Popular Protest in Post War Japan: The Antiwar Art of Shikoku Gorō

Atom Bomb Poetry Collection

In 1951, with Cold War tensions rising as the superpower nuclear arms race accelerated, U.S. Occupation and Japanese authorities were on the watch for publications about the atom bombings that could be construed as criticism of the Occupation or sympathy for the Soviet foe. That didn’t deter the Hiroshima artists from locally publishing this book with the bold title Atom Bomb Poetry Collection. Anxiety that the brutal war in neighboring Korea might turn into a nuclear World War III was one reason for their urgency. Hiroshima readers were attracted by the name of admired local hibakusha poet Tōge Sankichi on the cover; progressive literary critics in Tokyo sensed in the cover design an expression of their concerns about the nuclearized world’s perilous course. The book was later published by a mainstream publisher and has remained in print ever since. What forces lead to the unlikely publication of this book? Who was involved? Why was the book so controversial in its day? How did it become a classic?

Although Tōge Sankichi’s name is the only one on the cover, the poet would have been the first to admit that that Atom Bomb Poetry resulted from his collaboration with a diverse network of people. Artist and Army vet Shikoku Gorō designed the cover and illustrations. Tōge and Shikoku’s shared commitment to using art to better society had developed as part of their involvement in Our Poems Circle, the group of young local aspiring poets & poets pictured here.

This famous Hiroshima circle constituted a node in a nationwide grassroots movement of “democratic culture” that evolved as part of post-war democracy. During the late 1940s and 1950s, civically-engaged cultural circles cropped up in communities throughout Japan. They had in common (1) democratic cultural formations that were inclusive and egalitarian, and rejected the hierarchy of the elite literary and art establishments; (2) practice centering on action in public space and mobile means of expressive arts, such as books, journals, plays, poetry readings, and street art, and (3) sustainability through fluid formation and dissolution, along with resilience in shifting political, media, historical, and aesthetic environments.

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