Japanese art on atomic bombings exhibited in US
A pocket watch that stopped at 8:15 a.m. when the first atomic bomb dropped. A sprawling picture of twisted bodies and screaming faces engulfed by the flames. The school lunch box of a girl who disappeared without a trace.
As the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II approaches, American University Museum in Washington is showcasing artifacts and art recalling the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
At a time of intensifying focus on Japan’s reluctance face up to its militaristic past, the exhibition provides a different perspective on the end of the conflict — one in which Japanese were the victims.
That has the potential to upset American veterans. Defenders of the use of the atomic bomb say it alleviated the need for a land invasion of Japan that would have cost many American lives. The precise death tolls from the bombings are unknown, but it is believed about 200,000 people were killed.
On the 50th anniversary of the bombings in 1995, a fierce con- troversy surrounded an exhibit at the Smithsonian Institution of the Enola Gay — the B-29 plane that dropped the bomb on Hiroshima, Aug. 6, 1945. The exhibit was dramatically scaled back because of veterans’ protests that it portrayed the Japanese as victims rather than as aggressors.
That year, Peter Kuznick, director of the university’s Nuclear Studies Institute, responded to the controversy by staging an exhibition of artifacts the Smithsonian wouldn’t. Doing so at a private institution, and not a governmentfunded one, made it less contentious.
He’s reprising that effort, 20 years on, with a display that opens Saturday and runs until Aug. 16. It includes six pictures on folding screens by the late Iri and Toshi Maruki, a husband-and-wife couple whose powerful depictions of nuclear horrors, known as the Hiroshima Panels, are being shown in the U.S. capital for the first time.
In an adjacent room are 25 artifacts collected from the debris, among them a rosary, a glass fragment removed from the flesh of a casualty, container of sake rice wine, a student’s cap and a student’s shoe. The Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum and the Nagasaki Atomic Bomb Museum have also provided an explanatory account of the bombings with graphic photos, such as panoramas of the two levelled cityscapes, and wrenching images of the victims.
Kuznick said the primary aim of the exhibition is to portray the human suffering caused by the atomic bombings that ushered in an era in which absolute destruction of the planet became possible and “nobody’s future is guaranteed anymore.”
He lamented that Americans — including undergraduates he teaches — have become less aware since the end of the Cold War about the devastating impact a nuclear conflict would have, although the rivalry between India and Pakistan, and the stand-off between the United States and Russia over Ukraine, mean the risk persists.
“Part of why we doing this is because the danger has not really passed, and it’s important that people focus on it again,” he said.
The exhibition shows not only Japanese suffering. Two of the Hiroshima Panels on display portray the death of American prisoners of war and Korean forced laborers in the bombings. Most haunting is “Crows,” a picture in black ink which depicts birds picking at the corpses of Koreans, reflecting the discrimination they faced even in death. The picture’s caption, a verse penned by the artists, says the Korean bodies “were left on the streets to the very last.”
“Not only are we portraying the Japanese as victims, we’re also portraying the Japanese as victimizers. That in no way mitigates the American responsibility for using atomic bombs but it does complicate the narrative a little bit,” said Kuznick.
Jan Thompson, president of the American Defenders of Bataan & Corregidor Memorial Society, which advocates for American former prisoners of war of the Japanese, said atomic bombs were a tragedy that no one should celebrate. She said she has not seen the exhibition yet but was con- cerned it would promote the view that that use of the bombs was not justified.
“Virtually all of our former POWs believe they would have been executed, and that Japan and the United States would have suffered even greater catastrophes, if the war had not been shortened by the use of atomic weapons,” said Thompson. “Weapons and war can only be understood in their political and historical contexts.”
Kuznick said he’s faced no opposition so far to this year’s exhibition. The opening will be attended by two Japanese survivors of the bombings.
But a June 23 seminar associated with the exhibition that will discuss President Harry Truman’s decision to use the bomb and its historical implications could raise hackles. Panelists include prominent historians, including Kuznick, who question whether the United States needed to do so to end the war with Japan, and whether it was intended as a warning to the Soviet Union, a wartime ally that would emerge as a rival superpower.
Yoshiko Hayakawa, who has brought the Hiroshima Panels from the Maruki Gallery outside Tokyo, said it had been difficult to find a gallery or museum willing or able to display them in the United States. They were last shown here in 1995, in Minnesota, and she had spent more than four years trying to bring them again to America.
“I really want the American people to see the panels. They go right to the heart of people who wish for long-lasting peace and for a ban on nuclear weapons,” she said.
In this photo taken Wednesday, June 10, a 1955 paper and Indian ink artwork called “Petition” is displayed at the Hiroshima-Nagasaki Atomic Bomb Exhibition at the American University Museum at the Katzen Arts Center in northwest Washington, D.C., to commemorate the 70th anniversary of the 1945 atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Japan.