Japan’s struggle with the issue of war memory has been brought into sharp relief again amid a controversy over what children should be taught about the past. Last week the Matsue city board of education confirmed a ban placed on a famous comic book (manga) series called Barefoot Gen (Hadashi no Gen). The board’s decision allegedly was based on the fact the series contains scenes considered too violent for school children. Behind this explanation, however, lies a different story.
Barefoot Gen was first serialised in 1973-1976. Set in and around Hiroshima, it tells the story of a six-year-old boy during the final months of the war and is loosely based on the experiences of the serial’s creator, the late Keiji Nakazawa. Barefoot Gen has been translated into several languages and spawned action films and anime adaptations. Wikipedia describes the story’s underlying themes:
Gen’s family suffers as all families do in war. They must conduct themselves as proper members of society, as all Japanese are instructed in paying tribute to the Emperor. But because of a belief that their involvement in the war is due to the greed of the rich ruling class, Gen’s father rejects the military propaganda and the family comes to be treated as traitors. Gen’s family struggles with their bond of loyalty to each other and to a government that is willing to send teenagers on suicide missions in battle. This push and pull relationship is seen many times as Gen is ridiculed in school, mimicking his father’s [critical] views on Japan’s role in the war, and then is subsequently punished by his father for spouting [patriotic] things he learned through rote brainwashing in school.
Many of these themes are put into a much harsher perspective when portrayed alongside themes of the struggle between war and peace.
As suggested here, Barefoot Gencriticises the Japanese blind loyalty to the emperor and the Japanese flag, hinomaru, during the war. These aspects of the story – not its violence – formed the basis for the original citizen’s complaint to the Matsue board of education last year. Though the complaint was not upheld, in considering the matter the board’s secretariat conveniently found another, less blatantly political, reason for taking action. In December it instructed the 49 public schools in the city to remove the manga from the open shelves of their libraries and restrict access to teacher-supervised usage.
I say the reason for the decision was ‘convenient’ not because of any public explanation offered by the secretariat at the time – there was none – but because of certain suggestive aspects of the case. The violent content singled out for mention was, on closer inspection, hardly apolitical. One consisted of a scene of the beheading of a Chinese prisoner by a Japanese soldier; another showed a naked woman being sexually assaulted and bayoneted. There is a great deal of horror depicted in the manga, mainly to do with the effects and aftermath of the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima and including a reference to American researchers harvesting the internal organs of bomb victims. No objection apparently was raised to these elements. In other words, the sole aim was to keep away from young eyes the depiction of wartime atrocities committed by Japanese. Another telling aspect is that when the board members met last week and decided to ratify the ban, they acted without consulting school principals or taking professional advice whether reading the manga series would cause children psychological harm.
Educational authorities at several other places in Japan followed Matsue’s lead and also had Barefoot Gen removed from their school library shelves.
This week, in response to adverse publicity and feedback from the affected schools – many of which opposed the ban – Matsue reversed its stand. At an ad-hoc meeting on Monday, board members agreed that the manga ‘conveys the tragedy of war very well and has educational value in teaching about peace’. The board, however, did not instruct schools to return the books to the open shelves; it left the matter at the discretion of each school. Although, according to media reports, only 10% of principals supported the ban, other information suggests a higher proportion of primary and junior high schools could ultimately place a limit on free access to the manga series.
The episode illustrates a change in the Japanese approach to war memory that has occurred since Barefoot Gen first appeared. In the 1970s the generation born during or immediately after the Pacific War – with actual memories of the devastation and cruelty of war – engaged in a comparatively vigorous public discussion of Japanese misdeeds, particularly those committed in China. A period of introspection occurred at the time Japan and China normalised diplomatic relations. Sadly, in recent decades, conservative forces have gained the ascendancy in the ‘history wars’ – not only in Japan but also in South Korea and China. Separate, highly selective and incompatible accounts of the same events are being taught in schools of these neighbouring countries, poisoning people-to-people relations.
Barefoot Gen is not perfect history, but what surely recommends it to a new generation of young Japanese – who I can confirm from personal experience know almost nothing about what their country did between 1931 and 1945 – are the very qualities which led, albeit briefly, to its removal from library shelves: its unflinching depictions of what war really involves and its preparedness to record some of the worst excesses of Japanese militarism.
Walter Hamilton reported from Japan for 11 years and recently published ‘Children of the Occupation: Japan’s Untold Story’ (New South Books).