Remembering (and Reliving) the Bombing of Hiroshima With Keiji Nakazawa's 'Barefoot Gen'

by Hans Rollman

4 August 2017


"Too Intense" for Publishing

...they’d probably both be arrested by the CIA for writing about the bomb.

But he couldn’t find a publisher. Many editors and publishers to whom he submitted the work agreed that it was very good work, but it was “too intense” for their companies or readership, they claimed. He’d been submitting it to the more reputable manga publishers (rather than stand-alone comics, most manga appeared in regular monthly compendiums, sort of like magazines, comprised of the latest installments of several series). He decided to change his target, and began submitting to newer, less reputable manga magazines. “Why had I insisted on finding a major publisher?” he writes in his autobiography. “Even a magazine that’s third-or-fourth-rate will do. If it’s in print, someone will read it. If even one person reads my work and hears what I want to say, that will count as success, that will have value… If no one can read it, it has no significance.”

So he turned to the “third-rate magazines… that the PTAs and good parents of the world would likely target as bad, as ‘dirty’.”

One of them, Manga Punch, jumped for the opportunity. Their editor said he’d publish it, but warned Nakazawa that they’d probably both be arrested by the CIA for writing about the bomb. “We’re publishing a work that indicts the atomic bomb harshly, so we’d better assume the United States will interfere. I’m ready to be arrested with you,” said the editor. The United States did not interfere, but the editor’s concern reflects the fear that still existed around publishing the horrific truth of the atomic bomb and its effects.

Nakazawa’s first atomic bomb manga was a success, receiving praise from readers and other artists alike, and a full series was commissioned. It was Nakazawa’s big break and simultaneously had opened the door to honest and critical manga about the atomic bomb. From then on Nakazawa released a tremendous outpouring of work for a variety of publishers about the atomic bomb experience, and about the horrors of war (one editor sent him on assignment to produce a manga about the American occupation, and wartime experience, of Okinawa).

His most well-known atomic bomb manga, Barefoot Gen, had its origins in a request by the editor of manga magazine Boys Jump Monthly for Nakazawa and other artists to produce short manga autobiographies of themselves for the magazine. When the editor read Nakazawa’s 45-page autobiography, he insisted Nakazawa expand his personal experience into a serial. The result was Barefoot Gen: a work that occupied Nakazawa for the next 14 years.

Nakazawa’s autobiography is a powerful and eminently worthwhile read. It ranks among other powerfully moving first-hand accounts of the atomic bombing, but has the added interest of describing Nakazawa’s life after the bomb and his struggle to publish manga revealing the true and horrific nature of the atomic bomb.

It also helps readers with a literary interest in the work better understand Nakazawa’s autobiographical technique. Much of Gen’s experience in the series directly reflects Nakazawa’s lived reality, but in an effort to more fully illustrate the range of horrific experiences that took place after the war, Nakazawa inserts sub-plots and additional characters which, while they didn’t actually happen to him in his own life, do reflect actual experiences of other bomb victims.

For example, he depicts himself as being present when his father, brother and sister died in the flames after the bombing, but the tragedy was actually related to him later by his mother (he’d still been trying to find his way home to her when the others died in the fire). Also, some of the supporting cast of characters—the irrepressible young orphan Ryuta,  for example—were fictional amalgams of other people, designed to portray the broad range of experiences victims and survivors had.

Everything in Barefoot Gen is quite factual, but Nakazawa adjusts personal chronologies and details in order to construct a more smooth-flowing narrative, particularly for the serial style required of manga at the time. Indeed, the result makes the work more powerful and educational than a simple straight-forward autobiography would have been: it allows the work to become a holistic chronicle of wartime and post-bomb experience, educating readers about the broad range of suffering and horror that the war and the atomic bombing produced.

Reading the autobiography also makes clear that Gen is not only based on Nakazawa, but actually serves as a sort of personal conscience for Nakazawa. Gen does things that Nakazawa probably wished he had done, but didn’t. For example, when Gen encounters school teachers who still glorify war and the emperor-system, he tells them off to their face for their idiocy and hypocrisy. Likewise, he tells off—and eventually quits—his tyrannical, ex-military boss at the sign-painting company (who also glorifies Japanese militarism, and runs the company like a military unit). Reading the autobiography, it sounds like these confrontations were more wishful thinking on Nakazawa’s part. Gen lives his feelings, confronting militarism and injustice whenever and wherever he encounters it. Portraying Gen in this way allows Nakazawa to share his inner conscience with the reader, explaining why certain attitudes or actions are terrible and should be resisted.

