Friday is the 76th anniversary of Hiroshima. Doomsday is closer than ever.
The A Bomb Dome in Hiroshima in 2015. The dome, which was part of the city’s industrial exhibition hall, was directly beneath the atomic bomb dropped Aug. 6, 1945.
Let me tell you a story of witness and heartbreak.
Friday is the 76th anniversary of the atomic bombing of Hiroshima, and that’s where our story is forever frozen in time. Unlike memories, which are malleable, fade with age, and eventually die with us, photographs bear perpetual witness. That’s why photo captions, ideally, should be written in the present tense. A photograph is forever, a slice of time captured, a testament of the eternal now.
Yoshito Matsushige, a 32-year-old newspaper photographer the day the bomb fell in Hiroshima, captured the eternal now on the Miyuki Bridge. His images of the ragged victims of the first atomic bombing have been reproduced countless times. There are only five photographs known to have been taken on the ground in Hiroshima the day the bomb fell, and they are all by Matsushige.
That’s why, in 1986, I went to Japan to interview Matsushige.
It was during the perilous final act of the Cold War, and the Doomsday Clock hovered at three minutes to midnight. The clock, which has been maintained since 1947 by members of “The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists,” is a graphic representation of just how close we are to global annihilation.
I was a young reporter for the Pittsburg Morning Sun, a small newspaper in southeast Kansas, and had answered a call in the back pages of Editor & Publisher for a grant program to travel to Japan and interview the hibakusha, literally “those who received the bomb.” I was one of three journalists — two Americans and one Russian — selected for the Akiba Project, named for its creator, Tad Akiba, then a professor of history at Tufts University.
Before embarking for Japan, I experienced some resistance from an unexpected source — my mother. She composed a long letter to Emperor Hirohito (still living then, and who had been emperor during World War II) urging him not to allow me into the country. I was a traitor, she reasoned, because my father had been a sailor on the battleship Pennsylvania. She read me the letter over the phone and said she intended to mail it the next day. That accusation of treason was echoed by some Morning Sun readers after the series was published. The other American reporter was Joe Copeland, a reporter from Washington state. I forget the name of the Russian journalist now, probably because I never met him — he was recalled by the Soviet Union at the last moment, a testament to Cold War paranoia. But even though the Akiba Project was paying the bills, there was no restriction on editorial content, and we were free to report without review or censorship. We could also make our own reporting agendas, and it was Matsushige I wanted to interview most.
In the early 1980s, no event focused the discussion on nuclear weapons more clearly than the release of “The Day After,” a television movie directed by Nicholas Meyer that depicted the destruction of Lawrence, Kansas, by thermonuclear war. It was filmed on location, and the story centered on the suffering of average Americans, portrayed by Jason Robards, JoBeth Williams, John Lithgow and others.
About 100 million people watched the movie, a record for television. The movie was so successful in advancing the discussion on nuclear war that, in 1987, it was broadcast in the Soviet Union. It did not occur to me at the time, but I suspect now that one of the reasons I was chosen for the Akiba Project is that I was from Kansas.
I believed then, as I do now, that the atomic bombings were the seminal event of the 20th Century, the end of cultural childhood and the beginning of the postmodern, the moment when we as a species glimpsed our own suicidal and perhaps inevitable demise. Hiroshima means “broad island” in Japanese, and the atomic bombings certainly represent a broad island in the stream of human experience, a strange land of the dead and the knowing, a place that can sometimes be visited but never fully understood. Still, as that young reporter, I felt an imperative to try. In the back of my mind was some idea that if only I could convey the firsthand truth of the nuclear experience, that if I could report faithfully the experiences of the survivors, then perhaps others might be moved to work for peace.
What I remember most about my six weeks in Japan, other than lingering homesickness, was the time I spent with Matsushige. He was 73 when I interviewed him, an amiable chain smoker, impeccably dressed, and somewhat reserved. We spoke through interpreters. He led me on foot through the city, dodging traffic all the while, to the spot where he had made his most powerful photos — the Miyuki Bridge. It was the original structure, but slated for imminent demolition because of its age. It was on the bridge that Matsushige’s reserve cracked and he began gesturing and describing the horrors of the day.
“It has been 41 years since Yoshito Matsushige stood on the Miyuki Bridge and focused his 6×6 camera on the burned and ragged survivors of the world’s first nuclear bombing,” began the story I would file. “In breath that is marked by cigarette smoke and the loss of part of a lung to tuberculosis, he explains where he stood when he finally worked up the courage to trip the shutter.”
The victims in the resulting photograph appear to be old people, stooping and holding their arms out in front of them. But Matsushige explained they were children, junior high school students mobilized to clear fire lanes in the center of the city on the morning the bomb was dropped. What looks like rags hanging in strips from the arms and hands is, in reality, their skin. He told me he felt shame for taking the photos.
“Once I got the camera ready,” he told me, “I felt as if the eyes of these people were piercing me.”
He developed the film at home, using kitchen trays, and washed the negatives in a nearby stream. The images weren’t printed in the United States until 1952. When Matsushige and I parted in 1986, we both expressed a desire to meet again.
It’s estimated that up to 140,000 died from the bombing of Hiroshima, the vast majority of them civilians. Hiroshima had little strategic significance, and was selected in part because it was largely undamaged by previous American bombings — and it would, therefore, be easier to judge the damage cause by the bomb. At Nagasaki, bombed three days later, up to 70,000 died.
I have heard the arguments now for decades about why the atomic bombings of Japan were necessary, and how American lives were saved because an invasion wasn’t necessary, because Hirohito announced surrender just a week later. These arguments are probably best articulated by Paul Fussell, in 1981’s “Thank God for the Atom Bomb.” Fussell had been a young Army officer in 1945, waiting to be deployed for the invasion of Japan.
But no argument can justify the suffering of the civilians in Hiroshima and Nagasaki. No argument can defend the 13,500 nuclear weapons that remain in the inventories of the world’s nine known or suspected nuclear powers, with 90% of that total in the United States and Russia. No argument can defend the potential for global annihilation.
From 1986 to 1995, the hands of the Doomsday Clock moved steadily back, to 17 minutes to midnight. But it began creeping closer again in 2012. By 2015, it was again at three minutes.
It’s now at 100 seconds to midnight, the closest it’s ever been.
The reason? The proliferation of nuclear weapons to less stable nations, of course. But added have been the existential threats we face from climate change, civil unrest spurred by misinformation, and a mismanaged global response to COVID-19.
“Human beings can manage the dangers posed by modern technology, even in times of crisis,” the Bulletin said. “But if humanity is to avoid an existential catastrophe — one that would dwarf anything it has yet seen — national leaders must do a far better job of countering disinformation, heeding science, and cooperating to diminish global risks.”
I never did meet Matsushige again. He died in 2005, at age 92.
But I did return to Japan, in 2015, to speak at a symposium at the Hiroshima Peace Museum. I recounted my walk with Matsushige to the Miyuki Bridge and shared some of my photographs of him. Later, I was told by someone who had known Matsushige well that he always wanted to talk to me again — and to tell me the part of the story that he couldn’t bring himself to share in 1986.
After developing the film, he was overcome by regret. In one of the photos from the bridge, at the edge of the frame, was a mother clutching a dead baby. He remembered the woman calling the child’s name. Using the point of a pair of scissors, he scratched the woman’s face from the negative, to save her — and himself — from the shame.
In the eternal now of the Miyuki Bridge, my friend Yoshito Matsushige bore witness for us all. But we have not heeded his testament. That is the heartbreak of Hiroshima.
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