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Images Tell the Stories of Atrocity and Humanity

Recalling the horrors of Hiroshima and Nagasaki on the 75th anniversary.

 Reprinted with permission of the Japanese Broadcasting Corporation [NHK], which has made this collection available to the public.
From the collection of "Unforgettable Fire." Artwork by a survivor of the bombing.
Source: Reprinted with permission of the Japanese Broadcasting Corporation [NHK], which has made this collection available to the public.

More than seven decades have passed since the dropping of the bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki; today marks the 75th anniversary of the events that changed the history of modern war. The annual peace ceremony held in remembrance of the bombings of the two cities has been scaled back this year because of the coronavirus. Survivors who can still tell the story of these events is quickly dwindling—their average age is about 83. Meanwhile many nations have bolstered or maintained their nuclear arsenals, and their own government refuses to sign a nuclear weapons ban treaty.

“A-Bomb” survivors’ drawings and paintings continue to teach us about atrocity, empathy, and ultimately, humanity. Like many people of my generation, I read about the bombings as part of a history or political science class covering WWII. It wasn’t until the first year I worked as an art therapist when I traveled to see an exhibit of drawings and paintings by survivors of Hiroshima and Nagasaki that I finally began to grasp the impact of these events. Those drawings and paintings forever changed what I thought I knew about trauma and war.

A collection of images emerged due to a single individual’s coming forward to recall the horror of the bombing many years after the actual event took place. In 1974, 77-year-old Mr. Iwakichi Kobayashi walked into a television station in Japan with a painting of what he recalled about August 6th, 1945. The image was his memory of seeing people burned by the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima that day. As a result, the television station decided to put out a call for drawings by survivors of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings to “draw a picture of the A-Bomb.”

What followed was totally unexpected. More than 2000 drawings and paintings were submitted to the station. Half were sent by mail; the remainder of the images were brought to the station by the survivors, who arrived over the next two years as if on long-awaited pilgrimages. The drawings and paintings were created on the backs of calendars, paper used in sliding doors, and sheets torn from notebooks. The majority of the images included written explanations, often on the pictures themselves.

This collection of now-famous drawings and paintings by “Hibakusha” (A-Bomb survivors) is now housed in the Peace Memorial Museum and pieces from the collection form a traveling exhibition from time to time. They also are the subject of a book, Unforgettable Fire: Pictures Drawn by Atomic Bomb Survivors, an account of what happened and a catalogue of images of the mushroom cloud and aftermath of fire, black rain, and radiation.

While the images made by survivors of Hiroshima and Nagasaki each capture a different moment in time, they also mirror the individual and collective “felt” memories of manmade disaster. It is a stunning example of how implicit memory—also known as sensory memory—is still present in trauma survivors even decades after direct exposure to war, terrorism, or disaster. It only took Mr. Kobayashi’s single painting and a request to those who were until then silent to provide the catalyst for a torrent of visual memories and nightmarish narratives to emerge. Those stories remained untold for close to 30 years, materializing as vividly as if the events depicted happened only moments ago.

Viewing these images makes it impossible to disconnect ourselves from the pain, torment, and misery long after the events and the artists have died. We still do not completely understand why we humans are compelled to make images and tell stories in response to horror and atrocity. But we do have living evidence of this in the art expressions by the Hibakusha—when trauma happens, people express what the mind and body never really forget.

The book Unforgettable Fire is now available to be viewed online and can be downloaded for free to raise awareness of the human side of the tragedies and the ongoing need for nuclear disarmament. You can download your own copy at this link.


Japanese Broadcasting System (NHK). (1977). Unforgettable fire. Tokyo and New York: Japanese Broadcasting System and Pantheon Books.