The Changing Role of Japanese Men Over a Generation
Gender roles, like any other societal construct, changes over time along with the society’s needs and values. Since these roles are not naturally created, it falls to cultural prompts and teachings to designate the proper ways to behave and see oneself. Literature can often be used for this very purpose, for example how OL mangas inspired a generation of women’s outlook on how to see their jobs and money. The following two mangas, “Barefoot Gen”by Keiji Nakazawa and “Just a Man” by Yashihiro Tatsumi will be used to try and see just what being a man was purported to be like both during and after WWII, and how the differences affected how men saw themselves and their actions.
Barefoot Gen takes place during the last days of WWII and its aftermath. However, it was written in 1972 by someone who had been a boy during the war. Many of his own experiences were put into his work. This makes the text informative on two levels; the first being what type of man was looked up to during the war, and what type of man would speak to those reading in the 1970's after years of hindsight. Even when portraying the ideal Japanese male during the war, the manga has two interpretations of what a man worthy of respect should be like.
The very first panels of Barefoot Gen are used to symbolize the main identifier of a strong male, the ability to stand tall and strong even after being trampled. The roots being sent deep into the earth represents firm principles that can’t be swayed by others’ opinions or judgement. As it’s the foundation for everything that follows, Nakazawa can’t afford to be subtle and therefore depicts it visually, in captions, and even has his characters explain it to each other. The result of which is that the reader is made to see the importance of this quality as it pertains to a man’s character. These traits are embodied in Gen’s father, who in this volume is seen as the epitome of manliness. Interestingly, when he is first introduced, it is not through his other posts as a soldier or an artist, but as a farmer. He is shown inspecting the wheat and using it to instruct his children. This suggests that the first rule of a man is to take care of the basics with an eye towards the future. Immediately after this scene there are air raids which showcases a second requirement for a man at this time, a sense of responsibility for others. Gen and his little brother do not have this as they are still children, but their older brother Koji does, along with their father. They both take it upon themselves to take charge and maneuver the family to safety.
Even though the father seems like the ideal male figure, the manga is quick to point out that he is actually an outlier for his time. In fact, the number one manly trait that is touted that he lacked was obedience to the state. During the panels when he is supposed to be training for battle with others in the neighborhood in the case of a foreign invasion, he is the only one not taking things seriously. As a result of his antics the other soldiers, while amused, do not take his side. The person they look up to is the veteran soldier, Onishi, who fought the Russians and killed 40 of them. This veneration causes them to willfully overlook the insignificance of their training. During this time period, it was said that the main source of Japanese strength came from the spirit and willpower to win, which is emphasized by the veteran berating Gen’s father, Nokooko, for his poor attitude and suggesting that it is a disgrace for the empire. As this is written from a past perspective, those that are blindly loyal to the empire are seen and drawn negatively. The only person who is pro military and portrayed in a nuanced manner, is Gen’s brother Koji, although even he is written as not truly supportive of the ideals of the military. His whole reason for joining is to lessen the talks and bullying against his family as a result of their fathers’ outspokenness. However, this causes even more trouble for him as his father’s actions still impact his image in the military, hinting that maybe it wasn’t worth it as the primary purpose failed.
At the end of the volume, the reader is shown the end result of these separate value systems when placed under pressure. Gen comes across one of his families’ tormentors, the Chairman, trapped under his house pleading for his help after the atomic blast. Gen, who is searching for his own family still takes the time to lift the beam pinning them down, allowing them to escape. Almost immediately afterwards, upon discovering his family in the exact same predicament, he finds and asks the chairman for help, but is refused. At that moment Gen, a child, can be considered more of a man than an actual adult who put so much stock in rules and behaviors.
The final page in Just a Man spells out the problem facing the main character, a feeling of impotence in a new set of rules than the ones he grew up in. Whereas Barefoot Gen the main characters are seen as fighting, either for truth or their lives, this protagonist has long since given up the fight, or has no idea how to fight. Fast approaching retirement age, he looks at his life and despairs at having to spend all his time at home with no respite. In this post war system, his value as a man has been tightly bound to his job and he now feels useless and archaic. All of his energy and loyalty is spent at his workplace, and even his tender emotions are wasted on the office secretary, who he daydreams about having an affair with. When he arrives home, he is greeted like a stranger. This, he blames entirely on his family being heartless, but could also be considered the curse of the salaryman, to not be able to be there for his family except financially, which is why it’s so apt that they are introduced while discussing his retirement package. He’s not the only man who comes off poorly in that scene though, from his own daughter’s words it can be inferred that her husband does not make enough to support them and is thus a freeloader. However, from his constant smirk, it would appear that with his affair with his mother-in-law, he feels as if he’s above the protagonist.
Confronted with the idea of living at home without the buffer of the workplace, he feels compelled to take action to reclaim his station and sense of self. However, the methods he chooses are non-confrontational and will hurt him in the long term. His methods of revenge all show him to have little imagination or willingness to change his life. The meaning here is that life spent on the treadmill has left him unable to make any major changes such as a divorce or even trying to re-establish a place among his family. Instead he seeks to get back at her by having an affair that he’ll never tell her about, and by going deep into debt and thereby forcing his family to share in his feelings of ruination. In both scenarios he will still be unhappy for his remaining years, but will take some type of solace in his troubles being self-inflicted. His inability to sleep with his fantasy woman is a culmination of his inability to take charge of any aspect of his own life. He too has come to believe that the only things that make him a man is his virility and his paycheck, without them he feels he no longer has a purpose.
Barefoot Gen and Just a Man would appear to reside on a gradient where a man’s character has become less important when compared to his place on a wheel. It’s ironic because during the war period men were expected to be cogs as well, but disguised with declarations of discipline and willpower. In both stories men faced situations where they felt powerless, but the reactions and choices they chose were very different, which hints at a narrower outlook on what makes a man.