Advances in Literary Study
2014. Vol.2, No.1, 9-11
Published Online January 2014 in SciRes (
A Revival of Little Black Sambo in Japan
Kazuo Mori
Institute of Engeneering, Tokyo University of Agric ulture and Technol ogy, Koganei, Tokyo, Japan
Received November 15th, 2013; revised December 17th, 2013; accepted January 3rd, 2014
Copyright © 2014 Kazuo Mori. This is an open access article distributed under the C reative Commons Attribu-
tion License, which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction i n any medium, provided the original
work is properly cited. In ac cordance of the Creative Commons Attribution License all Copyrights © 2014 are
reserved for SCIRP and the owner of the intellectual property Kazuo Mori. All Copyright © 2014 are guarded
by law and by SCIRP as a guardian.
In the late 1980s, a popular children’s book “Little Black Sambo (hereafter, LBS) disappeared from all
bookstores in Japan. The book was alleged to have racist characteristics such as the name of the boy, the
way the illustrations caricatured blacks, etc. Mori (1997) revised the original story by changing the pro-
tagonist from a black boy to a black Labrador puppy, with eliminating the word “Sambo”, which had a
historically pejorative connotation in the US. Mori (2005) conducted an experiment to compare the enter-
tainment value of the two versions of LBS using four-year-old children and found no difference. Mori
(2005) also casted a suspicion that the real reason why the book was withdrawn in Japan was a matter of
piracy rather than racism. All Japanese publishers at that time had not properly obtained the copyright.
Nowadays there are several versions of LBS available in bookstores all over Japan.
Keywords: Helen Bannerman; The Story of Little Black Sambo; Japanese Translation; Racial
In the late 1980s, a popular children’s book “Little Black
Sambo (hereafter, LBS) disappeared from all bookstores in
Japan. The book was originally written by a Scottish woman,
Helen Bannerman, who went to India to accompany her hus-
band on a British military expedition. She wrote the story and
drew the illustrations herself while she was in India and sent it
back to amuse her small daughters, who had been left in Lon-
don. It was an interesting story about an Indian boy, Sambo,
who outwitted ferocious tigers he encountered in the jungle.
One of the most famous episodes in the story was that the tigers
chased each other in a circles at the base of a tree, eventually
melting into clarified butter.
The Japanese translation was extremely popular among
Japanese children. It sold more than a million copies from its
first appearance in 1953 until its sudden disappearance in 1988.
Why did the publisher withdraw it from the market? It was
because the book was alleged to have racist characteristics such
as the name of the boy, the way the illustrations caricatured
blacks, etc. Coincidentally, there were some other unfortunate
occurrences at that time, in particular an incident in which a
noted Japanese politician naively spoke ill of American Blacks
at a press conference and it was widely reported in the US me-
dia. The publisher quickly decided to withdraw all copies of
LBS from bookstores (For further information on this issue,
read the article in Wikipedia under the heading “The Story of
Little Black Sambo,” to which I contributed in part).
Children and their mothers, especially those who had loved
reading the book during their own childhood, felt sad about the
publisher’s decision and missed the book greatly. They did not
understand why the book was considered racist because they
did not find any discriminatory characteristics in the book in
and of themselves. They praised the courage and cleverness of
the hero. They simply enjoyed the fantastic and imaginative
story and wanted to share it with their own children.
The LBS issue evoked a nationwide controversy in Japan.
Was it racist? Was the decision of the publisher appropriate?
What should we tell children? Would it be really a wise judg-
ment to abolish all classical books that might happen to have
certain aspects which have come to be considered discrimina-
All these were political issues, but t hey were also clo sely re-
lated to psychology. However, no Japanese psychologist spoke
about it to the media, wrote an opinion in the newspapers, nor
commented in the extensive TV news coverage (At that time,
the Internet was not yet widely used). It was because no Japa-
nese psychologists, whether developmental, social, educational,
clinic al, had looked into, much less studied, these practical
I was a lover of the LBS my sel f, and as a research psycholo-
gist, I felt ashamed about not having done anything to save this
book. I had more than 20 papers published in academic journals
at the time, but almost all of them were laboratory-based, theo-
retical ones. I could not comment about the issue with just my
basic research background. Nor could I find any practical stud-
ies in the literature of Japanese psychological research that
were even remotely related to this iss u e.
Overt racism is frowned upon or even taboo in most places,
and in Japan as well. Although we do not have the tragic his-
tory of discrimination of blacks as practiced in the US and other
parts of the Western world, we cannot deny or forget having
had a similar history of discrimination against Chinese and
Koreans and even against certain segments of our own native
population. Researchers must be cautious when venturing into
issues relating to racism; In reporting their research findings,
should they uncover any evidence that seems to support dis-
crimination, they might be accused of being prejudiced them-
selves. Therefore, it was safer for researchers to avoid topics
related to racism altogether, including the LBS issue.
