Teaching the history of war has always been a dreaded subject with textbooks offering a bland and often one-sided story to a conflict’s causes and results. Educators are tasked with the sometimes difficult balance of enriching hearts and minds while also preventing negative self-identity. Historical manga has been hugely successful in deeply influencing Japan’s collective memory of colonialism and war. In a country where 40% of all books and magazines are manga, comic art has become popular supplemental information.
Historical manga has the ability to expose young readers to a grim history unfiltered by state authorities. With engrossing and dynamic plots, manga are often page turners showing the horror and meaninglessness of mass death. If no suffering is exposed then it’s possible to feel no guilt about war and hold no one accountable for the destruction it causes.
Popular study manga features colorful key characters allowing us to imagine unfamiliar times and places. The common theme is, war mongering characters are menacing with frightening body language and dark shadows while the peaceful characters tend to be unheroic, unfortunate, broken people. Although atrocities have been committed by many nations, the villains who take blame in manga are usually Japanese since it’s the government who had ultimate control over whether or not their country was at war and had the power to stop it at any time. The morality learned is, government, military and businesses go to war for profit while the people like “us” are dragged in and hurt by it.
The message that historical manga is able to get across to it’s readers is, leaders fail to heed warnings, miss opportunities to negotiate, tend to make incompetent decisions, and suggests that war could have and should have been prevented. Children are able to develop a sense that something went terribly wrong in Japanese history and have learned to distrust state authority when it comes to war. Perhaps the gripping stories told in historical manga are one reason why anti-war pacifism rings true in the hearts of so many Japanese citizens. Some recommended stories are: Barefoot Gen, Grave of the Fireflies, To All Corners of the World, Mother’s Trees, Glass Rabbit and Poor Elephants.
*Source: Chapter 4 of Akiko Hashimoto, The Long Defeat: Cultural Trauma, Memory, and Identity in Japan (Oxford University Press, 2015).