A-bomb Images

Yoshito Matsushige’s photographic negatives, five “witnesses” of A-bombing, Part 3: Living materials

by Junji Akechi, Staff Writer

Horror of A-bombing reflected in present time

Photos “need to be seen” if they are to be inherited

Bustling streetcars and automobiles cross the Miyuki Bridge, at the west end of which is a monument featuring a photograph taken there by Yoshito Matsushige on August 6, 1945. “This is a place where you can simultaneously feel Hiroshima on the day of the atomic bombing and at the present time,” said Satoshi Ishitobi, 40, a resident of Hiroshima’s Minami Ward. Mr. Ishitobi conducts bicycle tours of the city based on the theme of peace. He said he makes it a rule to take both Japanese and overseas tourists to the bridge.

The tours begin in front of the Rest House in Hiroshima Peace Memorial Park, located in the city’s Naka Ward, which was once a bustling commercial district. Participants also visit A-bombed structures in Naka Ward, including the former Hiroshima University Science Faculty No. 1 Building and the monument exhibiting window frames from the former main building of the Hiroshima Red Cross and Atomic-bomb Survivors Hospital that were bent by the force of the blast. After that, the tours arrive at Miyuki Bridge, located about 2.2 kilometers from the hypocenter. By traveling the distance between these locations, participants learn of the large extent of the area that was damaged in the bombing.

“When I tell them that the photo was taken here, the casual atmosphere changes completely,” he said. In the tours, Mr. Ishitobi explains stories that have been passed down about the circumstances of the day of the atomic bombing, including about a crying woman who held a baby in her arms and schoolgirls who had fled to the bridge for safety. He also talks about how Mr. Matsushige hesitated to snap the camera’s shutter for the photo because it was such a cruel sight. Everyone then turns and looks back in the direction of the city center. “The cityscape begins to take on a very different look for them. Mr. Matsushige’s photo helps connect the day of the bombing to the present time.” At that point, the cycling tour and the photo’s impact join to produce a synergistic effect.

The five photos taken by Mr. Matsushige on the day of the atomic bombing are the only existing photos that show the tragic circumstances that people faced immediately after the bombing. An enormous number of photos of Hiroshima were taken starting the day after the bombing through the city’s reconstruction period, but many have not been viewed publicly. “For people to understand the importance of the photos, they must be seen,” said Miho Umemori, 41, a resident of Asaminami Ward and the leader of the volunteer group Akeda Photo Project, which is engaged in the work of organizing materials left by the late Koshi Akeda, a Hiroshima-based photographer who died at age 92 in 2015.

On the advice of the late photographer Yonosuke Natori, Mr. Akeda continued taking photos of Hiroshima during the city’s reconstruction. He took photos of people’s daily lives, scenes in back alleys, and changing city with the construction of Peace Boulevard and the Ota River drainage canal. People involved in the photo project are creating a database of around 49,000 photographic negatives left by Mr. Akeda, identifying the time, location, and subject of each of the photos. The group has made lists of the photos, entrusting the photos to the Hiroshima Municipal Archives, and have held photo exhibits.

“We are borrowing the photos from the departed Mr. Akeda. To hand the photos down to future generations, we always consider how Mr. Akeda would have liked to pass them on,” said Ms. Umemori. Simply preserving the photos might mean they would be kept locked away. Making them public on the Internet without careful consideration could denigrate their value, as they might be used without permission. The group is now compiling a collection of the photographs, work the members hope will be completed by summer.

Satoru Ubuki, 74, a former professor at Hiroshima Jogakuin University and a resident of the city of Kure, conducts research into materials related to the atomic bombing. “Citizens of Hiroshima have been working to hand down the memories of the atomic bombing in their own ways. Do we give due appreciation to their long and assiduous efforts, and are we truly successful at carrying them on?” said Mr. Ubuki.

Mr. Matsushige was one person who took on the responsibility of being a recorder of history present at the site of the atomic bombing immediately after the blast. He continued to communicate his experience while showing his photographs, in the hopes that “the tragedies of Hiroshima and Nagasaki are never repeated.” He also left in writings the idea that, “The role of the photos will not end until nuclear weapons are eliminated.”

In addition to Mr. Matsushige’s photographic negatives, many other materials should be carried on and fully utilized. The responsibility for passing on such materials to future generations falls on those of us who now happen to be in Hiroshima 76 years after the atomic bombing.

(Originally published on March 30, 2021)