Preserving the Horrors of Hiroshima

The race to record the accounts of survivors while they're still here to tell their stories

Wikimedia Commons

Shoso Hirai fishes out an old sepia-toned photograph from his bag. He holds it firmly with both hands before placing it gently on the table in front of him. He takes his wrinkled index finger and points to a figure in the photograph.

"That is my father on the right," said 83-year-old Hirai. His finger shifts. "That is my mother. The one without the glasses is my younger brother. And that is me."

The photograph was taken at a studio in 1943, after Hirai came back home from his student residence.

Two years later, his brother and father perished when the U.S. dropped an atomic bomb on Hiroshima on August 6, 1945. Hirai's mother survived and later died of old age.

"This is the only memory of my brother I have," Hirai said. "To this day my younger brother's dead body hasn't been found."

Shoso Hirai with his photograph of his family (Sudeshna Chowdhury)

Hirai is an old man. In another ten or 20 years, he may not be alive to share his story with others. But his memories will be preserved for posterity, thanks to a project known as Voices of the Survivors from Hiroshima and Nagasaki, one of a number of websites dedicated to preserving first-hand accounts of the atomic bomb in digital form.

The websites, which include photos, videos, and interactive graphics, have been spurred by the aging of eyewitnesses of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki attacks, and the fear that their deaths -- the youngest are now in their 70s -- will silence their stories forever.

The ventures range from initiatives of daily newspapers, such as The Chugoku Shimbun and The Asahi Shimbun, and those produced by individual artists, archivists, and programmers.

The work isn't always easy. Numerous impediments, including technical and financial challenges, abound for those who are leading such ventures.

Akira Tashiro, executive director of the Hiroshima Peace Media Center, an affiliate of  Hiroshima's daily,The Chugoku Shimbum, acknowledges that it would have been nearly impossible to sustain the website without the backing of a major newspaper. "So far, we haven't made any money from the website," said Tashiro who launched the website in 2008. "Nor have we received any donations."

Similarly, the "Memories of Hiroshima and Nagasaki" project, a site launched by the major national paper, The Asahi Shimbum, recruited its translators and proofreaders via an announcement in the paper, to which more than 400 people responded. For the independent proprietors who have started projects on their own, without the backing of a larger institution, many have simply funded the projects out of their own pockets, fueled only by their own commitments to preserving these stories.

"We have all seen the photos of the destruction, but very little is known about what happened to the people," artist Darrell Miho said. "So I set out to document their stories, focusing on what they remember and how it affected their lives."

His Project Hibakusha ("hibakusha" refers to someone who survived either of the two atomic bombs), began in 2008 and became more personal, he said, after he discovered the names of his relatives among the dead during one of his visits to Hiroshima. He plans to keep adding to the project for the rest of his life.

Shinpei Takeda's digital work draws from his documentary, "Hiroshima Nagasaki Download," about two college friends who embark on a road trip to meet A-bomb survivors in America. The work, a collaborative venture between Takeda and the United Nations Office for Disarmament Affairs, was a seven year long project involving interviews from 54 survivors ranging across seven countries. Completed in 2012, it is available in 11 languages. 

Takeda took the oral interviews collected during the filming and combined them with digital mapping to make them navigable outside of the film.

Takeda went digital with his work because "your narration is important part of world history."

Hirai's memories, too, are now a part of history.

Born in 1929, Hirai says his recollections of the day when the bomb was dropped are vivid and clear. It was a Monday, and he happened to be at his friend's house, which was 2.45 miles from the hypocenter.

Exactly at 8:15 a.m. when the atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima, Hirai was standing at the entrance of his friend's house and as soon as he touched the door he heard what he remembers as a "great sound." He said he had no idea what had happened then.

"Many people rushing out of their houses were screaming, 'What had happened?' Someone cried, 'fire, fire...telephone pole on fire,' " said Hirai in a voice slightly high-pitched while his hands moved animatedly as he spoke.

Later that day he and his mother reached his father's office only to find his "skull on the hot debris, and some bones.''

Hirai collected some of his bones and returned with his mother.

"We went back to my house,'' he said, "crying all the way.''

A close-up view of Hirai's photograph (Sudeshna Chowdhury)

Here's Hirai, in his own voice, preserved in digits: