Tokyo library director rescued books during WWII

The Yomiuri Shimbun
Nishibu Soko warehouse owner Kazuhito Nishikawa looks at one of the buildings in which books were stored during World War II, in Shiki, Saitama Prefecture.

It’s not widely known that during World War II, the director of the Tokyo Metropolitan Hibiya Library, the predecessor of the Hibiya Library and Museum, coordinated the large-scale transportation of books to warehouses in Shiki, Saitama Prefecture, and other locations to safeguard them.

Courtesy of Japan Library Association
Kunizo Nakata

An estimated 400,000 titles were moved due to the continued threat of U.S. air raids from January 1944 until the end of the war in 1945. Officials transported books from the library’s collection and titles that had been purchased from scholars, among others, to warehouses in the region. The mission was led by the director of the library, Kunizo Nakata (1897-1956), who risked his life to preserve precious cultural assets for future generations.

From 1944, about 100,000 books were placed in four storage facilities of a sake brewery in Shiki run by Bukichiro Nishikawa. The facility, which is about 30 kilometers northwest of the Hibiya Library, now operates as the Nishibu Soko warehouse, and is run by Kazuhito Nishikawa, Bukichiro’s grandson. One of the buildings used to store books looks just as it did at that time.

Nishikawa, 47, recalled a story his father, Bujuro, had told him: “After the war, soldiers from the Allied Occupation forces came to collect the books and said that they would be returned to the library.” Bujuro, who passed away in 2014, was only a boy at the time. “They said, ‘don’t move!’ but my father couldn’t resist, and they pointed a gun at him,” Nishikawa said. “I’m deeply impressed that the warehouses played a part in preserving culture.”

“Air raid warnings were often issued and the machine-gun fire [from U.S. warplanes] was terrifying,” said Naoki Morita, the owner of a grocery store near the warehouse. Morita, 86, said he remembers seeing about 20 young people wearing caps frantically unloading wooden boxes from a truck in the autumn of 1944.

The Education Ministry instructed libraries nationwide to safeguard their collections in December 1943 due to U.S. air raids, which had started striking the Japanese mainland in April 1942. Nakata, who was appointed director of the Hibiya Library in July 1944, purchased books from private collections and transported them to warehouses along with items from the library’s collections.

The library enlisted the help of students of Tokyo First Junior High School — the predecessor of Tokyo Metropolitan Hibiya High School — who had been mobilized as wartime laborers.

Shigeo Sorimachi, the owner of a second-hand book store, wrote in a 1984 essay that Nakata had said, “I’m willing to die to get this job done,” as he watched fires burning after an air raid. “Without him, the relocation [of the books] wouldn’t have been possible,” according to Sorimachi.

The Hibiya Library lost about 200,000 books in an air raid on May 25, 1945. After the war, books that had not been damaged in air raids were taken back to metropolitan libraries in Tokyo’s Kyobashi and Surugadai districts. Books that had been removed from the Hibiya Library, which was rebuilt in 1957, were also returned. Control of the library was handed over to the Chiyoda Ward Office in 2009. Currently, about 240,000 of the preserved books are stored in a special archive section of the Tokyo Metropolitan Central Library in Minato Ward.

The Yomiuri Shimbun
A map from the collection of Tokyo Metropolitan Central Library in Minato Ward, Tokyo.

About 40,000 documents that were among items that had been purchased by the Tokyo municipal government with a ¥100,000 donation from Emperor Taisho survived the war. The cache of documents included materials related to the construction of Edo Castle, old maps and nishiki-e pictures depicting scenes of Tokyo since the end of the Edo period (1603-1867). It also included books that had been owned by academic Tetsuji Morohashi, philosopher Tetsujiro Inoue and former Finance Minister Isao Kawata, who collected the complete works of his great-grandfather, Confucian scholar Issai Sato. “The documents were a solid foundation to build upon when the library reopened,” said library official Toshifumi Yuji.

Midori Nagatani and two other library officials uncovered details of Nakata’s efforts during preparations for events to mark the 90th anniversary of the Hibiya Library in 1998. While looking through the library’s archives, they found invoices for the transportation of the books, records of payments made to the students and contracts for leasing the warehouses. The officials interviewed the owners of warehouses where books had been stored and collected comments from some of the people who had helped to transport the books when they were students. “They were heavy; it was hard work,” read one such comment.

In March 2000, the library held a special exhibition to present their findings. “Reading the dusty documents brought tears to my eyes. I want people to know about the efforts of the people who supported the library,” Nagatani, 81, said.

“I’m glad that more people know about my father,” said Motomi Miyakawa, 90, one of Nakata’s daughters. “My grandmother and I evacuated to Shiga Prefecture and my father devoted himself to safeguarding the books.”

The 2013 documentary “Sokai Shita Yonjumansatsu no Tosho” (400,000 books relocated) by director Kenji Kanetaka has been screened at more than 70 viewing events, including one in Machida, Tokyo, earlier this month. Kanetaka said: “The coronavirus crisis has been a good opportunity to reexamine the cultural value of books. I want people to know about the great deeds of those who risked their lives to preserve them.”