MMF: My Reaction to Barefoot Gen 1 & 2

This post is part of the February Manga Movable Feast on Barefoot Gen by Keiji Nakazawa, hosted by my good friend Sam Kusek at A Life In Panels. You can see more commentary on Barefoot Gen on his blog.

I feel like I had an atypical reaction to Barefoot Gen. Sure, it was a depressing read. So much so that my boyfriend noticed how down I was at our Valentine’s Day dinner. I was thinking of the way I wanted to approach Barefoot Gen and write this MMF post. (We did had a great time once I decided to banish all thought of Barefoot Gen for the evening.) Despite that, I wasn’t moved to tears by Barefoot Gen. I realized today, that’s because I’ve already seen it before.

This requires a bit of explanation:

I’ve mentioned before that members of my family are Holocaust survivors. That’s one thing, considering how one generation was too young to remember anything and the other generation was too scarred to speak about it. A lot of exactly what happened to my family is either buried along with the older generation or on a Shoah Foundation tape that my mother and I have felt too unprepared to watch yet. But I went to a private Jewish school for seven years for middle school and high school. I don’t know how the Holocaust was taught to the younger grades in my school, but they were pretty thorough with the older kids. As a result I’ve read a lot of literature on the Holocaust. All the well-known novels and some less-known ones. We were also treated to films, speakers, slide shows and extensive history lessons, especially around Yom Ha’Shoah, which is an Israeli/Jewish holiday mourning the victims.

The horrific bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki aren’t the same as the Holocaust, but a different kind of genocide altogether. Oddly enough, I had already read John Hersey’s Hiroshima as part of a high school physics lesson that was probably supposed to teach us about how mighty nuclear power is. So the imagery of Barefoot Gen was not as surprising as it was for some. I already knew about the eyeless victims with their flesh melting right off them and the bodies floating down the river and the fires that killed thousands. That didn’t surprise me, although I was thankful for Keiji Nakazawa’s cartoon-y style of drawing. As often as his odd facial expressions bothered me (why were there so many awkward, winking faces?), I don’t think I could have stomached something more realistic and I cannot really imagine the true terrors that Keiji Nakazawa and the survivors of Hiroshima and Nagasaki saw in August, 1945. I don’t really want to because then I won’t be able to sleep well. I’ve had dreams about being in concentration camps before and they are pretty terrifying, let me tell you.

So I didn’t cry over Barefoot Gen. It’s not like I haven’t cried over manga before. The later volumes of Naoki Urasawa’s Monster made me cry. To be honest, if I were watching Keiji Nakazawa or another survivor talk about their experience, I would be crying uncontrollably. There’s something about seeing actual human emotion that definitely affects me more. I’ve cried in more movies than I can remember. I cried when Ongina revealed he had HIV on RuPaul’s Drag Race. I could see and hear those people. Much like horror manga, I guess sad manga doesn’t affect me as much as it’s moving counterparts. I should probably watch the movie versions of Barefoot Gen.

But  got me thinking that 1) large swaths of the world must have gone nuts in the 1930s and 40s to kill so many people so brutally and 2) the American government is definitely guilty of genocide, something I hadn’t really thought of before. I’m not a fan of a lot of typical American views and politics, but this goes beyond that. This country thought it was a great idea to end the war by replicating a lot of Nazi practices, everything from putting Japanese-Americans in camps to bombing Japanese civilians, then taking it to the next level with the atomic bomb. While America didn’t kill as many people through these methods as the Nazis did, they did unleash a different kind of horror upon the world as we know it. It disgusts me that this country, which has preached about peace and freedom for everyone, became so hypocritical as to copy their enemies’ techniques. I know, somewhere in my mind, that America probably didn’t make the decision to drop the bomb flippantly, but it strikes me  as odd that the American politicians involved couldn’t see this big, blinding, hypocritical mistake staring them in the face.

But I digress. What struck me throughout was that these were events that had happened to Nakazawa and other survivors. I think a fictional account of the bombings by someone who hadn’t survived it wouldn’t work at all. I’m grateful to the people who have spoken out about atrocities like this because, as heavy as the knowledge and hindsight of these events are, at least the world knows now. Barefoot Gen‘s existence in the world is only one of many survivor’s tales, but it teaches us things we never knew or realized before. It makes us think about who was killed, not just faceless bodies, but people who suffered. Even if it’s just a cartoon-y face that doesn’t quite hold the visual impact you want it to, those faces are someone’s.

