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Remembering (and Reliving) the Bombing of Hiroshima with Keiji Nakazawa’s ‘Barefoot Gen’

The seminal manga of Hiroshima's atomic bombing and aftermath, Keiji Nakazawa's Barefoot Gen, remains an essential reminder of the horrors of war and atomic bombs.

Morality is complex in this tale, but Nakazawa portrays it both powerfully and realistically.

Of all the literature produced on the subject of the atomic bomb, Keiji Nakazawa’s epic manga series Barefoot Gen remains one of the most important and most powerful.

Over 40 years since its initial publication, it retains its power. Serialized over a span of 14 years in Japan — from 1973 through 1985 — it has subsequently been made into anime, live-action television and films, even musicals and opera. The series presents the life experiences of its author as a young boy growing up in war-time and post-war Hiroshima. Gen, the title character and the one based on the author, experiences war-time repression and deprivation, the horrific atomic bombing of his hometown Hiroshima, and the struggle to rebuild in the wake of the bombing and Japan’s surrender.

The first two volumes are the ones most familiar to readers, and on which several of the other iterations of Barefoot Gen have been based. These volumes depict the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and its immediate aftermath. Gen is a young boy on his way to school when it happens: by a series of sheer miracles he survives, but his father, brother and sister are killed. His mother survived, and a young sister is born literally moments after the bombing. Two other brothers who had been outside of Hiroshima at the time of the bombing eventually rejoin them as well, and the small family struggles to survive in the horrific aftermath.

The first two volumes are without a doubt powerful and poignant — the horrifying destructive power of the bomb is inconceivable to those who have never read survivors’ accounts and is an important reason why survivors’ accounts ought to be mandatory reading for children around the world.

But the remainder of the series is deeply insightful and rewarding as well. The effects of the bomb lingered long after Hiroshima’s physical infrastructure was rebuilt: the deadly unknowns of radiation-related illnesses; the impact of the bombing on the city’s social fabric and family relationships; the ways in which the struggle to survive gave rise to unique and often deeply unjust economic and social phenomena (for instance, the exploitative gentrification of the bomb site in an effort to turn it into an international peace memorial). As Nakazawa repeatedly observes, the atomic bomb continued inflicting suffering on Hiroshima’s residents for decades.

Life After the Bomb

Even for those who are familiar with survivors’ accounts, Barefoot Gen is educational insofar as it follows Gen’s life long after the bombing itself. Such a long-term presentation is less common among atomic bomb literature, and the illustrative mode of manga offers unique opportunities for presentation (the reader experiences the gradual restoration and regrowth of the city through the shifting backdrops, in a visceral manner that is impossible to convey in prose literature).

Gut-wrenching and traumatizing as the depiction of the bombing and its immediate aftermath are, it is the extended serialization of the post-war experience that offers one of the real cultural and historical values of Barefoot Gen.

Volume Four, Out of the Ashes, illustrates the complexity of survival as life starts to return to some semblance of a routine and order struggles to reassert itself. The Japanese police are still forbidden by American occupation authorities from carrying guns; the result is that they are completely helpless to stop crimes, from sexual violence to kidnapping to the burgeoning black market.

Nakazawa illustrates the broad diversity of responses to the tragedy. There are those who take cruel advantage of the situation, price-gouging for rice, robbing and killing for personal lust or enrichment. And there are also those who band together and support each other. Rarely do characters fall exclusively on one end of the spectrum or the other. Characters might evince loyalty and support to some, while turning a blind eye to others, or actively exploiting them.

Surprisingly for a manga that relies on such child-like art, the characters are deeply complex. An old woman rejects the remnants of her’s daughter’s friend’s family (Gen’s family), despite their loss and suffering and homelessness, and kicks them out of her house to make space for an entrepreneurial young man who’s willing and able to pay rent. But, it turns out, the real reason she rejected them was due to the sorrow she felt at the loss of her own son in the war; sorrow that was revisited every time she had to interact with the young children.

