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For the second time in less than two years, a Japanese school board has removed Keiji Nakazawa’s Barefoot Gen from school libraries.
The manga is a semi-fictional account of Nakazawa’s experiences during and after the bombing of Hiroshima, and in recent years it has come under attack from some conservatives because of its portrayal of postwar Japan.
In this case, Mayor Hiroyasu Chiyomatsu of Izumisano in Osaka Prefecture told the local school board that the books were problematic not because of the story but because they use outdated and possibly pejorative terms for poor, homeless or mentally ill people.
“Rather than the overall content of the manga, I thought the problem was with certain discriminatory expressions,” Chiyomatsu said. “Because the city of Izumisano as a whole has emphasized human rights education, I told the board of education that there may be a need to provide individual guidance to those students who read the manga.”
The head of the school board, Tatsuhiro Nakafuji, issued a directive in November telling schools to “move the manga from the library to the principal’s office so children cannot lay eyes on it.” Not all schools immediately complied, so in January they were instructed to turn over their copies to the board of education. The initial plan called for the board to return the books on March 20, once schools had come up with some way to provide “guidance” regarding the language in question.
On Jan. 23, the association of school principals responded by asking Nakafuji to retract the order and return the manga, saying, “To deny the children the chance to read the manga grounded in certain sense of values and ideas is a violation of their human rights.” One principal said, “I regret having cooperated with the collecting of the manga even if it was because of an instruction from the head of the education board,” questioning why this manga alone was targeted when other books in the schools have similar language.
So far, Nakafuji has stuck to his guns on the “inappropriate language” argument, but Japanese constitutional law professor Masahiro Usaki said the board’s actions overstep the bounds of free speech:
“Because any work is influenced by the time in which it was created, it is wrong to prohibit access of the entire work just because there may be some problems from a contemporary standpoint,” Usaki said. “If banning the reading of an entire work based only on some parts of the manga was allowed, that would lead to suppression of free speech.”
The earlier incident was in Matsue City, where the school board cited depictions of violence as the reason for removing the manga from school libraries. That decision was reversed, allegedly on procedural grounds, after the removal provoked a number of protests.