Japanese textbooks may sanitize history, but comic art books don't

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tags: textbooks, WW II, manga, Japanese atrocities



This article is adapted from Chapter 4 of Akiko Hashimoto, The Long Defeat: Cultural Trauma, Memory, and Identity in Japan (Oxford University Press, 2015). The author has lived and studied in Japan, Germany, England, and the United States, and taught cultural, comparative, global sociology at the University of Pittsburgh for 25 years. She is also a Faculty Fellow at Yale University’s Center for Cultural Sociology, and currently visiting professor at Portland State University.

Reflecting on the 70th anniversary of the end of Japan's War, it is worth noting that teaching the history of World War II to Japanese children has always been difficult at best. As a subject fraught with contentions over textbook content and conflict between teachers and state bureaucracy, teaching war history has long been “a dreaded subject” for many school teachers. Japanese history education has been criticized for not going far and deeply enough to describe perpetrator history – especially the injury and death inflicted on tens of millions of Asian victims. At the same time, it has been admonished for the opposite: that it goes too far in promoting Japan's negative self-identity. This contest to shape hearts and minds of future citizens has long burdened Japan's history education in schools, and has yielded mixed results.

Flawed as the school instruction of war history is in many respects, however, what is easily overlooked in the focus on the shortcomings of formal history education is the significant impact of informal education about the Asia-Pacific War. What can deeply influence the hearts and minds of the next generation – perhaps more than textbooks – is the power of popular war stories accessible to children in the commercial media and libraries. This “pop” war history is readily available in children’s everyday life, mostly unmediated by teachers and unfiltered by state authorities.

War stories for children in Japan's popular culture have been influential carriers of war memory for many decades. Famous stories created by celebrated manga and anime artists like Barefoot Gen, Grave of the Fireflies, and To All Corners of the World have successfully exposed young readers to the destructive aspects of the Asia-Pacific War and influenced them to feel the horror of death. Others like Mother’s Trees, Glass Rabbit, and Poor Elephants have been equally successful in shaping young children’s antipathy toward lethal violence, exposing them to the sheer meaninglessness and horror of mass death. The cumulative effect of these cultural materials – produced, reproduced, and revised over many years in multiple editions and in diverse media – is to nurture negative emotions about the Asia-Pacific War and war in general that have become powerful motivators of moral conduct. The discussion that follows draws from my book, The Long Defeat: Cultural Trauma, Memory, and Identity in Japan, where the topic of children’s education about the war appears in the larger context of Japan's collective memory of colonialism and war, the national fall, and its pathways toward moral recovery.

Collections of Study Manga: History from Below

In a country where the popular cultural media are ubiquitous, it is not surprising that material on Japanese history is abundant in the commercial media. In Japan 40% of all books and magazines are manga (comic art) publications. It stands to reason that manga has been a popular vehicle for supplemental instruction and education. Indeed, this genre called “study manga,” or “education manga” (gakushū manga), is found readily in school libraries, local public libraries and bookstores. As informal tools of cultural learning they are on a par with television and animation films in how they bring cognitive comprehension to children, influencing their perceptions as memory carriers of the next generation. They are entirely distinct from young boys’ entertainment comics, not discussed in this essay, that valorize heroic fighters, fictive or otherwise, in throwaway paper format. Of the public media that transmit and translate war memory – from newspapers, magazines, books, and novels to television documentaries and films – study manga merit special attention as a vehicle that exclusively targets children at a formative age, when their ethical judgment and moral dispositions are formed.1

The moral evaluation of war and peace in pop history study manga comes into clear focus when we closely examine their content for plot, characters, visual clues, and dramatic style. They are, however, not standardized or uniform within the genre. Study manga can be classified in several categories: “academic” history manga series by professional scholars; “popular” history manga series by superstar artists in the manga industry; “Cliff-Notes” history manga designed for students preparing for entrance exams; “digest” history manga for quick reference; “biographical” manga of eminent and popular figures; “novelized” history manga for entertainment, and more. I focus here on two types of study history series – the “academic” and the “popular” – that have proven their staying power with major, powerhouse publishers, some becoming classics, reprinted many times over in the last decades. They include six well-known series: three “academic” collections supervised by professional historians, and published by the mainstream publishers Gakushū Kenkyūsha (known by the shorthand Gakken), Shūeisha, and Shōgakkan; and three “popular” collections offered by the studios of three phenomenally successful star artists of the postwar manga industry, Fujiko F. Fujio, Mizuki Shigeru, and Ishinomori Shōtarō.2

Successful study manga make grim history palatable, even engrossing, with dynamic plots, colorful characters, and humorous asides. The stories, in contrast to the typically bland textbooks, are often page turners that sustain readers’ curiosity and entice them to imagine and identify with distant, unfamiliar times and places. They also help the reader’s cognitive grasp of moral distinctions by showing the ethical qualities of key characters with graphic visual cues like facial expression, body language, and other signals. For example, if characters are drawn with a menacing grin, harried body language and in dark silhouettes, the reader readily understands that the plan they are hatching must be of dubious moral quality. Equally significant and captivating in study manga is the view of history from below, allowing readers to see events through the eyes of “ordinary families” that are interspersed in the narrative to drive the plot, to comment on the events, and to express feelings about the impact of the events on their everyday life. This sympathy with the “little people” gives these stories an unmistakable populist tilt, and an interpretive framework critical of higher authority. The chutzpah and irreverence typical of Japanese comics are perfectly suited to expressing misgivings about authorities like the government, military, and police, and indeed, caricatures are delightful ways to get back at the overbearing bullies who intimidated, oppressed, policed, betrayed and devalued the masses in wartime society.

