On 19 December Keiji Nakazawa, creator of the well-known Japanese graphic novel series Barefoot Gen, died of lung cancer.
Barefoot Gen was a semi-autobiographical account of Nakazawa’s own experience of surviving the atomic bomb, which was dropped on the Japanese city of Hiroshima on 6 August 1945. A second bomb was dropped on the city of Nagasaki three days later on 9 August.
Nakazawa and his mother survived the bomb, but his father, sister and younger brother all died. His mother was pregnant when the bomb fell and soon gave birth to a baby girl who later died of malnutrition.
Soon after he graduated from high school in Hiroshima, Nakazawa went to Tokyo to pursue his dream of becoming a comic book (or manga, as it is known in Japan) artist.
Initially Nakazawa avoided mentioning the atomic bomb in his work and often hid the fact that he was from Hiroshima to his friends and employers in Tokyo.
This was due to the fact that atomic bomb survivors from Hiroshima and Nagasaki were often the victims of discrimination in Japan at the time. The burns on the bodies of many atomic bomb survivors, and a concern that radiation sickness from the bombing could be contagious, prevented many survivors from gaining employment.
However, Nakazawa became an outspoken critic over the treatment of atomic bomb survivors in Japan and the continued manufacture of atomic weapons after his mother passed away.
When he collected her ashes after her cremation, he found that they contained no traces of bone. Nakazawa stated in an interview:
“It made me shake with anger that the atomic bomb radiation deprived my mother … of even her bones.
“I vowed never to endure wars and atomic bombs.”
This was a turning point for Nakazawa who began focusing his work on the atomic bomb. He created Struck by Black Rain, a graphic novel containing a number of short stories focussing on the lives of those affected by the A-bomb; including one tale in which a young woman commits suicide due to her fiancé finding out she was originally born in Hiroshima and leaving her as a result.
However, it was not until 1972 that Nakazawa created an autobiography in comic form, titled I Saw It.
The short work became popular and was one of the first Japanese comics to be translated into English. He later began work on his most famous series of graphic novels, Barefoot Gen.
Nakazawa became widely known across Japan as a result of Barefoot Gen’s popularity, which not only focused on life in Hiroshima after the atomic bomb, but also contained scenes criticising Japan’s role in the Second World War.
Nakazawa’s family were pacifists and Nakazawa was too, becoming an outspoken critic over Japan’s involvement in the war and the continued construction of atomic weapons.
Barefoot Gen has been fully translated into English and released across ten volumes through the charity organisation, Project Gen.
Project Gen consists of 20 people from different nationalities who have helped translate the work of Nakazawa into a number of languages including Russian, Norwegian and German.
Despite the efforts of Project Gen, Nakazawa’s work remains largely unknown in the West, yet in his native Japan Barefoot Gen has been read by generations of children and adults.
Miki Oden, a Japanese International Development student at UEA and president of the Japan Society said that she was shocked when she saw the animated film version of Barefoot Gen when she was in elementary school.
“When I saw the animation in class I was shocked at the reality of how people were killed by the atomic bomb and afterwards suffered from radiation sickness,” she said.
“Since seeing the film I believe there can be no reason to justify the use of the atomic bomb again.”
Keiji Nakazawa died of lung cancer at the age of 73. As a result Japan, and the rest of the world, has lost one of the most important voices against the use of nuclear weapons.