Allison's Book Bag

Child Abandonment in Japan

Posted on: March 18, 2013

Akira and his mother struggle up the stairs to their new apartment with two heavy suitcases. His little brother and sister are hiding inside because the landlord doesn’t permit young children in the building.

The above description comes from the inside flap of Nobody Knows, a novelization by Shelley Tanaka of a prize-winning Japanese film which was based on of an event that happened in Tokyo. The narration has been described by Booklist as “simple and lucid”. There are occasional black-and-white photos in the book from the film.


A third-generation Japanese Canadian, Shelley Tanaka was born and raised in Toronto, Ontario. According to her biography at Through the Looking Glass, Tanaka has worked as an editor for thirty years. This position enabled her to work with many best-selling authors in Canada and to edit twelve books which have won the prestigious Governor General’s Award. In addition, Tanaka is a nonfiction author and a translator.

When interviewed at Cynsations, Tanaka revealed that she spent a long time being afraid of trying to write fiction. She was intimidated by the talent of the novelists she worked with. But eventually she wrote a short story for a Scholastic Dear Canada anthology and a novelization of a film (Nobody Knows). Currently, she’s working on a longer piece of middle-grade fiction. “But it has taken me a long time to build up enough confidence to do this. Baby steps.”


When I first read Nobody Knows, my reaction was it could have been set in a number of cities. The family lives in an apartment which doesn’t allow children under ten. The mother struggles to find enough work to support her four children, two of whom she smuggled inside with suitcases. When the family has hit hard times before, Social Services stepped in and tried to separate the three siblings. So, now the family is extra careful to avoid being caught, but what happens when the mother can’t find employment or pay the bills? This sounds like a situation familiar to many North American families.

It took research to help put the film into context for me. When I typed in “Sugamo child-abandonment incident,” I found a couple entries from Japanese-based publications. For example, Japan Cinema labeled it as one of the ten best Asian movies based on real events. Hiroshimaoyaka Blog Spot described the film as a “must see for parents living with their families in Japan especially” and went on to say the film was true to life in Japan. I also read an article from the Los Angeles Times, which gave me insight into the broader context of this story. Apparently, changes in Japanese culture have transformed mothers into the parent solely responsible for the care of their children. The article also cited an explanation from the director of the film: “These families exist where children are actually abandoned within the confines of their homes. The only time that street children were spoken of or even paid attention to was directly after the war. So now there is this neglect going on, but it hasn’t come to the forefront because people aren’t talking about it.”

As for the film, Wikipedia informs me that Nobody Knows is a 2004 Japanese film directed by Hirokazu Koreeda. The film was first shown at the Cannes Film Festival and subsequently released in Japanese cinemas. Not only did the film receive positive reviews from critics, it grossed over two million worldwide and won several awards at the Cannes Film Festival. The director opted not to make feel-good movie but instead to become stoic, because he wanted the audience to “take away something” from the film.

After the above research, I still had the nagging question about why did Shelley Tanaka decide to novelize this film? You can find her answer at Writing With A Broken Tusk. To summarize, after Tanaka saw the film, she couldn’t get it out of her head. When she considered writing a positive end, she decided to stick to the real-life version, when the director advised her that a happy conclusion would miss the point of the film. She also opted not to expand upon the movie version, because each time she tried to rewrite a scene it felt false and so finally decided if she could “transfer the film to the page, then the reader would bring the rest, the same way the viewer does to the film.”


Because Nobody Knows is set in Japan, you might be interested in these sites about Japanese literature:

GoJapan provides an one-page historical overview and includes a list of authors. According to the article, Western literature has influenced Japanese literature from the outset. Of most interest to me as a reviewer of books for young people is that as of the 1950’s, children’s literature has flourished in urban Japan. Since that time, newer entrants including younger women have brought new vitality to the field.

Contemporary Japanese Literature features book reviews and is hosted by a graduate student in East Asian Languages and Civilizations Department, who completed her dissertation in ““The Female Gaze in Contemporary Japanese Literature.” Her current research focuses on Japanese fiction and graphic novels written during the past three decades.

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