The Power of the Hiroshima Panels

Cleo Macmillan

4 Feb 2019

The 2011 disasters in Japan, the earthquake, the tsunami and the explosions at the Fukushima nuclear plants, stirred my memories of past nuclear ‘events’ and revived my fears, and my recollections of the many ways we at Arena and thousands of others around the world have worked towards the abolition of nuclear weapons and to oppose uranium mining for the generation of nuclear power. One can try to imagine how much more intense the reactions of the Japanese people must have been. Think of those in the affected areas, those in areas near nuclear plants, and especially those still living who, in August 1945, lived through the ‘hell’ of the A-bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki and suffered subsequent social isolation. Nor should we forget their families and the younger generations who have learnt about this terrible history.

In my mind I kept seeing images of the Hiroshima Panels. In 1958 I saw an exhibition of eight of the panels in Melbourne and have never forgotten them. Surrounded by what, in my memory, seemed like life-size images of dead, injured and dying naked adults and children, I felt a sense of dread that this could be inflicted upon people, overlaid by knowing, as we did by then, about the long-term effects of nuclear radiation on human bodies. At the same time I felt a sense of wonder that the two artists could spend years creating work of such fearful beauty.

Last year I asked a few friends if they had heard of these works of art but they hadn’t. They were familiar with Picasso’s Guernica, and Goya’s series, Disasters of War, often bracketed together. The Hiroshima Panels are as compelling as these other great works and on seeing them many Westerners regarded them as equally significant. I began to ask myself why they were not as famous as the others in the English-speaking Western world.

Created by Iri Maruki and Toshiko Akamatsu (later Toshi Maruki) who, immediately on hearing of the bombing, went to Hiroshima to offer help, the eight panels, measuring 1.8 x 7.2 metres and each consisting of eight sections, were exhibited internationally. In Australia they were shown from March to July 1958. The Melbourne exhibition took up the entire space of a single relatively small gallery in the old NGV at what is now the State Library. In ‘Japanese Artists and the Atomic Bomb’, John Dower notes that, ‘By the end of the 1970s the paintings had been shown in roughly thirty countries on both sides of the cold war’.

The eight panels that were exhibited in Melbourne 1958 were accompanied in the catalogue by the following text:

  1. Ghosts

The people rushed about … they held their hands high like ghosts. They fell in despair, wailing bitterly, and one after another sank down.

  1. Fire

An enormous flash of light, an explosion, a sudden pressure, a great hot blast … then the fire burnt out.

  1. Water

They wandered about looking for water to drink before dying. Unable to endure their suffering, the wounded entered the water and were sucked into the depths.

  1. Rainbow

Their mouths were parched with thirst and they cried out. Then for a moment an ominous silence fell. Clouds quickly covered the sky and a heavy rain came down. Unexpectedly a beautiful rainbow stretched across the sky.

  1. Boys and girls

Countless boys and girls lay dead on the edge of the river. They had been sent to get water to fill up the reservoir in the centre of the city. After the explosion, burnt and wounded, they struggled back to the city.

  1. Field, destroyed by an atom bomb

In September, after the bomb, Hiroshima was devastated by a typhoon, and the bodies were washed into the sea. The autumn came. The wind blew over the devastated field.

  1. Wind

Everything was destroyed, burnt and in heaps. The people could find no shelter. Nobody came to help them. Only the wind rustled in the bamboo stems.

  1. Rescue

A few people who had escaped from the city came to the half-ruined house of Maruki’s father, and died there, one after the other. The wounded and starved helped one another through the wasteland.


A blue-white flash. The explosion, the pressure, the firestorm—never in the world had humankind experienced such a blast. Flames burst out in the next instant and leapt skyward. Breaking the hushed stillness over the boundless debris, the fire roared.
Some lay unconscious, pinned by fallen beams. Others, regaining their senses, tried to free themselves, only to be enveloped by the crimson blaze.
Glass shards pierced bellies, arms were twisted, legs buckled, people fell and
were burned alive.
Hugging her child, a woman fought to free herself from beneath a fallen post.
‘Hurry! Hurry!’ someone shouted.
‘It’s too late.’
‘Then hand us the child.’
‘No, you run. I will die with my child. She would only be left to wander the streets.’
The woman pushed away the helping hands and was consumed by flames.

Iri and Toshi Maruki, translated by John Junkerman

These were abbreviated versions of the final explanatory statements that the artists had begun to present alongside the panels.

The artists’ work combined Japanese and Western artistic traditions: the former in the use of rice paper and traditional brush painting in ink and in the panels, akin to Byōbu—folding screens made from several joined panels bearing decorative painting and calligraphy; and the latter, the realistic depiction of human beings. This combination built on their foundation studies and individual practice, Iri’s of the traditional sumi ink medium and Nihonga style, Toshi’s of Western oil painting, with a focus on the human figure.

