Editorial: Restrictions on access to “Barefoot Gen” 

We must not avert our eyes from the war

There is growing criticism throughout Japan of the decision by the Matsue Board of Education to restrict access to “Barefoot Gen” at elementary and junior high school libraries. This is certainly because the manga is a timeless masterpiece that continues to send a message to people in Japan and around the world.

No matter what the reasons, this can only be regarded as a backward-looking attitude toward conveying the horrors of the atomic bombing to children. How seriously did the board consider the repercussions that their decision would cause?

At yesterday’s board meeting, the pros and cons of restricting access to the manga were debated, but no conclusion was reached. The board’s decision should be reversed immediately.

Let’s take another look at the significance of “Barefoot Gen.” The character of Gen is based on the experiences of his creator, Keiji Nakazawa, who died last year. Mr. Nakazawa lost his father, elder sister and younger brother in the A-bombing. Serialization of “Gen” in a boys’ magazine began 40 years ago. The series ultimately depicted Gen’s life through 1954, nine years after the A-bombing.

Many Japanese people must have had the menace of nuclear weapons impressed on them through “Gen.” The series is not only a denunciation of the devastation of the A-bombing. It also depicts people’s lives during the war and the chaos of the postwar period as seen by ordinary people and asks what war is all about.

Gen can now be said to represent Hiroshima. Considering the significance of that, the school board’s reasoning rings hollow.

Thus far the board has merely said that violent scenes are inappropriate for children. This seems to refer to atrocities committed by members of the Imperial Japanese Army that appear in the latter half of the story. The board’s staff has asserted that the board made this decision on its own, but it clearly started when a citizen who regarded these parts of the manga as a problem petitioned the city council for the manga’s removal.

The contention that restricting access is not a matter of a perception of history but a question of the manga’s effect on children’s development is unconvincing. Until now the manga has been available in libraries’ stacks. Even if some of its depictions are shocking, the educational value of the “Gen” series, which looks at the importance of life, remains unchanged.

War is exceedingly barbarous in the first place. If consideration for children is being used an excuse to avoid looking at that barbarousness, this cannot be ignored.

In a survey of all elementary and junior high school principals conducted by the board of education, only 10 percent said that they felt it was necessary to limit access to “Gen.” So the schools are not convinced of the need for this measure either.

Today’s younger generation can’t relate to the devastation of the war. Meanwhile there is an effort to avoid looking at the horrors of the war and to justify it. That is precisely the reason we must be sure to teach children about the negative aspects of the A-bombing and war. We would like them to read “Gen” even more.

Let’s draw on the efforts of the Hiroshima Municipal Board of Education. Excerpts from “Gen” are included in a text that has been in use for peace education since the start of the new fiscal year in April. “Gen” should not just be included in the collections of school libraries in Matsue and throughout Japan. We should also consider how it can be put to use for peace education. If people are concerned that some of the situations depicted in the manga are too graphic, teachers should thoroughly explain them.

As a result of the unexpected attention “Gen” has attracted on account of this issue, the publisher has reportedly decided to print additional copies. Amid calls for a groundswell of public opinion in favor of the abolition of nuclear weapons, this controversy provides an opportunity to once again recognize the value of the manga.

We need to look at the central government’s attitude as well. Hakubun Shimomura, minister of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology, readily accepted the handling of the issue by the Matsue Board of Education. Is he unaware of the “Gen diplomacy” of Prime Minister Abe’s first administration? On his own initiative, Taro Aso, then foreign minister, distributed English-language versions of “Gen” to the governments of other nations and called for nuclear disarmament. We must not forget that in this sense “Gen” has the government’s seal of government.

(Originally published on August 23, 2013)