「木かげの家の小人たち」いぬいとみこ (1924-2002), 中央公論社, 1959

The Secret of the Blue Glass, translated by Ginny Tapley Takemori

Published by Pushkin Press in January 2016


By using Yuri Moriyama and the Little People—Balbo and Fern and their children Iris and Robin—to tell a story of Japan and World War II, Tomiko Inui brings into sharp focus the vulnerability, as well as the strength, of people in the face of war. Any review of this book will almost inevitably mention The Borrowers, but it has none of the cozy comfort of Mary Norton’s story. For me, Inui’s account of Yuri and the Little People is too sad to be a children’s bedtime story.

「木かげの家の小人たち」(The Secret of the Blue Glass) was first published in 1959, when the children who grew up during the war were starting to have children of their own. Reading this, I wondered how children responded to the Japanese edition when it was republished in 2002, and how children will react to the English translation, given that the war is a much more distant memory than it would have been in 1959.

I have attempted to give a taste of the story below without any spoilers, and focus primarily on the first half of the book here.

The Moriyama family has cared for the Little People since Ms. MacLachlan,

a20160122_204349n English teacher, entrusted Tatsuo with them and returned to England. Tatsuo and Toko’s children had taken over the task of bringing the Little People their daily milk in a blue glass every day in their turn, and now that Tetsu is away at school in Kyoto and Shin is busy with kendo practice and school, little Yuri has sole responsibility for them.

The Little People live on the top of a bookshelf in a quiet room. No one outside of the Moriyama family has entered in decades, but the first signs of the turmoil in the outside world have begun to invade their lives. During a school break, Tetsu warns Yuri that the job of bringing milk to the Little People will be much harder in the future. Later, two men burst into the library and pull books off the shelves, with “eyes like hawks looking for prey.” They take Tatsuo off with them.


One day Shin and Yuri begin fighting in the library. Shin yells that their father is a liberal and only respects foreign things. He believes that Japan’s war is wrong, which to Shin means that he is unpatriotic and thus deserves to be imprisoned. Shin distresses Yuri further by insisting that it’s wrong to be giving the Little People milk when ill soldiers don’t have enough. Although the idea that “luxury is the enemy” is drilled into Yuri at school, she never thought it could have anything to do with the Little People.

Japanese sign reading “Luxury is the Enemy!”

Meanwhile, the Little People are reacting to the turmoil around them in their own ways. Fern begins using some of the milk Yuri to make cheese as a backup food supply. Robin and Iris are beginning to explore outside and make friends with a pigeon named Yahei. Their parents try to ignore this unpleasant knowledge for as long as they can, unable to adapt to so many changes to their quiet lives. Balbo is making shoes as fast as he can, which gives Fern the uneasy sense that he is preparing for the day when they can no longer live there.

Yuri and Shin’s relationship crumbles further when Yuri becomes dizzy and falls as the students practice running in formation. Ordered to take her home, Shin calls her unpatriotic and Yuri makes her way home herself. Yuri’s mother, Toko, explains to her that, although neither Yuri nor Shin can understand this yet, sometimes masses of people can all be wrong about something, all the while claiming that their actions are for the sake of the country. But Toko knows that a country that can lock up a free man for “dangerous thinking” is wrong itself. She will stay in Tokyo so that she can visit Tatsuo, but it is becoming too dangerous for children, so Yuri and the Little People must go to the country to live with distant relatives. Yuri promises to take care of the Little People, saying that she can’t help but feel that if she can protect such vulnerable creatures, she will be helping to save her father in some way.

For the Little People, the milk that Tatsuo and Toko brought them when they were children, and that their children now bring them, is not just food, but a sign that humans love them and value their lives above anything else. However, their vulnerability really comes home to Robin when the pigeon Yahei tells him that all of the animals living in Ueno Zoo in Tokyo have been shot in case they became violent during air raids. Some of the zoo keepers protested but it was a government order (more information about this actual event can be found here). Robin is horrified, thinking of the tiger in his favorite book, a miniature book about all the animals in the zoo that he had used to learn to write Japanese. That night he cries himself to sleep, thinking of the animals and sobbing that he doesn’t want to be killed; he wants to live.

Balbo realizes that he and his family must go with Yuri, despite their reluctance to leave their home—something, someone has changed Shin from a gentle boy into a “patriot” and some invisible force has stolen their peaceful lives. This same force is mentioned a few pages later as the culprit that is tearing apart Toko’s family in the space of just one to two years. And yet Toko knows that it is not just her family—all over Japan, children and parents are being separated from each other.

