Barefoot and Ignorant

barefoot-genAnd we’re off to Matsue, an unassuming little city in Japan, where the local school board has responded to a suspicious “complaint”, and removed Keiji Nakazawa’s award-winning manga Barefoot Gen from its school libraries. This apparently, is for fear that “children would get the wrong perception about history” from reading a wartime story in which soldiers of the Imperial Japanese Army are shown to be committing atrocities in China.

Wait… what?  Isn’t that precisely what the Imperial Japanese Army was doing? Isn’t that precisely the context which led, ultimately, to the tragic, murderous mission of the Enola Gay in 1945? Now children in Matsue will be able to get the “right” idea about history, which apparently involves no mention of Nanjing, Manchuria or Shanghai, and a mendacious, facetious sense of victimhood based on the notion that the Japanese minded their own business until 1945, when American bombers suddenly appeared unbidden in a surprise attack and bombed them back to the Stone Age.

But not every Japanese high school is beholden to the whims of revisionist, right-wing nutters. Caught out by the media stink, the Matsue school board hastily backpedalled in late August, revoking the order due to “procedural” issues. Close by in Hiroshima, the home town of manga creator Keiji Nakazawa and the site of much of Barefoot Gen’s heart-rending drama, the harrowing manga is actually a set book for third-years at elementary schools. This is actually a far braver decision than Matsue’s craven censorship, because one would expect Hiroshima of all places to have a free pass on hating nuclear weapons. I’m sure nobody would have been much surprised if Hiroshima schools had plumped for a more victim-oriented version of their local history, but instead, they have admirably chosen a book that spends much of its first volume depicting the Japanese at war with themselves, daring to suggest that intellectual, sensible Japanese were railroaded and oppressed by war-mongering bullies who led their nation to ruin. Unfortunately, in Matsue at least, they still seem to be.

Matsue is twinned with Dublin. Any Irish readers might want to bring this up with their Lord Mayor, in the hope that the next civic goodwill trip leads to some stern questioning about what the school board thinks “history” is.

Jonathan Clements is the author of Anime: A History, available now from the British Film Institute. This article first appeared in NEO #116, 2013.

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