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Japanese Studies Spotlight: The Fumio Fujiki and Tokio Tobita Collection of The Ohio State University Libraries

by Paula Curtis on 2022-10-19T10:14:00-04:00 | 0 Comments

The NCC is collaborating with institutions and scholars to release a monthly series on our blog entitled Japanese Studies Spotlight. These features showcase exciting online collections available to researchers and students in Japanese Studies, introducing the archive or project, describing their contents, and demonstrating how they can be usefully engaged in research or in the classroom. If you are interested in submitting something to the series, please contact Paula R. Curtis, NCC’s Digital Media Manager, at

Dr. Ann Marie L. Davis, Associate Professor and Japanese Studies Librarian
with Jeremy Joseph, Class of 2024, The Ohio State University

Figure 1. The cover page of Sugamo Life, a sketch book containing 65 rough cartoons by convicted war criminal Fumio Fujiki. The original art cover verso has a brief handwritten description identifying the images as rough sketches from Sugamo Prison sent by request to the U.S. Department of State. Watercolor and ink, 20 × 28 cm. Fumio Fujiki and Tokio Tobita collection, The Ohio State University, Billy Ireland Cartoon Library and Museum; SPEC.CGA.SUG.2012

[Author’s note: To conform with library collection titles, all Japanese names in this article follow Western conventions with given names appearing first and family names last.]

One of the world’s largest collections of Japanese cartoon art and comics (manga) outside of Japan is housed at The Ohio State University Libraries. With roughly 25,000 serial volumes, ephemera, prints, and original drawings, the OSU manga collection aims to document the history of Japanese comic art in its broadest forms. The collection covers historic precursors of manga and anime from Edo-period (1603-1868) giga 戯画 (humorous pictures) – including original toba-e 鳥羽絵 (inspired by caricatures by the 12th century artist Toba Sōjō) – to examples of rare kamishibai 紙芝居 (paper drama) and asobi-e 遊絵 (playful pictures). It also contains cartoon serials dating back to the the Meiji period (1868-1912), contemporary Osamu Tezuka prints, and manga-themed sugoroku 双六 (game boards) spanning the twentieth century.

Emblematic of the rare and distinctive cartoon art at OSU is the Fumio Fujiki and Tokio Tobita Collection, held at the University Libraries’ Billy Ireland Cartoon & Library Museum (BICLM). Stored in a full-size document box (measuring 5 inches in width), the collection is relatively small, yet offers a seismic punch. Its many files of sketches and cartoons offer first hand testimony to the daily experiences of roughly 2,000 alleged and convicted war criminals incarcerated at Sugamo Prison (巣鴨拘置所 Sugamo Kōchiso) after World War II. The sketches also reveal everyday interactions between Japanese Prisoners of War and American guards during the post-war occupation era (1945-52). The act of producing such art was, in itself, a significant gesture that not only reduced the anxieties of prison life but also served as a vehicle for meaningful exchanges between the Japanese inmates and American GIs running the prison.


Sugamo Prison History and the Post-War Occupation


Sugamo Prison was the main prison for Japanese war criminal suspects and convicts after World War II. Located in northwest Tokyo, it was about a ten-minute walk east of present-day Ikebukuro Railway Station and designed as a modern, state-of-the-art facility modeled after European prisons at the turn of the 20th century. By the 1930s, it gained notoriety as an incarceration facility for political prisoners including communist party members and sympathizers. Allied officers, spies and airmen joined the ranks of the incarcerated there in the 1940s.

Figure 2. (top) Artistic rendering of Sugamo Prison. One of 75 original drawings by Fumio Fujiki used in the book Nakiwarai Sugamo nikki (1953) and Sugamo densetsu (1966). Pencil/Paper/Ink, 20 × 28 cm. Fumio Fujiki and Tokio Tobita collection, The Ohio State University, Billy Ireland Cartoon Library and Museum; SPEC.CGA.SUG.2012.

Figure 3. (bottom) 1949 aerial view of Sugamo Prison with the prison sports field visible in front and baseball diamond visible in back. Courtesy of Wikimedia.