[Two photographs above are both from this site.]

Tetsu escorts Yuri and the Little People to their new home in the country, but their train breaks down and all of the passengers have to walk—only the soldiers are picked up in a truck. Watching women and children walking along the railway tracks without complaint, Tetsu can’t help but wonder about this stolid acceptance. Even he finds himself glorifying their struggles as the “burdens of war,” but in 10 years, will he realize he was wrong to think that way? He breaks off this thought because he knows that in 10 years, he won’t be alive—he’ll be sent off to war, he’ll kill the enemy, and then he’ll be killed himself.

I had thought that everything would be better for sickly Yuri once she was living in the country. I was imagining a version of Heidi, the story of the little girl who goes to live in the Swiss Alps with her grandfather and becomes rosy-cheeked and strong on the fresh air and wholesome food. But Tetsu quickly realizes that life in the country would not be easy for Yuri. Her Aunt Toyo tells Tetsu straight out that Yuri is another mouth to feed, and also means more firewood to gather and more water to bring from the well. She is not unkind, but in the country they have to work constantly just to achieve the bare minimum needed to survive. Rationing might be in force in Tokyo, but Toko could sometimes get butter and sugar at least.

Twice a week, Yuri’s school goes to farms to help cut grass and hay. She sees this as an opportunity to get to know the farmers who might be willing to give her some goat milk for the Little People. She has powdered milk, but it won’t last forever, and she plans to work in exchange for goat milk.

Picture from late June 1944; with the men gone to war, women had to take on the farm work. Here, villagers worked together to plant rice.

Yuri makes friends with Tsutomu, a boy whose father and eldest brother have died in the war. His sole aim is to become a soldier himself and take revenge for their deaths, and he is envious of Shin, who will go to a military preparatory school. This convinces Yuri that she is better off not telling Tsutomu about the Little People in case he calls her unpatriotic too.

School children harvesting rice in March 1944

When Tetsu comes to visit Yuri, he gets caught up in a heated debate with a young woman who has left Tokyo for the duration to live in the country. Not realizing that the farmers working in their fields can overhear him, he talks about how his father has been locked up just for criticizing the authorities, while ordinary people were sacrificing themselves for the sake of those reaping profits from the war. News of this spreads, and everyone turns against Yuki. Tsutomu is no longer allowed to play with her, and this endangers the Little People as well as milk sources are now closed to her. At the same time that snow piles up around Yuri’s house, the coldness of people’s hears begins to reveal itself to Yuri.

One of the saddest moments in the book—both touching and pathetic—was when tiny Iris vowed to knit a ribbon long enough to go around the world so that the war would stop and children like Yuri would no longer suffer. She knows that Yuki will not be happy unless the entire Moriyama family is happy, but for that to happen, Japan must be at peace, which means that the whole world must be at peace.

Japanese people kneel and listen to the radio as Emperor Hirohito announces Japan’s surrender in August 1945 (photograph from New York Daily News)

The English translation of this book has been given the title The Secret of the Blue Glass, but I prefer Yuri and the Little People, the English title listed on the copyright page of my Japanese edition. Although plain, it sums up the story for me, which is centered on Yuri’s efforts to keep the Little People alive, even as she and her family are battered by the war. “Secret” makes it sound as if this is a story of magic and mysteries, when really the only secret power that might play a role in this story is the force that Toko, Balbo, and Tetsu see tearing apart families and blinding people, or the sheer grit that fuels Yuri’s determination to bring milk to the Little People. And in reading this, I couldn’t help but feel that it is not just Balbo, Fern, Iris, and Robin that are the “Little People,” but rather everyone in this story who was hurt in this war by this “invisible force”—Yuri, the zookeepers forced to kill their charges, and the farmers struggling to get by and left with decimated families, like Tsutomu’s mother.

Maybe Iris’s determination to knit until the war ended did have some magic in it—I don’t know what Inui’s intentions were—but for me, this book was not about fairies and magic. If there was any mystery or secret here, it was not in the blue glass, but in how Yuri managed to live for two years, isolated and essentially alone, and take care of the Little People, how Tetsu could accept the probability that he would die in the war and yet stay sane, and how Tsutomu’s mother could loser her husband and several sons in the war and then be robbed of the certainty that it had been for a worthy cause. That’s a mystery I’ll never solve.