Interview with Yukinori Okamura, curator of the Maruki Gallery for the Hiroshima Panels

Importance of “non-nuclear” art in fight against invisible threat

by Naoki Tahara, Editorial Writer

Sixty-nine years have passed since the atomic bombings. There is little time left for the survivors to pass on their stories. The accident at the Fukushima No. 1 (Daiichi) nuclear power plant reminded us of the horrors of radiation. Yet Japan has not completely ended its dependence on nuclear energy. Yukinori Okamura, 39, curator of the Maruki Gallery for the Hiroshima Panels in Higashi Matsuyama, Saitama Prefecture, is the author of “Hikaku geijutsu annai” (Guide to Non-nuclear Art), a booklet published by Iwanami Shoten. “In order to consider the path that humankind should take, I would like people to be exposed to art that warns against nuclear weapons and nuclear energy,” he said. The Chugoku Shimbun talked to Mr. Okamura about this idea.

Why is “non-nuclear” art important now?
Many works of art were created to convey the horrors of the atomic bombings. Non-nuclear art also plays a role in exposing the dangers of nuclear weapons and nuclear power. Artists have made the invisible threat these pose, including radiation, visible. Although less than three years have passed since the accident in Fukushima, there is a move underway to sweep the dangers of nuclear energy under the carpet. And a tendency among the public to close their eyes to the problem seems to be emerging. It is time to focus on “non-nuclear” art.

So it’s “non-nuclear,” not “anti-nuclear”?
Iri and Toshi Maruki not only objected to the atomic bombings. They also foresaw an accident at a nuclear power plant, and some of their works depict this. They stood up to the Tokyo Electric Power Company and refused to pay the portion of their electric fees that went to nuclear power. They recognized that nuclear weapons and nuclear energy could not coexist with human beings. Looking at the international situation as well, power relationships are determined by whether or not a nation has nuclear weapons, so “non-nuclear” is needed. In some respects this is connected with political positions as well, but there is a need to take an unbiased look at depictions of nuclear weapons and nuclear energy from the A-bombing right up through to today.

What sort of art works are there?
When they were first displayed during the Allied Occupation of Japan, the “Hiroshima Panels” had a tremendous impact. The ban-the-bomb movement grew after the Daigo Fukuryu Maru (Lucky Dragon No. 5) fishing boat was exposed to radioactive fallout, and there was a big surge of interest in the 1950s. The “non-nuclear” art of those days was characterized by its depiction of human suffering. It was a way for many people to share the pain experienced by those of that generation.

Then the peaceful use of the atom was advocated, nuclear power plants were built and people became less aware of the dangers. But starting in the 1970s, the anti-nuclear movement picked up steam again. The generation that had experienced the A-bombings realized the importance of conveying their memories to the generation that had not. Keiji Nakazawa’s “Barefoot Gen” and Ikuo Hirayama’s “The Holocaust at Hiroshima” appeared at that time.

How will the A-bombing of Hiroshima be depicted in the future?
The time is coming when people who did not experience the A-bombing will convey it to others who did not experience it either. All they will be able to do is put together a story by using their imaginations. Naturally, compared to those of the 1950s, these works will be less able to evoke emotions directly. The interest of the public in this artwork is waning also, but new forms of expression that will attract the younger generation are emerging.

Where is “non-nuclear” art headed?
Memories of the atomic bombings are fading. Meanwhile, the accident at the nuclear power plant in Fukushima brought about a new era in “non-nuclear” art. The threat posed by nuclear weapons and nuclear energy once again hit close to home. But it is difficult to depict the harm that resulted from the accident at the nuclear power plant. Whereas the atomic bombings caused shocking human suffering, in Fukushima personal relationships were disrupted and communities broke down. That sort of harm is hard to visualize. The question is how art can address this and whether or not it can be conveyed to people.

Is nuclear power the focus of these depictions?
The Fukushima disaster exposed the contradictions in the society in which we live. For example, with the selection of locations for nuclear power plants and the concentration of U.S. military bases in Okinawa, outlying areas were sacrificed to protect Tokyo. This structure was created at the expense of the weak. “Non-nuclear” art will depict the issues facing society as well.

Are there certain depictions that have attracted attention?
There’s the artist collective Chim-Pom, for example. Their methods are controversial, but they were among the first to create artwork in Fukushima after the disaster. And they have the ability to get through to young people. The Maruki Gallery also held a special exhibition. I think sharing space with modern “non-nuclear” art breathed new life into the Hiroshima Panels.

The public’s awareness will also be called into question.
I feel the physicality of expression conveyed by the atomic bombings and the harm resulting from nuclear weapons and nuclear power is being avoided. Some people say that “Barefoot Gen” is brutal, but this just goes to show that people are no longer familiar with the reality of war. In the 1950s, artists depicted the horrors of the A-bombing so that such a calamity would not be repeated. Today, when we are surrounded by the threat posed by nuclear weapons and nuclear power, people need to look at all sorts of “non-nuclear” art, such as works like the Hiroshima Panels, that are compelling and that question the structure of society.


Yukinori Okamura
Born in Tachikawa, Tokyo. Graduate of Tokyo Zokei University with a degree in design. Did postgraduate research there also. Has held his current post since 2001. Author of “Hikaku geijutsu annnai” (Guide to Non-nuclear Art), published last month. Resident of Kawagoe, Saitama Prefecture.


Maruki Gallery for the Hiroshima Panels
The Maruki Gallery for the Hiroshima Panels is funded with the income from admission and membership fees. The gallery has about 12,000 visitors a year, but this figure is decreasing. In particular, there has been a noticeable decline in the number children who visit the museum in conjunction with peace education.

(Originally published on January 22, 2014)