When Japan surrendered in 1945, the US Army took control of the prison to hold suspected war criminals in anticipation of the International Military Tribunal for the Far East (IMTFE). Not coincidentally, Sugamo Prison was one of the few sites that remained completely intact despite the destructive US Army Air Force firebombing raids in Tokyo in the 1940s. Following the Tokyo Trials, the prison saw the execution of the seven military leaders, including General Hideki Tojo (東條 英機, Tōjō Hideki), architects of the war who were sentenced to death by hanging for “Class A” war crimes, or “crimes against peace.” The remaining “Class B” and “C” inmates (convicted of “war crimes” and “crimes against humanity” respectively) served out their sentences at Sugamo until May 1952. When the Occupation ended, control of the prison was transferred to the Japanese civilian government, and the remaining inmates were eventually pardoned or released on parole. Ultimately in 1962, Sugamo Prison ceased to function, and in the 1970s, it was demolished and replaced by the Sunshine 60 (サンシャイン60, Sanshain rokujū), the then tallest skyscraper in Asia.


Bill Barrette and the Sugamo Project


Throughout the Allied Occupation (1945-52), a total of 2500 American GIs of the Eighth US Army patrolled and guarded Sugamo Prison. Among these, five hundred soldiers were needed at any given time to serve as jailers and guards. Typically 17 to 19 years of age, only young recruits who had never seen active combat were chosen for this post. Upon completing their tours in Asia, many of the American guards felt nostalgic for the unexpected relationships they formed with the war criminals under their care. Buoyed by the rituals of daily life and gift giving, some held onto the prisoners’ handmade gifts and sketches for the rest of their lives, and some corresponded with the inmates for decades. Many shared these cherished mementos with other American veterans at reunions into the early 2000s (Barrette 2013).

The present collection at OSU came into existence through the research of Bill Barrette, an artist from New York and the younger relative of one of Sugamo's former jailers, George Picard. At a family reunion in the late 1990s, Barrette learned with fascination about Picard’s various keepsakes, which he had saved from the prison for a half a century. Among these objects, Barrette discovered, were several delicate pencil drawings, including portraits and a sketch of a prison cell.

What ensued was dubbed the Sugamo Project, a collaboration in which Bill Barrette, Midori Sato, and Toyota Naurmi began collecting surviving mementos and drawings, mainly at the reunions of military veterans in the US, and from the artists Tokio Tobita and Fumio Fujiki in Japan. As Barrette once said of the Project, these artifacts show “how art and history might benefit from each other… [and the art] deals with issues like the politics of memory -- who gets to tell the story and how…” (Wakin, 2004).

Figure 4. One of 65 rough sketches from the “Sugamo Life Sketchbook” by Fumio Fujiki. Text typed and mounted in English reveals the amusement of American guards as they observe Sugamo inmates playing baseball on prison grounds. Pencil on paper, 20.5 × 26.7 cm. Fumio Fujiki and Tokio Tobita collection, The Ohio State University, Billy Ireland Cartoon Library and Museum; SPEC.CGA.SUG.2012.

Eventually, enough Sugamo-related research accumulated to result in several exhibitions. The third and final exhibition, “Encounters: Sugamo Prison 1945-52; The American Occupation of Japan and Memories of the Asia Pacific War,” was held in April 2003 at the East Asian Library at Princeton University. The exhibit was followed by a 3-day symposium, convened by Martin Collcutt, then Director of East Asian Studies, where scholars and former inhabitants of the prison, including Tobita, appeared and presented papers.

Many of the collected keepsakes, which had been on extended loan from Army veterans, later had to be returned. However, other important materials as well as interviews and research papers came together as a result of the project. Barette’s team recorded extensive videotape footage of the exhibitions and conversations with Tobita, Fujiki, and many of the American soldier collectors of the Sugamo drawings (Powell and Du, 2015). Following Fujiki’s passing in 2004, his widow donated all of her late husband’s materials to the OSU Billy Ireland Cartoon Library and Museum. A former Sugamo prison guard, B. A. “Buck” Langdon, gifted additional Tobita drawings to OSU. Thus, the works of the two most important Sugamo visual artists and the namesakes of the collection were preserved for research and teaching. Since their donation, high resolution images of these materials have been reformatted and are now accessible online via The Ohio State University Libraries’ Digital Collections.

