Friday, 11 July 2014

Shigeru Mizuki's art of war

My eldest is going through junior high school in Japan and I was happy to hear she was studying aspects of the Second World War. As far as I can tell from her textbook (and I could well be missing something) those aspects are the Nazis and the Holocaust, and that's about it.

To be fair, there was no room on the double page spread covering the war to refer to any part Japan had to play in it, I suppose talking about genocide in Germany is distressing enough for 12-year-olds without bringing up Japan's less than auspicious past in Nanking or its own mini-genocide inflicted on the Chinese by Unit 731. Much easier to start with the Nazis and Anne Frank and all that. The trouble is, I doubt it will develop into much more introspection, which would be fascinating, if not to my daughter, then at least to her old man.

So I don't look to Japan's schools to learn much about the war. That's what comic books are for.

I enjoyed the English translation of the first instalment of Shigeru Mizuki's Showa manga covering 1926-1939, which I reviewed here, so I just had to get the second (covering 1939-1944). You might quibble that a manga can only skirt the surface of such a momentous time, and yeah, it does at times feel like a school history textbook, jam-packed with just enough facts to tell the story of The Key Events of the war. The Bataan Death March receives little more than two frames (and an aside from Mizuki that as horrific as it was, the death toll was as much to do with the heat and general Japanese unpreparedness to deal with POWs as anything particularly evil. And "Comfort Women" sexual slavery receives just a fleeting reference, one page I've taken the liberty of scanning in here:

But don't get me wrong, Mizuki is no revisionist. He's relaying the war through his experiences. He has undisguised contempt for the architects of war and has no time for jingoism. He's just trying to explain what happened, point to where it all went wrong, and get the hell out of the firing line.

Pulp the textbooks and replace them with Mizuki's manga. We might all learn something then.

Saturday, 5 July 2014

Marching orders

Apologies if you came here looking for writing about the Prime Minister's latest attempts to revive the glorious Japan of the 1930s for us young 'uns to relive, there will no doubt be plenty of that to come from others, if not Our Man, over the coming weeks. Our Man just can't muster the interest in the daily ups and downs (mostly downs) of Japan politics just right now. Instead, he's made it his mission to get off the news cycle and read books instead. So here's a review of a good one that you might like, a book I'm enormously honoured to say was part inspired by one of my own, Reconstructing 3/11.

Deep Kyoto Walks (Ed. Michael Lambe and Ted Taylor)

How best to experience Kyoto? A great place to start is here, a collection of 17 essays mostly from resident ex-pats with a palpable love for the city. They were given the loosest of marching orders – to take the reader on foot through the Kyoto they know.

The result is a hotch-potch of illuminating experiences worthy of such an interesting city. We are treated to a walk along the banks of Kamo and Takano rivers, a hike up Mount Atago and all points in between, tours of inner-city neighbourhoods that are home to the writers.

You could strap your Kindle to your backpack and take off on any of the walks yourself (there are maps, pictures and Google Maps links included) but it's so much more than a traditional guidebook. At every step, we are treated to personal insights and opinions that you would miss if you didn't sit down and give the writers the contemplation their writing deserves. From my Abiko bunker I was able to witness journeys of all sorts – a middle-aged American retracing his youth through a changed Kyoto, a newbie watching a troupe of monkeys stealing veg from her garden, and barflies who would turn their heads every time the door opened expecting to see David Bowie (he did pop in once for a shochu or such, so it wasn't completely out of the realms of possibility).

There are enough temples and tea rooms to satisfy the tourist, but for Our Man's money it was the bar crawls, anti-nuclear demo and journeys back in time that grabbed his attention.

If you are interested in Kyoto, the ex-pat life in Japan, independent publishing, or just fancy a stroll along the streets of Japan's greatest cultural attraction, read this book. It takes you there, with or without your hiking boots on.