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.

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