Nagasaki. Photo courtesy of Maruki Museum.

Readers interested in contemporary Japanese art may have seen works by Yanagi Yukinori or Murakami Takashi who treat the motif of the atomic bombing of Hiroshima in their works. Little Boy: The Arts of Japan’s Exploding Subculture (2005) curated by Murakami, used the codename given to the bomb that was dropped on Hiroshima by the U.S. on the morning of August 6, 1945, killing more than 140,000 people.

Others may know of the contemporary artists’ collective Chim ↑Pom and its 2005 work, Making the Sky of Hiroshima ‘Pica’ (2005) which sparked controversy in Hiroshima and later evolved into a collaborative project with A-bomb survivors, or of Nakazawa Keiji’s well-known manga, Barefoot Gen, a classic work that depicts the author’s experience as a survivor and has triggered debate about historical memory in recent years. 

At this moment of worldwide historical reckoning that comes 75 years after the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, it is vitally important to remember the Genbaku no zu (Atomic Bomb Panels or Hiroshima Panels) by avante-garde ink painter, Maruki Iri (1901-1995) and his partner and oil painter Toshi (née Akamatsu Toshiko, 1912-2000). After the war, it was the Marukis’ works that first gave visual expression to the horrific devastation of Hiroshima and the suffering of the victims. When Maruki Iri learned on August 8, 1945, that a “new and powerful bomb” had been dropped on Hiroshima, he took the first train from Tokyo to search for his family who lived two kilometers from the epicenter of the blast. His uncle and two nieces had died instantly, and his father would die six months later. Toshi soon followed and they stayed for nearly a month trying to help survivors find food, water and shelter and help cremate the dead. During that time they saw many more die of radiation sickness.

It took over two years for Iri and Toshi to begin painting what they had witnessed.  Making art was difficult due to the destruction and lack of food and supplies in the bombed-out cities. Moreover, in September, 1945, U.S. authorities censored photography and other visual representations of the devastation and prohibited public discussion or testimonies about the suffering of the victims.

Fearing that there would be no visual record of what they had witnessed, they began to make sketches and paintings in 1948. Toshi began drawing figures of survivors and Iri, who was already known for his unique, abstract style of ink painting, applied powerful ink washes to their works on paper. In Ghosts (1950) Toshi’s carefully delineated figures based on life sketches and haunting memories of the victims of the bombing move slowly across the panels in a procession that stretches far beyond the frame. Iri’s bold, abstract ink brush strokes give depth to the figures, veiling them in the darkness of the “black rain” that fell after the explosion.

Ghosts. Photo courtesy of Maruki Museum.

Ghosts, (see image below) was exhibited in the 3rd Japan Independent Exhibit in Tokyo, but under a different title to avoid censorship. Later that year, they painted two more large (180 cm x 720 cm) works, Fire and Water. Between 1950 and 1954, they produced altogether eight large panels and found innovative ways to transport and show them to hundreds of thousands of people all over Japan. These paintings marked the beginning of their lifelong commitment to addressing “human suffering caused by World War II in Asia.” (Dower, 2012).

In 1950-51, the Marukis travelled to more than 55 venues around Japan including schools, community centers and temples (Eubanks, 2020). At each venue, Toshi engaged audiences with her commentaries and spoken-word performances and invited participants to share their own stories. These, in turn, generated new paintings, poetry and picture books. Responses from audiences and requests from collaborators led the Marukis to produce more works in the series that touched on the deaths of American prisoners of war or Koreans who had also been victims of the bombing.  

As they worked on the series during the Korean War and into the mid-1950s, they became more acutely aware of the ongoing threat of nuclear war as seen in Yaizu (1955) and Petition (1956).  The last painting in the series,  Nagasaki (1982) depicted the aftermath of the atomic bombing of that city which destroyed the Catholic cathedral in Urakami and took more than 80,000 lives. 

As the international movement to halt nuclear proliferation and end nuclear war grew, they were invited to show the Hiroshima Panels around the world.  In the 1970s, they were shown in the U.S. and France, and in 1979, the Hiroshima Panels were awarded the grand prize at the 3rd International Anti-fascist Triennale in Bulgaria.  As the series evolved, they became more concerned with exploring Japan’s history of aggressions in the 20th century as well as pressing environmental and social issues; in Nanking (1975),  Auschwitz (1977), Minamata (1980), and the Battle of Okinawa (1984), they touched on Japanese colonialism and environmental destruction as they continued to delve into contested histories and memories of  WWII. 

The Maruki Gallery for the Hiroshima Panels was founded in 1967. Thanks to curator Okamura Yukinori, the museum has become a place where visitors can see the Hiroshima Panels alongside exhibitions and events that foster dialogue about peace and justice. 

In the midst of the Covid-19 pandemic, Okamura’s recent call for support has widened the circle of support for the museum; website renewal and plans for virtual gallery film are now underway. In a recent interview, he expressed the hope that each viewer’s experience or encounter with the Hiroshima Panels will spark new insights that “are not necessarily just about nuclear issues, or war,” but that also help us respond to “ multiple forms of violence” encountered everywhere in the world today.  

Seventy-five years have passed since the war’s end, but revisiting the Hiroshima Panels now will help a new, younger generation “find new ways to approach nuclear issues, and bring an end to nuclear weapons and the threat of nuclear war.” 

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