Hiroshima: They told me to paint my story

Eighty-nine-year-old man recalls the terror and the trauma when the atomic bomb fell on Japanese city 70 years ago.

    On August 6,1945, a once-vibrant Japanese city was consumed by the searing heat of the world's first nuclear attack [Al Jazeera]
    On August 6,1945, a once-vibrant Japanese city was consumed by the searing heat of the world's first nuclear attack [Al Jazeera]

    For someone who has spent so much of his life withholding traumatic memories, it is extraordinary how Keigo Miyagawa is now letting them flow forth.

    He talks with a matter-of-fact power of his experiences 70 years ago: A 19-year-old living through the daily torment that was Hiroshima after the atomic bombing.

    More powerful still are his paintings: Images imprisoned in his mind for 50 years until he began to commit them to canvas.

    "Everyone kept it to themselves," he says, sitting in an exhibition space, surrounded by his work.

    "There were rumours that if you got married, your children would be deformed. No eyes, no nose ... disabilities.

    "There were all sorts of rumours back then. My father kept changing where he lived, and the stories my mother told others kept on changing too. I had no idea what to do. But I did not say a word."

    It was his oldest friends who persuaded him to turn painful memories into art.

    "I had five or six very close friends who'd been my classmates. They told me: You can paint, you need to pass it on. They said there weren't many here in Hiroshima who could do that."

     More powerful still are Miyagawa's paintings: images imprisoned in his mind for 50 years until he began to commit them to canvas [Al Jazeera]
    Miyagawa was cycling in the outskirts of town when the bomb exploded. He credits a loose bike chain with saving his life.
    He'd stopped behind a cherry tree to fix it; and the tree screened him from the worst of the blast.
    "It felt like lightning. I saw this strong flash, and it was followed by this sound, and it swept me off my feet. I lost consciousness.
    "When I woke up, I heard footsteps and noises all around me. I had no idea what had happened, but when I looked at myself, I was injured and bleeding. I couldn't comprehend what was happening. I just ran with the crowds."
    He made it back to his destroyed home, and his family.
    For three days they lived in the open, while Hiroshima burned. When the fires died down Miyagawa went into the ruined heart of the city, in search of two missing uncles.
    "The roads were gone, so the only way in was going down the Ota River. Three of us went on a boat. When we reached the city, there was an astonishing number of floating bodies. It made me wonder, what could have happened here?
    "Their heads would bump against the boat. The oar got caught in the bodies that had sunk and I couldn’t move the boat forward."
    Miyagawa saw bodies crammed into street-side water containers. People had used their last, desperate moments to try to cool their burned flesh.
    But it was the image of a single child that for him would come to encapsulate the horror.
     The Hiroshima bombing and its aftermath ultimately claimed about 140,000 lives [Al Jazeera]

    "I don't know why this baby jumped into my eyes first. I don't know if it was a boy or a girl. I didn't get that close.

    "The baby was facing up with its arms extended. ... it wasn't holding on to anything. For me, this baby represented the A-bomb and I remember it vividly.

    "It had no injuries - the body was clean and intact. It seemed that someone had placed it there. Such cruelty."

    Miyagawa found one of his uncles and managed to bring him home. But he died within days. The young man was given the task of burning the body.

    "I was scared, so I asked another kid to come along with me, but he ran away.

    "It is not the same as grilling a piece of fish. I had no idea how to do it. The body would move while you were burning it. After that, I also got ill ... and people took turns to die."

    To paint these memories is to relive them. Each of his latest, monochrome depictions of bodies on the riverbanks was done in just four hours.

    Partly because the images remain so vivid in his memory. Partly because he finds it difficult to spend too long with them.

    "It is agonising to paint the dead. In my workshop, I would paint peonies. They make me feel calmer inside.  I would paint peonies and A-bomb scenes side by side. Something about it makes me feel at peace. The girls who died become peonies, and seeing that relieves me.” 

    One sweeping panorama spans the seasons and the decades. At its left is a winter scene of Miyagawa’s childhood village, just outside the city. In spring, closer to town, a teenage Miyagawa sits with a girlfriend who would die in the bombing. The bombing itself - a stain of fiery red - is all that's visible of summer.

    Then comes autumn, with images of rust-coloured reconstruction.

    At 89, Miyagawa knows his own autumn is coming to its end. His friends, the ones who persuaded him to paint these pictures, have all gone before him.

    "I wish they were around," he says. "I've been able to come this far because of their advice and I am grateful to them. But being alive all by myself now makes me feel lonely ... there's no one to tell me that I've done them proud."

     The twin bombings dealt the final blows to imperial Japan, which surrendered on August 15, 1945, ending World War II [Al Jazeera]

    Political leaders in the rebuilt cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki have campaigned for global nuclear disarmament [Al Jazeera]

     Even today, some atomic-bomb survivors avoid talking openly about their experience for fear of discrimination [Al Jazeera]

    Three days after Hiroshima, the US military dropped a plutonium bomb on the port city of Nagasaki, killing 74,000 people [Al Jazeera]

    SOURCE: Al Jazeera



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