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Tue Jul 28, 2015, 03:59 PM

“Something Dreadful Happened in the Past”: War Stories for Children in Japanese Popular Culture

“Something Dreadful Happened in the Past”: War Stories for Children in Japanese Popular Culture

The Asia-Pacific Journal, Vol. 13, Issue. 30, No. 1, July 27, 2015

Akiko Hashimoto

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 ...


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