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US Museum, Japanese filmmaker tell stories of children who survived Hiroshima bombings

WASHINGTON -- I recently visited an exhibit of artifacts and art related to the atomic bombings of Japan at the American University Museum on the university's campus in Washington.

     It has been 70 years since the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The exhibit, which opened June 13 and ran through Aug. 16, was aimed at preserving the memory of the tragedy. It was jointly sponsored by the city governments of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and the private university.

     Among the items displayed were a charred pocket watch, a melted cross, tattered clothes and deformed glass bottles, all of which demonstrated the tremendous damage the bombings inflicted. The works by the late Iri and Toshio Maruki, married Japanese painters, included "Ghosts" and "Fire," which depicted the tragedy of bombings. They were deeply moving.

     One part of the exhibit differed in tone from the rest: One wall of the exhibition room was covered in colorful drawings made by children age 7 to 12. They were scenes from a child's world -- a school outing, an athletic competition, a boy hoisting carp banners for Boy's Day, a girl in a kimono. The works were by students attending an elementary school in Hiroshima at the time.

Nothing to celebrate

In 1946, the year after World War II ended, a group U.S. military personnel held an event to celebrate their successful nuclear bomb tests on Bikini Atoll in the Marshall Islands, complete with a cake shaped like a mushroom cloud. Powell Davies, a minister at All Souls Church Unitarian in Washington, was indignant when word of the event spread and he lodged a strong protest with the U.S. government. He wondered how people in Hiroshima or Nagasaki would have felt if they had seen what those conducting the test were celebrating.

Shizumi Shigeto Manale, who produced a documentary on the Hiroshima schoolchildren's artwork, is pictured at her home in Maryland.

     There were those who sympathized with Davies' reaction, even in the military. Howard Bell, an official at the General Headquarters of the Supreme Commander for the Allied Powers in Tokyo, suggested sending aid to people in areas hit by the A-bombs. The U.S. church solicited donations from members and sent school supplies and other aid to elementary schools and nursing homes in Hiroshima. Some of the gifts arrived at Honkawa Elementary School in Hiroshima in 1947.

Pictures of gratitude

Children at the school, saved from the bombing because they had been evacuated from the city, made pictures and calligraphy using the crayons and paper donated by the church. The children then sent their works to their benfactors.

     The church discovered 48 pieces made by the young artists decades later. They were briefly brought back to Hiroshima, where they were exhibited at Honkawa Elementary in 2010.

     A documentary about the drawings led to an exchange of gifts between the two groups. The producer of the film, "Pictures from a Hiroshima Schoolyard," is Shizumi Shigeto Manale, a Japanese dancer who lives in Silver Spring, Maryland.

     Shigeto came upon the drawings of the Honkawa schoolchildren in 2006, when she took representatives of Japan Confederation of A-and H-Bomb Sufferers Organization (Nihon Hidankyo), Japan's national organization of A-bomb survivors, to All Souls Church Unitarian.

     "I had expected to see somber and sorrowful drawings, but I was greatly moved by their works, which were bright and joyful," she said. "So I became interested in learning more about the pictures, which seemed to convey the dreams and hopes of the schoolchildren."

     Driven by a desire to leave the works to posterity, Shigeto had the pictures restored. Then she asked Bryan Reichhardt to direct the film she planned to produce about them. She also published a book, "Running with Cosmos Flowers," in English and a Japanese version, "48-Shoku no Yume no Kureyon."

     For the Honkawa schoolchildren, forced to endure life in the devastated city, the gifts from the U.S. were a symbol of dreams and hope. In the film, some of the now elderly schoolchildren recalled the gifts they received.

     "The built-in eraser on the pencil's top smelled so nice that I was impressed with how marvelous things coming from America were," said the late Keiji Nakazawa said in the film. Nakazawa was the author of "Hadashi no Gen" (Barefoot Gen), a noted Japanese manga series based on his experience of the atomic bombing and its aftermath.

     "American marbles were as beautiful as jewels," said Toshimi Ishida. He and many of his schoolmates still remember the gifts they received from the U.S., though they have forgotten the subjects of their drawings.

     President Harry Truman, who made the decision to use the atomic bomb against Japan, never publicly expressed regret or remorse over that choice. "We have used it against those who attacked us without warning at Pearl Harbor, ... We have used it in order to shorten the agony of war, in order to save the lives of thousands and thousands of young Americans." Many Americans today continue to justify Truman's decision in those terms.

Appeal for peace

The gifts sent to Hiroshima, however, show there was goodwill in the U.S., a desire to help children in difficult circumstances. Many Japanese at the time were encouraged by this generosity to build a new future.

     "Through the film, I would like to stress the importance of rapprochement between Japanese and Americans, and of peace," said Shigeto. These days there are more opportunities to show the film Japan and the U.S. More people are asking about Shigeto's work. U.S. Ambassador to Japan Caroline Kennedy is said to be interested.

     It is not easy to wipe away the resentments Japanese and Americans feel toward each other over the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings and the attack on Pearl Harbor, but remembering the exchange of gifts between the Honkawa schoolchildren and the members of All Souls while the wounds of war were still raw can help put those historical grudges to rest.

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