July 30, 2013

By Tomoko Nagano

Arigato Big Bird: Sesame Street in Japan

Tomoko Nagano is Senior Editor, International Book Publishing at Sesame Workshop. She was also previously an editor with Sesame Street Magazine. 

Achieving “Big in Japan” status is an honor for select cultural icons. Sesame Street is one of them. Japanese audiences of all ages have embraced the characters for generations, so the brand is familiar to young and old, just as it is in the United States. It is also well-known because of longstanding English language learning materials, and the broadcast itself is an unintentional and unconventional way many in Japan learn English. Today, Sesame Street fans are fashionable young adults who grew up watching as children. Aiming at this audience, Japanese publisher Takarajima launched its second Sesame Street Mook (the name is a combination of “magazine” and “book”) title on July 19, 2013. 

As editor of Sesame Street’s international books, I help develop content to meet needs of local audiences. We have more than 60 publishers worldwide. In most territories, the readers are children, so content focuses on basic stories and educational themes. Editing the Sesame Street Mook required a different mindset since it is clearly aimed at an audience of teens and adults. It is also a book format not common amongst our other publishing partners around the world. Developing the Mook was an exploration into the brand’s role to inspire creativity and build interest in our work beyond the mediums we are more conventionally associated with.

The editorial process began with brainstorming overall themes. Takarajima-sha’s editors were eager to emphasize the irresistible cuteness of Elmo and other characters. Although the Mook is primarily a catalog that promotes and displays available products for consumers, this was an opportunity to reinforce Sesame Street’s origin as an educational brand. I encouraged them to focus on Sesame Street’s curriculum and its influence on all aspects of the brand.

As we all know, our characters are at the center of many people’s love for the brand. The main feature of this Mook edition is a profile of Muppeteer Caroll Spinney, who has performed Oscar and Big Bird since Sesame Street premiered in 1969. The interview started with typical questions about his history and experiences. As it continued, Caroll brought fresh insight and memories of his Japanese fans, who remember the 1988 special “Big Bird in Japan”, produced by Sesame Workshop and the NHK (Japan’s national broadcaster). He began the conversation by saying “Kon-nichi-wa” (“Hello” in Japanese) and fondly reflected on his experiences in Japan.

The Mook editors spent additional time at the Workshop taking snapshots of the office and spoke with members of several other departments to learn about different roles. They were especially interested in literacy and included a special section focusing on Sesame Street books. The finishing touch was the addition of archival photos recalling the nostalgic appeal of Sesame Street.

It was rewarding to collaborate with the editors and Sesame colleagues to realize this project. Arigato (“Thank you” in Japanese), and thank you, to all the readers and contributors!

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