Hiroshima, 6th August 1945
Today marks the 65th anniversary of the dropping of the Atomic Bomb on Hiroshima. Whether you agree with the decision or not, the facts were there: Hiroshima was an important army and navy base. Of about 350,000 people living there on that fateful day, the majority were women and children, since most adult men were fighting at the front.
Nuclear blast and wind destroyed buildings within its 1.5-mile radius. Yoshito Matsushige was barely out of this radius at a little over 1.6-miles from the ground zero. Heading out to the citycentre, Matsushige took the only photographs taken of Hiroshima on that calamitous day. Matsushige himself was not seriously injured by the blast, but the scenes of carnage and dying people prevented him from taking further pictures. (He had 24 possible exposures, in the 10 hours he spent wandering the devastated city, but only seven came out right).
The importance of scenes that Mr. Matsushige documented were not immediately realized in the outside world. Another bomb would follow a few days later, and the war in Far East was finally over. The tone of the Western Press, from the New York Times to Life, was almost triumphal. They would not receive the photos from Hiroshima and Nagasaki under months later, and even then, only the heavily censored ones. In addition, the radiation sickness was dismissed as a Japanese effort to undermine American morale, and the stories to that effect were frequently killed. This type of censorship was so prevalent that when MGM had a scene casting doubts on whether an atomic weapon should have been used, the White House called the studio to change the script.
In Japan, the censorship was more draconian. It was not just buildings that were annihilated in Hiroshima; an entire collective memory too was erased. For many years the sole images of the bombings in Japan were sketches and paintings by survivors. General Douglas MacArthur had declared southern Japan off-limits from the foreign press. Wilfred Burchett — who secretively sneaked on a train — had his camera stolen, photos confiscated and was expelled and banned from Japan. Live footage taken by Akira Iwasaki was seized and taken to the United States, and was not returned until 1968. For Matsushige himself, his films were so toxic that he was unable to develop them for twenty days, and even then had to do so at night and in the open, rinsing it in a stream. When he tried to publish them, they were confiscated. Under the blanket rule that “nothing shall be printed which might, directly or by inference, disturb public tranquility,” graphic photos from Hiroshima and Nagasaki were not printed until the U.S. occupation ended in Japan in April 1952. The magazine Asahi Gurafu opened the floodgates by publishing them in August 1952.
From top to bottom: first two photos showed people who escaped serious injury applying cooking oil to their burns near Miyuki bridge; in the third photo, a policeman, his head bandaged, issues certificates to civilians. The next photo shows shows the shadow of a person who was disintegrated at the moment of the blast. (These steps were cut out and now inside the Hiroshima Peace Park museum.) The last photo shows the damage to Matsushige family’s barbershop.