To end this post, since it seems to be getting a little preachy and I didn’t really want to do that, I want to thank Sam Kusek for bringing Barefoot Gen to the Manga Movable Feast. Truly, it’s not a manga I would have gotten into easily without this reason to, mostly because it’s not widely available anymore, but also because it’s a tough read. Glancing at some of the other posts that have been written by other bloggers, Barefoot Gen has truly rocked a few people’s worlds. It’s not the best manga in a lot of senses, but it encompasses the idea often touted by Jews–“Never Forget.” People think that just applies to the Holocaust, but that’s not true. It’s important to learn about the Holocaust, the bombings of Nagasaki and Hiroshima and other atrocities so that we learn from past behavior and take to heart the goal of becoming better, less hateful people. It’s best to learn from primary sources like Keiji Nakazawa because they’ll drive that all-important message home.

Here’s a little something to cheer the MMF participants up: (Warning, link contains adorably catchy song.)

About Daniella Orihuela-Gruber

Daniella is a freelance manga editor and blogger. She likes collecting out of print manga and playing with her puppy. Yes, someone got her a puppy already.
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22 Responses to MMF: My Reaction to Barefoot Gen 1 & 2

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  2. Excellent post; thank you for sharing!

  3. My parents had bad experiences with the Japanese when they raged all over China. Some of their family members were killed by Japanese soldiers.

    Yes, you can blame the Americans, but Gen reminds us that the Japanese are responsible in their own way. I find it interesting that some people love Japan more than America. I mean, do they know about the crazy history of Japan and its past imperialistic tendencies? Then again, every country has some dark history.

    Reading Gen makes me realize that personal beliefs combined with power triumphs common sense in politics. Maybe that’s why the atomic bomb happened. I agree we do need someone like Nakazawa to drive the message home to others & governments have to learn how to deal with crazy leaders.

    • Ah yes, I knew I should have included something about the misdeeds of the Japanese. They were responsible for a lot of awful stuff in the rest of Asia and I don’t blame people for holding grudges.

      To be honest, for all the Japanese national pride at the time of WWII, it was unfair to bomb civilians. If they had used the bomb on military-only areas in order to stop the war, it would be slightly less despicable to me. (They would have still unleashed a nuclear catastrophe upon the world, so I definitely would still hate the use of the bomb to end the war.) The majority of these people weren’t soldiers. In all likelihood, most of them were women, children and elderly because most of the able men would have been already drafted. These weren’t the people committing atrocities or fighting battles. If America was supposed to be the good guys, then why were they committing atrocities unto others, you know? It seems to me like the reasons behind using the bomb were largely about wanting to end the war swiftly and not viewing the Japanese as human beings. That’s despicable. Despite what the Japanese were doing to others that doesn’t give America the go-ahead to brutally kill so many civilians.

      That being said, I don’t like Japan’s politics and a lot of Japanese viewpoints either. In many aspects, I find the Japanese to be as weird as the Americans are (to me.) Their culture of saving face is really odd and I don’t think I’d like to work under such a society. I do like Japanese pop-culture and the creation of pop-culture is certainly not manufactured by the government, so it’s not a matter of loving Japan as a whole just because I like their pop stars and comic books.

      The crazy beliefs of people in power are still such a big problem these days. Just because no one is deciding not to drop a nuclear weapon on another country certainly doesn’t mean politicians in many different nations aren’t spreading hatred or dumb ideas. Just look at the Tokyo censorship bill (and a lot of what Shintaro Ishihara says) and the Maryland politicians who killed funding for Headstart yesterday because they think all mothers should be married and stay at home. There needs to be more effective ways for the people to keep these kinds of politicians in check, but until then people need to learn or remember not to hate people who are not like them.

      • I definitely agree about how to handle crazy political players. America didn’t have to retaliate the way they did. I always think certain people’s ideas of nationalism comes into play when certain decisions is made.

        Japanese game shows taught me how weird the Japanese really are. If they don’t do the show, they lose face & shame their families. I’m like “What!?”

        My parents don’t mind that I like anime/manga/video games. They told me any Chinese immigrant over the age of 50 harbors some bad feelings.

        • Nationalism seems to be a strangely blinding force. From what I can tell, when nationalism hits, very poor decisions are made on a nation-wide level and it’s led to the downfall of a lot of once-prosperous nations.

          I don’t know what exactly taught me that the Japanese could be really weird, but I think samurai stories often drive the point home. Some of the stuff samurai commit hara-kiri over is ridiculous. (To me.)

          It’s good that your parents allow you to enjoy what you like despite old grudges. I hope you don’t mind me asking, but are they over 50?

          • Yeah, both of them are over the age of 50. I’m lucky that I didn’t have to go through the same stuff they went through as a child.

