Brain Pickings

Umbrella: A Tender Illustrated Love Letter to Time, Anticipation, and the Art of Waiting by Mid-Century Japanese Artist Taro Yashima

A beautiful and subtle ode to the fleeting moment between a bird and a balloon.

Jun Atsushi Iwamatsu (1908–1994) was already a successful artist in Japan when he and his wife, Tamao, also an artist, arrived in New York City in 1939 to study at the esteemed Art Students League. Shortly after their arrival, the United States declared war on Japan. Iwamatsu enlisted in the American Army and joined the Office of War Information and in the Office of Strategic Services as an artist. He adopted the pseudonym Taro Yashima in order to protect his remaining family in Japan — notably, his young son Mako, who had remained with his grandparents. When the war ended, the family retrieved Mako from Japan, welcomed a new baby girl named Momo, and was granted permanent residence thanks to a new bill enacted by Congress. But Iwamatsu kept his pseudonym and it was under it that he created some of the most lyrical and imaginative mid-century children’s books. The loveliest among them is the 1958 gem Umbrella (public library) — the story of a young Japanese girl born in New York City, modeled and named after Yashima’s own daughter, who receives a riveting pair of red rain boots and a blue umbrella for her birthday and grows restless for a rainy day on which to strut the gifts.

Behind Yashima’s immeasurably tender illustrations and crisp words is a subtler symbolic narrative about patience, the art of delay, what happens when we bring active attention to everyday life, and time’s remarkable tendency to slow down when we most want it to speed up.

When the coveted rainy day finally arrives amid New York’s Indian summer, Momo is so excited that she slips the boots onto her bare feet and rushes out the door, seeing afresh the familiar raindrops bouncing on the pavement.

On the umbrella,
raindrops made a wonderful music
she never had heard before —

Bon polo
bon polo
ponpolo ponpolo
ponpolo ponpolo
bolo bolo ponpolo
bolo bolo ponpolo
bolo bolo ponpolo
bolo bolo ponpolo

Though the story ends with Momo as “a big girl now,” a grown woman who has forgotten the story of the umbrella and that rainy day, Yashima leaves us with a subtle, ingenious wink at the small, imperceptible changes that make up the continuity of our lives — the bird and the balloon depicted on the book’s front endpapers have switched places by the back endpapers, bookending a fleeting slice of life amid the urban landscape. A brief moment has come and gone, just like all the micro-moments of which the totality of a life is woven, moments that begin to count only when we learn to live with presence.

Umbrella is immeasurably wonderful in its entirety. Complement it with Little Boy Brown, a very different yet equally rewarding mid-century ode to loneliness and childhood in New York City.

Thanks, Daneet

Published October 16, 2014




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