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Should Japan's Children Be Reading This Comic About a Hiroshima A-Bomb Survivor?

A clock stopped at 8:15

A watch stopped at 8:15 in the morning when atomic bomb was dropped. Taken at Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum by Flickr user Fidel Ramos (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

One Japanese city's attempt to restrict access in school libraries to “Barefoot Gen“, a comic book series that illustrates the story of a boy named “Gen” who is a survivor of the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima city in 1945, has thrust the book into the spotlight.

Mainstream media revealed on August 16, 2013 that the elementary and middle schools in Matsue city, the capital of Shinema Prefecture in the westernmost region of Japan's main island, had been restricting children's access [ja] to “Barefoot Gen” without teacher's permission since December 2012 on the request of the city's Board of Education.

After the news broke, the city received more than 2,200 letters of protests and opinions from all over the nation. The teacher's union also requested the the restriction order should be withdrawn. Following intense scrutiny, the city's Board of Education decided to take back [ja] the call for limited access at a special meeting on August 26, 2013, saying that decision should be made in schools, and that the process was not appropriate. 

Comic books, known as “manga”, are usually considered distracting for students in school, and so most Japanese elementary and middle schools have very few in their libraries.

However, the “Barefoot Gen” series is a well-known exception. The series, which was published from 1973 to 1985, is based on the experience of the author Keiji Nakazawa, who survived the atomic bombing of Hiroshima. School libraries have featured the comic since the 1980s so that children can learn about the brutality of atomic bombs and the importance of peace. Children without wartime experience are often shocked by the horrible scenes and stories of war by reading the comic book freely available in schools.

The story goes like this: On the morning of August 6, 1945, the lives of people of Hiroshima, including that of 7-year-old protagonist Gen and his family, suddenly change when an atomic bomb is dropped to the city. Under the debris amid the raging flames, his younger brother cries for help, “Brother! Are you going away? It's not fair, not fair! It's hot!” His pregnant mother, after trying to rescue her burning family in vain, begins to laugh frantically. Many people are wandering the city with their burnt skin melted and hanging off. After the war, Gen and other survivors are faced with multiple hardships – serious food shortages, terrible discrimination against atomic bomb victims, gangs exploiting orphans, and atomic bomb aftereffects. The series can be shockingly tragic, such as when Gen feeds the milk he has gone through much trouble to acquire to his baby sister, and feed the milk only to be spilled out from her dead mouth.

Author Nakazawa said [ja] he “toned down the depiction from extremely harsh reality ” for readers. Yet, many readers say that vivid depiction of atomic horrors found in the comic book cause trauma or nightmares.

In August 2012, the request to restrict access to the book started with a citizen petition submitted to the Matsue city government, arguing that the comic book should be removed from school libraries because “the book offers the wrong version of history”.

In the last volume of the book, Gen explicitly accuses the emperor and the Japanese government of being responsible for aggression, blaming their conduct during wartime. Also in the comic book, there are scenes in which a character opposes singing the national anthem. The national anthem signifies the emperor, and the atomic bomb survivor directs his anger toward the emperor as a war criminal.

In December 2012, the petition was turned down by the Matsue city council, but the city's Board of Education requested for restricted access because they considered the comic's depiction of post-atomic Hiroshima “too extreme”.

Interpretations of wartime history are not unanimous among Japanese. Some believe that the war was not aggression, but was for the liberation of fellow Asian nations that were oppressed under Western imperialism. The petition organizer considered the Gen plots to be un-educational, disrespectful to the emperor and unpatriotic.

Children Reading Manga

Children reading comic books at Hiroshima city library of comic books. Taken by Flickr user Ryan Latta (CC BY-ND 2.0)

Support for limited access

Nationalist blogger Boyakikokkuri, who also boycotts Chinese products, wrote [ja] in support of withdrawing the book from school libraries because he think that the book advocates a “distorted” interpretation of the history:

 今回は残虐な描写のみが問題にされたようですが、それよりも、「日本軍がアジアで3000万人以上の人を残酷に殺した」とか、朝鮮人を“強制連行”したとか、支那軍お得意の「三光作戦」を日本軍がやったと断定するなど史実に反するセリフ、また、君が代斉唱を妨害したり、天皇を「殺人者」「戦争犯罪者」と呼ぶなど極端に偏った思想が語られていることの方が、大きな問題ではないでしょうか。 […]まだ判断力のつかない子供たちが、偏った歴史観や思想を刷りこまれないかと心配です。

It seems that this time that the Board of Education [of Matsue City] took the shocking illustrations of wartime into consideration, and thus opted to withdraw it. But I think there are bigger issues with this comic book. It writes that the Japanese army brutally killed more than 30 million people in Asia, and that Japan had abducted Koreans, and The Burn to Ash Strategy was operated by Japan but not by China. Calling the Japanese emperor a killer and war criminal is obviously such extreme, distorted thinking. [...] I am concerned that such depictions would give children the wrong perception of history and ideas, especially when they are yet to make their own judgement.

Some think that making the comic book available in school is problematic. A comment by Twitter user Feynman Leighton wrote:

I think Barefoot Gen should be R-rated, or should be restricted to those over 18 years old. Adults who wish to make children read such books, especially for educational purposes, I think have no taste in education at all. It's such a poor idea to make children read comic books for education.

