On the other hand, the great success of the animation Heidi, Girl of the Alps is due to the
specificity of the Japanese society around 1970. At a time when the post-war economic growth
slowed down, people became more conscious of the negative consequences of a rapid economic
growth (such as environmental destruction), and as the ecology boom began they called more for
different values than economic wealth. The world depicted in the animation Heidi just matched
the trend very well : The director Takahata removed the Christian elements in the original novel,
replacing them with a kind of animistic religion where the nature of the Alps is worshipped.
Furthermore, it should be noted that those who upheld the popularity of Heidi were
primarily women. Although Japan had joined the group of developed countries in terms of
economic standards, its women were yet to advance in the social scenes due to a still strong
influence of a patriarchal system. Heidi had offered an optimum refuge for women living in
such a repressive social regime.
JMW. In Romandie, in the 1930s, Charles Tritten made new translations of Heidi
and added new sequels (Heidi jeune fille ; Heidi et ses enfants). Do the Japanese know those
versions and sequels (unknown in the German-speaking countries) ?
TK. Yes and no… Two sequels by Charles Tritten were translated into Japanese in the year
2003, but they were retranslations from the English version – Heidi Grows Up (1938) and Heidi’s
Children (1939) – which diverge from the French originals strikingly.
JMW. Do you think many Japanese people see Switzerland as a « Heidiland » ?
TK. Yes, I think so. Many people – especially women – do associate Switzerland with
beautiful mountains, meadows and cheese, an image derived for the most part from the animation
Heidi. Of course, there are other images besides “Heidiland”, for example: Switzerland as a
“permanently neutral” power (which in Japan has an extremely positive connotation), as a very
“rich” country and so on.
JMW. Did you learn more by coming for the first time to Switzerland when invited to
the Salon du Livre in Geneva, and has your image of Switzerland now changed ?
TK. Yes, of course! My image of Switzerland had been that of a relatively “closed” society.
But here in Geneva, I saw many immigrants from various countries. I had a feeling that the Swiss
society was changing rapidly.
JMW. What is the importance of children’s literature in Japan ? There must be
something else besides Heidi…
TK. As I said above, Western classics of children’s literature played a crucial role in the
Japanese society after the war. Although young people today tend to read less and less books
(as everywhere in the world), you can still get very good translations of them in bookstores and
libraries in Japan. Perhaps, the most popular among them is the novel Anne of Green Gables,
whose animated version again by Takahata (1979) also had a huge success.
JMW. In the Western hemisphere we see Japan as a very traditional country ; is it still
the case ?
TK. I don’t think so. A great change has occurred since the end of the war – or more
correctly, since the Meiji Revolution in the year 1868. In the course of modernization and
westernization, the traditional way of life has almost totally disappeared. Today, Buddhist
temples and Shinto shrines belong more to the tourist industry than to our everyday life. While
the older generation (born before the war) has a relatively strong religious belief, younger people
do not have spiritual centers any more. That is, I think, one of the main reasons why Heidi with
its spiritual messages gained such a large popularity in Japan.
The French version of this interview will be published on the website of the Institut suisse
Jeunesse et Médias : www.ricochet-jeunes.org