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Historical Memory in the “Barefoot Gen” Manga

Artistic expressions are part of every society’s collective memories and subsequent history. The main role of historical memory is to make a society remember what it has forgotten. Furthermore, historical memory upholds the concept that forgetting is part of remembering. This is why memories might change over time in the course of history. Asia has a rich history that dates back thousands of years. The region is also well endowed with a litany of historical memories through artifacts, popular culture, monuments, and other forms of interactive arts. For example, the Great Wall of China is a good example of the representation of history between the East and the West, although its memories have changed over the years. This paper addresses the historical memory surrounding the popular Japanese manga ‘Hadashi no gen’ or Barefoot Gen. The essay addresses how the manga strip came about and how it has contributed to the formation of Japanese historical memory.

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The memory of the atomic bombs that were dropped in the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki is the subject of various Asian and global artistic and literary expressions. Some of these responses have become iconic elements in the history of the world, and together they form a genre that is known as ‘atomic bomb literature.’ Atomic bomb literature consists of “poetry, short stories, novellas and children’s stories, dramas for TV and stage, manga, film, animation, memoirs, diaries, biographies and autobiographies, historical and journalistic accounts, photographs and photographic essays, murals, paintings, and drawings” (O’English, Matthews, & Lindsay, 2006, p. 174).

Barefoot Gen falls under the category of atomic bomb literature that has had a significant impact on the memories surrounding the event that ended World War II. The strip is the brainchild of Keiji Nakazawa, and it is based on its author’s firsthand experiences in the aftermath of the Hiroshima bombing. The manga series first setting is 1945 around the Hiroshima area, where the main character, six-year-old Gen Nakaoka resides with his parents. The events of the manga are tied around what Gen Nakaoka goes through in the aftermath of the atomic bombing. The comic book was first published in 1973, and it ran until 1985 as a strip in various magazines. The comic turned out to be popular, and it led to five film adaptations and incorporation as a television drama (Takayuki, 2009).

The comic depends on the eyewitness accounts of its creator as he watched the annihilation of Hiroshima and the devastation the followed. The main themes in Barefoot Gen include loyalty, power, resistance, and hegemony. Throughout the comic, the suffering of most post-war survivors is well documented. The cartoonist mainly focuses on the fact that in the midst of the suffering, the characters have to maintain their loyalty to the Emperor and to their own country. However, Gen’s father starts questioning the motivation behind the war and how its effects are different from low-class citizens and to the rich aristocracy.

Gen’s family ends u being isolated because of the father’s strong beliefs that are regarded as propaganda at the time. Some of the contentious issues throughout the comic include the use of kamikaze pilots in the war and the ability of citizens to maintain loyalty to the government as bombs destroy their cities. Barefoot Gen is mostly considered as anti-war literature due to its attempt to influence the population’s memories on Hiroshima bombing and the Pacific War in general. There is a lot of history surrounding the comic, including its ban in schools within Matsue Japan. The next section of the essay discusses how the comic created memories outside the traditional political circles.

One of the factors that stand out in Barefoot Gen is the manner in which the comic represents war victims. In most of the other existing atomic bomb literature, Japan is often represented as the ultimate victim of World War II. However, the manga assumes a wholesome view of the events that led to the Hiroshima bombing. One example of this autonomous view is a character named Mr. Pak, a native of Korea who was relocated to Hiroshima by force together with his father. The comic points out that after the bomb, the Pak family was denied government rations because of their nationality (Takayuki, 2009).

This memory is very specific because it shows the element of victims becoming victimizers. Mr. Pak’s father eventually dies because of starvation, and this development has an effect on the populist outlook of the Hiroshima bombing, where only the Japanese emerged as the victims. The comic began publication in 1973, and the issue of Korean victims in the atomic bombs first serviced in the world history arena in 1972 through a global conference. It is important to note that the issue of compensating victims started to be an issue in the 1960s when it became clear that Koreans were mistreated a lot during the Pacific War. The portrayals in Barefoot Gen appear to influence popular opinion to make sure that the Japanese people do not victimize other nationalities in the looming Vietnam standoff.

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The portrayal of the victims only served to show that by the late 1960s and early 1970s, the Japanese had started looking at themselves as perpetrators as opposed to victims in historical wars. Up to the 1960s, the only possible view of the atomic bombings was that they were the sole responsibility of the Americans. Furthermore, there was also general consensus as to who the victims of the war were. The shift in historical memory, as indicated in Barefoot Gen is also evident in other popular artistic expressions of the day. For example, this shift “is visible in the fourteenth painting in Maruki Iri and Toshi’s The Hiroshima Panels, entitled “Crows,” which depicts a scene in which crows feed on the abandoned bodies of Korean atomic bomb victims” (Rotter, 2008). The artists of The Hiroshima Panels are observed to have shifted their views after hearing firsthand accounts of Korean atomic bomb victims.

One specific example of historical memory creation involves the portrayal of deep and complex emotions that resulted from Hiroshima’s victims. Some of the characters in the comic have deep considerations of the war, including the indictment of the Japanese colonial systems and the will to survive. In one episode, Mr. Pak the Korean victim, is making a fortune in the black market and living with the guilt of having seen his father die in the hands of the Japanese.

The portrayal of graphic reality has never been a problem until recently when “following creator Nakazawa’s death last December, school board officials in the Japanese town of Matsue, Shimane prefecture, made a judgment call that elementary and junior high school-aged children in the town would no longer be permitted to check out the seminal manga tale” (Selden, 2013). The reason behind this ban was that the portrayal of post-Hiroshima wartime events was inaccurate. However, various people came out in support of the comic, and this indicated how the reception of the comic has changed over time. First, it is now evident that the Japanese are finally opening up to the scrutiny of wartime events. Previously, opinions were uniform, but the advent of dissent is a sign of changing historical memory. Second, the motivation behind Barefoot Gen’s ban was that it was misleading a generation. Whether this claim is true or not, it is still a strong indicator of revisionism.

The author had firsthand experiences of the war, and he was in no way accommodative of the political elite when it came to the bombing and its aftermath. Throughout his narrations, Nakazawa never indicated anything positive about the war and the Japanese systems of government. His views mostly indicate that he was disappointed that the government of Japan left the people of Hiroshima to suffer on their own. In a past interview, the author of the comic says he first saw “the nature of the Japanese” after the bombing (Selden, 2013). Given that the two sides of the Hiroshima story have historians on one side and firsthand accounts (like that of Nakazawa), it would be fair to give credence to those who were physically present when the events unfolded. The politicians’ treatment of Hiroshima is purely political, but the manga looks into the catastrophe from a human perspective. Therefore, credence should be given to the author as opposed to believing the political community’s interpretations.


O’English, L., Matthews, J. G., & Lindsay, E. B. (2006). Graphic novels in academic libraries: From Maus to manga and beyond. The Journal of Academic Librarianship, 32(2), 173-182.

Rotter, A. J. (2008). Hiroshima: the world’s bomb. Oxford: OUP Oxford.

Selden, M. (2013). In Natural disaster and reconstruction in Asian economies. London: Palgrave Macmillan US.

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Takayuki, K. (2009). Barefoot Gen and ‘A-bomb literature’. Comics Worlds and the World of Comics, 2(2), 233.

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