Manga and the Bomb

An angry 1970s comic about Hiroshima by a bomb survivor sparks new arguments about Japan's military past

A scene from the movie "Akira."
20th Century Fox / Everett Collection

Keiji Nakazawa survived the bomb but didn’t talk about it for twenty years. People from his native Hiroshima were regarded as victims, not survivors, even in the wording of laws that gave them special medical care. So when he moved to Tokyo to become a comic book artist in 1961, Nakazawa kept his origins quiet. For several years, he made throwaway comic books about boy racers and baseball players. When his mother died, in 1966, Nakazawa, who was then 27, found himself on a train back to Tokyo, clutching her ashes. He noticed that his mother’s remains contained no fragments of bone; there was only fine dust, “as if the radiation had even invaded her skeleton,” Nakazawa once said.

He channelled his personal anger into “Struck by the Black Rain,” a serialized manga, or comic book, about wheeler-dealers and criminals in post-war Hiroshima, some of whom suffered from the after-effects of radiation. When he was asked to contribute to a series about the childhood experiences of artists, he finally broke his silence. In 1972, Nakazawa wrote “I Saw It,” about the day his seven-year-old self witnessed the world’s first atomic bomb dropping on Hiroshima.

“I Saw It” presented the bomb in all its horrific detail for the first time in manga. The children in the story, drawn in the typical doe-eyed style of Japanese comics, are suddenly blinded by broken glass, burned alive and maddened by pain and grief. The story opened the door for Nakazawa to address what had been a taboo subject in Japan. He expanded “I Saw It” into “Barefoot Gen,” a much longer account not only of a boyhood in Hiroshima destroyed by the atom bomb, but of the battle for survival in its aftermath.

Nakazawa was not the first manga artist to deal with nuclear themes. Osamu Tezuka, the father of modern Japanese comics, wrote “X Point in the Pacific” in 1953, about an old man’s attempt to stop the use of South Sea islands to test a new, fictional weapon called the Oxygen Bomb. Tezuka’s comic was rooted in concerns about the 1946 nuclear tests at Bikini Atoll. Thirteen months after his story appeared in Boken-O magazine, the Castle Bravo test of Feb. 28, 1954 shook the atoll with a 15-megaton explosion that was double the yield anticipated by the bomb’s designers.

The unexpected power of the Bravo test made it the largest detonation in history to that point. It remains the largest U.S. bomb ever, outmatched only by a handful of Soviet tests in the 1960s. Radioactive ashes generated by the blast spread much farther than expected, raining for three hours on the Lucky Dragon V, a Japanese fishing boat 14 miles outside the anticipated danger zone. Unaware of the nature of the ash, the crewmen played with it and even tasted it, returning to home two weeks later suffering from radiation sickness.

The Lucky Dragon incident was a crucial moment in Japanese nuclear politics. Decried by some protesters as a “third bomb” after Hiroshima and Nagasaki, it was initially regarded by many Japanese as an attempt to push them out of their traditional fishing grounds. Meanwhile, the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission tried to deflect criticism by accusing the fishermen of being spies.

When one of the fishermen died that September as a result of the complications of radiation sickness, the U.S. government hastily arranged payment of compensation for the crew’s families. In offering damages to people who were simply nearby a detonation, the agreement inadvertently suggested that the collateral damage from radiation could affect not just fishermen but also Japan’s food supply. This led to further protests about Japan’s complicity in America’s Cold War — at America’s insistence, Japan’s post-war constitution renounced war, but now Japanese citizens were placed at risk. The compensation also opened the way in Japan for similar claims from the hibakusha, the victims of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, whose plight had been denied and belittled since 1945.

During the Castle Bravo fallout, one of Japan’s major entertainment combines, Toho Studios, was working on a monster movie. Filmed in the fall of 1954, during the fish scares, radiation scandals and public outcry over the Lucky Dragon, Inoshiro Honda’s “Godzilla” captured the zeitgeist when it was released in November 1954. “Godzilla” was a monster born in the aftermath of nuclear testing, slowly encroaching on post-war Japan. The rhetoric of the 1950s elsewhere in the world fixated on “our friend the atom.” Even Tezuka offered a friendly, atomic-powered superhero in his iconic manga series “Astro Boy.” But “Godzilla”was different, capturing a growing sense of nuclear paranoia.

A scene from "Godzilla," 1954
Jerry Tavin / Everett Collection
A page from "Barefoot Gen."
Keiji Nakazawa / Last Gasp

But the real-life impact of the bomb did not enter Japanese popular culture until the publication of Nakazawa’s “I Saw It” in 1972 and the longer series that eventually followed.Barefoot Gen” first appeared in 1973 in the best-selling boys’ magazine Shonen Jump. The magazine had a weekly circulation of nearly 5 million when Japan’s population was about 107 million. Even today, the magazine still sells 2.4 million copies a week.

Sober and tragic, “Barefoot Gen” seemed out of place in a boys’ comic anthology that usually featured spies and superheroes. Japanese graphic novels typically unspool over dozens of volumes, but “Barefoot Gen” was cancelled after 18 months with the story barely begun. Nakazawa looked for other publishers, and Gen became a nomad of the manga world, stumbling along in obscure journals througout the 1970s.

In 1976, two Japanese men took part in the Transcontinental Walk for Peace and Justice, carrying a volume of “Barefoot Gen” with them. Encouraged by their fellow activists, Masahiro Oshima and Yukio Aki formed Project Gen, a volunteer organization that translated and lettered the speech balloons for Nakazawa’s story and printed an English version of “Barefoot Gen” with Nakazawa’s approval that was published in 1978 in Japan.

