The poll asked readers to rank the top 28 manga that left an indelible emotional impression on them. Although a fair majority of the titles are classic and modern horror, science fiction, or crime manga, the fact that Barefoot Gen — one of the most critically acclaimed and also notably challenged manga in Japan — was voted #1 by about 20% of participants demonstrates the moving impact of the series. The point of the poll was not to find books that literally scared the reader (although there was that aspect with some of the horror choices). Instead, the goal was to find manga that, regardless of the age of the reader, carried the most memorable emotional impact. Barefoot Gen is a manga that has been read across generations and motivated people around the world to seek peaceful alternatives to war, and in its ability to leave that sort of timeless impression on the reader it topped the list.
“Barefoot Gen, one of the few non-horror manga on the list,” surpassing great works like Osamu Tezuka’s Phoenix (#4) and Naoki Urasawa’s Monster (#19) notes Matt Schley of Otaku USA Magazine. “A story of survival in post-World War II Hiroshima, Barefoot Gen was semi-autobiographical, based on the life of atomic bomb survivor Keiji Nakazawa” — of the wide variety of manga available in Japan, this was the book that has left the biggest impression on Japanese readers, due in large part because it encompasses a truly affecting moment in Japanese and world history. The graphic memoir of Nakazawa’s childhood has come to be a staple in Japanese curricula.
Despite its significant educational value, Barefoot Gen has also been the subject of numerous challenges, based primarily in part on the violent content and what some in the country deem anti-Japanese sentiment. Although the manga covers difficult subject matter — subject matter that is best accompanied by classroom discussion — it also affords readers an opportunity to learn about a side of historic events from a first-hand perspective. “In my experience, middle school students have little understanding of war,” says Nick Glasser, an English teacher at Herbert Hoover Middle school in San Francisco. “Barefoot Gen provides them with more than a historical account; it gives young learners an appreciation of the terrible human cost. It’s little wonder the book has been taught to generations of students throughout Japan. Barefoot Gen is essential reading.”
This graphic novel series has become a staple in classrooms across Japan, but after almost 30 years since its translation into English, it has yet gained as much traction in U.S. classrooms. It is for that reason that U.S. publisher Last Gasp has launched a Kickstarter campaign to get 4,000+ copies into schools and libraries across the United States:
Whenever I speak with Japanese people about Barefoot Gen, almost everyone has read it as a child. I think it helps to shape a deep consciousness of the cost of war, and the goal of peace. However, in America relatively few people know about Barefoot Gen. We hope our campaign will change that. If we can expose a large audience in America to this powerful story, maybe the next generation will continue the fight for a peaceful future.
You donate to the campaign online here.
Barefoot Gen is obviously an essential title in Japan, a cross-generational and emotionally engaging book that deserves all of the recognition and protection that it has been given to keep it on library shelves and in classrooms.
Contributing Editor Caitlin McCabe is an independent comics scholar who loves a good pre-code horror comic and the opportunity to spread her knowledge of the industry to those looking for a great story!