Genichiro Yagyu's books

The first time I saw Genichiro Yagyu’s books was in the summer of 2003 when Vicente and Begoña, Media Vaca’s alma mater, returned from their first trip to Japan, as always, full of treasures found in local bookshops… They showed me the Japanese collection and some of the English translations they had also found in Tokyo.

I loved the titles: Scabs, Holes of the Nose, Belly Button, Breasts, Soles of the Feet, Teeth and I thought it was great that they wanted to obtain the reproduction rights to publish them in Spanish.

My first thought was that seven-year-old me would have loved reading Scabs or Breasts, and even to have been able to proudly parade them around school and making sure everyone could see the title on the cover.

When Media Vaca finally published the Spanish translated edition, the editor, Vicente Ferrer, asked me to read the text from a medical point of view, analysing the accuracy of the scientific content and the adaptations of such for the Spanish audience.

I am a gynecologist, and thought that revising Breasts and Belly Button would not be a problem; Scabs, Soles of the Feet, Holes of the Nose, and Teeth were a bit of a stretch, so I suggested to the editor that a pediatrician review the collection with me. I thought about children reading these books with their mothers and considered that the perspective of a pediatrician who worked with them on a daily basis could be very valuable.

I was fascinated by the simplicity and rigor with which the author described complex medical processes such as lactation, cicatrization, the sense of smell and breathing, pregnancy, teething, and walking, and how, simultaneously, the book was fun and accessible for children reading their first texts. To talk about breasts, about why you should not eat your boogies, or to analyse what happens if one would have an overly clean belly button, is priceless.

For me, the body is the most perfect, complex, and useful mechanism ever designed, and I believe that during basic education it is studied in a rather static, boring, and atomised way. This means that adults who attend medical consultations are largely unaware of how their body functions and that something so close to them is hard to comprehend, full of taboos and dark areas.

For the last six years I have worked as an Associate Professor in the Medicine Faculty of the University of Castilla la Mancha, a newly created Faculty which implemented problem-based learning as an educational model. This system based on constructivist psychological theories, contrasts with the traditional learning method based on master classes in which a teacher (who knows things) explains concepts to students (who do not know anything) from a platform, ‘empty bottles’ who need to be filled with content.

Problem-based learning centres on the student and seeks to mobilise his or her previous knowledge to learn by relating. Constructivism believes that learning is centred on individual needs and interests, free expression of ideas, autonomous discovery, and learning through error. It encourages reasoning, invention, and integration. Prior knowledge and practice are key factors of learning. The student’s motivation allows the building of cognitive bridges between the new concept and the network of prior knowledge. The brain is no longer an empty bottle, relevant concepts are integrated, fixed in the structure of thought and modify it. The professor must act as a facilitator of learning.

In Genichiro’s books, the protagonists, who have scabs, snot, feet, fuzz in their belly buttons, incipient breasts, experience what it means to tear off their scabs, pick their belly buttons, eat their boogies, or place their footprints on a surface; they ask themselves why these mechanisms, why these fluids appear, why these scars and swelling exist; and those previous experiences serve as a basis to analyse with exquisite scientific rigor and enviable clarity the intimate mechanisms of cicatrization, breathing, conception and pregnancy, walking, or lactation.

Intuitively, they invite children to observe their own bodies or those of others around them, and ask themselves questions about how they work, why theirs is different to others’, or why it transforms as we grow up, and it provides them with well-structured elements and solid concepts to dive into the intimate mechanisms of their physiology.

I believe they collaborate in initiating that wonderful journey that is actively observing reality and nature as the basis of the knowledge of its functioning. I am unaware if the author thought about these things when structuring the book; perhaps it was a completely natural process, but I think they represent an excellent tool that can be applied to the learning of multiple disciplines.

In addition to this reflection, another one that came to mind when reviewing this work was the importance of conveying information adapted to the level of comprehension of the recipient.

As doctors who deal with patients every day, we have the mission of explaining the cause of their pain, establishing a prognosis, and considering treatment options. All this in understandable terms and adapted to the characteristics of the recipient. Genichiro demonstrates how it is possible to explain complex mechanisms in simple terms without losing rigor, and that this information can be communicated to any age group with any capacity of comprehension.

On some specific points I made some suggestions to ‘adapt’ or ‘soften’ some concepts, since I felt the original text was slightly biased on topics such as the importance of maternal lactation or advice on umbilical hygiene.

Both the editors and ourselves thought that some recommendations presented at the end of the books, signed off by a Japanese doctor, responded to the particular way of understanding medicine in Japan. In fact, these final explications had been left out of the American edition. In the Spanish edition, they were slightly modified to adapt them to the usual practice in our medium.

Finally, our collaboration allowed us to deepen our knowledge of this Japanese author’s excellent and personal work, which Media Vaca has had the good sense to include among their titles to bring him closer to our children and to those of us who, in a way, are still children because we love to learn.

Thanks to Media Vaca!

Paloma Lobo

Article published in no. 169 of the magazine Educación y Biblioteca (January/ February 2009) under the full title ‘A medical point of view: Genichiro Yagyu’s books’. Illustration by Genichiro Yagyu: detail of a double page from Holes of the Nose (Media Vaca, 2008).