“Nothing has changed from the time of the atom bombs. … It stands to reason that people are terrified of what they cannot see. I understand the hysteria. In the end, humans must not resort to the atom that they cannot control. The time has come for the Japanese people to make up their mind.”
The nuclear disaster of 2011, with Fukushima as its ground zero, has thrown the tragedies of Hiroshima and Nagasaki into a new light.
For decades the Japanese government has striven to separate the two nuclear issues in people’s minds, attempting to disassociate the atom in the bomb from the atom in the reactor. This specious policy was shattered following the Great East Japan Earthquake on March 11. The bomb and the reactor are now irrevocably linked in the minds of the Japanese people.
The words forming the introduction to this week’s column were spoken by Keiji Nakazawa, as reported in the Mainichi Shimbun daily newspaper on July 4. Nakazawa, known as one of Japan’s foremost authors of manga, was himself a victim of the atomic bomb dropped on his hometown of Hiroshima on Aug. 6, 1945. For decades he has been crying out to us, in both his art and his statements, that we must live in a world free of both atomic power and atomic weapons.
Nakazawa’s manga, in the form of the very popular series named after its hero, Barefoot Gen, have been translated into many languages. Gen — Nakazawa’s alter ego — speaks not only for the generation of Japanese who fell victim to the atomic bombs, but also for us now.
A new documentary film about Nakazawa, which opens on Aug. 6 in Tokyo and Hiroshima, could not be more timely.
Directed by Yuko Ishida, “Hadaka no Gen ga Mita Hiroshima” (“Hiroshima Through the Eyes of Barefoot Gen”) is a documentary featuring interviews in various locations with Nakazawa, clippings from the manga and footage of Hiroshima, including of the city just five days after the attack.
When the bomb dropped in 1945, Nakazawa was a 6-year-old, first-year pupil at Kanzaki National Elementary School, which was a mere 1.2 km from ground zero. Luckily, on his way into school, he lingered by the wall adjacent to the front gate to speak with someone, and that wall saved his life. When he came to, he looked up to see a blackened sky. “How,” he wondered, “did the day end so quickly?”
The scenes he has dramatically and poignantly illustrated in his manga were those he witnessed himself in the subsequent hours, days and weeks: people walking like ghosts, hands in front of them, with countless slivers of glass sticking out of their eyes; skin shedding off dazed men, women and children like bark half-stripped from trees; infants sucking the breasts of their dead mothers; fields covered with a blanket of people trying to cool their bodies against the vegetables that remained in the soil. His own mother gave birth to a baby girl that very day. The baby died four months later from malnutrition.
Nakazawa’s father, sister and brother, who were in the family home 1.3 km from ground zero, were all crushed by pillars and beams, and killed. His father had been a vocal opponent of Japan’s war of aggression, and he had spent more than a year in prison as a result. The family had been ostracized by the community. This is a bitter irony of all indiscriminate bombing, since it murders many who are not only blameless non-combatants but also proponents of peace.
Nakazawa never forgot what he saw. He turned his personal experience and that of the people of Hiroshima into a series of manga that was carried in the magazine Weekly Shonen Jump for 12 years from 1973. The story of Barefoot Gen kept the plight of the victims of the bomb and its radiation in the minds of citizens of the nation that had become the most intimate ally of the country that caused that holocaust, the United States.
This fact led the Japanese government to isolate the issue as something local — to Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the other city atom-bombed by the U.S. three days after Hiroshima — as opposed to national. In addition, the vigorous pursuit of “atoms for peace,” an American initiative to promote nuclear power spearheaded in the early 1950s by President Dwight Eisenhower further divorced the radiation spread by the bombs from its possible spread by reactors generating electricity all around Japan.
It is thanks to Nakazawa, and eminent authors such as Kenzaburo Oe, Hisashi Inoue and, most recently, Haruki Murakami — all of whom have taken up the nuclear tragedies of 1945 — that the dangers of radiation lingering in our bodies, our soil, our water, and in the air, are now finally being understood by the Japanese people.
The story of Barefoot Gen has been filmed in anime and live-action versions, for the big screen and television, and both musicals and operas have been based on it.
Additionally, leading translators and scholars such as Alan Gleason and Richard Minear have eloquently brought the story to the English-speaking world. Minear has also translated Nakazawa’s prose autobiography, which was published in 1987 and then reissued eight years later. Eminent Japanologist Mark Selden has written of the autobiography that it is “in certain ways the most riveting book on the bomb.”
However, a truly remarkable aspect of the story of Barefoot Gen (which now runs to 10 volumes in book form), is its message of optimism and hope. The hero, little Gen, stunned by the devastation and death surrounding him, says, “I’m going to live, to live! I’m going to live through this, you’ll see!”
In those pages, we see that people have taken refuge in water tanks, clinging to each other; others who came to Hiroshima to help are exposed to radiation, become ill and die. Swarms of flies and the stench of destruction are everywhere, just as in the prefectures of Tohoku most badly affected by the earthquake and tsunami of March 11. Yet Gen does not give up hope.
Nakazawa, like his manga creation, Gen, survived. “If my mother had not been alive,” he explains in the forthcoming documentary, “I would have either turned to crime or died of starvation like so many other street kids.”
He goes on to point out that the gen in the name is the same character as that in the word genki, which means full of vitality and strong of mettle.
The documentary of Nakazawa’s life is also available in a shorter version for schools, titled “Hadashi no Gen ga Tsutaetai Koto” (“What Barefoot Gen Wants You to Know”).
In his message to children, Nakazawa states, “If you come to feel that you wish for a world without war and without atomic bombs, for a world where peace is priceless, if you come to understand in a small way what I am telling you about and what I represent, then the subject of this film, namely Keiji Nakazawa, will be content.”
Two years ago, Nakazawa was forced by failing eyesight to put down his pen and brush. He has donated all 9,505 original pictures comprising the series to the Hiroshima Peace Memorial.
Nonetheless, undaunted by ill health, he is continuing to be a tireless advocate for both a world without atomic bombs and a world free of the radiation that has come back to haunt Japan after 66 years — hopefully now for the last time.