IIZUKA, Fukuoka — With a heavy heart, an A-bomb survivor, who grew up just like the children depicted in the manga “Barefoot Gen,” shared his disappointment over the city of Hiroshima’s decision to remove the work from educational material at schools.
Hiroshi Sugibayashi, 78, who lives in Iizuka, Fukuoka Prefecture, was among the “hibakusha” children who lived through the U.S. atomic bombing of Hiroshima. He spent his days begging for snacks from American soldiers with his friends, leading the same life as the main character of “Barefoot Gen,” which is based on the experiences of the late author Keiji Nakazawa.
Scenes from the manga, such as the character Gen being torn from his family due to the attack and Gen catching a carp from a pond so his mother could receive nutrition, are used in peace education material at Hiroshima’s municipal schools. There were voices questioning the manga’s appropriateness as school material, with some saying the scene where Gen “steals” the carp from another person’s home may lead to misunderstanding. The city of Hiroshima’s education board decided to stop using the manga as part of major curriculum revisions for the 2023 school year.
Sugibayashi said, “It’s not the kind of life that others would have a high opinion of, but we were desperate to survive. My current wish is for the manga to not be erased, as someone who lived the life of Gen.”
When the U.S. military dropped the atomic bomb on Hiroshima on Aug. 6, 1945, Sugibayashi was around six months old. According to his mother and others, there was a dreadful flash of light as he was blown away in an explosive blast together with his mother who was carrying him. They were 1.2 kilometers from the hypocenter. His mother suffered severe burns all over her body, while Sugibayashi also sustained a scald on his head. His 16-year-old sister, who went to the munitions factory near the hypocenter, passed away.
After World War II, Sugibayashi began to play with his friends near the Atomic Bomb Dome. This was in his later years of elementary school. The area was bustling with U.S. servicemen who were traveling from the Iwakuni base, mainly on the weekends. Sugibayashi and his friends jeered at any serviceman in sight, mixing English with Japanese, as they were taught by older members. Using an onomatopoeia indicating the flash and noise of the atomic bomb, they said, “Pikadon’s left us hungry.” He also showed them the scar on the back of his head, telling them, “hibakusha.”
In response, the U.S. servicemen gave out chocolate and gum, and sometimes even money. An older friend told him, “They killed tens of thousands of people with the A-bomb. We deserve this.” Recalling the past, Sugibayashi also said, “I also lost my older sister to the atomic bomb, and this was the best I could do in terms of revenge, and even as a child, I felt like I was able to take vengeance.”
Nearly 30 years later, Sugibayashi, who had moved to Fukuoka, saw scenes from the manga “Barefoot Gen,” which his son brought back home from school as part of a peace educational course. Sugibayashi was astonished to find scenes of kids approaching the Americans before the A-bomb Dome, prompting him to think, “This is written about me.” He was also certain that the older kid who taught him how to speak English was the manga’s author Keiji Nakazawa.
After cooperating with the creation of a collection of hibakusha testimonies issued by Fukuoka Prefecture’s FCo-op consumer cooperative in 2018, he began to speak about this episode with those around him.
The Hiroshima city education board stated it will remove “Barefoot Gen” from school material as “a partial extract of the work makes it difficult to convey the true nature of the atomic bombing.” According to the education board, as of March 16, it received opinions opposing the move, as well as demands to withdraw the decision, in around 200 cases in about one month.
On his boyhood, Sugibayashi admitted, “there were probably aspects of my way of living that weren’t earnest, and I have my regrets.” At the same time, he seemed despondent, saying, “I was desperate to get by, and this life of mine was also that of Gen. I feel as if our lives were rejected.” On top of all this, he said, “I can talk about episodes from that time. […]
(Japanese original by Emi Aoki, Kyushu News Department)