Hiroshima by Yoshito Matsushige, 1945

Above: what Matsushige saw through his window

Today marks the 65th anniversary of the dropping of the Atomic Bomb on Hiroshima. Whether you agree with the decision or not, these were the facts: Hiroshima was an important army and navy base. Of about 350,000 people living there on that fateful day, the majority were women and children, since most adult men were fighting at the front.

On the morning of August 6, 1945, nuclear blast and wind destroyed buildings within 1.5-mile radius of the epicenter. Hiroshima Daily photographer Yoshito Matsushige was barely out of this zone at a little over 1.6-miles from the ground zero. Heading out to the citycentre, Matsushige took the only photographs taken of Hiroshima on that calamitous day. Matsushige himself was not seriously injured by the blast, but the scenes of carnage and dying people prevented him from taking further pictures. (He had 24 possible exposures, in the 10 hours he spent wandering the devastated city, but only seven came out right).

The importance of scenes that Mr. Matsushige documented were not immediately realized in the outside world. Another bomb would follow a few days later, and the war in Far East was finally over. The tone of the Western Press, from the New York Times to LIFE, was almost triumphal. They would not receive the photos from Hiroshima and Nagasaki under months later, and even then, only the heavily censored ones. In addition, the radiation sickness was dismissed as a Japanese effort to undermine American morale, and the stories to that effect were frequently killed. This type of censorship was so prevalent that when MGM had a scene casting doubts on whether an atomic weapon should have been used, the White House called the studio to change the script.

In Japan, the censorship was more draconian. It was not just buildings that were annihilated in Hiroshima, but an entire collective memory too. For many years the sole images of the bombings in Japan were sketches and paintings by survivors. General Douglas MacArthur had declared southern Japan off-limits from the foreign press. Wilfred Burchett — who secretively sneaked on a train — had his camera stolen, photos confiscated and was expelled and banned from Japan. Live footage taken by Akira Iwasaki was seized and taken to the United States, and was not returned until 1968. 

For Matsushige himself, his films were so toxic that he was unable to develop them for twenty days, and even then had to do so at night and in the open, rinsing it in a stream. On July 6 , 1946, the first two photos were published in Yukan Hiroshima (Hiroshima Evening) newspaper, which was an affiliate of the Chugoku Shimbun, but they were quickly confiscated. Under the blanket rule that “nothing shall be printed which might, directly or by inference, disturb public tranquility,” graphic photos from Hiroshima and Nagasaki were not printed until the U.S. occupation ended in Japan in April 1952.

The magazine Asahi Gurafu opened the floodgates by publishing the graphic photos in August 1952. LIFE followed in September 1952, and opened with Matsushige’s photos.


Matsushige’s Photos from 6th August

11 a.m.

Matsushige wanted to go to the city centre but a fire kept him around Miyuki bridge. There he took first two photos showed people who escaped serious injury applying cooking oil to their burns.

“You had to weave through the streets avoiding the bodies. Their skin, burst open, was hanging down in rags. Their faces were burnt black. I put my hand on my camera, but it was such a hellish apparition that I couldn’t press the shutter. I hesitated about twenty minutes before I finally pushed it and took the first picture.”

The photos the makeshift medical treatment center hastily set up in front of a police outpost. People there were students from Hiroshima Girls’ Commercial School and Hiroshima Prefectural Daiichi Junior High School, who were exposed to the fallout while evacuating out of their school buildings. They all suffered flash burns. Female student in a sailor uniform survived until 2018.

Felling nauseated and sick, Matsushige returned home. In the afternoon, he attempted to take more photos.

2 p.m.

Interior of his family’s barbershop. The building escaped the fire, but it was heavily damaged by the blast. Matsushige’s wife was seen in the background.

A view seen from Matsushige’s house

5 p.m.

A policeman, his head bandaged, issued certificates of exposure to civilians

Matsushige was later sued by an army captain, who said he was the policeman in the photo and demanding copyright and payment. The District Court dismissed the captain case as he claimed that the camera used was a Kodak Retina ( 24 x 36 mm format using 35 mm film), which was not was Matsushige was using.

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