Using Kamishibai

Kamishibai (lit. ‘paper theatre’ – kami = paper, shibai = (a) play / acting) is a traditional Japanese storytelling technique. A set of colour picture cards is used to provide visual stimulus while the story is being read from the back. Simple versions just consist of a set of pictures, which are held up by the storyteller, more elaborate kami shibai can include a ‘theatre’ box into which the cards are slotted.

Kamishibai do not have words with the pictures. The storyteller does not need to peer round the edge of a page to read. Instead, the words corresponding to the picture being shown are written on the back of the last picture in the pack. This simple design trick allows you to move each picture from the front to the back of the pack while reading. Thus the words can flow without the interruption of the storyteller leaning over to find space to put sheets down.

This format lends itself to various classroom activities

  • Describing and sequencing key incidents:
    – having heard the story, pupils try and order a jumbled set using just the pictures as clues.
    – pupils create their own picture set and use it to retell a story.
    (- alternatively, give pupils the pictures before they hear the story. Ask them to order them and write a sentence for each picture, describing the action. Then read the original story and compare it with the pupils’ version.)
  • Encouraging prediction:
    – before moving on to reveal the next picture in the sequence, pupils are asked what they think might happen.
    – many stories have patterns of repeated action or speech typical of traditional tales, which pupils will recognise.
  • Investigating the setting:
    Traditional stories have similar themes and patterns everywhere in the world. In kamishibai the setting is typically Japanese, allowing pupils to discuss what elements might change, if the story were set elsewhere. They can use their previous knowledge of story patterns as an aid to interpreting an unfamiliar cultural setting. For example, pupils might not previously have come across a kibi dango or even a samurai, but they will be able to make connections from their knowledge of gingerbread or brave princes in more familiar tales. In the same way, the homes, costumes and food may all be specific to a Japanese context but the storytelling conventions themselves are universal.
  • Increasing language awareness:
    – use of Japanese onomatopoeic words can lead into discussion of why familiar sounds are represented differently in other languages.
    – Japanese uses two phonetic alphabets (hiragana and katakana). This makes it easy to count phonemes in Japanese words and makes the pronunciation simple once you have established the five vowel sounds. (roughly: ‘a’ as ‘u’ in ‘up’; ‘i’ as ‘i’ in ‘it’; ‘u’ as ‘u’ in ‘put’; ‘e’ as ‘e’ in ‘pet’; and ‘o’ as ‘o’ in ‘pot’.)

Borrow a Kamishibai Set

Japan Society’s Japan in Your Classroom volunteers frequently use kamishibai in their school visits and have created their own sets. Several stories in English, are available for loan to schools. The ages in brackets are a very rough guide to suitability. Much depends on your class, on how you tell the story and on what related activities you bring in.

  • Momotaro (Peach Boy) tells the story of a boy found in a peach who grows up to defeat the monsters terrorising his village. (Reception – Y3)
  • Hanasaka Jii-san (The old man who makes flowers blossom) is a classic tale of good rewarded and wickedness reaping its just deserts. (Years 1 – 4)
  • Kaguyahime (The Moon Princess aka The Bamboo Cutter’s Tale) is a legend from ancient Japan. (Years 4 – 6)

To borrow kamishibai, please contact us. Alternatively you can download PDF versions of kamishibai here:

Momotaro (story)
Momotaro (pictures)

Tsuru no Ongaeshi (story)
Tsuru no Ongaeshi (pictures)

Kaguyahime (story)
Kaguyahime (pictures)

Hanasaka Ji-san (story)
Hanasaka Ji-san (pictures)

For details of other materials available for loan visit our loan resources page.

If you have any comments or questions, or experience problems downloading or viewing the resources, please email us

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