How Should We Remember the Invention of the Atomic Bomb?

August 6, 2023 | 10:52 am
G. Kulacki/UCS
Gregory Kulacki
East Asia Project Manager

Read more of UCS’s critical analysis of Oppenheimer and the global security issues it examines here.

Christopher Nolan’s Oppenheimer reintroduced the bomb to the world. He rekindled the drama of making and testing it. He examined the politics and personalities. But he didn’t show us what it did to the bombed. It’s a glaring omission in a very long movie. (And not the only one.)

We should not be surprised. The US military officials who occupied Japan at the end of the war did everything they could to bury those images forever. Post-war American films about Hiroshima shied away from depicting the horrific aftermath. Nolan said he wanted to tell a “fascinating story” about the “raw power” of the bomb and “what that means for the people involved.”

How could he assign so little time to those those who suffered the ghastly effects of that power when it was unleashed in a war? 

Telling that part of the story may be the only thing that can save us from the same cruel fate.

On this 78th anniversary of the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, with Oppenheimer getting so much acclaim and attention, we thought we should focus on this question. What follows is a discussion about how the memory of what happened is being preserved, and who is doing it. It is an interview with a student artist, Ms. Anju Mochida, and her teacher, Ms. Fukumoto, from Motomachi High School in Hiroshima, conducted at the school on July 25th. The interview took place in Japanese and was facilitated by Ms. Natsuko Arai from Hiroshima City University, who provided the English translation.

“When I thought about the fact that war was happening in the time in which I was living, and that a similar situation was about to happen, I felt that I should do something, and I thought of painting as my weapon. Sometimes pictures are easier to communicate than words, and I can draw. That’s why I decided to participate in the ‘Pictures of the Atomic Bomb’ project.”

Student artist, Ms. Anju Mochida, Hiroshima, Japan

The questions are about an art project that has produced over 200 paintings that depict the events after the bomb fell on August 6th, 1945 through the eyes of people who survived it. They are known in Japan as “Hibakusha”; literally “the bombed.”

Natsuko Arai: Could you tell us about how the project got started, the goals of the project, and how it works?

Teacher Fukumoto: The “Picture of the Atomic Bomb” project was not initiated by Motomachi High School, but is an activity in which Motomachi High School participates as a production volunteer in a project of the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum called “Picture of the Atomic Bomb: Drawing with the Next Generation”. There are Hibakusha who give their testimonies at the Peace Memorial Museum, and they express their experiences to various people, such as students on a school trip and people from overseas. At that time, they explain their experiences by showing various materials such as maps and photos, but they also use pictures of scenes that have not been preserved in words or photographs, so that their testimonies can be more easily understood by the audience.

First, the museum will call for Hibakusha who are working at the museum who would like to have paintings drawn for their testimonies. The Peace Memorial Museum then sends the list to Motomachi High School. We tell the students how many pictures Hibakusha would like to have painted this year. The students who want to do the project raise their hands, and we choose the scene they want to write about by reading the description of the scene, and creating a combination of a Hibakusha and a student who will be the painter. Then we have our first meeting in October or so and start the production from there.

At the first meeting in October, the students listen to the testimonies directly from the Hibakusha, and ask questions to the Hibakusha. At first, they make sketches with pencils. Then, after making a simple sketch of the composition, characters, and scene, we asked the Hibakusha several times how they like the sketches.

After deciding on the composition, the students would begin to draw on a canvas (size F15). The exhibition of the completed work will be held at Motomachi High School in July, so they will draw the work until then, and then have the Hibakusha look at the work to confirm what the students don’t understand, and repeat the process of drawing and revising to complete it.

Sometimes, when they are not able to complete the work in time, some students take the work home and draw it at home, but basically, the work is done at the school, on weekends or when the students have no club activities. There is a room where they work, and there are about 10 students in the room, so they line up and work as a team.

Natsuko Arai: What is the significance of artwork as a medium to convey the Hibakusha’s stories?

Student artist, Ms. Anju Mochida from Motomachi High School in Hiroshima, Japan, participated in a collaborative art project that has produced more than 200 paintings that depict the events after the bomb fell on August 6th, 1945 through the eyes of people who survived it.

Anju Mochida: I think the importance of expressing the tragedy of the atomic bombing in pictures is to depict scenes that are difficult to visualize in words alone. For example, here is a scene of a half-burnt corpse. If you only hear the words, you would not understand what a half-burnt corpse looks like, but people like us who want to convey the atomic bombing to the public can finally make it into a picture by studying from reading materials, testimonies and other information.

Pictures can be conveyed to children, the deaf, and people overseas who speak different languages. In this sense, I think that the art of conveying the A-bomb experience through pictures plays a very important role in conveying the atomic bombing to the world.

Natsuko Arai: What have been the impacts of the project? How do the students and survivors feel about it?