In hindsight, this was my turning point, moving me from be-
ing simply a basic research psychologist to becoming an appli-
ed psychologist. I decided to commit myself to this LBS issue
using whatever expertise I had acquired as a research psycholo-
gist. It would have been very easy to have just speculated or ex-
pounded on the issue without being backed up by reliable re-
search data. However, as a research psychologist, as someone
who wanted the respect of his peers, not just fleeting media
attention, I was aware that I needed experimental evidence to
support any comments I might make about the LBS contro-
Therefore, I began work on a racism-free version of the book,
which I intended to compare with the original version alleged to
be racist. In order to produce racism-free version, I revised the
original story by changing the protagonist from a black boy to a
black Labrador puppy. I also eliminated the word “Sambo,”
which had a historically pejorative connotation in the US.
However, the basic story remained the same. Therefore, if
readers were to rate both versions as equally interesting, then it
would mean that the alleged racist characteristics had no sig-
nificant effect.
Statistical tests can only show significant differences, but
cannot assure their complete absence. However, the statistical
power analysis developed by Cohen (1988) provided a solution.
If the power of a statistical test is strong enough to reject the
null hypothesis of the equality 95% of the time, its failure to
reject the null hypothesis can mean the correctness of the null
hypothesis with a risk of 5% (Type II error, β = .05). In other
words, if a strong statistical test fails to detect the difference,
then we can consider the difference to be negligible, with the
absence of difference having been proven.
I conducted an experiment to compare the entertainment
value of the two versions of LBS using four-year-old children
and found no difference (Mori, 2005a). I also developed a new
method to assess implicit attitude and proved that those who
had read LBS in childhood showed no difference in their im-
plicit negative attitude against blacks as compared with those
who had had no exposure to the book (Mori, Uchida, & Imada,
2008). Parallel to these experimental investigations, in 1997
under a pseudonym, I published commercially a picture book
based on the non-racist version of LBS featuring my own com-
puter-generated illustrations (Mori, 1997; See Figure 1).
Disappointingly, my experimental studies contributed little
on this issue, probably because they were not promptly ac-
cepted to major Japanese journals. The amusement-comparison
experiment was done in 1990, but the paper based on it was
published fifteen years later in a minor journal (Contact me for
further information on this). However, gratifyingly, the revised
picture book itself enjoyed enormous success. It sold more than
50,000 copies, and I was invited to appear in on a national TV
news program at the time of the book’s publication in 1997. It
provoked controversy yet again, and it seemed have encouraged
other publishers to put several versions of the original LBS back
on the market.
In the course of this research, I came to know the secret rea-
son why the publisher had withdrawn the book in 1988. It had
little or nothing to do with overt racism. Rather, the real reason
the book was withdrawn was a matter of piracy. The publishers
Figure 1.
Chibikuro Sampo: A non-racist version of “The Story of Little Black
Sambo” (Mori, 1997).
had not properly obtained the copyright. At the time of its first
appearance in Japan, in the year 1953, only eight years after
World War II, Japan was not yet “matureenough to properly
acknowledge the copyrights of foreign books or other intellec-
tual property. Because the book was so popular in Japan, they
continued publishing it even after Japan bounced back to be-
come a leading nation in the world. When it was announced
publicly that LBS was considered to be racist and therefore an
uncomfortable amount of media and academic attention was
suddenly focused on it, this provided a convenient excuse for
the publisher to stop publishing it in 1988 (Mori, 2005b).
Nowadays there are several versions of LBS available in
bookstores all over Japan, including a translation of Banner-
man’s original little story. Whenever I see one, I feel a sense of
pride at being an applied cognitive psychologist who has con-
tributed to this issue.
The author would like to express his profound thanks to Re-
becca Ann Marck for her superb work in editing the English
manuscript. She also suggested the main theme of this article.
Cohen, J. (1988). Statistical power analysis for the behavior al sciences.
New York, NY: Academic Press.
Mori, K. (2005a). A comparison of amusingness for Japanese children
and senior citizens of The Story of Little Black Sambo in the tradi-
tional version and no nracist v ersion. Social Behavior and Personality,
33, 455-466.
Mori, K. (2005b). What have we learned from Chibikuro Sambo? Me-
tropolis, 610, 58.
Mori, K., Uchida, A., & Imada, R. (2008). A Paper-format group per-
formance test for measuring the implicit association of target con-
cepts. Behavior Research Methods, 40, 546-555.
Mori, M. (19 97). Chibikuro Sampo. Kitaooji Shobo Publish ing (A non-
racist version of the Stor y of Little Black Sa mbo in Japanese with the translation arrangement between Kitaooji Shobo and Rugged Bears,
the legal copyright holder of the book i n UK).