Academic History Manga 

Educational comics about national history, a familiar genre of children’s literature in many countries, have been popular tools of learning in Japan since the 1970s.3 In Japan, they typically come in multi-volume collections offered by well-known, major publishers in hard-covers, and purchased by schools and local libraries as well as parents and grandparents for young children to read at home. For example, the well-known Gakken series on Japanese history is an 18-volume set in its current edition, now in its 60th printing since 1982; Shōgakkan’s current series spans 23 volumes, and is now in its 49th printing since 1983; Shūeisha’s current series is a 20-volume set in its ninth printing since 1998. These educational manga series, supervised by academic historians, are targeted to children of school age, mostly in elementary and middle schools.4

For the most part, the academic manga offer colorful portrayals of 2000 years of Japanese history from early settlement through the contemporary era in chronological order. The portrayal of the Asia-Pacific War usually takes up one volume, averaging about 150 pages in length. As a portrayal of a discredited and disastrous war, there are no gallant national heroes or enchanting political leaders that brighten up the pages and dramatically drive the plot. Instead, the stories unfold with accounts of divisive politics and deteriorating economic life that are rife with social conflict, unstable government, ambitious military, terrorist violence, rogue actions, and rampant poverty. These accounts are interspersed with descriptions of bloody violence, oppression, and massacres, which, in turn, lead ultimately to crushing defeats, mass deaths, and the devastating national fall.

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The War in Asia and the Pacific (Shōgakkan's manga history of Japan)

The descent into war is rendered into a sobering morality tale of what not to do again. The pacifist moral frame is consistent: war-friendly characters and actions are portrayed negatively, and peace-friendly characters and actions are portrayed favorably. The anti-war messages of the “little people” are especially striking, from a grim conscript’s cry (“I curse this war,”)5 to a stunned mother’s lament (“War – I hate war…”)6 and a grandmother’s desperation about her grandson’s departure to war (“everyone cursed the war, and prayed their children would come home safe”).7 Even a family dog bemoans, “I hate war!”8 Front and back matters of the books also convey moral evaluations, such as a note to the family that pleads, “please make sure to let the readers pay attention to Japanese acts of perpetration in China.”9 As war memory is translated into cultural memory in educational manga, compassion for suffering is now directed to anti-war pacifism – the desired moral quality transmitted to the young readers – even though in wartime it was condemned as unpatriotic.

No heroes make their mark in these academic study manga, but a few villains make unceremonious appearances. None of these villains are American, Chinese, Russian, or anyone else in the enemy camp; they are all Japanese. The designated “bad” characters are Japanese men who advocated, instigated, promoted, and then bungled the war. Such “war mongers” are usually officers of the Japanese Army, especially those in the Kwantung garrison in Manchuria and the high military and state leadership who backed and covered for the rogue Army. These loaded characterizations produce a vernacular understanding of Japan's colonial war on the continent in young readers who develop an early moral awareness of “something gone terribly wrong in Japanese history.”

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The Asia-Pacific War (Shūeisha's manga history of Japan)

To be sure, what went terribly wrong is not only the colonial exploitation and military catastrophe both across Asia and in Japanese cities, but also the massive death toll of over 20 million people in Asia, many of whom were noncombatants, and 3.1 million Japanese including nearly one million noncombatants. To this end, two of the three study manga series – Shūeisha and Shōgakkan – offer explicit perpetrator narratives illustrating Japan’s subjugation of civilians in East and Southeast Asia during the years of war and colonization. One volume describes Japanese atrocities carried out in the Nanjing “Incident,” the slaughter of civilians in Chinese villages, recruiting forced laborers in occupied territories, and the biological warfare Unit 731.10 Another volume gives graphic accounts of civilians slaughtered in Nanjing, as well as villagers slain in rural China in the campaign to kill, plunder, and burn (the Three-Alls campaign).11The ferocious Japanese invasion of East and Southeast Asia is also described, including full-page accounts of the massacre of civilians in Singapore and elsewhere.12 The brutal treatment of forced laborers – locally drafted or captured POWs – by Japanese soldiers and administrators also takes up full pages in both volumes.13

As a rendering of a multidimensional war, the portrayal of the violence and dehumanization inflicted by Japanese soldiers on Asian victims is also extended to those inflicted on Japanese soldiers by the Japanese military. Their anguish typically comes from the battlefront, from fighting unwinnable and lethal battles planned by incompetent military strategists in places like Imphal (“Damn! I curse the top brass who planned this.”),14 to dying of disease and starvation in Guadalcanal and elsewhere as supplies ran out (“We can't go on fighting with malaria and malnutrition …”),15 and killing themselves en masse rather than surrender to the enemy (“I can’t move anymore. Kill me.”)16The suffering of Japanese civilians is described with equal candor – deaths by aerial bombings, atomic bombs and the battle of Okinawa – and takes up an amount of space similar to the illustration of Asian victims at Japanese hands. Indeed, the number of pages devoted to recounting the hardship of Japanese civilian victims devastated by bombardments on the home front and driven to mass deaths in Okinawa is roughly comparable in length to the space allotted to Japan’s acts of imperial oppression and perpetration overseas.

In all, these texts offer a barebones synopsis, yet nevertheless visually riveting account, of a war that caused, in their estimates, a total death toll on the order of 20 to 23 million. The underlying causes of the atrocities, however, are not explained in detail to the young readers. Other than the outlines of events, there is no close reasoning of the causal chain of events. They are tuned to cognitive rather than conceptual comprehension, and emotional rather than rational understanding. These, abridged history stories for young children are sanitized cultural products, but they can nevertheless play a notable role in cultivating moral and even political dispositions. What is inculcated here is a simple pacifist sentiment that precludes any possibility of a just war: war is bad and unjust, because war kills and people suffer; it is an evil that hurts people like you, your family and friends; the government that wages war is bad, and can't be trusted to help and protect you....




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