Volume Four also concludes the strange and tragic story of Gen’s young sister Tomoko. The infant is kidnapped by a gang of crooks and Gen searches desperately to find her. Eventually he does: it turns out that the people who kidnapped her did so to masquerade her as the lost infant of various other critically ill survivors, in the hope that the thought their child is still alive will give them hope to continue struggling to survive. Morality is complex in this tale, but Nakazawa portrays it both powerfully and realistically.

The American occupation forces receive a proper treatment in Barefoot Gen. All too often they’re treated as heroes in tellings such as this: kindly, beneficent victors who distribute food to the starving and toss candy to young orphan children. True, the Americans were not by any stretch the demons that Japanese propaganda had made them out to be during the war. But they weren’t beneficent angels, either. Nakazawa portrays them realistically: beating kids who break into their compounds to steal food; raping local women and committing other horrific crimes. American soldiers were not innocent of the crimes that armed occupation inevitably leads to, and Nakazawa portrays this fact unflinchingly and honestly.

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A sub-plot which spans Volumes Six, Writing the Truth and Seven, Bones Into Dust, involves Gen’s efforts to help an elderly journalist and novelist publish a book he’s written about the bombing, and serves as a vehicle to explore America’s efforts to suppress news and information about the atomic bomb. Gen vents his wrath on American occupation officers who try to suppress the book’s publication, allowing Nakazawa to counter some of the justifications Americans used to rationalize use of the bomb.

It also allows Nakazawa to explore the growing American repression of leftists, with secretive US intelligence units deploying murder and torture against Japanese civilians. America didn’t engage in the same sort of large-scale, open, systematic torture and persecution of populations in occupied territories as the Japanese army did, but many of them did commit significant crimes. The myth of the benevolent American soldier distributing candy and chewing gum is just that — a myth that denies the violence and crimes which some American soldiers and units engaged in against civilian populations — and Nakazawa deftly exposes it, in the course of denouncing militarists and criminals on both sides.

Volume Five, The Never-Ending War, emphasizes the many ways in which the struggle for survival continued long past the end of the war for those who survived. Radiation sickness continues to take its toll in unexpected and incomprehensible ways; survivors who seem perfectly healthy one day never know when they’ll be fighting for their lives against a sudden eruption of radiation sickness the next. The cruelty of America’s response to the bombing is also a theme: scientists and doctors from the medical team study the suffering A-bomb victims, but do very little to help them.

Meanwhile, Nakazawa illustrates the horrific ways in which local Japanese residents turned on each other in the struggle to survive. Japanese doctors receive free medicines from the American military, yet refuse to distribute the medicines to critically ill survivors, demanding high cash payments and lining their pockets instead. The struggle for survival takes horrific turns: some locals lurk around the homes of dying bomb victims, then steal their bodies, which they hand over to American radiation researchers for a fee. Some even sell the skulls of victims as souvenirs to American soldiers.

In Barefoot Gen, characters are rarely one-sided. The man who steals bodies is wracked by nightmares and must use his earnings to drink himself into oblivion each night. The young boy selling skulls is using the cash to look after his brother, blinded by the bomb. He figures his actions will help the victims whose skulls he sells get into heaven all the faster, since they’re helping his crippled brother.

Gen’s irrepressible spirit of survival swells to new heights in this volume; as his friends and relatives note, he begins to exhibit the defiant and optimistic spirit of his father. He confronts the hypocritical leaders around him, denouncing those among the community leaders who were supporters of the military regime and have only changed their tune now that the Americans are in charge. He denounces the emperor, horrified that the schools turn out to cheer his visit when Gen considers him to blame for the slaughter of the war and bomb. Throughout the series, he relies on the memory of his father’s principled idealism to give him strength, repeatedly drawing on his father’s mantra to never give up: “Gen, be like a stalk of wheat. It puts out green shoots in the harsh winter / and no matter how often it’s trampled, it grows up straight and tall, and bears fruit.”

