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Sunday, Aug. 3, 2008

COUNTERPOINT

Lest we forget, it's a story that cries out for telling and retelling


What can be more chilling than the statistics of war? Tens of thousands dying in a single day on the Western Front in World War I. Millions perishing in World War II. India. Pakistan. Korea. Kenya. Vietnam. Cambodia. Rwanda. Iraq. And where next?

Among all this immense bloodletting, one instance of human cruelty stands out as a portent of our future.

At approximately 8:15 on the morning of Monday, Aug. 6, 1945, the world's first atomic-bomb attack was carried out on the city of Hiroshima in western Japan. U.S. President Harry Truman, addressing his nation and the world on Aug. 9, called Hiroshima "a military base." The bomb was used, he said, "to shorten the agony of war."

Three days after Hiroshima, a second bomb was dropped, this time on the even more westerly Japanese city of Nagasaki. The Americans, who had several bombs in production, were planning to use them as they came on line to incinerate one Japanese city after another — as their B-29s had already been doing throughout 1945 using high-explosive and incendiary munitions.

The total number of civilian deaths caused by those two atomic weapons will never be known. But it most certainly surpasses 200,000.

Historians will still be debating the true reasoning behind the use of nuclear weapons by the United States for decades to come. Was it to save Allied lives that might be lost in a land invasion of Honshu, the main island of Japan? If so, why wasn't a demonstration detonation carried out in the presence of representatives of the Japanese government? After all, the invasion was not scheduled to take place until November.

Were the bombs dropped to warn the Soviet Union what it might face after the war with Japan was over, and to gauge their immediate and long-term effects on humans? Could the administration justify the spending of billions of dollars on that new weapons technology without testing its efficacy in battle?

Lost, however, in both the appalling drone of statistics and the polemics of cause and effect is the tragic story of each individual life. This is particularly true of the victims of the indiscriminate U.S. bombing of Japanese cities that killed hundreds of thousands of civilians in 1945.

There is a striking exhibition on now in Hiroshima that makes the stories of some of the atomic-bomb victims very real to us. I have not seen this exhibition, which, alas, closes a week from today, on Aug. 10, at the Hiroshima City Museum of Contemporary Art. But I have before me a book of the photographs that are on display there. If we need a reminder that art provides the truest recreation of the past, incorporating its meaning for us into the present, it can be found in this book.

Titled "Hiroshima" and published this year by Shueisha, it contains photographs by Miyako Ishiuchi of articles of clothing and personal items belonging to people who were killed on the morning of Aug. 6, 1945.

Ishiuchi went to the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum in 2007 to capture her haunting images. She selected 66 items out of the 19,000 kept there — items, as she writes in the book's afterword (titled "For Things That Remain Forever"), "that had been in direct contact with the victims' bodies."

She continues in the afterword, translated by Gavin Frew . . . "I gently placed a dress on top of the artificial sun (light box) that I had brought from Tokyo to allow the light to shine through it. . . . I found myself overwhelmed by the bright colors and textures of these high-quality clothes. Countless threads of time drift in the light, intersect and create fountains of memory. . . . All I can do now is to focus on the air that I share with the objects lying before me and press the shutter to capture that moment in time."

Ishiuchi has, in fact, captured much more than a moment in time. She has brought back to life a sense that the person wearing or carrying these items at the instant of the blast is somehow still attached to them, still "sharing the air" before us.

Moreover, these dresses, chemises, blouses, skirts, trousers, student jackets, shoes, socks, eyeglasses and wristwatches are almost all shown with the name of their owners. Once we know that we are looking at Taiji Obara's underclothes, charred and torn, it becomes harder to ignore this single tragedy and write it off to some higher strategic cause.

Masumi Sagawa's burnt underwear bears the label, "Reg. U.S. Pat. Off.," with the garment's holy-sounding brand name, "Nazareth."

Sonoe Kubotaka's blouse, "with black pattern burnt away," and Aiko Sato's slip "with traces of black rain," tell a story that cannot be told in numbers, however horrific they may be. But, who was the owner of the woman's comb, splattered with what looks like oxidized iron, and of the fragment of false teeth, only four or five of which are sticking to their plate?

The eyeglasses pictured in "Hiroshima" belonged to Ayano Hiragaki. What must have happened to this person's face to turn the two lenses into deformed, charcoal-colored disks? Who owned the wristwatch, perhaps the most frightening object pictured in this book? Its face is bright yellow and red, obliterated but still in its casing, attached to a leather band the color of sand and earth.

The possibility of an imminent invasion of Japan's north by the Red Army was, I believe, the primary reason behind Emperor Hirohito's surrendering and calling an end to the war. But it was the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki that provided him with the excuse. By making the sacrifice of his own station — as it was then entirely unclear what his personal fate would be after capitulation — he was able to present himself as the person who saved Japan from total devastation. But if there had been no atom bomb, and Allied troops had invaded and conquered Japan, I doubt whether the Imperial system would have survived.

With the anniversary of a historical event, particularly one as deeply tragic as the first and, as yet, sole use of atomic weapons on human beings, it is meaningful for us to relive that event in the most concrete and personal ways we can. Recounting statistics of casualties and mulling over historical arguments only give us access to part of the story — a story whose real plot is elsewhere.

Miyako Ishiuchi has re-created that plot, using her art to bring history up to the present. Her photos of Hiroshima, and of the naval base of Yokosuka in Kanagawa Prefecture where she grew up, can be seen from Nov. 15 until Jan. 11, 2009, at the Meguro Museum of Art in Tokyo.

This story cries out for constant telling and retelling. It's not only on anniversaries that we need reminding.



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