The Asahi Shimbun recounts an anecdote in which cartoonist Keiji Nakazawa, who created Hadashi no Gen (Barefoot Gen), once received a letter from a woman telling him that her son was unable to go to the bathroom by himself after he read the manga, which recounts loosely the author’s personal experiences in Hiroshima at the time the bomb dropped. “Your son is blessed with great sensitivity. Please praise him for that,” he wrote back to her. Such is the power of Barefoot Gen.
Although the series has been lauded for its nuanced portrayal of the miseries of war and its objective treatment of the Imperial Japanese Army’s wartime sins, these realities are at odds with the views of the outspoken right-wing element seemingly on the rise in Japanese society today. Following creator Nakazawa’s death last December, school board officials in the Japanese town of Matsue, Shimane prefecture, made a judgment call that has recently captured national headlines. The school board ruled that elementary and junior high school aged children in the town – home to 35 public elementary schools and 17 public junior high schools – would no longer be permitted to check out the seminal manga tale.
Yasunori Furukawa, deputy head of the education board, told The Asahi Shimbun, “We are not going to remove the manga because it is an invaluable piece. But we understand that it contains portions that warrant consideration as appropriate reading material for children.” But the objections raised by one citizen reveal other motivations. Last August one citizen leveled a criticism at the historical narrative of the story, complaining that Barefoot Gen portrayed actions that were never committed by Japanese troops during WWII.Enjoying this article? Click here to subscribe for full access. Just $5 a month.
Based loosely on Nakazawa’s boyhood experience as a Hiroshima survivor, the tale covers the final months of World War II. Originally published in serialized form in a popular manga magazine, the comic is considered a classic and has been translated into film several times. It is a staple resource for teachers introducing children to the dark side of Japan’s past. In book form, it has sold more than 6.5 million copies and has been translated into 20 languages.
Volume 1 of the series takes readers into very haunting territory. It begins with the annihilation of Hiroshima, the hometown of six-year-old Gen Nakaoka, whose father and siblings perish in the flames while he and his pregnant mother survive. Following a harrowing portrayal of the blast – mushroom cloud and all – readers see that the city is full of the dead and dying. Gen carries his father’s anti-war views with him throughout the narrative, criticizes Emperor Hirohito and portrays the brutality of Japanese soldiers during the war, including images of beheading – the elements that riled right-wing feathers.
However, as news of the curb circulated in the media in recent days, sales figures for the book soared, a popular U.S. cartoonist named Raina Telgemeier championed the book and 44 of 49 Matsue school principals spoke out against the decision. Editorials lashed out, calling for children’s right to read the book and touting its importance in peace education. Misayo Nakazawa, widow of the books creator, was also shocked by the ban, saying, “It is incredible and I am saddened. I am afraid that board members do not grasp the tragedy and pain that the war and the atomic bombing brought on.” In response to the backlash, it was reported yesterday that the curb was lifted.
While this may seem to be a positive step – and perhaps a sign that more Japanese are facing the nation’s wartime past – the fact that there was a restriction on access to Barefoot Gen in place at all is still disquieting. This “is worrying – especially for those of us who live and work in the cultural-media complex in Japan,” Roland Kelts, a Japanese-American writer and author of Japanamerica: How Japanese Pop Culture has Invaded the US, told The Diplomat. “I feel like a lot of us have been trying to turn the other cheek as Abe and co. stoke nationalist embers in Japan – and now look!”
He continued: “Revisions to the Constitution are being seriously considered, Barefoot Gen is yanked from shelves, and Hayao Miyazaki is branded a 'traitor' and 'anti-Japanese' by netto uyoku (right-wing netizens). There is this creeping sense of a fringe element being granted leeway, little by little.”
Kelts’ concerns are unfortunately justified. Just as soon as Gen regained his place on school shelves in Matsue, The South China Morning Post has released a report, suggesting that the characters in the anime (animated – not to be confused with book form) series Girls und Panzer are having the exact opposite effect that Barefoot Gen has had in Japan since it was released in the 1970s. As the report notes, the short-skirted school girls with massive doe-eyes seem to be looking towards an uncertain future. Rather than drive home the horrors of war and confront the nation’s past as Gen once did, these pop icons study “the way of the tank.”