Nakazawa Keiji: The Hiroshima Legacy

Roundup: Talking About History

[Nakazawa Keiji interviewed by Asai Motofumi, Translated by Richard H. Minear. Nakagawa Keiji is the creator of the original Barefoot Gen manga series. Four volumes are available in English. Asai Motofumi is President of the Hiroshima Peace Institute. Richard Minear is Professor of History, UMass Amherst and a Japan Focus Associate. He edited and translated Hiroshima: Three Witnesses.]

In August 2007 I asked Nakazawa Keiji, manga artist and author of Barefoot Gen, for an interview. Nakazawa was a first grader when on August 6, 1945 he experienced the atomic bombing. In 1968 he published his first work on the atomic bombing—Struck by Black Rain [Kuroi ame ni utarete]—and since then, he has appealed to the public with many works on the atomic bombing. His masterpiece is Barefoot Gen, in which Gen is a stand-in for Nakazawa himself. His works from Barefoot Gen on convey much bitter anger and sharp criticism toward a postwar Japanese politics that has never sought to affix responsibility on those who carried out the dropping of the atomic bomb and the aggressive war (the U.S. that dropped the atomic bomb, and the emperor and Japan’s wartime leaders who prosecuted the reckless war that incurred the dropping of the atomic bomb).


I was the third son, after two brothers and one sister. After me came a brother and an infant sister born on the day of the atomic bomb. On the day the atomic bomb was dropped, Mom was in her ninth month, her tummy large. Dad’s attitude toward the children was consistent throughout. My oldest brother did extremely well in school, and his teacher said, “Please let him continue his education.” Dad apparently got angry and was caustic: “A tradesman doesn’t need education.” Mom intervened, and Dad said, “Since you speak so highly of him, we’ll let him go,” and he entered Fourth Higher School. Mobilized out of school, he went to the naval armory at Kure and did welding. Worked on a section of Battleship Yamato. He prided himself on actually having inserted his entire body into the Yamato’s artillery turret. He’s still in good health, lives in Kichijima.

My second oldest brother was then a third-grader. Back then, school evacuations began with third grade. I envied him, thinking that if you went to the countryside, you’d probably be able to eat your fill. But a letter came, and in it he moaned that he was getting thinner and thinner and please send soybeans. So I heard Dad say more than once, “I wonder if we should bring him back.” It was just before the atomic bomb. Had Dad brought him back, they’d have died together in the atomic bombing. Even if you went to the countryside, you couldn’t eat your fill: I realized that keenly.

What differs about the death of my father from Barefoot Gen is that I myself wasn’t at the scene. Mom told me about it, in gruesome detail. It was in my head, so in the manga I decided to have Gen be there and try to save his father.

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 Mom instructed me to go back and retrieve their bones, and with my oldest brother, I went back, taking bucket and shovel, and dug in the place Mom specified. My younger brother’s skull was where Mom said it would be. A child’s skull is truly a thing of beauty. But when under a hot sun I held that skull, I felt the cold and truly shuddered. My hair stood on end when I realized his head had sizzled and burned with him not moving at all. Then, in the 4½-mat room we found Dad’s bones, and in the 6-mat room in back, my oldest sister’s bones. A girl’s skull has an expression. Hers was truly gentle: “Ah, even bones have expressions.” Mom said, “Eiko was lucky. She died instantly; hers was a good way to die.”

When we went to retrieve their bones, the stench of death filled the air thereabouts. Because they hadn’t all burned up. There were still bodies lying about. In every tank of fire-fighting water people had jumped in and were dead. What surprised me the most was that right to the end they’d exhibited human emotions: out of love, a mother held her child tight. Her corpse was bloated, swollen from being in the water, and the child’s face was sunk into the mother’s flesh. When I approached Dobashi’s busy streets, corpses filled every water tank. That’s where the pleasure quarter was—they’d all probably still been asleep when the bomb hit. So engulfed in flames, many of them must have jumped into the water tanks. My oldest brother and I decided to return through the city, and Hiroshima’s seven rivers were all full of bodies. As I depicted it in the manga, the bellies were all swollen. Gas developed, and the bellies broke open because of the gas. Water poured into those holes, and the corpses sank.

The thing that horrified me most was that maggots bred and turned into flies. There were so many flies! It became so black you almost couldn’t open your eyes. And they attacked you! Despite the atomic bomb, flies bred. It’s strange, but maggots are really quick. In no time at all they were everywhere. Horrible, really. And that maggots should breed like that in human bodies! If you wondered what that was moving in the sky, it was a swarm of flies. The only things moving in Hiroshima were flames as corpses burned, and flies as they swarmed....

comments powered by Disqus