Captured History is an ongoing series that considers the place of photography in understanding the recent past. I proceed from the inference that photographs can convey a deeper and more transcendent (if less coherent) meaning of historical experience than text alone.
(music for reading)
Around midnight on March 13th, 1945, Tsunehiro Morinaga was awakened by air raid sirens. Fleeing to the shelter dug in his backyard, twelve-year-old Tsunehiro saw the night sky lit like day. Overhead, 274 American B-29 bombers were indiscriminately dropping incendiary bombs onto the mostly wooden wards of ancient Osaka. Nearly seventy years later, Tsunehiro recalled the night in which his city burned: “From afar, (those) bombs seemed to flutter in the air before breaking apart. They looked very beautiful. But those flames torched the city.” Tsunehiro and his mother were able to flee the encroaching fire, but his father remained behind. He, and seven of their neighbors, including a three-year-old child, suffocated to death in the air raid shelter. By the war’s end, 330,000 Japanese shared their fate. Another 430,000 were injured and 9.7 million were left homeless.
Tsunehiro’s story is one of several told in Silent Histories, a collection of photos and essays revealing the hidden lives of child survivors of the American firebombing of Japanese cities in the final years of the Pacific War. Photojournalist Kazuma Obara, best known in the West for his photos of the Fukushima disaster and cleanup, assembled the photobook using personal testimonies, family photographs, aerial photos taken by American reconnaissance and bomber planes and portraits shot by Obara himself. One survivor’s story is shown through a series of watercolors that she had painted later in life, horrifyingly beautiful in its vision of indistinct fleeing masses and cross-like bombers blacking out the red sky.
All of Obara’s subjects are scarred: physically, emotionally, psychologically. They’ve lost limbs, loved ones, independence and the chance at what they call a normal life. When the war ended, and Japanese society raced not only to rebuild its shattered economy and infrastructure but also to forget its “shameful” militaristic past, disabled survivors were either left behind or actively discriminated against. Children who lost limbs were picked on for their “abnormality”, while companies would not hire anyone with wartime disabilities. Orphans shuttled between distant relatives were seen as burdens, and treated no differently from hired help.
The disabled were seen not as the innocent victims of total war but instead as symbols of historical shame. Cities can be rebuilt, craters filled in. Skyscrapers can rise where the barracks once stood. But bodies can never be fully reconciled, their scars never forgotten. Every child missing a limb was a monument to the failure of nationalism, colonialism, militarism, fascism and all the other –isms which destroyed a generation. As successive governments issued official apologies to the U.S. and the nations of East Asia for the many atrocities of the colonial era, survivors were hidden away, the violence written into their bodies never properly dealt with. For all the talk of confession, reparation and reconciliation, there are today many elderly people throughout Japan who no longer feel fully a part of their community.
The state refuses to help those children wounded during the firebombing. According to the ideology of the current Japanese government, “We had no job contracts with citizens. All citizens were obliged to endure suffering during the war.” This indifference, pushing past the boundaries of callousness when considering that children have no responsibility in instigating and supporting a war, has led survivors to have to advocate for themselves, unsuccessfully pleading for similar support as is given to the survivors of the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Meanwhile, the United States has never officially apologized for the targeting of civilians with incendiary bombs (weapons specifically chosen to spread quickly across Japan’s largely wooden civilian housing), and is unlikely to ever provide relief to those they scarred.
Obara’s book is thus both a work of history and of advocacy. It is also a work of art. The original run of 45 copies in Japan was handmade, designed and assembled by the photographer himself. The result is more a collage than photobook. Meaning emerges from layers, as testimonies are displayed alongside family photos, often building from pre-bombing images of childhood to the post-bombing photos of life thereafter. For many of the people featured in the book, the testimony is not necessarily required to understand their lives. Through everyday portraits and snapshots, we see whole lives pass by, so much left unsaid but still inferred.
While Silent Histories is a document of individual suffering, it is also an account of historical pain and healing. Aerial photographs taken by American pilots before, during and after the bombing runs are displayed alongside grade school graduations and family portraits, the macro and micro of war brought together. In one photo, taken from an American military archive, an aerial shot of Osaka has been written over in black marker, borderlines drawn around significant wards and specific neighbors labeled with capital letters, their true meaning only available to the long-ago generals and pilots eagerly seeking to end the war. In another, a city, its symmetrical streets carving up the land, is largely obscured by a B-29 and a massive plume of smoke.
Meaning is also conveyed through juxtaposition. Black and white images of flattened cityscapes, straight white streets with no buildings in between but the occasional circular crater, are followed by contemporary photographs, revealing the irregular concrete mess of skyscrapers and apartment blocks that have covered over the wounded land like a scab. With the turn of a page, seventy years of history are collapsed; the past and present become one.
History scars us. It writes on our bodies the suffering of those who came before. Obara writes in his epilogue, “Something terrible occurs the moment we forget the pain, the moment we are unable to feel it as our own.” Empathy, the willingness to bear some of that pain, the pain of people and of peoples, is the only thing that can give us any hope for the future. The past cannot be forgotten; its scars cannot be denied. What Tsunehiro Morinaga and all of those brave enough to share their pain do is, for humanity, far more valuable than any official apology or memorial ceremony.
Kazuma Obara’s Silent Histories was originally published in Japan as a limited run in 2014. An English version was published by Editorial RM in 2015. For more info, check out Obara’s website here. I do not have any specific books to recommend about the firebombing of Japanese cities during World War II at the present; however, if you wish to understand the experience, I recommend the anime film Grave of the Fireflies (1988). I have only seen it once, as a teenager, but it has never left my mind.
The header image is the cover of issue no. 29 of Weekly Photography Magazine (1938), a reproduction of which is included in Silent Histories. The photograph of the B-29 over Osaka is in the public domain and is also included in the book.