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Keiji Nakazawa, who lived through the bombing of Hiroshima as a child and wrote the internationally acclaimed Barefoot Gen about his experiences, died Dec. 19 of lung cancer. He was 73.
Nakazawa was 7 years old on Aug. 6, 1945, the day the bomb was dropped. As he recounted in his autobiography, he was walking to school and stopped to answer a question from an adult, when suddenly, in an instant, the whole world changed: “a pale light like the flash of a flashbulb camera, white at the center, engulfed me, a great ball of light with yellow and red mixed at its out edge.”
He was standing next to a concrete wall, so he was partially shielded from the blast, although he was covered in rubble, and a nail went through his cheek. The adult he had been speaking to was burned to death on the spot. There was more horror to come: His father, brother and sister were killed when their burning house collapsed on them. Nakazawa recounted these events, which his mother told him about later, in a 2007 interview:
Mom always had nightmares about it. She said it was unbearable—she could still hear my brother’s cries. Saying “I’ll die with you,” she locked my brother in her arms, but no matter how she pulled, she couldn’t free him. Meanwhile, my brother said, “It’s hot!” and Dad too said, “Do something!” My older sister Eiko, perhaps because she was pinned between beams, said not a thing. At the time, Mom said, she herself was already crazed. She was crying, “I’ll die with you.” Fortunately, a neighbor passing by said to her, “Please stop; it’s no use. No need for you to die with them.” And, taking her by the hand, he got her to flee the spot. When she turned back, the flames were fierce, and she could hear clearly my brother’s cries, “Mother, it’s hot!” It was unbearable. Mom told me this scene, bitterest of the bitter. A cruel way to kill.
Later in the interview, Nakazawa recounts being sent back to the house to retrieve the bones of his father and his siblings from the ashes. His mother, who was nine months pregnant, gave birth on the day of the bombing to a girl who died a few weeks later.
Like many Japanese people, Nakazawa and his family suffered from poverty and hunger after the war, and survivors of the bombing (known in Japanese as hibakusha) were often actively discriminated against in postwar Hiroshima. Even after he moved to Tokyo to become a manga creator, in 1961, the discrimination persisted:
If you said that you were a hibakusha matter-of-factly, among friends, they made weird faces. I’d never seen such cold eyes. I thought that was strange, but when I mentioned it to the Hidankyo people, they said that if someone says, “I’m a hibakusha,” Tokyo people won’t touch the tea bowl from which he’s been drinking, because they’ll catch radioactivity. They’ll no longer get close to you.
For six years, Nakazawa kept quiet about his experiences, but his mother’s death in 1966 changed his silence to anger. After she was cremated, he sifted through the ashes, hoping to keep one of her bones as a keepsake, but they were all gone.
I got really angry: both she and I had been bathed in radioactivity, so it made off with even the marrow of our bones. The anger welled up all of a sudden: give me back my dear Mom’s bones! I thought, manga’s all I know how to do, so I’ll give it a try. And it was Struck by Black Rain that I wrote in that anger.
Kuroi Ame ni Utarete (Struck by Black Rain) was a fictional story of five survivors who were involved in the black market after the war; he wrote it for teenagers, hoping to make them aware of the bombing and its aftereffects, but he spent over a year getting rejections from all the teen manga magazines before it was published in 1968. His next story, Ore Wa Ita (I Saw It), was a single-volume autobiographical manga about his experience in the bombing and its aftermath. In this story, Nakazawa recounts how, as a boy, he found a copy of Osamu Tezuka’s Shin-Takarajima (New Treasure Island) while he was looking through the trash for something to sell. Inspired, he began drawing his own manga.
Nakazawa began his greatest work, Hadashi no Gen (Barefoot Gen) in 1973 response to his editors’ call for autobiographical stories. Both I Saw It and Barefoot Gen were published in Shonen Jump, the mass-market manga magazine that now carries Naruto and One Piece, although Barefoot Gen was canceled after a year and moved to several other magazines.
Barefoot Gen is a fictionalized version of Nakazawa’s experiences. The main character, Gen Nakaoka, is 6 years old at the beginning of the story, and he and his family live through both the bombing and its aftermath. The series was first translated into English by a group of volunteers, Project Gen, in 1976, and it was later picked up for publication by Last Gasp. The 10-volume series has been translated into Russian, Korean, Swedish, Finnish and other languages, and more than 6.5 million copies have sold worldwide. In Japan, it has been made into three movies, two animated films and a television drama and is carried in many school libraries.
In Barefoot Gen, Nakazawa condemns both the United States for dropping the bomb and treating the Japanese people as guinea pigs to study the aftereffects, and the Japanese emperor for starting the war in the first place. His chief aim in writing the story, though, was simply to make people aware of the horror and the reality of the atomic bombing, truths that had been brushed aside after the war. As Nakazawa said to the Project Gen translators, “I want Gen to become a source of the new generation’s strength with the strength to say no to oppose nuclear weapons, stepping on the scorched earth in Hiroshima with his bare feet and feeling the firm ground on his feet.”