More than half a century ago, new college graduate Hiroshi Suzuki pedaled off from Tokyo on a bicycle tour of Japan.
His mission? Stop at elementary schools around the nation and request paintings drawn by children for a special exhibition.
Suzuki spent an entire year collecting more than 500 pictures. Upon his return to the capital, he put the works on display.
Today, more than 50 years later, the pictures kept at Suzuki’s home have been published in a book, giving readers a glimpse of life in the Showa Era (1926-1989) through the eyes of children.
Suzuki, 76, a resident of Kawagoe, Saitama Prefecture, saved up for six months via his part-time work in preparation for his envisioned trip after graduating from a university.
He then left his home in Tokyo’s Nakano Ward for northern Japan in October 1969.
ART EXHIBITION PROMPTED JOURNEY
What inspired him was an exhibition held at a department store themed on children’s illustrations.
“They were well painted,” Suzuki recalled thinking after his visit to the event. “But I felt it would be far more interesting if works made on the child’s personal desire, not for contests, were exhibited.”
Around that time, Suzuki was working part time during the daytime while often falling asleep in evening classes of his college. He frequented a theater to watch movies.
Many universities were being rocked in the heyday of student protests, but he found it difficult for him to join the movement. Suzuki asked himself whether he “should keep living in that fashion.”
After plenty of soul-searching, Suzuki made up his mind to go on a trip instead of seeking a full-time job.
He visited education boards and elementary schools nationwide without an appointment with a sheet of paper in his hand explaining his desire for students’ paintings.
Though his request was rejected on numerous occasions, some schools willingly gave him children’s creations.
“It may be that people in those days were not apt to be suspicious of others like today,” Suzuki said.
He spent nights mainly sleeping on benches at train stations. Hearing about his journey, people allowed Suzuki to stay at their residences at times.
“The trip was made thoughtlessly and recklessly in my tender days,” Suzuki said.
The experience made him learn the subtleties of human’s compassion toward others.
Passing by Niigata Prefecture, Suzuki headed north along the Sea of Japan. He reached Hokkaido, the northernmost prefecture of the nation, in November, and gave up riding his bike on his travels there due to snow.
Suzuki rode trains to continue his endeavor and restarted pedaling in February the following year in Miyagi Prefecture.
He arrived in the southern Kyushu region in June and entered Okinawa that was still under U.S. rule in July. During the summer holiday season for primary schools, Suzuki helped fishermen in Ehime Prefecture to cover his traveling expenses.
Suzuki returned to Tokyo in October.
In his travels, Suzuki visited all 47 prefectures of Japan to tour 120 elementary schools. Some operators called on other academies to offer pictures, so 512 works were amassed from a total of 168 schools.
Suzuki fulfilled his goal by organizing a 21-day display of kids’ paintings collected by bicycle at an art gallery along an underground passage in the capital.
CHILDREN’S WORKS GET SECOND LIFE
Last year, decades following the end of his quest, Suzuki, who currently engages in video making in Saitama Prefecture outside Tokyo, became acquainted with Mitsuji Fukumoto, 74, president of a Fukuoka-based publisher called Sekifusha.
Before long, they talked about the cache of collected paintings. Fukumoto was so astonished at the “miracle-like” achievement that he suggested the works be published.
All the illustrations kept at Suzuki’s house were put into the book with the names of the creators and schools as well as their grades listed. The publication was released in January this year under the title “Shogakusei ga Egaita Showa no Nihon” (Japan of the Showa Era depicted by elementary school students).
Portrayed in them are a friend studying in a wooden classroom, a mother reaping rice in farmers’ clothing and fathers in work uniforms at a mine and a factory.
The 338-page book shows daily life as depicted by children in various regions around the same period, as if a large exhibition was being held for readers.
“Seeing the paintings makes me feel like I was talking with the children who created them,” said Suzuki. “It will be my pleasure if viewing the energetic works made freely by kids reminds people of the bygone days.”