Capturing the Mundane to the Extraordinary: Tobita’s Valuable Sketches

A trove of details, from the mundane to the extraordinary, about life at Sugamo naturally surfaced as a result of this Project. For example, extensive interviews with Tobita revealed that he began gifting his art to fellow inmates at the behest of Prince Nashimoto Morimasa, an uncle-in-law of Emperor Shōwa and Tobita’s fellow inmate and confidant at Sugamo. When Prince Nashimoto was released in April 1946, he asked Tobita to offer him one of his drawings as a parting gift.

Figure 5. In “Inmates Sleeping in a Cell,” Tokio Tobita depicts convicts suffering haunting nightmares as well as a cacophony of late-night prison sounds. The emblem “American Red Cross” is visible on the backside of a presumably rationed and donated leaf of paper. Pencil on paper, 13.8 × 21.5 cm. Fumio Fujiki and Tokio Tobita collection, The Ohio State University, Billy Ireland Cartoon Library and Museum; SPEC.CGA.SUG.2012.

Tobita had drawn pictures for himself in private, but he had never shared his work before the prince’s request. After some thought, he drafted a cartoon-like watercolor, entitled Senpan haishoku no zu (roughly translated, “An Illustration of the Cafeteria Line for War Criminals”) in which about two dozen Class-A and Class-C suspects, including Hideki Tojo, Prince Nashimoto, and Tobita himself, stand in single file as they advance toward a meal distribution table. At the head of the line, a couple of men bow to fellow prisoners who are serving their food. An American serviceman stands by idly observing with a cigarette in his mouth.

After composing this watercolor, Tobita began drawing manically to alleviate his extreme anxiety and fear of execution as he awaited sentencing before the Tokyo Trials. Reflecting this mood, his earliest drawings took up haunting scenes, such as the routine cavity searches of naked convicts and the confiscation of shaving razors by guards at public baths. In one such troubled drawing (Figure 5), a prisoner struggles with insomnia while his cell mates sleep through an onslaught of threatening noises that breach the vent in their prison cell door. While most of the men snore, two are shown experiencing dark nightmares, as indicated by image-filled “speech” bubbles, one with a horn-headed monster and the other a knife-wielding assailant and bomber plane flying overhead.

Figure 6. The cover page of P-ko Sugamo Seikatsu, a scrapbook containing sixty-six sheets of hand-colored 4-coma (4 panels per page) “gag” manga strips by Fumio Fujiki. This serialized cartoon strip, named after the “everyman” prisoner, “Mr. P-ko” often appeared in the bi-weekly prison newspaper, “Sugamo Shimbun.” Hand painted on paper, 24.8 x 17.1 cm. Fumio Fujiki and Tokio Tobita collection, The Ohio State University, Billy Ireland Cartoon Library and Museum; SPEC.CGA.SUG.2012.


Fumio Fujiki, “P-ko” and the Humbling Realities of Daily Life

As Tobita depicted early tensions between the American jailers and Japanese prisoners, other amateur artists emerged who copied his work and took up new themes. According to Powell and Du (2015), the Sugamo Project was ultimately able to identify nine prison artists whose work resembles Tobita’s. Among these, many took up the theme of prostitution, a flourishing post-war business that the Japanese convicts recognized just beyond the prison gates.

One of the most prolific prison artists was Fujiki Fumio, who, like Tobita, spent his time sketching and drawing while awaiting and eventually serving his sentence for Class-C war crimes. However, in contrast to Tobita, a poorly educated peasant from Ibaraki prefecture, Fujiki hailed from Osaka, attended private schools, and was tutored in English. One of the more sophisticated inmates, he was able to use his foreign language skills to form important connections with the prison guards. These relations, in turn, influenced his artwork in various ways. Despite never having been trained, he enjoyed drawing and studying caricature and cartooning manuals that the Americans shared with him in prison. He subsequently composed some of his cartoons in English for the entertainment of the Americans (Figures 7 and 8). Soon after his release, he drew on these experiences to publish his first book, Nakiwarai Sugamo nikki (or, roughly translated Laughing While Crying: The Sugamo Prison Diary) in 1953.

Figure 7. Suggesting an acute awareness that his audience included American prison guards, the artist Fumio Fujiki sometimes wrote his comics in English. In this example from P-ko Sugamo Seikatsu, Fujiki pokes fun at the strange relations that developed between the American soldiers and Japanese war criminals. Presumed adversaries, they test prison regulations by enjoying a game of chess together, a shared prison infraction that even the “chief jailor” is willing to commit. Handpainted on paper, 24.8 x 17.1 cm. Fumio Fujiki and Tokio Tobita collection, The Ohio State University, Billy Ireland Cartoon Library and Museum; SPEC.CGA.SUG.2012.

