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Mar. 10, 2015 - Updated 04:16 UTC

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New adventures for Little Daruma, 50 years on

Kaori Hizume

Jan. 18, 2018

There is a children’s story in Japan that spans generations. Little Daruma has been popular for more than 50 years. The character is a much loved folk hero.

Little Daruma and his friends teach children how to face and overcome challenges, and make the world a better place.

Readers of the series remain fans their whole lives.

“My parents bought me his books, and now I want my child to read them too,” says a mother at a bookstore.

Satoshi Kako is the creator of Little Daruma. He has published new picture books at the ripe old age of 91. The stories are set in Tohoku, the site of the Great East Japan Earthquake, and Okinawa, where people still bear the scars of World War Two. We bring you a report on the new series, and Satoshi Kako's message to the next generation.

The Little Daruma series continues to be a best seller in Japan, long passing the one-million mark. And Kako's stories have been translated into many other Asian languages, like Chinese and Vietnamese.

The Dharma is known around the world as a Buddhist symbol of wisdom. This is the inspiration for Little Daruma. And Kako has added three new characters to the series. Each is imbued with the values he has long cherished.

Satoshi Kako will soon be 92 years old. His struggle with glaucoma has left him with a narrow field of vision. It took him three years to complete the new books, including planning, and his work was guided by his own life experience.

“I’m quite old now, so I really want to tell people what’s on my mind," he says. "And I want my readers to think deeply about these things.”

This book is written for people in Fukushima Prefecture, a region that is coping with nuclear disaster.

One day, Little Daruma takes part in a contest for monsters, living deep in the forest. One by one, the monsters stand up and brag about their powers.

Little Daruma grades each monster. They seem to represent the fearful aspects of science and technology that we cannot fully control, like nuclear power.

Kako wants to teach children to judge things as they are, and not be deceived by appearances.

“My message to children is that they should overcome the monsters," he says. "And think about creating a world they can believe in.”

Another story is set in the prefectures of Iwate and Miyagi, other areas affected by the Great East Japan Earthquake. The hero of the tale is Little Kamadon, known as a god of the hearth.

Little Daruma is playing house with Kamadon when a fire breaks out. Kamadon quickly jumps into the flames to protect the town from ruin. Everyone sighs with relief. But when they turn to thank Little Kamadon, he’s nowhere to be found.

Kako wants to say that the people who gave their lives to save others in the Tohoku tsunami will rest in peace.

“Ordinary people are always suffering and making sacrifices," he says. "In Little Daruma and Little Kamadon, I’ve created a hero or heroine who symbolizes such bravery.”

Kako says his experience of war shaped him as an artist. He dreamed of becoming a pilot as Japan became more militarized in the 1930s. But he didn't qualify.

He remembers a hurtful remark one of his teachers made.]

"'You’re worthless,' he said. 'You can’t even be a soldier.' This shocked me because I believed that everyone, whether they were a farmer or anything else, worked hard — just as hard as soldiers — to contribute to society. I thought, 'What a terrible man. I don't want to be that kind of person.'"

Kako was 19 when World War II ended. He was disheartened by the destruction in Japan, and he hoped future generations would be able to build a better world by using their own judgment rather than giving in to social pressure. Before long, Kako published his first Little Daruma.

The character is a Bodhidharma — a Buddhist symbol of wisdom — in child form. Kako has traveled in Japan and around Asia to meet his young readers.

He has made frequent trips to Okinawa Prefecture. One of his recent stories shows the struggles of people in Okinawa during and after the war.

Little Daruma is playing with Little Kijimuna, a spirit of Okinawa, when they hear a cry for help in the forest nearby. A giant habu, a pit viper, has grabbed hold of some people. The young duo fights the viper to rescue the captives.

This story alludes to the suffering of people in Okinawa, both during World War II and their ongoing struggle with the presence of US bases.

But Kako ends the book on a note of hope.

Little Daruma and Little Kijimuna save the people from the attack. But rather than killing the viper, the people suggest they release it back into the wild.

"Nothing good comes of hate."

This scene describes both Kako's hopes and those of the people of Okinawa for world peace.

"The people of Okinawa suffered greatly during the war, many of them dying tragically, and yet their struggle goes on," he says. "I hope to pass these memories on to the next generation, and foster a desire to do something for future children."

The new books arrive at a nursery. The teacher gathers the children.

"The new Little Daruma books have just arrived — let’s read them!"

She reads to them. They listen, rapt.

"Little Daruma and Little Kijimuna. Little Daruma went to Okinawa with his father."

They read two of Kako's books.

"I was glad to see the people save the viper's life, because they felt sorry for it," says a little girl.

"These books taught the children the importance of learning and being kind to one other," the teacher says. "I learned a lot from them, too."

That's what Kako is hoping for.

"I don't have any big statement to make, but I do hope that children will be able to cultivate their own strengths. You don't grow up just by accepting the knowledge that’s given to you. You have to be able to put it to use to help build your own future. I hope children learn to believe in themselves and use their strengths as they mature into adults."

Kako calls children “the Little Darumas of the future.” He wants his new books to give them hope, and help them build a better world.