Monday, August 5, 2013

"Barefoot Gen"

Tomorrow, August 6, is the 68th anniversary of the atomic bombing of Hiroshima. When the bomb exploded at 8:15 on that hot August morning in 1945, Keiji Nakazawa was on his way to school in Hiroshima.

Even though his father, older sister and younger brother all were killed by the atomic blast, six-year-old Keiji “survived miraculously.”
Although Nakazawa was born in Hiroshima in March 1939, seven months after I was born in Missouri, he died in December of last year.
In 1973 Nakazawa published a serialized manga (comic strip) called “Hadashi no Gen” (Barefoot Gen). It was largely autobiographical: Nagazawa was Gen, the spunky boy in the manga, which was published as a graphic novel in 1975.

Even though they may be called comic books, there is certainly nothing funny about the story of “Barefoot Gen.”
The pictures are drawn with comic-strip exaggeration, but from beginning to end Nakazawa’s manga depict the great human tragedy of people, mostly non-combatants, who were killed instantly or soon died from injuries received by the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima on that fateful August morning.
I read the first volume of “Barefoot Gen” in the 1970s, not long after it first came out in English translation. Last month I read the 1987 English edition of the first volume again and compared it with the new 2004 translation. I also read the second and fifth volumes (published in 2004 and 2007) for the first time.
Even in graphic novel form, it was tough reading because of the horrors depicted.
The first volume mostly tells the story of Gen’s family in the four months before the bombing. Gen’s (Nakazawa’s) father was an outspoken critic of the war frenzy in Japan. Since everyone was expected to be 100% behind the war efforts, he was jailed for a time because of his anti-war talk.
Although it happened earlier in real life, Nakazawa tells about his own father being jailed as a “thought criminal.”
The atomic explosion does not occur until page 250 of the 284-page first volume. So it is the second volume, “The Day After,” which is really hidoi (terrible). But I had known something about that: I had seen “The Hiroshima Panels,” Iri and Toshi Maruki’s large, graphic paintings depicting the horrors of 8/6/45.
However, I hadn’t thought much about the ongoing problem of the war orphans and all the destitute survivors in Hiroshima not only in the months but also in the years following the bombing. That sad story is told in the fifth volume, “The Never-Ending War,” which begins in December 1947.
Toward the middle of that book Nakazawa writes,
The Pacific War ended with the dropping of the atomic bomb. But for people exposed to the bomb’s radiation, the postwar era was just the beginning of a new war with the bomb’s terrifying after effects. In U.S.-occupied Japan, the news media were strictly forbidden from reporting about the effects of the A-bomb. The voices of the suffering – 300,000 atomic bomb survivors – floated into space unheard (p. 156).
How different was Gen’s (Nakazawa’s) life in 1947-48 than mine as a fifth grader in rural northwest Missouri! How little I knew about boys like Gen who were suffering in Japan at that time!
“Barefoot Gen” is well worth reading. I recommend it as a way to grasp something of the unspeakable horror of nuclear bombs and to be impressed with the ongoing need to work for peace and justice in this world of ours. 

Note: The quoted words in the second paragraph come from Nakazawa’s book, “Hiroshima: The Autobiography of Barefoot Gen” (2010), p. xxiii.


  1. The first response received concerning this morning's blog posting was from Thinking Friend Dan O'Reagan, who lived in Japan for a number of years.

    He wrote, in part,

    "I am getting ready to eat breakfast in a few minutes, and to contemplate the things in 'Barefoot Gen' takes away my appetite.

    "The horrors of that day are too 'hidoi' to contemplate."

    1. Thanks for writing, Dan.

      Perhaps making posts like this first thing in the morning is not a good idea. For some posts perhaps I should wait until 9 a.m. or so.

