Fumiko Ishioka - “Holocaust Education Makes You Question How You Can Become a Better Person”




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Jun 26, 2014
by Tanya Yilmaz
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Fumiko Ishioka - “Holocaust Education Makes You Question How You Can Become a Better Person”

Executive director of Tokyo Holocaust Education Resource Center and how her dedication to Holocaust education began with a little girl’s suitcase  Fumiko Ishioka speaking at "Holocaust Education and Genocide Prevention: Sharing Experiences Across Borders"

Fumiko Ishioka, the executive director of the Tokyo Holocaust Education Resource Center owes her dedication to Holocaust education to the discovery of ‘Hana’s Suitcase’, she told Salzburg Global Seminar in an interview.

Ishioka, who was appointed executive director to the center in 1999, spoke while attending the session, “Holocaust Education and Genocide Prevention: Sharing Experiences Across Borders”.

Salzburg Global Fellow Ishioka said, “Without the story of Hana’s Suitcase, there wouldn’t have been much impact with Holocaust Education in [Japanese] schools, but it has been really effective and well received, not only by children but also teachers.”

Hana’s Suitcase was Ishioka’s first project at the Tokyo Holocaust Education Resource Center – a private, non-profit organization established in 1998 to teach children about the dangers of prejudice, intolerance and discrimination. “The Holocaust Seen Through Children’s Eyes” exhibition became the centerpiece of the center, where Ishioka was loaned several artifacts by Auschwitz Museum – one of which was a suitcase.

“I didn’t find the suitcase, I just asked for any object and Auschwitz Museum just picked up Hana’s suitcase amongst 4000 suitcases.”

Ishioka explained the only information they received alongside the brown and reasonably-well preserved suitcase was that the owner was a young girl called Hana Brady, who was born on May 16, 1931. The artifact was also inscribed with the word “Waisenkind”, German for “orphan”.

“The more children who came to see my center, the more of them asked about its background and they got really interested in learning about the owner of this suitcase and so we ran a search and found out that Hana died at Auschwitz at the age of 13, in fact she died the day she had arrived to the camp in 1944.”

Further analysis of post-war records allowed Ishioka to find out about Hana’s family, which led her to discover that Hana had a brother who survived the Holocaust. In August 2000, Ishioka carefully drafted letter to George Brady detailing how she first came across Hana’s suitcase and how this artefact had a profound effect on the children who visited the Tokyo Holocaust Education Resource Center. To her immense gratitude, he replied.

“Since meeting George in January 2001, it has just been an inspiring experience for me,” explains Ishioka. “He is truly my hero. He went through so much tragedy and he has been so generous in sharing his experience with us, so it’s been a really rewarding experience.”

Alongside George Brady and the suitcase, Ishioka travels to schools in South Africa, Mexico, Germany, Czech Republic, Scotland and Canada to educate children, teaching them how to appreciate the differences within ourselves by using the history of the Holocaust as a focal point.

Her dedication to the field led her story to be adapted for an award-winning children’s book, which has been translated into 45 languages, as well as a documentary film, entitled Inside Hana’s Suitcase. As a result of these efforts, she received an honorary Ph.D. in education from York University, Canada in 2006.

Ishioka explained that she first became interested in Holocaust education whilst working for a Japanese NGO for international cooperation. She then transferred her interests to the Tokyo Holocaust Education Center.

“In 1997, when I joined the center, our main concern was this increasing violence amongst young children, so we wanted to introduce tolerance education. We also had this problem of bullying at schools and we wanted to give kids the chance to learn to respect each other.

“So in Japan in particular, I think it is important to let children interact with other kids from different religions and cultures,” she explains.

In a panel discussion at Salzburg Global Seminar – "Views from Asia" – Ishioka outlined the current situation in Japan regarding Holocaust education and genocide prevention. She explained that the Japanese understanding of the Holocaust is viewed upon with lack of trivialization into how such atrocities occur.

“Some people can sympathize with Jewish people because of what Japan suffered after the bomb dropping. Some people just don’t want to see anything tragic, and they just want to close their eyes. Whereas others do not want to touch it [topic of Holocaust] at all because it might lead them into a conversation of Japan's own war aggression,” Ishioka said.

She also paid attention towards the idea that discrimination can be man-made and therefore the learning of such topics is vital, particularly in Japan where teachers need to relate this to class discrimination in current situations. 

"We have our own country's history of class discrimination. I also have concern over the fact that many Japanese people don't have favorable feelings toward China due to current political tensions because of the island dispute and the current administration's failure to acknowledge Japan's war-time aggression in Asia, and other issues. So learning about the value of tolerance, acceptance and learning not to label and categorize people through the teaching of the Holocaust, I think, is really urgent for students in Japan. They need to learn about the real dangers of prejudice and discrimination,” she said.

Discussing Holocaust education at the session, Ishioka said: “I believe our project has made a really good introduction for many school children. In the past 10 years we have been able to reach out to over 200,000 kids. We are confident that our programs can educate caring and responsible citizens committed to peace, human rights, and democracy.”

Building from the experiences she had at the session, Ishioka spoke of her optimism that the teaching of Holocaust education is the most significant for the young, although recognizes its importance throughout the education system from middle school to college.

She said: “I definitely believe that educating young children is important because they are full of questions and they are open-minded."

“For me, by learning about the Holocaust, I feel I am always asked what I would do if I faced such intolerance or prejudice. I feel like I am being tested. Holocaust education makes you question how you can become a better person.”


The session "Holocaust Education and Genocide Prevention: Sharing Experiences Across Borders" was developed in partnership with the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, with support from the Austrian Future Fund, the Austrian National Fund, the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) and the Pratt Foundation. The session was the third symposium in the joint Salzburg Global-USHMM Initiative on Holocaust Education and Genocide Prevention. For more information and updates from the session, please see the session page: www.salzburgglobal.org/go/535 and on Twitter with the hashtag #SGShol