Which is not to say that Nakazawa didn’t challenge people and attitudes himself. Indeed, his autobiography reveals a down-to-earth, courageous man who thought for himself and was true to his own beliefs. The legacy of the bomb and the war which led to it inculcated in him a revulsion against group-thinking; the tendency that empowers patriotism and militarism and enables repression and violence. Even after he becomes a manga artist, he describes with disgust the cliquish circles in which other manga artists operated. To be accepted into their circles, you needed to be sponsored or recommended by other artists. Nakazawa recalls: “[Manga artist] A said self-importantly that okay, he’d recommend me. I thought, “Eat shit!” I puked at the thought that anyone would want to be accepted into that group. I believe in belonging to no group. I think it’s an unfortunate thing to be constrained by the rules or the pressure of the group and not be able to speak your mind.”

Nakazawa also takes advantage of his autobiography to criticize those who feel that the horrifyingly graphic depictions of war and the atomic bombing were too much for young children, or that young children should be protected from such images and ideas.

“Where in this life can you find the sweet and gentle world of children’s fairy tales? If you hide harsh reality from children and sugarcoat war and the atomic bomb, they’ll wind up thinking naïvely, “So war and the atomic bomb are not so bad after all?” Writers who choose that path make me angry. It’s an eye-for-eye world. I think it would be a very good thing if, seeing the cruelty of the atomic bomb, more and more children throughout Japan cry, “I’m terrified!” “I don’t like this!” “I don’t want to see it again!” I hope that if the number of children who hate to see the words “war” and “atomic bomb” increases, they won’t repeat in their lifetimes the experiences we went through.”

Ironically, in 2013 controversy erupted when schools in the city of Matsue in Japan removed Barefoot Gen from their libraries, citing both its impact on children as well as objections to the way Japan’s imperial military was depicted.

Surprisingly, Barefoot Gen’s appearance in the English language was a prolonged and difficult process. English-language translations of parts of the series were produced in fits and starts since 1976, including a focused initiative by a volunteer pacifist organization calling itself Project Gen. The most recent and complete translation of the entire series was only published in 2004 by Last Gasp publishers.

Barefoot Gen has sold millions of copies around the world, and continues to do so. But even that isn’t enough. Reading Barefoot Gen is more than just a matter of historical or literary education; it’s a moral imperative if future generations are to be able to learn what the horrors of totalitarianism, war and nuclear bombs are really like. The experience of plowing through ten volumes of illustrated manga manages to convey those horrors in a visceral way that textbooks can never do, and Nakazawa’s ethical guidance—the spirited and principled inner voice exteriorized by the irrepressible young Gen—is pivotal to the series’ success.

For while Nakazawa, who died in 2012 at the age of 73, deserves our praise for his unparalleled and energetic efforts to write against war, he also reminds us that the success of this mission can never be accomplished by a single person. Important parting advice comes in the form of an admonishment from Koji, Gen’s older brother, who warns him that all of Gen’s energy and protest against war and nuclear bombs will never succeed until and unless others join their voices to the cause as well.

“You have to realize that a single voice isn’t loud enough to do any good,” says Koji. “We need to get everybody all over Japan to raise their voices together. / We have to all join forces to make sure the horrors we lived through are never repeated. / If the flames of war and atomic weapons flare up again, everyone in Japan has to join in putting them out.”

We all know how critical it is to keep independent voices alive and strong on the Internet. Please consider a donation to support our work. We are a wholly independent, women-owned, small company. Your donation will help PopMatters stay viable through these changing, challenging times where costs have risen and advertising has dropped precipitously. PopMatters needs your help to keep publishing. Thank you.

//Mixed media

Jason Molina's Mythological Palette, Warts and All

// Re:Print

"Osmon lights the oil lamps on the process of Molina’s creative wonder, from toddling on the shores of Lake Erie to the indie folk pedestal he so deservedly sits upon today.

READ the article