  2. Thanks, Leroy. I'm going to be sure that my grandson, who loves Japan, sees this.

  3. Most wars seem to have tragic outcomes for some, especially non-combatants. Many of the wars are instigated or beatified by the "heros" of history, including Lincoln and JPII. The Japanese and Americans have full histories of atrocities to be condemned. I look at the attempted genocides of my lifetime where we didn't bother to intervene, or other times when there was no "good" side and we did intervene -I could easily list them on my fingers and toes - including our proxies at the World Bank instigating actions last week in Kikuyu against the Maasai. President Clinton stated, his greatest regret was not intervening in Rwanda.

    Are the methods of war, or the results the real tragedy?

    There is none righteous, including Christians. Catholics v Muslims, Catholics v Orthodox, Catholics v Protestants, Catholics v Catholics, Christian Watutsi v Christian Wahutu, Christian Wahutu v Christian Watutsi... the list goes on and on. True heros/saints are few and far between.

    That said, I recommend visiting the parks at Hiroshima or Nagasaki.

  4. An esteemed Thinking Friend wrote in response to this blog posting,

    "We remember Pearl Harbor, but we remember not to remember Hiroshima and Nagasaki to our great shame. They should remind us again and again of our American capacity for destruction and, yes, EVIL."

  5. Thinking Friend, and former missionary colleague, Melvin Bradshaw send the following comments by email:

    "I lived in Hiroshima from 1963 t0 1971. I escorted many visitors to the Peace Park. I will never forget many of the images depicted there. I was also pastor of several of the "orphans" and victims of the Atomic bombing of Hiroshima.

    "I find it very hard to 'justify' that act and it's results. I also am more convinced of the power of the Christian faith to overcome hatred and despair.

    "That was a terrible war - no evidence more demonstrative of it EVIL (Japanese and USA/et al) than Hiroshima's destruction!"

  6. On my other blogsite ( a man whom I do not know (he seems to be from Belgium, and he writes a blog called "The Truth about Japan), posted the following comment:

    "Interestingly, his comic on sex slaves and war atrocities committed by Japanese soldiers never got a lot of success."

    1. Rob, I don’t know if you are criticizing Nakazawa for not writing about “sex slaves and war atrocities committed by Japanese soldiers” or the public for not buying and reading such graphic novels.

      I do not know of any such “comics” that Nakazawa wrote, and that may be your point. But, hey, he is writing autobiographical stuff. He didn’t have a sex slave nor was he with the Japanese soldiers in Nanjing and elsewhere. He was a little boy who lost his father and two siblings on 8/6/45.

      Sure he expresses anger toward the Americans. After all, they were the ones who dropped the bomb that killed his family and about 100,000 others in Hiroshima. But both before and after the bomb, he also expressed anger toward the militarists in Japan — and toward the Emperor for leading the country into war.

      “Barefoot Gen” is a very anti-war series of books. Others have written about the issues you mentioned, thankfully. But Nakazawa wrote about his experiences and uses them as a way to condemn war.

      Nakazawa’s efforts, and success, should be praised, not criticized.

  7. Thank you for this timely article. I recently read on the Asia & Japan Watch website (an Asahi Shimbun publication) that there is a new version of Barefoot Gen that is written in both Japanese and English. It is published by Dino Box Co., and it went on sale on July 29 (where, the article does not say, but I'm guessing Japan). It sells for 1,680 yen. I'm trying to track down an online site in the USA where this new version of Barefoot Gen can be purchased. I've checked the leading online seller of books, and it's not there. If you come across any information about the availability of this new version in the USA, please let your readers know about it. I'd really like to try and get a copy of the bilingual version. Here is the Asahi Shimbun article:

    1. So I've found some more information about this new version and I'm posting them here in case your readers are interested. Turns out that the new book is a condensed version of Barefoot Gen and only has 47 pages. The translator is Elizabeth Baldwin, and the ISBN is 978-4-9902850-5-0. Googling this ISBN will display the sites which sell them, which are mostly Japanese sites. Amazon Japan has it.