            Hara-kiri…good god. I have made many jokes about it at times, because of the things samurai do it over.

          • Likewise… My mom had a very hard life when she immigrated over from Europe. I’m glad she never saw anime and manga as evil because they were from a former axis nation. She certainly still dislike using German products intensely.

            Yeah, and considering the idea of hara-kiri sort of still exists… People in Japan will commit suicide for some of the strangest things. I could never imagine killing myself over losing face at my job. Resign, maybe, kill myself? No way! What a waste of life!

  4. Krill says:

    Not to suggest this in anyway justifies bombing them, but the Japanese civilians were not entirely innocent either. Just like American civilians during the war, they were nationalist, contributed to the war effort in their own ways and held incredibly spiteful prejudices. Again, that doesn’t justify mass-murdering them in the least, but I think we have to be careful about being too quick to draw a line between the government, military and civilians ESPECIALLY when a draft is in place. I’m sure there were Japanese men who were drafted into the military who did not want to fight or who at the least bore a less despicable attitude than many of the women or elderly remaining at home (I exclude children because they are not subject to the same kind of moral standards as adults for obvious reasons)

    • You definitely have a point. You’re kind of right and wrong at the same time.
      Yes, nationalism was horribly rampant at the time and many were contributing to the war effort, but how much of that is government brainwashing and societal pressure? It seems to me like a lot of these people were participating in nationalism because it was more profitable for them. Nakazawa clearly illustrates that openly opposing the war was extremely harmful to Gen’s family. Certainly, that makes the people truly propagating nationalism guilty, but what about those who follow along for fear of retaliation? It sounds like an environment much like McCarthy’s communist “witch” hunt during the Cold War where believing differently gets you hurt, so many choose to go with the flow. No doubt this was also happening in America, England, Germany and Italy, to name a few countries, at the same time as Japan. That tends to happen when there’s a big, crazy war going on. Sure, there was plenty of Japanese nationalism beforehand, but it reached a peak before the bombings occurred. For that reason, I say it’s wrong to target civilians, no matter how nationalistic they might be. Target the government, target the military, that’s one thing, considering this is a war we’re talking about. It won’t be truly right, but within the confines of a war, it’s at least expected. These weren’t guerilla fighters hiding out amongst the ordinary population, these were cities with normal people in them. Essentially, it would be the same as dropping the bomb on Los Angeles at the time. There would have been very nationalistic people there. Does that justify killing everyone? It’s that disrespect towards the lives of a large group of people that’s truly the despicable crime here. (Aside from unleashing nuclear horror onto the world.)

      • Krill says:

        And what makes government officials or individuals of the military any less subject to the exact same social pressures in such a way that would make them somehow significantly more legitimate targets? In the case of a draft aren’t members of the military even more subject to them? Aren’t government officials even more in danger for stepping out of line, because they are bear more direct significant to the war effort and because it’s so much more obvious? Further, I’m going to deny adamantly that the source of social pressure and “brainwashing” is the government. None of it would succeed without the people buying into it and spreading it themselves. Governments, especially in an era before mass-media, do not magically wave propaganda wands and mind-control the populous.

        I don’t see how what’s expected in a war changes ethics in the least. Ethically speaking, the question is simple: how much more “innocent” are the civilians? In answering the question, you’ve pointed out a factor which plays just as much a role for individuals in the government and military as in the civilian population. I agree that dehumanizing an entire populace is the problem.

        I’m just pointing out that you’re doing it for members of the government and military.

        I will grant you that in the case of a truly (officially and unofficially) volunteer military, there is a large difference between targeting the military and targeting civilians because those in the military care have “signed-up” for it. But in the case of a draft, or even in the case of an extremely nationalistic society where pressure to join the military for certain individuals is just as great as the pressure to be hateful and nationalistic, the same can not be said at all. Think how draft dodgers are punished and treated. Once in the military, think about the retaliation that might result for stepping out of line. Think about the “brainwashing” of training, discipline and direct, forced submission to a superior officer.

        • Krill says:

          EDIT: In the first paragraph the sentence “Further, I’m going to deny adamantly that the source of social pressure and “brainwashing” is the government.” should read “Further, I’m going to deny adamantly that the SOLE source of social pressure and “brainwashing” is the government.”

          I’d also like to state that I am not in any way trying to justify the dropping of nuclear bombs, or American attitudes towards the Japanese during the war (though I also think that connecting American attitudes to the dropping of the bombs is probably not accurate, as in the research I’ve done on the subject it’s pretty apparent that the rationalization from those who made the decision was primarily pragmatic and had much more to do with saving American soldiers from a drawn out war).

