Seven times each year, in the classes of college or university students, I distribute Keiji Nakazawa’s autobiographical comic book about how he witnessed the bombing of Hiroshima, “I Saw It” (originally “Ore wa Mita”). Then I show them Nakazawa’s feature-length animated film “Barefoot Gen” (originally “Hadashi no Gen”), which he adapted from his epic-length manga of that name, a historical fiction based on his experiences. Some prefer the comic book, some prefer the film. Most of the students find Nakazawa’s story of what he witnessed as a child emotionally very powerful. They often use the word “moving,” but his story has not visibly moved any of us to actively protest against nuclear weapons. The number of nuclear warheads worldwide has been decreasing (apparently without public pressure) for their entire lives.
I tell my students that the bombing of Hiroshima is not just a story of something that happened long ago and far away. This is an event in “living memory” (Nakazawa, for example, is still alive) and the phrase “Hiroshima bomb” appears in web-posted news items almost every day. To show that the nuclear war issue is not so “far away,” I quote the Seattle Times statement that “… 20 miles from downtown Seattle” is “the largest nuclear weapons storehouse in the United States and possibly the world.”
In the comics he has drawn, Nakazawa presents much of the case in favor of the dropping of the bomb. He does not depict Japan in 1945 as a nation trying to surrender, but as one preparing to fight to the death against impossible odds. He does not present the nation of Japan as an innocent victim, but says plainly that Japan started the war, and for immoral reasons. He represents Japan of that period as a military dictatorship in which dissent was rare and severely punished, and condemns wartime Japan’s racist atrocities against Chinese and Korean people. He has an undying hatred against Japan’s Emperor system. Where Nakazawa differs from those who continue to justify the dropping of the atomic bomb is that he considers this action to have been an unforgivable atrocity. Through his work, he shows you why.
Nakazawa’s “Hiroshima: The Autobiography of Barefoot Gen”, which appeared last year in English translation, tells his story at book length, in prose with illustrations rather than in comics or on film. This helps greatly in filling out many details of the true story that he has so expertly condensed and then fictionalized in manga and anime.
In the interview that concludes his “Autobiography”, Nakazawa talks about the memorial at Auschwitz, and the importance of passing stories down as a way to fight against the repetition of such horrors. Nakazawa’s closing words are these: “In order to effect change, each person has to work away at it. I’m a cartoonist, so cartoons are my only weapon. I think everyone has to appeal in whatever position they’re in. Wouldn’t it be nice if we gradually enlarged our imaginations! We have to believe in that possibility. Doubt is extremely strong, but we have to feel that change is possible. Inspire ourselves. And like Auschwitz, Hiroshima too must sing out more and more about human dignity.”
Doubt can be very strong indeed. Sometimes it feels useless to share Nakazawa’s story with people and generate little more than a strong emotional reaction, or to gather at Green Lake in a small crowd in August to light candles for Hiroshima’s dead.
The testimonies from Hiroshima and Nagasaki are uniquely important as our best help in understanding what nuclear war means in human terms. Subtract that perspective, and the discussion of nuclear technology will be dominated by endlessly controversial and emotionally disconnected tales of how the bomb demonstrated the genius of science and technology, won the war, saved lives, and then kept the peace. Subtract the stories of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and we’re left with a fantastically dangerous arsenal and an American mythology that celebrates the bomb as a blessing.
Each of the many warheads on the nuclear submarines parked near Seattle has about 30 times the power of the Hiroshima bomb. Can we envision a life without them? Wouldn’t it be nice to gradually enlarge our imaginations!
“From Hiroshima to Hope” takes place on Saturday, August 6 from 6 – 9 p.m. on the North Shore of Green Lake. This event is created annually by local peace, faith and community organizations. The lantern floating ceremony honors victims of Hiroshima/Nagasaki and all victims of war and violence. It starts at 6 p.m. At 7 p.m., a program of musical performances and speakers will begin. For information, call (206) 453-4471 or e-mail: [email protected].