Silent Histories Exhibit Exhumes Scars of War

In a nation called miraculous for its transformation from burned-out desolation to economic powerhouse, the scars of war were quickly hidden by dazzling recovery. Children who suffered physical and mental trauma in the American bombing of Japan during World War II hid their pain and lived quietly, trying not to trouble others. Now, through photojournalist Kazuma Obara’s work, some are finally sharing their “silent histories.”

Originally a self-published — in fact, handmade, with only 45 copies produced — photobook, the photography exhibition Silent Histories was held in Hiroshima at the gallery Intersection611 from 21 April to 3 May.

This man spent most of his life folding his hands as seen on the left, to hide his scars.

The exhibition focuses on the personal stories of a few individuals who were children during WWII and experienced the bombing of Osaka. They suffered permanent injuries or saw family members killed in an instant. Along with portraits of the victims, the exhibit also utilizes aerial photographs of the bombing taken by the U.S. Army and shots of present-day Osaka, taken 70 years to the day after the bombing. Although some 400 Japanese cities were bombed during WWII, killing 330,000 people and injuring another 100,000, focusing on the histories of individuals personalizes the mass bombings that happened during the war. As years passed, reminders of war in Japan faded, although victims’ pain often did not. Now in their 70s and 80s, some victims are only just beginning to share their stories. Obara wants convey the experiences of war young people, to catalyze them to imagine the feelings of and sympathize with the victims.

At an artist talk event at the exhibit, Obara said he was inspired to create Silent Histories after seeing how victims altered photos of themselves. In particular, one woman, who lost a leg when Osaka was bombed, blacked out the lower half of her body with a pen in a class photograph. Obara said that more than seeing people’s actual scars, he was struck by how they hid them. His reaction made him wonder about the extent to which current generations can feel the pain of those victimized in WWII, and he also wanted to explore why victims felt pressured to hide their scars. Often, the answer to the latter was that the victims faced discrimination for their disabilities.

The Silent Histories exhibit at Intersection611. Photo of Osaka on a rainy day — exactly 70 years after it was bombed in WWII.

Below many of the photographs, Obara included quotes from their subjects. They explained what happened to them during the war and how their experiences impact their daily life even now. For example, one of the woman who had lost a leg was quoted saying that the first thing she does every morning is attach her prosthetic leg and that she can’t even reach the bathroom without it. She said that pain is part of her daily life and that she wouldn’t wish this suffering on anyone.

Although Silent Histories focuses on Osaka, the exhibit has particular relevance in Hiroshima, where large numbers of mobilized children working in the city were killed, lost family, or were left with mental and physical scars by the atomic bombing.

Obara also spoke about his work prior Silent Histories. He was the first photojournalist to photograph inside the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant after the 2011 earthquake and tsunami. Although publishing his work, which also included portraits of and interviews with power plant cleanup workers and photos of the surrounding affected area, proved difficult in Japan, the material was published as Reset Beyond Fukushima with the Swiss Lars Müller Publishers. Obara mentioned that he was interested in the theme of whether a child feels free to say they’re related to a power plant worker, but he stopped the project after realizing the family portraits he wanted to shoot would out workers’ children.

For the past few years, Obara has been working on a project about the Chernobyl nuclear power plant and those affected by the disaster there; he is also interested in how Chernobyl is portrayed in popular media. His series Exposure, which focuses on the story of Mariya, a young woman who was exposed to radiation from Chernobyl while in the womb and who suffered health problems ever since, won first prize in the 2016 World Press Photo contest.


