Tribune Print Share Text

Teaching through stories

Long-time teacher, author explores Japanese culture and history

Created date

July 28th, 2015
Ashby Ponds resident
Ashby Ponds resident

Abraham Lincoln once wrote, “Teach the children so it will not be necessary to teach the adults.” 

Teaching children is what Reiko Matsumoto does best. Following a 30-year career teaching elementary school, she began writing a series of children’s books on Japanese history and culture. 

To date, Reiko, who lives at , an Erickson Living community in Ashburn, Va., has published four books, with three additional titles due to be released soon.

“I felt there was a need for American children to become acquainted with Japanese culture, and what better way to do that than through engaging stories,” she says.

Witness to history

Born in Hawaii shortly after her parents moved to the U.S. from Japan, Reiko spent three years in two internment camps, one in Arkansas and one in California, with her family during World War II. 

Following the war, Reiko earned a bachelor’s degree in elementary education from the University of Hawaii and a master’s degree in education from San Francisco State University. 

She spent the next 30 years as a schoolteacher in Hawaii, California, Japan, and Fairfax County, Va., teaching third and fourth grades and English as a Second language. Reiko was also instrumental in the initiation and success of the Japanese Immersion Program in Fairfax County.

Following her retirement, she felt compelled to share her personal stories.

“I always enjoyed writing,” she says. “While in college, I took a creative writing class and thoroughly enjoyed myself. I first translated Japanese folk and fairy tales that my mother read to me. Later, I rewrote them, retelling them and adding my own embellishments.”

First steps

Reiko’s first published book, The Princess With the Magic Bowl, is the retelling of one of these folktales. 

In the story, the dying mother of the princess places a wooden bowl on her head. When the bowl does not come off, everyone, including her own father, a samurai, is afraid. The princess must leave her home but finally finds friendship and love. 

Following the success of her first book, Reiko created her own story, The Sweet Potato, a tale of a young boy’s desire for one of the sweet potatoes sold from a wooden cart on the streets of Japan.

The young boy buys a sweet potato but ultimately chooses to give it to two hungry children he encounters on the street. Later, he receives a sweet potato as a New Year’s gift from his family.

Changing directions

Reiko decided to try something new with the writing of her third story, My Jacaranda Tree. Written for a more mature, middle-school audience, the book, which she refers to as a “fictional memoir,” explores the time she and her family spent in Japanese internment camps.

“I decided to write the book because there are few books about the internment, specifically for this age group,” she says. 

The book includes letters to and from family and friends in internment camps across the U.S. during World War II.

Reiko’s final published book, The Mushroom Over Hiroshima, is also intended for older children. It is the story of a child’s experiences in the aftermath of the Hiroshima bomb. 

“The purpose of the book is to help readers understand how the people of the city coped in the war’s aftermath,” she says. “It focuses on one child whose aspirations for the future were destroyed by the war and then regained through a simple truth.”

While Reiko was not in Japan at the time of the atomic blast, she crafted the story from memories and events shared by her husband and his mother, who were living in Japan at the time.

In the works

Writing popular children’s books is only one of the many ways Reiko spends her time. 

As a member of the Ashby Ponds community, she fills her calendar with Songbirds (Ashby Ponds’ chorus) rehearsals, serves on the diversity and inclusion committee, and belongs to the planning group for the science and faith forum. 

She also participates in tai chi classes and dance classes and does qigong, an ancient Chinese activity focused on balance and breathing.

Yet despite her busy lifestyle, she still finds time to fulfill her passion for writing.

“I write mostly in the evenings when there is little distraction and use my laptop wherever I can,” she says.

Thanks to this dedication to her craft, Reiko is currently completing three additional children’s books.

“One book is about an old tradition in Japan of the kamishibai man,” she says. “He came to the towns and villages and for a small fee would tell charming stories using the technique of story cards. It is a tradition started in Buddhist temples centuries ago.”

Reiko’s other two books are fantasy stories based on Japanese fairy tales.

At 85, Reiko continues to impress both family and friends with her dedication to her storytelling. 

As a member of Ashby Ponds’ writing group, she offers these sage words of advice: 

“The best thing a writer can do is read, meaningfully, noting the author’s style, remembering the author’s use of metaphors and descriptions, and paying attention to the organization of the piece,” she says. “Then write, write, write, about anything and anyone, but mostly yourself and the people you know well.”

Comments