Figure 8. English language cartoons from P-ko Sugamo Seikatsu created by Fumio Fujiki. Here the artist shares with American soldiers the perspective of the Japanese inmate as he is frequently woken up by inexplicably loud and ominous sounds in the middle of the night. Handpainted on paper, 24.8 x 17.1 cm. Fumio Fujiki and Tokio Tobita collection, The Ohio State University, Billy Ireland Cartoon Library and Museum; SPEC.CGA.SUG.2012.

Occupation authorities officially sanctioned drawing in the prison in 1948. At this time, Fujiki was assigned to serve out his hard labor sentence with Tobita at the newly formed Sugamo Prison Art Shop. Together the two collaborated on several submissions of cartoon drawings for The Sugamo Weekly News (すがも新聞 Sugamo Shimbun). Honing his skills, Fujiki next created a serialized comic strip for the same newspaper. Named after its main protagonist “P-ko” (P公), the series featured a composite “everyman” who wore a standard American-issued prison uniform that the inmates were required to paint with the letter “P” (Figure 6).

In the current collection at the Billy Ireland, scrapbook cut-outs of “P-ko” reveal that Fujiki, like many of the other prison artists, did not shy away from difficult topics. In one of his four-panel strips (subtitled “Hubba Bubba Joe”), for example, he deals head on with the humbling reality of post-war prostitution. As Fujiki confirms, the dire circumstances of the war had forced many Japanese women unexpectedly into the so-called “water trade” in order to survive. In the second strip from right (Figure 9), he pokes fun at this shameful situation by depicting P-ko’s encounter with a prostitute whom he calls beautiful. After exchanging a few words with her, however, P-ko recognizes that the woman is his little sister, and thus startled, he stumbles out of his chair.

Figure 9. Four sample cut-outs of the serialized manga “Mr. P-ko” from The Sugamo Weekly News. In the second strip from the left, the main protagonist P-ko is thrilled to meet a prostitute only to discover that she is his little sister whom he has not seen in many years. Colored ink on paper. Fumio Fujiki and Tokio Tobita Collection, The Ohio State University, Billy Ireland Cartoon Library and Museum; SPEC.CGA.SUG.2012.


The Fumio Fujiki and Tokio Tobita Collection is an invaluable resource that tells of somber scenes and difficult emotions experienced by the jailers and jailed alike at Sugamo Prison. The museum exhibits, oral interviews, and academic publications resulting from the Sugamo Project underscore the power and lasting impact of this important collection. While offering a rare window on the respective experiences of former war criminals, the collection also documents personal intimacies that were shared and unexpectedly treasured for decades after the American Occupation.

In many ways, the Sugamo artwork is more dynamic than spoken words or written text. To this day, the drawings and sketches in this collection teach about the profound human capacity for self redemption and communication across national and linguistic divides. Retrospectively, the collection imparts important lessons that go well beyond the common curriculum. As soldiers on both sides emerged from the dark chasm of war, the prisoner artwork became significant vehicles for reconciliation and friendship. Their story of human resilience and recovery offer an indispensable supplement for any history textbook. Art scholars and Japanese teachers as well will certainly draw vital lessons from these materials for decades to come.

References and Further Reading

C-kyū senpan ga suketchishita Sugamo Purizun. (Tokio Tobita, 2011)

“Escaping Sugamo Prison with a no. 2 pencil: the drawings of Japanese war criminal Tobita Tokio.” Visual Studies, Vol. 30, No. 1. (Powell and Du, 2015)

I was defeated / a translation from the Japanese. (Yoshio Kodama, 1951)

Nakiwarai Sugamo nikki. (Fumio Fujiki, 1953).

Sugamo densetsu : manga de tsuzuru Sugamo Purizun to GI. (Fumio Fujiki, 1994)

Sugamo life : prison arts under American occupation, 1945-52. (Bill Barrette, 2013)

Sugamo Prison, Tokyo : an account of the trial and sentencing of Japanese war criminals in 1948, by a U.S. participant. (John L. Ginn, 1992)

Sugamo Purizun : kyōkaishi Hanayama Shinshō to shikei senpan no kiroku (Hirotada Kobayashi, 1999)

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