A little more than a month after Keiji Nakazawa’s manga classic Barefoot Gen was restored to school libraries in the Japanese city of Matsue, an English-language translator of the series has been abruptly disinvited from speaking at a junior high school in suburban Tokyo, 400 miles away. School officials there obliquely cite “recent circumstances” and “social trends” as their reason for cancelling the translator’s visit.
Alan Gleason, who lives in Japan and has been involved in translating Nakazawa’s work since 1977, was originally invited to speak at Iogi Junior High School in Suginami Ward approximately two months ago — after Barefoot Gen had been quietly removed from Matsue school libraries last December, but before the ban became public knowledge and received international coverage. According to newspaper Mainichi Shimbun’s English-language site, Iogi principal Chieko Akaogi asked Gleason to speak on October 4 before 350 students about “what he had wanted to express through the translation of Barefoot Gen, what words from the work had stuck with him and how he chose words for the translation.”
As the appointed date drew closer, however, Akaogi herself says she “asked that Gleason not focus the speech on Barefoot Gen [and] he refused.” On the evening before the scheduled visit, Akaogi called Gleason to tell him it was cancelled. Despite her original invitation, which certainly seemed to indicate a strong interest in and familiarity with the manga, she now claims that “I have not read Barefoot Gen. The students have not studied it, either, so I thought they would not be interested in the lecture.”
Gleason’s disinvitation is reminiscent of two others that have occurred recently here in the United States. Just last month authors Rainbow Rowell and Meg Medina, who were scheduled to visit schools in Minnesota and Virginia respectively, saw those visits cancelled on short notice due to controversy over their books. School officials in Cumberland, Virginia even had the gall to ask Medina if she would give her speech but avoid mentioning or displaying her own book, Yaqui Delgado Wants to Kick Your Ass. Only when she refused to be censored, just as Gleason later would, did the school call off her visit. Sadly, in all three cases it’s the students who are missing out because some adults think they should be “protected” from things that they’re already experiencing, like bullying or trying to make sense of war.
Maren Williams is a reference librarian who enjoys free speech and rescue dogs.