Journalist Atsushi Matsumoto wrote in his column [ja] on ddnavi.com, a platform of commercial e-books: 

残虐な表現やあるいは性的な表現についてはどうでしょうか? […] 幅広い年齢の子供達が利用することになり、また蔵書点数に限りがある学校図書館に、どのような内容の本が備わっているべきか、は吟味されるべきです。 […]『はだしのゲン』だけに限った話ではなく、広く図書全般について、どのような本を備え、どのように読んでもらうのか、今回問題となったクローズドな形ではなく、オープンに議論し、検討が続いていくべきではないかと考えています。

How should we approach the expressions of violence or sexual depictions in books? [...] School libraries have limited storage, and have users of a broad range of age. We should carefully consider what kind of books should be listed in such a place. [...] The controversy is not limited to Barefoot Gen. We should have an open discussion on library books in general, and what kind of books should be stored and be read by children.

An education in war and peace

Twelve-year-old popular blogger Fūka Haruna commented on Twitter that children should decide for themselves whether to read the book:

Whether the comic book Barefoot Gen is good or bad depends on the individual. Some think it's good to tell the story of war, others think it's bad because it can traumatize you. But the decision to read the book or not should be decided by us, the individual children who take up the book. Not how adults think it should be. 

Hirotada Ototake, a former teacher and author who was born without arms and legs due to a genetic disorder, was cynical:

I guess my appearance would be considered “too extreme for children” in Matsue City, and they'd limit access to viewing my picture, would they?

Social bookmarking service Hatena user fulci commented[ja] that the comic book would support education on the importance of peace because it illustrates the shocking consequences of the atomic bomb:

ケロイドまみれの人とかヒロポン中毒者とか、発達期の子供が読むとトラウマになる描写ばっかだからいいんじゃん。おかげで子供ながらに戦争・原爆とか絶対ダメだこれって思えたよ。

I think it's good because it has plenty of traumatic illustrations such as people with burnt blistered skin, methamphetamine addictions. For me as a child, it really made me think that war and atomic bombs are absolutely no good.

Hip Hop musician Utamaru wrote [ja] in Asahi Weekly Magazine: 

[…]今の子どもも、少なくとも原爆が投下される前後の部分には触れてほしい。でも先生が読ませるんじゃなくて、小学校3、4年になったとき、うっかり手に取っちゃうところに置いておくのがいいんじゃないかな。

I at least want children of today to come in contact with the before and after of the dropping of the atomic bomb. However, instead of being made to read [Barefoot Gen] by teachers, it might be better to leave it in a place where it could be accidentally picked up and read by kids when the reach the third or fourth grade.

Physicist Makoto Kikuchi argued that there should be no enforcement either way:

I don’t like [that people] are being told to read “Barefoot Gen” and I also don’t that [they] are being told to hide it.

Many students visit Hiroshima for school trip. Photo taken at Hiroshia Peace Memorial Park by flickr user Magalie L'Abbé

Many students visit Hiroshima for school trip. Photo taken at Hiroshia Peace Memorial Park by Flickr user Magalie L'Abbé (CC BY-NC 2.0)

Popularity of “Barefoot Gen” surges

Between August 16 and 18, 2013, there were more than 250,000 tweets both supporting and opposing limiting access to the comic. According to an online poll on Yahoo! Japan[ja] in which more than 150,000 users answered the question, “Is restricting access to the “Barefoot Gen” comic book appropriate?”, 82 percent voted in favor of “no restriction should be made”. An online petition urging access to the book in school libraries collected [ja] more than 15,000 signatures in five days.

The fans of “Barefoot Gen” recommend reading the book regardless of political orientations. Critic Tomofusa Kure [ja] referred [ja] to Barefoot Gen as ” the manga with most unfortunate reader responses”: 

「はだしのゲン」は二種類の政治屋たちによって誤解されてきた不幸な傑作だ。二種類の政治屋とは、「はだしのゲン」は反戦反核を訴えた良いマンガだと主張する政治屋と、反戦反核を訴えた悪いマンガだと主張する政治屋である。

“Barefoot Gen” is a unfortunate masterpiece that has been misunderstood by two types of politicians. Of these two types, one claims that “Barefoot Gen” is a good manga for its anti-war/anti-nuclear message. The other claims that it is a bad manga for doing the same thing.

Blogger Kuro pointed out[ja] that the political nature of the book is an “inevitable” given the time period in which the book was written: 

[…]それはたとえば平安時代の文学作品に対して「方位や日時の吉凶を気にしてばかりいるのは誤った迷信である」などと批判することが無意味であるのと同様だ。

That’s as meaningless as criticizing a literary work from the Heian era for only focusing on disproved superstitions about auspicious directions and dates.

Anime critic Tsunehira Furuya also pointed out [ja] in his blog that the comic book is historically valuable: 

被爆当時、広島市内を撮った写真は当時中国新聞の松重美人記者が残したわずか6枚の写真しかない。当時はカメラ撮影がスパイ行為に当たるとして、写真は厳重な制限があった。[…]当時の実相を伝えるのが最早、証言と絵しかない現在、これを物語にして見せた「はだしのゲン」にどれだけの歴史的意義があるか、計り知れない。

There are merely six pictures left of Hiroshima at the time of the bombing taken by Chugoku Newspaper reporter Yoshihito Matsushige. At that time, taking photos was equivalent to an act of spying and was severely restricted. At present, with only testimonials and photos to convey the true state of affairs at that time, the historical significance of using them to tell a story like “Barefoot Gen” is immeasurable.

Following the controversy, the sales of the comic book rose, both at retails and e-book [ja]. The publisher reprinted an additional 7,000 copies[ja] of each volume, which is three times more than annual copies. It seems more citizens felt that the comic book is a powerful way to tell the horrible story of war to younger generations as the nation commemorates the 68th anniversary of the Hiroshima bombing.

This post was translated with help of Yuko Aoyagi and Ryan Ball, and sub-edited by L.Finch.

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