Never Give Up

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.

Gen’s optimism and idealism seems remarkable — it’s one of his character’s most endearing and defining qualities — but Nakazawa deftly ties it into his broader message that only an idealistic society can overcome the mistakes and nightmares of its past, and avoid repeating them. Weighed down by the rise of black market gangsters and opportunistic politicians, Gen’s long-suffering friends and neighbours sigh and shrug and say there’s nothing they can do about such things. Gen reacts with predictable fury when his brother Akira says “there’s nothing we can do.”

“I hate those words, I hate them!” exclaims Gen. “I always thought it was so strange / People lost their sons or their fathers in the war / So many people were killed by the bomb, and everyone’s still suffering so much / But they all just give up and say, “There’s nothing we can do.” They don’t look at what’s really going on. / Didn’t Papa tell us? How they started the war so a handful of rich people could profit, and said it’s for the sake of the nation and the Emperor? The war that’s caused us and Ryuta so much hardship / There are people who are to blame for starting the war! And people who cooperated with them, who are living the good life now! Somebody’s to blame for dropping the atomic bomb! / We have to pound those culprits so they can never cause us to much pain again. / They’ll make the same kind of trouble for us again / and we’ll just cry and say, “Oh well, we can’t do anything about it.” / I hate giving up and saying there’s nothing to be done. I don’t want to be that kind of whiner…/ Don’t be a quitter who says there’s nothing to be done!”

Gen exerts his wrath at hypocrites on all sides. When he encounters a pre-war politician running again for office under the messaging of peace and democracy, he bursts into the candidate’s speech:

“Why don’t you tell them how you were the first on our block yelling about the American and British devils and pushing the war? / You harassed my family and called us traitors. / Now that Japan lost, all of a sudden you’re a soldier of peace who opposed the war. How convenient for you! / You shouldn’t be showing your face in public, mister! If somebody like you gets elected, there’s no telling what you might do!”

The Emperor, visiting Hiroshima, also comes in for Gen’s rage, as do his schoolteachers who organize the children into cheering squads for the emperor’s visit, which they refer to as a “joyous day.”

“What “joyous day” is he talking about?” reflects Gen. “Our teacher is really dumb. / The Emperor started the war. Thanks to him, cities all over Japan were burned to the ground, and Hiroshima and Nagasaki were destroyed in a flash. / He’s responsible for the death of my father and countless other people, and for the misery his war is still causing! / Why should we have to welcome him as if we’re grateful? It’s crazy. / We Japanese don’t think enough about what we did in the war. / I expected more from our teacher. / I’ll never make a flag or welcome the Emperor. / I’ll skip school tomorrow – it’s too stupid! / The Emperor really has some nerve showing his face in Hiroshima. / There’s so many bodies still buried here, even now. / If I were him, I’d be too ashamed to even leave his house.”

Of course, the American Atomic Bomb Casualty Commission (ABCC) — the medical committee set up to study the effects of radiation — comes under fire as well.

“It made me furious,” rages Koji, Gen’s older brother, who brought their sick mother to the ABCC in hopes they could help her (they took some blood samples and then sent her home). “The ABCC sees the bomb survivors as nothing more than bugs under a microscope.”

“They’re making fools of us!” responds an angry Gen. “Koji, do you think the Americans knew the A-bomb would cause radiation sickness? Did they know, and drop it anyway?”

“I expect so,” replies Koji.

“So that’s why they set up the ABCC and started checking people right away! / First they drop the bomb on us and kill our father. / And then we let them use our mother as a guinea pig for their experiments. What imbeciles we are! / I can’t believe how cruel and arrogant these Americans are!”

