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Niimi Nankichi (新美南吉, 30 July 1913 - 22 March 1943), real name Watanabe Shōhachi (渡辺正八), was a Japanese writer remembered to this day for his children's books "Buying Mittens" (手袋を買いに Tebukuro o kai ni) and "Gon the Fox" (ごん狐 Gongitsune).
Niimi Nankichi was born in 1913 in Handa City, Aichi Prefecture, as the second son of Watanabe Tazō, a tatami maker, and his wife Rie. Nankichi's brother had been born a year earlier but died shortly after his birth. His mother died in 1917 when he was just four years old. His father remarried two years later; Nankichi's brother Masakichi was born just three days after the wedding.
In 1926, Nankichi enrolled at Handa Prefectural High-School and began writing children's songs and poems influenced by Akai tori (赤い鳥, "Red Bird"), a children's literary magazine published in Tōkyō between 1918 and 1936, as well as by the stories of Ogawa Mimei (小川未明, 1882-1961), a renowned author of children's stories and fairy tales. His literary talent showed early on when he impressed the audience at his school graduation ceremony with the recital of a haiku he had composed himself. In March 1931, he applied to the teacher training centre in Okazaki but failed the health check. In April of the same year, he started to work as an assistant teacher at the Second Elementary School in Handa which he left in August 1931 for personal reasons. Meanwhile, his first children's song appeared in the May issue of Akai tori, and in the following year, the fairy tale Gongitsune was published.
Niimi Nankichi at the Tōkyō School of Foreign Languages
In 1932, Nankichi went to study at the Tōkyō School of Foreign Languages (nowadays the Tōkyō University of Foreign Studies 東京外国語大学 Tōkyō Gaikokugo Daigaku in Fuchū). During his studies, he contracted tuberculosis and was forced to return to his hometown in 1936. There, he found another position as an assistant teacher in an elementary school but was dismissed for health reasons in the summer of 1937. In 1938, he became a teacher of English, Japanese and agriculture at a girls' school. Three years later, his first book (良寛物語 手毬と鉢の子 Ryōkan monogatari temari to Hachi no ko) was published, followed in 1942 by the fairy tale collection Ojīsan no rampu, おぢいさんのランプ, "Grand-father's Lamp"). In early 1943, Nankichi's health deteriorated dramatically. He died in March 1943 at the age of 29. Due to his early death and his profession of teacher, Niimi is often associated with the author Miyazawa Kenji, who died at the age of 37.
On 5 June 1994, the 50th anniversary of Niimi Nankichi's death and his 80th birthday, his hometown Handa inaugurated the Niimi Nankichi Memorial Museum (新美南吉記念館 Niimi Nankichi Kinenkan) in his honour. In 1983, the "Niimi Nankichi Youth Literature Prize" was established as one of the three annual "Akai Tori" awards in children's literature.
Niimi Nankichi Memorial Museum in Handa (photo credit: Aichi Now)
In his short lifetime, Niimi Nankichi published 123 fairy tales, 57 novels, 332 children's songs, 223 poems, 452 haiku, 331 tanka, 14 plays as well as 17 essays.
- Tebukuro-o kai ni (手袋を買いに, "Buying Mittens")
- Gongitsune (ごん狐, "Gon the Fox"), 1932
- Ryōkan monogatari temari to hachi no ko (良寛物語 手毬と鉢の子)
- Ushi wo tsunaida tsubaki no ki (牛をつないだ椿の木)
- Ojīsan no rampu (おぢいさんのランプ, "Grand-father's Lamp"), 1942. The only collection of fairy tales published during Niimi's lifetime as part of the series Shijin Dōwashū (人人, "Fairy tale collection of new authors") by Tatsumi Seika. Many of the fairy tales contained therein revolve around the young Kyusuke. The story is written in the Chita dialect of Aizu Prefecture.
- Hananoki Mura to Nusubitotachi (花のき村と盗人たち, "The Village of Hanaoki and the Thieves"). The third collection of seven children's stories including "Gongitsune". The first edition comprised 5,000 copies.
- English biography of Niimi Nankichi
- Digitalised works of Niimi Nankichi (in Japanese)
- Nankichi Niimi Memorial Museum (Niimi Nankichi Kinenkan)
1986 edition of Gongitsune published by Kaseisha (偕成社)