Book Spotlight: Kenta and the Big Wave – Ruth Ohi

To learn more about Book Spotlight, read this first.

Kenta and the Big Wave, written and illustrated by Ruth Ohi, is a quiet and touching account of the 3/11 tsunami in Japan.

What I liked:

  • Ohi’s illustrations and palette are full of soft edges and gentle colors, or, as I thought to myself while reading, 何かすごくおとなしくてやさしいようなお話だよね 。 The aesthetics felt perfect for telling a serious story without frightening young readers. Full-page illustrations with close-up perspective lend immediacy to the events of the story, as if the reader is in the same space as Kenta, viewing the tsunami and its devastating results in real time. The quiet, subtle style with which Ohi renders people and their surroundings keeps the story from becoming too graphic or grim.
  • Ohi’s writing is simple and straightforward without euphemizing the extent of the damage for those who weren’t there. On one page, Kenta’s mother weeps at the destruction of their home and Kenta’s father says they will need to start over because nothing can be salvaged – this scenario is true for many families who lived in the tsunami zone. Kenta and his family spend time living in a makeshift evacuation shelter, the details of which Ohi is careful to include in her illustration. At the same time, Ohi infuses her story with what I interpret as a spirit of みんなで頑張ろう! I imagine most Nikkei readers familiar with Japanese culture will notice this and it might also be a way to open intergenerational/transnational conversations about what this concept has meant to Japanese/Nikkei communities over time. On a side note, I’m not even sure this concept/phrase has the same significance in Canadian Nikkei history as it does in JA history with regard to each community’s respective experiences with the camps.

What I learned:

  • I knew a number of Nikkei creators responded to 3/11 by producing work, but I hadn’t really considered trying to track any of it down until I came across this book. (I also remember reading about several white people organizing/creating ‘charity’ work for 3/11, including white expats in Japan and white translators of Japanese literature, which made me not want to look too deeply into 3/11-related work for a long time.) Now that I have a better sense of ‘who’s who’ in the Nikkei literary and arts scene, I might try to find other works in which our community addresses what happened.

Questions I had:

  • Is the kid who finds Kenta’s soccer ball supposed to be white? I initially read him as white based on his appearance and the English-language signs behind him, but then I thought it would be fun if he was an Asian kid who decided to dye his hair blond. I’ve never lived in a majority-Nikkei/Asian diaspora community, but in my experience, not many Nikkei dye their hair the way Nihonjin do, and the same fashion culture around hair dyeing doesn’t exist in our communities outside Japan. I like to imagine the blond kid is either Nihonjin and happens to have recently moved overseas, or a Nikkei kid with very close ties to Japanese culture. Both fun story ideas, come to think of it. Anyway, I wonder what race/ethnicity Ohi intended this kid to be, and what she would think of other interpretations by her readers!
  • Is there a Japanese translation of this book? What did Nihonjin readers think, especially any who may have been directly impacted by 3/11?


  • I enjoyed Ohi’s book and I’ll keep an eye out for any other Japan-related work she may produce. She is Japanese Canadian and I believe she has worked on a book by Joy Kogawa…