The later volumes of Barefoot Gen deal with the Korean War, and efforts by Japanese activists (particularly one schoolteacher) to resist the rightward drift of Japanese politics as the Cold War descended. Gen’s exasperation at the outbreak of another war (in Korea) so soon after the world war and the atomic bombing is echoed by many other citizens of Hiroshima, yet efforts to protest it are stifled by the repressive American occupation presence, and the hierarchy of Japanese political leaders (many of them former supporters of the imperial regime during the war) who have emerged to benefit from American patronage. Nakazawa is uninhibited in his critique of the militaristic right and of apologists for the emperor; Gen hurls himself into battle (fist-fights and all) in an illustrated exposition of the rage Nakazawa clearly feels.

“The emperor shits and farts just like the rest of us. / And he’s the one who was responsible for getting Japan into the war and sending millions of people to their deaths. / He’s responsible for Mama’s death, too. / He should throw himself down on the ground and apologize to her. / But I’ve never heard the emperor say he’s sorry for what he did. Not once have I heard him beg the Japanese people for forgiveness! / Talk about arrogance! During the war the emperor claimed he was a god, then the minute Japan loses he says he’s only human. As if nothing happened! / And then, after taking all those millions of lives, he gets to stay on as the symbol of Japan. / I won’t be satisfied until I hear him say that he takes responsibility for the war. / Until the top decision-maker takes responsibility, nobody in Japan can really move on. Everything just stays messed up.”

The Autobiography of Barefoot Gen

Nakazawa published an autobiography in 1987 (revised and expanded in 1995, and translated into English by the American scholar Richard H. Minear in 2010). It’s titled The Autobiography of Barefoot Gen as a way of underscoring the autobiographical nature of the Barefoot Gen series (“I’m the model for Gen. Barefoot Gen is based on fact,” writes Nakazawa in the introduction). The title also reflects the book’s exploration of Nakazawa’s complicated entry to writing ‘atomic bomb manga’, as he describes it.

As Hiroshima began to rebuild after the war, Nakazawa discovered his love of manga and desire to become a manga artist. He became a sign-painter, since it was a growing industry that would allow him to hone his artistic techniques while earning the money his family needed to survive. Outside of his working hours he produced manga voraciously, some of which was accepted for publication. He shared some of his work with publishers in Tokyo, and was told he had promise but if he wanted to pursue a career in the field he needed to move to the capital, which he did in 1961.

When he first moved to Tokyo, Nakazawa worked as an assistant to a manga artist — the typical route of manga apprenticeship, but one in which many prospective artists get stuck — and hid his identity as a bomb survivor. There was tremendous discrimination against bomb victims — many thought you could catch radiation disease by simply touching a victim, or being in close proximity to them. Families broke up prospective marriages with bomb victims, fearing the effect of radiation on their offspring. Many other forms of discrimination against victims also prevailed.

It was the death of Nakazawa’s mother in 1966 that changed his approach to manga. She had been suffering from radiation-related diseases for many years, and the family’s anger had been stoked by the hands-off, guinea-pig-like nature of the American medical researchers’ (ABCC) treatment of bomb victims — eager to study, but slow to provide any actual help. When their mother died, the ABCC showed up immediately, begging to be given her body to study. The children refused, and proceeded with the traditional cremation. In Japanese funeral practices the large bones are collected and preserved in an urn following cremation; to the family’s shock and horror their mother’s bones had been so affected by radiation that none survived the cremation (the title of Barefoot Gen Volume Seven, which depicts this, is Bones Into Dust).

After the funeral, Nakazawa returned to Tokyo, full of sorrow and rage. “Returning to Tokyo, I shut myself up in the nine-by-twelve room and began to draw feverishly, pouring out all my anger. In one week I completed Pelted by Black Rain, the first atomic bomb manga.”

Forget the taboo against self-identifying as a bomb survivor, let alone writing about the experience — Nakazawa was now determined to write about it in the hopes of educating young people about the horrors of atomic bombs and about war more generally. He even quit his assistantship to focus on producing his own manga full-time, despite the hit this took on the family’s finances (he was now married, and they were expecting their first child).

“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.”

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