It is internationally known that the book Anne of Green Gables has a huge fan presence in Japan. From the Green Gables replica at Japan’s Canadian World themed park, to the nursing school of Green Gables created for nursing students; but how did Anne of Green Gables become so popular in a territory that is so distinct and far away from Canada where the story had actually originated from?
It all first started with a kind gesture between missionary Loretta Leonard Shaw and translator Hanako Muraoka.
Loretta Leonard Shaw was born in 1872 in Saint John, New Brunswick, to a family that belonged to the Wesleyan Methodist Church. She was a quick learner and a sharp scholar, and graduated school with honors and specialized in modern languages at the University of New Brunswick. In 1895 she went to the training school for teachers and obtained the highest marks achieved to that date, and taught at grammar school in Cambridge and returned to Saint John in 1904.
When Loretta was back home, she was looking for ways to fulfill her missionary work. The Missionary Society of the Church of England in Canada accepted her for service in Japan and she left the same year. Loretta picked up the Japanese language in 1 year instead of the usual 2, and began teaching in Osaka at the Bishop Poole Memorial School for girls. Education for girls was considered relatively unimportant at the time, however during Shaw’s period of service the school’s enrollment increased from 50 to 500 students. In 1932, she became the Head of the Department for Women and Children’s Literature at the Christian Literature Society of Japan.
Hanako Muraoka was born in 1893 in Kofu, Japan, into an impoverished family of tea merchants. At age 10, she left her parents to attend the illustrious Tokyo Eiwa Jogakuin school founded by the Methodist Church of Canada. She received an intensive English-based education, with Japanese based subjects in the morning and English in the afternoon. She graduated in 1913 and shortly after began translating and publishing children’s short stories as encouraged by translator Katayama Hiroko(1878–1957). In 1917, she published her first book Rohen.
In 1919, Muraoka married Keizo Muraoka and they had a son together in 1920. Keizo owned a printing company and after the great Kanto earthquake in 1923,the business went bankrupt in 1926. They restarted the business in their home and soon after Hanako’s 6 year old son died, ultimately leaving her depressed. Katayama suggested to her to translate Mark Twain’s book The Prince and Pauper (1927) into Japanese. This would help her keep her occupied and help her resume regular life.
In the early 1930s Loretta and Hanako met at the Christian Literature Society of Japan, which published and distributed spiritual reading material. They worked together as editors on the magazine “Children of Light”, and Loretta wrote an article called “Utopia” discussing how she and her fellow editors considered themselves ambassadors for their cultures, and the best way to do this was to introduce the best books from each nation to each other. Hanako was also busy working as a radio host, where she explained the news to children and became known as ‘Aunty Radio’. She also gave birth to her daughter, Midori Muraoka.
In 1939 just before the breakout of WWII, Loretta gave Hanako a copy of Anne of Green Gables as a parting gift, in hopes that she would consider translating it to Japanese. Unable to stay due to ill health and war time pressures, Loretta quickly returned back to New Brunswick in Canada, and unfortunately passed away from cancer on July 29th 1940.
After Japan attacked Pearl Harbor in 1941, Hanako resigned from her radio job and the missionaries Hanako worked with were forced to leave the country. Hanakao found solace in the book Anne of Green Gables, with the pastoral green settings and Anne’s passion for literature resonating with her own childhood. In 1943, she began secretly translating the book into Japanese, being fully aware that she risked imprisonment, and even death, if she got caught with the book from the ‘enemy nation’. Hanako finished the bulk of the book during the war and held on to it whenever the air raid sirens went off.
When WWII had come to an end the Japanese publishing industry was in shambles. The strict censorship from the allied occupation forces and lack of money meant that there was no chance of printing anything new. However around the 1950s things began to pick up again, and in 1952 the publisher Mikasa Shobo took a chance on the unknown Canadian author. They suggested the title Akage no An (red-haired Anne), but Hanako hated it and wanted to call it Madobe ni yoru shojo (The Little Girl at the Window). She shared this with her daughter who preferred the publisher’s idea, and realized it was girls her age that would be reading the book. She then went back to the publisher and agreed.
When the book became published it was an immediate success. Douglas Bladwin, who wrote the journal article L.M. Montgomery’s Anne of Green Gables The Japanese Connection, said
“like Anne Shirley, Japanese women live in an extremely conservative society in which all actions are strictly bound by convention.”
The character Anne Shirley had provided inspiration and encouragement at freeing women from the traditional Japanese gender roles. A Japanese scholar pointed out that,
“Japanese women admire Anne Shirley’s feistiness as an antidote to the passivity instilled in Japanese women.”
Not much of English children’s literature existed in Japanese translation, but because the book was also foreign and cheap to publish, it was widely distributed in libraries run by the US State Department in Allied- occupied Japan. The Japanese scholar Hiromi Ochi, claimed that Anne of Green Gables might have been a part of America’s plan to rapidly democratize Japan after the war. In the 1970s, it was added to the Japanese curriculum.
In 1986 the national obsession started to grow even further. Shortly after the broadcast of Kevin Sullivan’s Anne of Green Gables (1985), a Japanese businessman signed a contract to import more than 1.4million worth of potatoes from Prince Edward Island based on the fact that they came from Anne’s island. In the 1990s, the Green Gables replica was built in the Canadian Themed Park in Japan. To this day, excerpts from the Anne of Green Gables movie scripts are used in Japan’s English exams and text books.
By the age of 75, Hanako had translated numerous English classics, such as Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (1952), A Little Princess (1954), and The Secret Garden (1955); but of course it would be Anne of Green Gables (1952) as well as the sequels (1954-1959) that would be her biggest achievements. Every year about 3500 Japanese tourists come visit the small populated Prince Edward Island.
Hanakao had always intended to visit Prince Edward Island, but as revealed by her granddaughter Eri Muraoka in 2014, something always came up that took precedence.
“Caring for her husband, who was frequently sick, or making sure my mother stayed with me.”
Hanako planned her first trip in 1968, but unfortunately died of stroke on October 25. Eri said, however, it may have been better in the end.
“It may have been for the best that the island she knew was the perfect one she had created with her translation.”
To learn more about Hanako Muroka's life and her translation of Anne of Green Gables, read the book Anne's Cradle: The Life & Works of Hanako Mauroka, Japanese Translator of Anne of Green Gables. Find the book here.
Toyo Eiwa Jogakuin archives, courtesy of Nimbus publishing’