Anju Mochida: After I had finished my entrance exam and had been accepted to Motomachi High School, the Russian invasion of Ukraine began. Before I entered the school, I had a kind of scary image of “Pictures of the Atomic Bombing”, this project. I thought I would have to draw burnt people or something, so I decided not to participate in the project. However, when I thought about the fact that war was happening in the time in which I was living, and that a similar situation was about to happen, I felt that I should do something, and I thought of painting as my weapon. Sometimes pictures are easier to communicate than words, and I can draw. That’s why I decided to participate in the “Pictures of the Atomic Bomb” project.

Before I heard the testimonies from the Hibakusha, I had an image of August 6 as a very terrible day when the atomic bomb fell, and many people died as a result. But even though I had been taking peace education classes since I was in the first grade of elementary school, I still thought of the atomic bombing as something that happened in a different time, in a different world, and that had nothing related with me. However, hearing the testimony of an actual A-bomb survivor changed my way of thinking. Sometimes when they are testifying, they start crying because of their painful memories. I tried to imagine what it would be like if the same thing had happened to me and I had lost my own family. I felt that if everyone thinks of August 6th as someone else’s problem, we will never have peace in the world.

I felt that I had to think of even the most tragic things as if they were my own personal matter, and that is the influence I received from my participation in this project. When I speak at gallery talks and other events, I think about how I can make my talk easier to convey to others. This project has given me the desire to convey the influence I received from the “Picture of the Atomic Bomb” and the feeling that I need to think about it as if it were my own.

Natsuko Arai: What happens to the artwork after it is completed?

Teacher Fukumoto: The completed paintings will be donated to the Peace Memorial Museum, as they are to be stored in the museum. Normally, the paintings will be kept in the storage room and used by the Hibakusha when they give their testimonies. When they give their testimonies at the museum, they use the paintings as one of the images in their PowerPoint presentations. It would be fine if they testified using the actual paintings, but it is difficult to carry them around, so they are mostly used as data in the form of photos.

Starting from August 6th of this year, we will hold an exhibition called “Hiroshima as depicted by high school students” at the International Conference Hall next to the museum. Twice a year, for two weeks each in summer and winter, Motomachi High School and the Peace Culture Center (the main organization that houses Peace Memorial Museum and the International Conference Center) will sponsor the exhibition, and at that time, we will take 50 or 40 pictures out of the collection and combine new and past paintings, and show them to the public. The number of items on display is determined according to the size of the exhibition space. 

Many people want to borrow the actual paintings, but it is a bit difficult to lend the paintings themselves because it is very expensive to transport them far away due to insurance. Instead, the museum has made about 1,000 reproductions of the panels, which are loaned out and exhibited around the country, but we do not know where or how they are being displayed. Since the copyrights are all held by the Peace Culture Foundation, they are all managed and loaned out by the Foundation. We sometimes know about exhibitions held in places we know nothing about through TV, or when people from outside the prefecture tell us that they saw an exhibition at a place outside of Hiroshima.

We have received a grant to produce a collection of our works. We made a Japanese version last year and translated it into English so that it could be seen by a wider audience. 171 paintings from 2007 to 2020 are included in the book. There are various types of Hibakusha: some Hibakusha request one painting a year, some Hibakusha like Mochida-san’s, request 4 paintings at one time, some ask for the next year again, some stop after one painting, and some have requested paintings for about 10 years in a row.

The “Picture of the Atomic Bomb” project was not first undertaken by Motomachi High School, but by the art department of Hiroshima City University, and university students had been working for several years. In 2007, the museum asked us to have high school students work on it because it was not going well in the university.

Natsuko Arai: What are some of the messages that the survivors want to communicate to the world about their direct experience with nuclear weapons?

Anju Mochida: I think the most important message that the Hibakusha want to convey to the world is that we must never allow the same thing to happen again, and we really should not create any more nuclear weapons.

When I was in the 2nd or 3rd grade of elementary school, I had an opportunity to talk with a Hibakusha as part of my peace education. The Hibakusha I spoke with said something like the following: “If you had nuclear weapons, you would look stronger. It is natural, but if you have a lot of them and appeal to people that your country is strong, such intimidation will not lead to peace. It’s just intimidation, and it only sparks conflict.”

The Hibakusha strongly said that Japan and other countries must not have nuclear weapons and that we must reduce nuclear weapons. I think it is because they are Hibakusha who experienced and felt the horror of the atomic bombing firsthand, they understand that if the same thing happened in this day and age, the damage would be even greater. That’s why the Hibakusha have a real sense of crisis, I believe.

EDITORIAL CORRECTION, 8/7/23, 12:26PM: A previous version of this blog incorrectly noted that Natsuko Arai was from Hiroshima University, a correction was issued to note that Natsuko is from Hiroshima City University.

EDITORIAL CORRECTION, 8/8/23, 8:16AM: A previous version of this blog incorrectly misspelled the name of student artist interviewed in this blog is. They are Anju Mochida, not Kyoka Mochida.