Sunday, July 20, 2008

Faithful Elephants

Some of the most powerful anti-war messages in the world come from Japanese literature, and from stories written for young people about the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki -- books such as Sadako and the Thousand Paper Cranes, Hiroshima No Pika, and Shin's Tricycle.

I reread this little book (another very powerful plea for No More Wars!) the other day as I was organizing some materials from a recent summer class for teachers, and decided to share some of this information before we all begin our reading for Bellezza's upcoming Japanese Literature Challenge.

Faithful Elephants: A True Story of Animals, People and War, by Yukio Tsuchiya, is a heartbreaking story. It's in picturebook format, with beautiful watercolor illustrations, and is written in simple language for young people. However, the subject matter is powerfully disturbing, and it would be important for an adult discuss these grim realities of war with the young people reading it.

It is a powerful and painful introduction to the horrors of war, in particular the horror of the deaths of the zoo animals at Ueno Zoo in Tokyo during WWII. Most of the animals were euthanized during the bombing of Tokyo. Their attempts to euthanize the three performing elephants, however, failed. The elephants were too smart and wouldn't eat the poisoned food, and their skin was too tough for the lethal injections, so their deaths were slow and grim.

Of all the anti-war books I've read, this is one of the most powerful and haunting.

From Chieko Akiyama (Radio and Television commentator and critic, Tokyo, 1988):
Building a world without wars has been the greatest human ideal throughout history. Unfortunately, it has never been accomplished.

Politicians, diplomats, and military men possess the keys to achieving peace. The responsibility should not, however, be left entirely to them when the threat of nuclear war is as great as it is today.

I believe it is absolutely necessary for each human being to work toward the prevention of war and establishment of peace. The power of the individual is small, yet we believe in the strength of the collective human energy, just as we know a drop of water is the source of a great river.

For the past 22 years, one of the things I have done is to read on television and radio, and to include in my lectures, the story of the Faithful Elephants, written thirty-seven years ago by Yukio Tsuchiya.

During the last stage of World War II, Tokyo was often attacked from the air. At the city zoo, the keepers, with tears in their eyes, had to kill many of the animals for fear that they would run amuck in the town if the zoo was bombed directly. Faithful Elephants describes how three elephants died at the Ueno Zoo in Tokyo at that time.

My act of reading this story seems trivial. However, twenty-two years of tenacious and continuing sowing of the seeds of peace and the prevention of war are now bearing fruit. Strongholds of peace have been built in the hearts of adults and children when they realize the sorrow, misery, horror, and foolishness of war.

The biggest gift adults can give children is to make public the complete history of and the different viewpoints about war, and to help them consider how we can realize the human ideal.

I hope this book will be read throughout the world and that the seeds of peace and war prevention will be sown. I hope that those seeds will soon bud, bloom and bear fine fruit.


Bellezza said...

Robin, what a powerful post. I've read Saduko and The Thousand Cranes to my class before, who've always been quite moved by the story; now I look forward to reading this one. I think it's a powerful, and necessary, message to convey about the horrors of war. The children could relate to the distress of the elephants as they care about animals so much. Thank you for bringing this book to my attention, and also for the zoo photograph at the bottom. It makes me want to go there myself.

Robin said...

Thanks, Bellezza. I don't know how you will feel about using it with your students after you read it, although I learned about it in a teaching writing class. The samples of student writing based on it were also very powerful. Let me know what you think of it after you read it.

tanabata said...

You know, I've never actually been to Ueno Zoo. I'm not really a zoo person I guess, but if I remember correctly I heard they have meerkats. I think meerkats are so cute! But I digress... this sounds like a really sad story, and an aspect of war that most people don't think about.