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'You must absolutely never start a war': author to children in new picture book

Writer and former editor Kazutoshi Hando talks about his first children's book, "Yakeato no chikai" (A vow among the rubble) in Tokyo's Setagaya Ward on June 5, 2019. (Mainichi/Akinori Miyamoto)

TOKYO -- Eighty-nine-year-old writer and former editor Kazutoshi Hando has authored many books, but this is the first time he has ventured into children's works. "Yakeato no chikai" (A vow among the rubble), coming out July 15, is not just any children's book, however. It's about Hando's experience living through the Tokyo air raids in World War II.

His hope: that children will understand that war is one thing they must absolutely not start.

Living in the old part of Tokyo in the eastern portion of the metropolis, as an elementary school student, Hando loved to play with spinning tops. Eventually the Pacific War began, and on March 10, 1945, when he was in his second year of junior high school, the Tokyo air raids took place.

As U.S. B-29 Superfortress bombers dropped incendiary bombs on the capital, Hando ran from the giant flames and black smoke that enveloped the city. People collapsed into balls of fire, and Hando himself fell into a river and was convinced he would drown. Somehow surviving through the night, he stood amid the rubble the next morning. Thoughts he had then have since stuck with him.

"I realized that there were no absolutes in this world. Good will surely win. Kamikaze (divine winds) will definitely blow. Japan certainly will not lose. ... Since then, I stopped using the word 'zettai' (meaning 'surely,' 'for certain,' 'definitely,' or 'absolutely' in Japanese)."

Because Hando didn't want to recall the painful memories of the firebombing, for nearly 50 years, he refused to talk to anyone about it. But things changed when he was the editor in chief of the monthly magazine "Bungeishunju" and was interviewing former Imperial Japanese Army soldiers. One of them yelled at him, "You're too young to understand anything about the war!" That became the catalyst for him to open up about the Tokyo air raids. In 2010, a book he penned about his experiences was published in paperback, and he began giving lectures about his experiences as well.

But the more he spoke about his wartime experiences, the more he realized the difficulty of passing down his story. "As I spoke, I found myself turning the boy I was into a level-headed and very courageous one. I could tell that I was romanticizing myself," he said. "I could talk about the horrors of war. But as for the question of whether I myself felt the horrors viscerally at the time, I didn't attach any emotion to the disappointments and sadness of each and every person who died. That's how much war takes the humanity out of human beings."

In November 2018, Hando received a letter from 43-year-old Sachiko Mori, an editor from the publisher Otsuki Shoten, in which she wrote that she wanted to make a picture book based on Hando's wartime experiences. The book-creating process began, with illustrations done by Yasushi Tsukamoto, 53, whose mother was born in Tokyo's Sumida Ward and experienced the Tokyo air raids. The fact that Hando watched as people died in the raging fires without feeling any emotion, and the fact that he was not moved, like in a drama, when he was reunited with his father who he'd become separated from in the chaos of the firebombing -- all of these episodes are portrayed in a straightforward manner in the book.

Hando has not used "zettai," in his books or in his personal life, but on the last page of the picture book, he went out of his way to write by hand, "You must absolutely never start a war." By sending this message out in a picture book, he hopes to reach children and young people who are usually not the target demographic for his books and pass down his experiences. "War does not discriminate against children. If anything, I want them to get that."

The book is generally geared toward children in the third or fourth grades of elementary school and older, and is set to go on sale from the publishing house Otuski Shoten on July 15 for 1,620 yen.

(Japanese original by Tamami Kawakami, City News Department)

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