{Books} Totto-chan: The Little Girl at the Window

Totto-chan

I’m freaking out.

Somehow, I have misplaced my copy of Totto-chan: The Little Girl at the Window.  Sure, I can buy another one on Ebay or even get the Kindle version on Amazon.  But it won’t be the same.  Because the copy I had was one that my mother gave to me on my 10th birthday and it can never really be replaced. 

Totto-chan is very special to me because it’s the first book I read that was set in Japan.  Much like “A Tree Grows in Brooklyn”, the story has no real plot but rather cobbles together a collection of charming stories based on the real life childhood of famed TV personality Testuko Kuroyanagi.  Nicknamed “Totto-chan”, we first meet our little heroine when she has been expelled from 1st grade for being a troublemaker.  Spunky and full of energy, Totto-chan never means to be bad, she simply can’t ignore all the invitations to adventure that seem to surround her at every turn.

Rather than scolding her for her expulsion, Totto’s chan’s progressive parents search for a school that can accommodate their daughter and nurture her liveliness instead of suppressing it.  They decide upon Tomoe Gakuen, an institution that could be described as a Montessori school in today’s terms.  Learning takes place in old railroad cars and the headmaster, Mr. Kobayashi celebrates the uniqueness of each child and makes it clear that everyone is equal to one another.

In this safe environment, we see Totto-chan grow and flourish into a wonderful little lady who still manages to get into a scrape or two (or three or four!).  In one funny episode, she spots a newspaper lying on the ground and takes a flying leap to land on it — only to discover that it was covering an open cesspool!  In another, she is playing “wolf” with her German Shepherd, Rocky, and he almost manages to bite her ear off.

We learn about the unconventional educational practices at Tomoe Gakuen.  Rather than all the learning taking place in the classroom, students take walks to discover nature, visit haunted temples, go on field trips to hot springs, and start the school day off with eurythmics.  Mr. Kobayashi finds ways to instill core values in his students using indirect, yet fun methods.  On one hot day, he summons all the children to the school’s swimming pool and tells them that they don’t need swimsuits, but can go in naked.  His purpose is to teach the children that all bodies are beautiful and no one should be ashamed or made to feel ashamed of their imperfections.  In teaching the children about public speaking, he invites one child a day to stand in front of their peers in the cafeteria and talk about anything they want.  One boy declares that he has nothing to say so Mr. Kobayashi asks him what he did that morning.  When the boy simply answers that he woke up, Mr. Kobayashi congratulates him on his ability to speak publicly and all the children applaud his efforts.  Encouraged, the boy musters up all of his courage and adds on that he brushed his teeth and went to school.  This passage speaks volumes about Mr. Kobayashi’s adept methods at nurturing confidence in his students.

There are poignant episodes, such as when Totto-chan’s two pet chicks die and when her dog, Rocky, disappears.  Even more devastating is the death of one of her best friends and classmates.  With World War II looming on the horizon, Tomoe Gakuen becomes a sanctuary of sorts.  Here, the children are safe from the horrors surrounding them.  Foodstuffs become scarce and Totto-chan’s beloved caramel candy vending machine never gets restocked.  There is talk of Totto-chan’s father, a famed violinist, playing wartime songs at a munition factory  in exchange for much needed food and supplies.  Unable to take the job as it goes against his morals, be begs for Totto-chan’s forgiveness which she cheerfully gives.

The book ends on a sad note as Tomoe Gakuen is bombed by B29s, causing the school to burn to the ground.  Totto-chan and her family flee Tokyo in an evacuation train headed northeast.  She reassures herself that she will one day see Mr. Kobayashi again.  She also  thinks about the times when he told her, “You’re really a good girl, you know,” and how she will never let herself forget those words.

As a child, I absolutely loved this book.  Totto-chan’s stories were so entertaining and I always had a warm feeling after reading it.  As an adult I am no less entertained, yet I am more moved by it now than when I was younger.    While it is a simple read, it is nevertheless very profound.  The impact that Mr. Kobayashi and Tomoe Gakuen had on Totto-chan is immeasurable.  Had she stayed in the conventional Japanese school system, there is no telling how Totto-chan might have turned out.  By her own admission, Tetsuko Kuroyanagi states that she would most likely have become “complex-ridden and confused”.  But under Mr. Kobayashi’s mentorship, she was able to find acceptance and the freedom to become her own person.  This book does more than merely recant stories from her childhood.  Rather, it is Ms. Kuroyanagi’s way of giving heartfelt thanks to the man who set her on the path to success and allowed her to embrace her individuality.