Comic books are usually the stuff of discussions about Japan's top soft-power exports. But recently one manga dating from the early 1970s has been at the centre of a domestic controversy over the country's wartime history.
The manga in question: Hadashi no Gen (Barefoot Gen) by artist Keiji Nakazawa. Several months ago the education board in Matsue ordered public, primary and middle schools to remove copies of the manga from library shelves, citing excessively graphic illustrations inside the 10-volume series. The manga would still be available but only by special request, and children wouldn't be allowed to borrow it from the school libraries.
The board's decision, which only surfaced this month, came after a man submitted a petition to the Shimane city assembly, claiming that Hadashi no Gen depicted Japanese soldiers doing things that never happened during the country's brutal invasion and colonisation of a large chunk of Asia.
Hadashi no Gen is a coming-of-age story about a boy who grows up during the Second World War. In it, Nakazawa shows Japanese soldiers fighting in the name of Emperor Hirohito and engaging in savage attacks: beheading Chinese, using them for bayonet practice, raping women, even cutting open a pregnant woman to pull out her unborn baby. He also revisits the horrors he witnessed in Hiroshima as a six-year-old survivor of the atomic bomb. The stories, Nakazawa had said, are meant to portray the ugly side of war. The manga's strong antiwar message has made it a classic: it has sold 6.5 million copies in 20 languages.
Asian countries often criticise Japan for revisionist school textbooks that they say whitewash the country's militaristic past. To them, news about Hadashi no Gen was the latest evidence of this. Some even linked the local education board's decision to a perceived resurgence of nationalism under prime minister Shinzo Abe.
But there's another dimension to the saga: a rare public debate about how far Japan should go in explaining to children the details of its militaristic phase during the first half of the 20th century. The publicity has been a boon for the manga's publishers Chobunsha and Chuokoron-Shinsha, which have reported sales as much as three times higher than usual.
Shimane's education board has come under heavy criticism. More than 1,800 calls, emails, letters and faxes to the board called for the restrictions to be lifted. Japan's largest newspapers wrote editorials deploring the decision, while nearly all of the principals at the city's schools were against it.
Under pressure the board caved this week, announcing that it had retracted its decision. Advocates of free speech were thrilled. But it was also a victory for those in Japan who feel that historical revisionists stand in the way of better relations with their neighbours in Asia.
Kenji Hall is Monocle’s Asia editor at large.