WASHINGTON (AP) — As the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II approaches, a new museum exhibition provides a different perspective on the end of the conflict — one in which Japanese were the victims.
That has the potential to upset American veterans, especially at a time of intensifying focus on Japan’s reluctance to face up to its militaristic past.
The American University Museum is showcasing artifacts and art recalling the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki: a pocket watch that stopped at 8:15 a.m., when the first atomic bomb dropped; a picture of twisted bodies and screaming faces engulfed by the flames; the school lunch box of a girl who disappeared without trace.
Defenders of the bombings say it alleviated the need for a land invasion of Japan that would have cost many American lives. The precise death tolls from the bombings are unknown, but it is believed about 200,000 people were killed.
On the 50th anniversary, controversy surrounded an exhibit at the Smithsonian Institution of the Enola Gay, the B-29 that dropped the bomb on Hiroshima, Aug. 6, 1945. The 1995 exhibit was scaled back dramatically because of U.S. veterans’ protests that it portrayed the Japanese as victims, rather than as aggressors.
That year, Peter Kuznick, director of American University’s Nuclear Studies Institute, responded to the controversy by staging an exhibition of artifacts the Smithsonian would not. Doing so at a private institution, and not a government-funded one, made it less contentious.
He’s reprising that effort, 20 years later, with a display scheduled to run from Saturday through Aug. 16. It includes six pictures on folding screens by the late Iri and Toshi Maruki, a husband-and-wife team whose powerful depictions of nuclear horrors, known as the Hiroshima Panels, are being shown in the U.S. capital for the first time.
In an adjacent room are 25 artifacts collected from the debris — a rosary, a glass fragment removed from the flesh of a casualty, a container of sake, a student’s cap and a student’s shoe.
The Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum and the Nagasaki Atomic Bomb Museum have provided an explanatory account of the bombings with photos, including panoramas of the two leveled cityscapes and images of the victims.
Yoshiko Hayakawa, who brought the panels from a gallery outside Tokyo, said it had been difficult to find a venue willing or able to display them in the United States. They were last shown in the U.S. in 1995, in Minnesota.
“They go right to the heart of people who wish for long-lasting peace and for a ban on nuclear weapons,” she said.
Kuznick said the primary aim of the exhibition is to portray the human suffering caused by the atomic bombings that ushered in an era in which absolute destruction of the planet became possible and “nobody’s future is guaranteed anymore.”
He lamented that Americans — including undergraduates he teaches — have become less aware since the end of the Cold War about the devastating impact a nuclear conflict would have.
“Part of why we’re doing this is because the danger has not really passed, and it’s important that people focus on it again,” he said.
The exhibition shows not only Japanese suffering. Two of the Hiroshima Panels on display portray the death of American prisoners of war and Korean forced laborers in the bombings.
Most haunting is “Crows,” a picture in black ink which depicts birds picking at the corpses of Koreans, reflecting the discrimination they faced even in death. The picture’s caption, a verse penned by the artists, says the Korean bodies “were left on the streets to the very last.”
“Not only are we portraying the Japanese as victims, we’re also portraying the Japanese as victimizers. That in no way mitigates the American responsibility for using atomic bombs, but it does complicate the narrative a little bit,” Kuznick said.
Jan Thompson, president of the American Defenders of Bataan & Corregidor Memorial Society, which advocates for American former prisoners of war of the Japanese, said atomic bombs were a tragedy that no one should celebrate. She said she has not seen the exhibition yet but was concerned it would promote the view that that use of the bombs was not justified.
Kuznick said he has faced no opposition so far to this year’s exhibition.
But a seminar June 23 associated with the exhibition that will discuss President Harry Truman’s decision to use the bomb and its historical implications could raise hackles.
Panelists include historians, including Kuznick, who question whether the United States needed to do so to end the war with Japan, and whether it was intended as a warning to the Soviet Union, a wartime ally that would emerge as a rival superpower.
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