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

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

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).

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