HIGASHIMATSUYAMA, SAITAMA PREF. – While nearly 70 years have passed since the end of World War II, highlighting the horror of the atomic bombings of Japan can still be controversial in the United States, where many believe the attacks were necessary to bring a quick end to the war.
An upcoming exhibition at a university museum in Washington may prove no exception as renowned atomic bomb paintings by Japanese husband and wife artists Iri and Toshi Maruki will be displayed in the United States for the first time in 20 years.
But the organizers believe the exhibition of the so-called Hiroshima Panels will be worth seeing because it will not only offer images of Japanese civilian victims but will also allude to the implications for nuclear weapons at a time when the push for nuclear disarmament suffered another setback at a United Nations conference in May.
“The Hiroshima Panels show atomic bombs did not just kill people but destroyed everything, including human ties. . . . Nuclear weapons are perceived as a great threat to humanity that transcends nationality,” said Takayuki Kodera, head of the Maruki Gallery for the Hiroshima Panels in Higashimatsuyama, Saitama Prefecture.
Iri and Toshi Maruki spent over 30 years, starting in 1950, to complete the 15 large folding-screen panels on the atomic bombings. They were created in the manner of Japanese-style brush paintings as the artists revisited their painful memories of entering Hiroshima, Iri’s birthplace, shortly after the city was reduced to ashes in August 1945.
To mark the 70th anniversary year since the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, six of the panels will be showcased as part of the Atomic Bomb Exhibition at the American University Museum in Washington from June 13 to Aug. 16. They will also be exhibited at the Pioneer Works Center for Arts and Innovation in New York between November and December, according to the Japanese gallery.
While each panel has its own significance, Peter Kuznick, an American University history professor who has been preparing the event, said two paintings have been added to the exhibition lineup to avoid portraying Japanese as “simply innocent victims.”
One of them, titled the “Death of American Prisoners of War,” depicts U.S. POWs who died in the atomic blast in Hiroshima as well as some who survived it but were beaten to death by Japanese captors. The other titled “Crows” features the discriminatory treatment of Korean forced laborers who were also among the atomic bomb victims.
The two works “show the Japanese as both victims and victimizers and that’s usually the way things are in reality in history,” Kuznick said in a recent telephone interview. He added that the important thing is to “complicate” simplistic historical narratives to recognize that what happened to the Japanese could have been anyone else’s fate.
Both were painted after the Marukis interacted with Americans during the first exhibition tour of the Hiroshima Panels in the United States starting 1970. According to the Maruki Gallery, that experience made the couple turn their focus to acts of aggression by Japanese and other wartime atrocities to understand the nature of war.
In her memoirs, Toshi wrote about a woman who had lost her son in Japan’s surprise attack on Pearl Harbor and who told her that the atomic bombing of Hiroshima was a logical outcome of Japan’s own aggression. On another occasion, Toshi was told that exhibiting the Hiroshima Panels in the United States was similar to Chinese artists going to Japan to show drawings of the Nanking Massacre.
The Hiroshima Panels have since traveled to the United States twice, to Boston in 1988 and Minnesota in 1995, but they are set to be shown in the U.S. capital for the first time. Iri and Toshi Maruki were nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize in 1995 and died in 1995 and 2000, respectively.
Yoshiko Hayakawa, who arranged the paintings’ upcoming U.S. tour, said she had “a tough time” finding venues to display them. But the plan bore fruit thanks to Kuznick, whose university is known for exhibiting atomic bomb artifacts that were supposed to be shown at the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum in 1995 along with the Enola Gay, the plane that dropped the atomic bomb on Hiroshima.
Amid protests from U.S. veterans, the Smithsonian scrapped its plan for the exhibition on the damage inflicted by the bombs, a clear reminder of the “difficulties of organizing an exhibition to tell the truth about the atomic bombs,” Hayakawa said.
Kuznick said some people might condemn the university’s exhibition for being too sympathetic to the Japanese, for being too critical of the United States and for not talking about Pearl Harbor.
But the director of the American University’s Nuclear Studies Institute said he “welcomes controversy” as part of his efforts to challenge the mainstream view that the atomic bombs were necessary to end the war.
The Maruki Gallery’s Kodera said the Hiroshima Panels may gain attention in the United States because how Japan views its wartime history has come under scrutiny under Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, who critics accuse of revisionism.
“Nowadays, Japan may be seen as politically covering up the problem of (wartime) aggression, but the Maruki paintings show there is a different historical perception in Japan,” Kodera said.
Sadao Yamamoto, an 83-year-old atomic bomb survivor who will speak at the Washington event about his experience, hopes the exhibit will raise awareness in the United States about the need to rid the world of nuclear arms.
“The atomic bomb was dropped by the United States and Japan suffered damage. But I want to tell (the U.S. audience) we should join hands to push for the elimination of nuclear weapons.”
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