          • OK, I don’t have as much time to answer this as I’d like, but what I meant by it’s expected that military and government officials would be killed in action was that it’s going to happen during a war no ifs, ands or buts, not that it was any more ethical. If I had my way, there’d be no war and we wouldn’t be discussing war-time ethics, but I’m not in that kind of decision-making position, you know?
            I feel that going after civilians is considerably more despicable because those are supposed to be the people who can’t do you much harm. (Especially in an age where weapons are bigger and wars aren’t fought with hand-to-hand combat anymore.) At least if you attack people who have the training to actually stand up against you, there’s a legitimate chance they’ll be able to survive. Attack a civilian, those chances decrease to the point where they only advantage they might have is surprise or knowledge of the terrain.

            You’re right about the government not being the sole source of brainwashing, but a lot of the time, it was the government who would start the ball rolling. Ideally, the government doesn’t even begin to participate in the dehumanizing of other human beings and knows that extreme nationalism can work against it. Basically, it’s just like how the Nazis scapegoated Jewish people, disabled people, gays, gypsies and anyone else they wanted to get rid of. For the Japanese, Americans and other Asians were dirty. For Americans, Japanese and Germans were dirty. Etc. The Americans did it on a government level to everyone of German or Japanese descent by interning them. By reading Barefoot Gen, it’s very clear to me that the Japanese were very active in propagandizing and brainwashing citizens to only think of it as their duty to the Emperor. It certainly doesn’t mean the citizens of these countries are completely innocent, but it certainly doesn’t mean they deserve to be bombed either.

            Sorry this couldn’t be more thorough. Have to step out the door in a minute.

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  6. I feel like Barefoot Gen really knocked me over in part because I don’t think I learned this part of history very well in grade school. The bombings and the holocaust were kind of skated over, probably because they thought they’d be too harsh for children. It wasn’t until I watched Grave of the Fireflies that I realized Americans bombed civilians, and I learned more about Jewish people in Europe from reading Number the Stars than I ever did in history class. My education did not prepare me for this. Barefoot Gen was the hardest thing I’ve read in a long while, but I’m glad I did because it’s just something we need to know.

    I had some personal issues with the art also, but considering the subject matter I felt that quibbling about aesthetics would be… not insulting, but not something I could do. I could never write a real review about this ^^;

  7. Kris says:

    Krill mentioned that one of the main reasons for dropping the A-bomb was to save the lives of American soldiers. They crunched some numbers or something, and decided that it was the better of two options. Drop a massive bomb and scare the Japanese into surrendering, or continue a long, grueling land war that would cost many more lives on both sides. At the time, it was sort of the lesser of two evils. However, I don’t think the Americans realized the after effects. The damage the bombs and the radiation had after they simply blew up some shit. The long lasting environmental and health problems they caused.

    That doesn’t make it right, of course. It was horrible mass murder. But it did end the war. I feel weird trying to justify it, because I’m anti-war, anti-death penalty, pro-life, etc. Personally, I wish they had been more adamant about warning people. They dropped fliers before they did the fire bomb stuff on cities, to warn the citizens. I don’t remember if they did that for the A-bomb or not.

    • This is going to sound horrible because it’s also a poor way to justify a horrible act, but they probably could have just carpet-bombed other Japanese cities (like they were doing to Tokyo at the time) and ended the war without the A-Bomb.

      The only thing that really would justify that is how awful the environmental and health problems were from dropping nuclear weapons instead of regular bombs. Plus, at least if there was carpet-bombing, those shelters we see in volume 1 of Barefoot Gen would have been more effective protection, thus equaling less loss of life. (Hopefully.) Gah. What an awful justification this is. War is so awful. :<

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  9. Cara DiMarco says:

    It is kind of funny that I recently stumpled on your blog. I’ve recently discovered that what I would love to do with my japanese language and love for manga is edit. Thus, I found you. 🙂 Then a week after I visited Hiroshima I found this entry you did on Barefoot Gen. I really enjoyed what you had to say about it, your thoughts. While at the Peace Museum they had a exhibit on “war through a child’s eye.” which consisted of Barefoot Gen. Books. I had never heard of the series before this.

    I guess I would just like to thank you, for this blog and this entry. 🙂 I hope you dont mind if I follow you.

    • DaniellaOG says:

      Aw, thank you! I’m glad you enjoy this blog so much. Feel free to subscribe to the blog and follow me on Twitter!

  10. faiz says:

    have you finish read this manga??
    btw nice posting 🙂 and i’m sure it’s quite late reply. hehe

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