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Sketching Hiroshima: US website highlights Japanese artist known for message against A-bomb

This Oct. 18, 2020 image shows a section explaining street posters designed by Goro Shikoku, on a special website introducing the life and works of the late Japanese artist. (Mainichi/Akihiro Nakajima)

HIROSHIMA -- A special English website introducing the life and works of Japanese artist Goro Shikoku, who devoted himself to brazen anti-war and cultural movements in postwar Hiroshima, has been set up by a U.S. college professor.

    Goro Shikoku (1924-2014) is known for his illustrations and poetry on the theme of the atomic bomb. He began his career after learning that his younger brother died due to radiation from the atomic bombing after returning to Japan, barely alive, following his detainment in Siberia. The artist's hope was that "a war like this will never happen ever again."

    Ann Sherif, 65, an East Asian studies professor at Oberlin College in the state of Ohio, encountered and was moved by one of Shikoku's works 10 years ago during a visit to Hiroshima. Her recent online endeavor conveys Shikoku's messages and longing for peace to global users.

    In the autumn of 2010, 65 years after the U.S. dropped atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Sherif was visiting Hiroshima to research A-bomb literature, and a book at a store in the city caught her eye. The publication was a reprint of Sankichi Toge's "Genbaku Shishu" (the collection of atomic bomb poems), famous for its verse that roughly translates as "Give back the human race." Sherif said that as she looked at the cover design illustrated by Shikoku, which contained a good many red human figures looming against a blackish background, she felt as if she had time traveled to Hiroshima immediately after the atomic bomb was dropped.

    The late Japanese artist Goro Shikoku is seen in the atelier of his house in the city of Hiroshima at the age of 74 in 1998, in this photo provided by his family.

    Sherif was also deeply moved by a watercolor illustration depicting a lantern-floating ceremony commemorating A-bomb victims, which was contained in Shikoku's book, Hiroshima Sketches. There was a poem attached to the painting, which read, "The old contain their sadness in the light, the young light a flame in the heart of Hiroshima, and set them afloat." Sherif came to Japan on vacation at the age of 20 when she was studying the Japanese language and Japanese literature as a university student. She has viewed the Atomic Bomb Dome as a symbol of the calamity for over 35 years since the first time she witnessed it. Through Shikoku's works, which depicted the various faces of the Atomic Bomb Dome, she said that she realized that the dome, which contains many stories in its background, is a place that continues to assert the atrocity of nuclear weapons.

    Sherif's wish to spread the legacies of Shikoku, who was active in the anti-war and anti-nuclear movement, grew as she interacted with researchers of A-bomb literature and Shikoku's relatives during her numerous visits to Japan. Her research findings were compiled in a special website titled "Popular Protest in Post War Japan: The Antiwar Art of Shikoku Goro." She says that in postwar Japan, there were people like Shikoku who thought that art had the power to help bring to life a society without war or nuclear arms. She hopes people will make use of the website to aid such an understanding.

    The website consists of three sections. First is the "Atom Bomb Poetry Collection," which provides explanations on the Our Poems Circle, a group of poets led by Toge to which Shikoku also belonged, and the "Tsujishi" movement that involved guerrilla presentation of street posters depicting anti-war and anti-nuclear illustrations and poems. The second is "Angry Jizo," featuring a picture book Shikoku put together with author Yuko Yamaguchi, while the third is "Hiroshima Sketches," containing watercolor pictures and essays that depict the cityscape of postwar Hiroshima amid its recovery with signs of economic growth. Sherif explained that she placed an emphasis on positioning the lifetime efforts of Shikoku, who took a stand against suppression and inhumane acts, in historical context.

    Shikoku fought with Soviet troops in Manchuria, currently the northeastern part of China, and returned to his hometown Hiroshima in 1948 following his detainment in camps in Siberia. He threw himself into the anti-war movement after learning of the death of his younger brother Naoto, and acted as a pioneer to anti-war and anti-nuclear art amid regulations on freedom of speech under the occupation by the General Headquarters (GHQ) of the Allied Powers. Shikoku created tsujishi street posters with Toge and others around the time of a mounting crisis that an atomic bomb would be used in the Korean War.

    Oberlin College Professor Ann Sherif is shown in this image she provided to the Mainichi Shimbun.

    In "Hiroshima Sketches," Shikoku drew the tranquil cityscape as well as damage left by the atomic bombing in Hiroshima, and also jotted down his memories from his adolescent years when he worked at the Hiroshima Army Clothing Depot factory before departing for the front lines. Directing her attention to the various dimensions of the city, Sherif commented that the book is helpful in forming a picture of Hiroshima as a complicated city, and not just the site of the atomic bombing.

    The "Angry Jizo" picture book was illustrated during the Cold War. Actress Midori Kiuchi, who passed away in November 2019, is introduced in the "Angry Jizo" segment of the website. Sherif uploaded a video showing Kiuchi reading aloud passages about a young girl who begs a jizo statue to give her water during an event in Hiroshima in 2019 on the anniversary of the end of World War II. Sherif recalls that students in the U.S. were astonished at how the death of a girl that fell victim to the A-bomb was depicted, even though it's a children's book, and argues that even students from China or South Korea who retain the historical view that the atomic bombing freed the people of their countries from Japan as the perpetrator of the war were able to understand the atrocity of nuclear arms, as she points out the works' power in transcending differences in viewpoints.

    The website has gone viral through social media posts overseas, and professors of numerous universities in the United States and the Australian National University have decided to use the website as class material. John Dower, a renowned history professor and professor emeritus at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, who honed in on Shikoku's efforts from early on, issued a statement recommending the website. He praises Shikoku as an exemplar of grassroots protest activism in postwar Japan, and says that the website opens a window to the tradition of citizens' movements that has supported Japan's democracy for over 70 years.

    Shikoku's eldest son Hikaru Shikoku, 64, a resident of the western Japan city of Suita in Osaka Prefecture, said of Sherif, "I'm very glad that she is being considerate of the legacy of my father, who kept saying that his works were to be used for anti-war and anti-nuclear purposes. I'm very interested in how my father's way of living and his artistic endeavors are received by researchers and students overseas. I'd like the reaction to be put to use for the next stage of developments."

    The special website can be viewed at http://scalar.oberlincollegelibrary.org/shikoku/index

    (Japanese original by Akihiro Nakajima, Hiroshima Bureau)

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