Escaping Sugamo Prison with a no. 2 pencil : the drawings of Japanese war criminal Tobita Tokio

Lindsey POWELL, Chunmei DU

Research output: Journal PublicationsJournal Article (refereed)peer-review

1 Citation (Scopus)


Tobita Tokio spent 10 years as war crimes suspect and convicted war criminal in Sugamo Prison, a facility recommissioned by American occupiers in 1945 as one element of a larger programme designed to refashion Japan into a more peaceful and cooperative member of the community of nations. From 1945 to 1955, Tobita produced hundreds of drawings depicting life in Sugamo Prison and gave most of them to American jailors and fellow Japanese inmates. As ephemera and souvenirs, some of the drawings were short-lived. But many were carefully preserved. The drawings constitute a visual diary of prison life. But they were more than that. They played an important role in defusing post-war animosity between American and Japanese soldiers. At times, Tobita used them as a personal form of art therapy helping him deal with the psychological torments of prison life, especially when he was facing trial and sentencing. His drawings both highlighted and softened the caste and class tensions that challenged Japan during the war and post-war periods inside and outside the military and prison. As widely distributed original artworks within a relatively narrow social network, they constitute an excellent case study for agency-based theories of art production, distribution and consumption. They offer an opportunity to evaluate the overlap between art practices and wartime and post-war magical charm production in Japan. We argue there are structural similarities between Tobita’s drawings, the long tradition ofemavotive offerings, and the wartime production and circulation ofsenninbariprotective sashes,imon ningyocomfort dolls and signedHinomaruflags.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)1-19
Number of pages19
JournalVisual Studies
Issue number1
Publication statusPublished - 1 Mar 2015
Externally publishedYes


  • TOKIO, Tobita
  • JAPANESE drawing
  • WAR criminals
  • JAPANESE art
  • PRISON conditions


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