Fukushima Residents Pinning Hopes On NHK

Submitted to ANT-Hiroshima by Elizabeth Baldwin
It’s wise to be cautious mentioning radiation if you are a visitor to Fukushima Prefecture. Questions asked feel like salt on a wound, smothering the stalwart, brave energy of recovery. Since radiological dangers are mysterious and impossible to calculate, why depress people needlessly? No one needs to tell me that people need cheerful encouragement to deal with job loss, smashed houses, and economic depression.
A year of upheaval and displacement has left deep scars. For all except, perhaps, the young, starting out somewhere new is wrenching. Evacuees can’t impose on relatives forever. People crammed into settlements of temporary prefabs have lost their beloved surroundings, their dignity, even their past. Their strength is waning. Any disability or emotional problem they had before the disaster is likely to be worse a year on. When old people in the evacuation settlements are asked what they want, some say, “To die.”
So, those whose homes lies in an area that is contaminated but outside the evacuation zone are likely trying to get back to them now. Coastal Fukushima is largely farmland that has been in the same family for generations. Rich soil, verdant hills, invigorating salt air. It’s impossible to overstate the pull of the land, the pull of the ancestors who developed it.
Do I need to mention that never giving up is part of the Japanese DNA?
“If you’re not going to give us a place to live and a job, then don’t tell us how to deal with the radiation.”
That message has resounded for a year.
Japan has shut down its reactors, for now. Everyone waits with bated breath for summer. What will people decide about nuclear power when sweltering July and August hit the country, especially energy-short Kansai?
Here we encounter the enormous influence on public opinion exerted by NHK—Japan’s omnipresent, intelligent and persuasive public broadcaster.
Since the radiological disaster, war has raged within NHK between the young datsu genpatsu (no nukes) faction and the managers who opt for staying the course.
Radiation-induced disease may not spike during the coming year, when Japan will decide whether to restart the reactors. Because everything about radiation is mysterious—who is contaminated, when, where, by what and what it means—the public’s decisions about “nuclear” will be influenced by whether the media portrays alternative energies as realistic, the way it reports contamination issues, and the messages it embeds in poignant stories about the affected people.
Here are sketches of two programs that followed people in Minami-Soma over the year following the disaster.
Story 1
A five-generation dairy farmer refuses to abandon his land or put down his cows. Sending his children to live in a safer town, he spends a year caring for the cows, milking them, and pouring the milk into the ditch. He continually measures radiation levels in the fields, the barn, the harvested hay: too high. Before replanting, he tries turning over the topsoil in the fields to sink the radiation to a deeper level.
Cut to a scene in the barn this spring. Ruddy-faced farmer and spitting-image son watch the birth of a calf by lantern light. Moved by the power of life, the articulate and engaging son vows to return and become the next generation to work the land. Father informs son that the latest readings of the milk showed that Cesium-137 has fallen to permissible levels.
Story 2 
The earthquake and tsunami saddle a geriatric hospital with more patients than it can handle. Because of continuing bad news from the Daiichi Plant, the hospital can’t hire any more people. The overworked staff are near collapse.
Then, the exodus. Nurses with young children move away. The staff who remain—with or without children—understand why the others left, yet feel abandoned. A year later, NHK interviews a nurse who moved away. Still grappling with her decision to choose family over colleagues and patients, she weeps in front of the camera. She has lost her community; she can’t even call her former coworkers to encourage them. Back at the hospital, the beleaguered staff shed tears of weariness, loss, and fear.
Millions of viewers watch and cry for everyone involved.
Cut to the present: now that radiation levels are lower in Minami-Soma, the hospital hires new staff. One of the young women, who are disaster victims themselves, says she wants to contribute to rebirth of the stricken area. “This job will help me grow.”
At face value, these stories seem to promise that love, bravery, and commitment will triumph over radiation. But a warm glow does not erase all fear. And given a continuing NHK blitz of upbeat programs about practical, safe energy, viewers will be constantly reminded that stories of “defeating” radiation wouldn’t have been necessary if the tsunami had hit a windmill.
Elizabeth Baldwin, a peace activist from the United States who lives in Hiroshima.

Cherry Blossom Brings Hope To Fukushima

Senior advisor at the United Nations Institute for Training and Research in Hiroshima, Nassrine Azimi travelled to Fukushima as part of a Hiroshima-based fact-finding group to assess the current situation.In an article published in the New York Times Cherry Blossoms in Fukushima – Nassrine reports that even an unprecedented disaster such as the one that struck the Tohoku region in March 2011cannot entirely sap the people’s resolve.

“People are getting back on their feet, and most of the larger Tohoku area is slowly coming to life. For all the messy political gridlock in Tokyo, reconstruction funds are flowing in, even creating something of a local economic bubble.”

While in the area, the group met several Hiroshima City government employees who had been dispatched to Fukushima as part of the Japanese civil service rotation system. Hiroshima city has sent architects, water and sewage specialists, civil engineers and planners on year-long rotation to the region.
The fact-finding group also visited Iwaki City, 50 kilometers south of the plant, and heard young mothers explain how they were measuring radiation levels in school lunches every day. (See Elizabeth Baldwin’s blog post: No Easy Path for Fukushima )
Fukusima is famous for its ancient cherry trees. The cherry trees were in blossom while Nassrine was in the area and the group some of them have been there for 1000 years. Nassrine reports that the people she met told her that,

as long as our trees, our waters, our air and our mountains are alive, we too shall be fine.