Translator Alan Gleason, who joined the group in 1977, remembers that Nakazawa was supportive but apprehensive. “He appreciated our enthusiasm,” Gleason says, but seemed skeptical that this “bunch of hippies” would succeed. “He didn't care about sales or royalties,” Gleason adds. “He just wanted to see his work translated into as many languages as possible, his dream being to have it read by kids all over the world.”

The original Project Gen stumbled at the fourth of ten volumes. By then, a new representation of the bomb had arrived in popular consciousness, with the great explosion that begins Katsuhiro Otomo’s “Akira,” which ran from 1982 to 1990 in Young Magazine. In Otomo’s tale of post-apocalyptic politics, “a new type of bomb,” explodes in Tokyo, deliberately evoking the Japanese authorities’ language after Hiroshima. Its crater sits like a wound at the heart of the reconstructed city, as bikers, schemers and gangsters fight over the right to run the new town, and dredge up the forgotten secrets of the military past.

An illustration from "Akira"

When pressed about the atomic allusions in “Akira,” which was turned into a classic anime, or animated film in 1988, Otomo shrugged off any allegorical intent. “There is no nuclear sensibility in my work,” he said. Instead, Otomo said he drew his inspiration from the conspiracy comics of his youth in the Cold War era and his own experience as a young artist. He had moved to Tokyo in the early 1970s, when it was a chaotic whirl of student rebels, political scandals and environmental crises.

Otomo’s reluctance to reduce his own work to a single-issue protest has echoes in a recent campaign against “Barefoot Gen,” in 2012 when Nakazawa’s manga was placed on the school curriculum by the Hiroshima city board of education. The right-wing Atomic Bomb Survivors Seeking Peace and Security, objected to the implication in the story that the bomb was dropped in response to Japanese war crimes — Nakazawa’s hero, Gen, is the child of pacifists, who predict that Japan’s martial posturing will bring disaster. The group launched a petition drive to block “Barefoot Gen” from school reading lists.

In a bilingual statement, the group’s website said that “Barefoot Gen,” in criticizing Japanese militarism, “targets utterly the wrong people as criminals,” and that its focus on the bomb’s victims is a disservice to others who suffered in the war, such as those who died in the fire-bombing of Tokyo and other Japanese cities. The group also criticized the “blind pacifism” of Nakazawa’s anti-nuclear message, saying that artists and writers should instead remember “the indiscriminate mass-murder of [Japanese] civilians” in other attacks.

The poster for "Grave of the Fireflies."
Everett Collection

Many works that followed “Barefoot Gen” did precisely that. After “Barefoot Gen” was adapted into an anime in 1983, its success led to an entire sub-genre focused on the stories of children during wartime. Isao Takahata’s critically acclaimed “Grave of the Fireflies” (1988), based on the semi-autobiographical novel by Akiyuki Nosaka, depicted the starvation of a pair of children in the aftermath of the firebombing of Kobe. Other anime follow children experiencing the destruction of Osaka, Fukuoka, Nagasaki and Tokyo — where some 100,000 people died in the fire bombing of March 10, 1945, almost as many as died in Hiroshima — as well as those caught up in the flight of Japanese colonists from Korea, the loss of Manchuria and the Soviet occupation of four northern islands.

The sub-genre began with the bomb, but expanded over the next two decades to chronicle the damage wrought by all kinds of war on innocent children. All of them draw their educational tone from Nakazawa’s masterpiece but try to avoid any discussion of blame by focusing on the experiences of children, who are innocent by definition. “Barefoot Gen” was different; in his original story, Nakazawa’s refused to shy away from Japan’s military actions in the years before the bomb fell.

Keiji Nakazawa died in 2012, a year before another protest, this time influenced by Japan’s increasingly vocal right wing, led to the removal of “Barefoot Gen” from library shelves in Matsue, in Shimane prefecture, lest “children would gain a wrong perception of history because the work describes atrocities by Japanese troops that did not take place,” according to anonymous complaints.  These included the Rape of Nanking, which some in Japan continue to regard as a fictional event.

Invited to speak about “Barefoot Gen” soon afterwards at a Tokyo middle school, Gleason suddenly found his lecture cancelled, ostensibly because he was told “it would be too challenging or boring for the kids.” Gleason says the right wing in Japan has mounted “a concerted campaign” to remove “Gen” from school libraries because of its depiction of Japan's behavior during the war, including its treatment of Koreans and the massacres in China. “They weren't concerned about the portrayal of the A-bombing at all,” Gleason says. The attention, however, did bring Gleason to the notice of some community groups who have inviting him to speak and keep the story alive.

Nakazawa died before much of the recent controversy arose, but he did live to see “Barefoot Gen” translated in its entirety. A new Project Gen, unrelated to the original, started up in 2000 and successfully reached the tenth and final English volume in 2009. In the end, Gen leaves Hiroshima behind and heads to Tokyo, where he hopes to become a manga artist.

Jonathan Clements is the author of Modern Japan: All That Matters and the co-author of The Anime Encyclopedia: A Century of Japanese Animation.  

Related News

Find Al Jazeera America on your TV

Get email updates from Al Jazeera America

Sign up for our weekly newsletter


Get email updates from Al Jazeera America

Sign up for our weekly newsletter