Nassrine Azimi’s article can be read here: Cherry Blosssom in Fukushima


No Easy Path For Fukushima Parents

Submitted to ANT-Hiroshima by Elizabeth Baldwin
After the Daiichi No.1 Plant disaster, 140,000 people left Fukushima’s coastal communities or, in some cases, the whole region.
Many parents who stayed put hunkered down to educate themselves about radiation. Protect the Children associations formed around the region. Members shared information on contamination levels in food; they mapped the hot spots; their websites tackled questions about how to live in an irradiated environment:
  • Should you hang the laundry in the house? 
  • Where to temporarily pile the contaminated dirt that you dug out of your yard? 
  • What to do after your neighbor spray-washes his house and the irradiated roof dirt slides into your ditch?
A year down the road, these groups are small pockets of new radiation experts who continue to educate each other. Some of the most concerned parents eventually moved away, worn out by non-stop diligence and criticism from parents with different priorities. Many dropped out because even constant vigilance cannot control what goes into their child’s mouth.
I understand that decision viscerally. When I ate fish in Fukushima, I found myself saying a prayer. Still, I can’t imagine the struggles of parents who finally decide that the best thing for their family was to stop thinking about radiation altogether.
The parents who believe that tracking an unprecedented radiological disaster requires continued effort from the stakeholders had no choice but to keep Protect the Children alive. The government has shown that, when it comes to bad news, it is consistently secretive and slow to respond.
One member of a Protect the Children group about 40 kilometers south of the Daiichi Plant holds up a jar of taranomi (edible tree buds) that she harvested from a mountain near her house in order to test radiation levels. In her village, few families have children. Neighbors who supplement fixed incomes by harvesting wild plants from the mountain asked her not to test the taranomi.
“If you detect any radiation—however small—we’ll have a harder time selling what we pick on the mountain.”
Such conflicts are not unusual, she told me cheerfully. I asked if she had considered moving away.
“Oh no! We have a four-generation household. Grandma and great-grandma can’t go anywhere, and we’ll never leave them.”
So much for the notion that conflict over radiation monitoring is a simple pitting of young against old.
One Protect the Children leader who spends hours each week testing radiation levels in preschool lunches is a mother of five. In April, her high-school son’s school put on a food fair to revive trust in local foods. This teen must thread his own path between the known worrywart who is his mother and the need to be “one of the guys” at school. That day, when he came home after the fair, he made sure to tell her, “I ate every food they had.”
If KD is wondering how it came to pass that protecting growing children somehow makes her “anti-community,” she nonetheless seems comfortable in the role of lonely guardian of the future. Her only response to her son after the food fair was a quiet “Congratulations.”
Elizabeth Baldwin is a peace activist from the United States who lives in Hiroshima.

Voices From Fukushima 3: I desperately want my children to live where they can run freely.

After the earthquake, everything was in a shambles, but we expected things to come back to normal after the power came on and the water started running. But about ten days later the children’s school told us to keep them inside due to radioactivity. If they had to go out, we should dress them in mask, gloves, coat and cap; we should wash their hands frequently. But we had no water from the pipes to wash with.
I thought: Let’s get out! But the trains weren’t running and the
highways were closed off by earthquake damage. Gasoline supplies ran
out quickly. I told my husband I wanted to get the children out of
Fukushima. He said, “And leave me behind?” He has a good job with
the city.
His parents, who share our house, keep a vegetable garden. After the
accident, when they tried to feed the children vegetables, I stopped
them. They were hurt and angry that I rejected the food they lovingly
When my husband brought home a Geiger counter, we found that the needle
stayed in the danger zone. We bought a pressure washer and washed off
the roof, veranda, entrance, etc. My mother-in-law watched us, angry.
Why did we have to upset everyone with all this fear?
After my son had a nosebleed in April, I went to Nagasaki to have both
children measured by a whole body counter. When the doctor told me
that both children measured under 60 becquerels and suggested that we
“go on home”, I felt safe and ready to return. But other doctors
I consulted with said, “Once it’s in their bodies, it doesn’t
leave,” and warned against accumulating exposure. What to do? I
sent my husband articles on radiation. No answer. Finally, he came to
understand my fears for the children and said he could live without
us till the year end.
I desperately want my children to live where they can run freely. Play
outside till the sun turns them into berries! Fall in the dirt and
skin their knees without our having a fit about it. If I take them
back home, they’ll have to wear masks outside, we’ll have to buy
food that comes from other places, live on bottled water.
But then, the other day, my husband sent letters from their teachers. The
teachers talked about how their friends missed them. I wondered: what
am I doing separating them from their friends? Back there, they’re
all holding up so bravely—am I thinking about the community, or do
I only care about us? The more I wrack my brain, the more confused I
What should I do?
Mrs K.

Partner Link

Green Legacy Hiroshima