Iri reached Hiroshima three days after the bombing to an ‘unbelievable scene peopled by the dead’; Toshi, two days later. They spent weeks caring for the injured and cremating the dead. Three years after the bombing they began sketching. ‘Be it late or not, we decided that we must portray the disaster in Hiroshima and help in the effort to ban nuclear weapons.’ With the help of friends and relatives who acted as models, they drew hundreds of sketches before beginning the paintings. Working in a very small studio where they couldn’t assemble all of the sections of a panel together, they had to guess at the final effect. Although rice paper and ink are cheap, from time to time they had to do other work to pay for supplies. They couldn’t afford the gold paint they had hoped to use on the panel called Fire, using vermilion and black only.

While also continuing their separate, individual painting, the Marukis worked for years, with some extended breaks, on the panels and later collaborative murals. The first one was completed in 1950; the initial eight that were exhibited internationally, representing the days immediately after the bombing, were completed by 1954, and finally six more were completed by 1972. One called Nagasaki was completed in 1982 and a summary painting, Hell, painted in 1985. In 1967 the Maruki Gallery for the Hiroshima Panels, next to the artists’ home and studio, opened in Saitama Prefecture (an hour by train from Tokyo) and was expanded in 1983. It is now run by a non-profit foundation.

It was not only the media, the presentation in panels and the ‘painterly idioms of traditional Japanese art’, but also other cultural references that imbued these works with a depth of meaning for the artists and for Japanese viewers. For example, as John Dower notes, ‘Ghosts’, the first panel to be completed—like ‘ghosts from the traditional Sarayashiki ghost-play’ (1958 catalogue)—and a later panel, ‘Floating Lanterns’, completed in 1969, ‘links the August bombings with the traditional August festival of Bon, when the souls of the dead are said to return to earth’.

From the beginning the Marukis saw their work as bearing witness to the impact of the A-bomb and a contribution to a movement to ban nuclear weapons. This was an immensely political issue yet, unlike some agit-prop style art, their work transcended politics. In his forward to the Australian catalogue Vance Palmer wrote:

These eight Hiroshima Panels have come out of a deep emotion that has been restrained and shaped by the discipline of art. And so they do not merely affect the nerves but awaken basic feelings—pity, love, compassion, and a sense of the oneness of human beings in the face of suffering. Finally they compel those who see them to vow that such diabolic visitations shall not occur again.

Why haven’t the panels received greater acknowledgement in the West? Being the work of a couple do they not fit with the Western model of the single genius who produces ‘original’ work? Was it because the artists were previously unknown beyond Japan? Does the fact that Toshi was also a well-known illustrator of children’s books devalue her work in the eyes of those who regard it as ‘not high art’? Has there been an unfavourable reaction from art critics? Dower reports that,

The first eight murals were brought on a tour of eight cities in the United States in 1970–71, and met an extremely mixed critical reception. One critic denounced them as ‘perfectly dreadful’ and ‘a degradation of all that Hiroshima should demand of us’ while another ascribed to them an aesthetic brilliance ‘as vivid as Goya’s scenes of war and perhaps even more emotionally charged than Picasso’s “Guernica”’.

All these issues may well have contributed to their neglect but it is likely that the highly politically charged issue of nuclear weapons, in the context of the Cold War, and people’s inability to respond adequately to the deeper meaning of the ‘bomb’, are more significant.

Is it because of guilt, as the United States had dropped these bombs? In the immediate post-war period the US occupation administration in Japan certainly tried to conceal the uniqueness of the weapons, to normalise them. For the seven years of occupation public information about the bombing was prohibited; photographs and other images were ordered destroyed. Later, ruling groups in Japan were still trying to suppress ‘atomic bomb art’. In 1981 the Ministry of Education would not provide certification of a school textbook with one of the Maruki panels. From time to time someone will try to downplay the singularity of the A-bomb, saying that the fire-bombing of Japanese cities killed more people than the nuclear attacks on Japan.

It seems as though the artists themselves were unwittingly drawn into the process of ‘normalising’ (as though one can speak of any atrocity as normal!) by painting other examples of twentieth-century horror. On their first visit to the United States in 1970, a professor assisting with the exhibition of their first eight panels asked how Japanese people would react if a Chinese artist’s portrayal of the rape of Nanking were exhibited in Japan. Until that challenge in the United States, the Marukis had never heard of the 1937 Japanese massacres in Nanking. In an interview with John Junkerman, they said:

No Japanese was painting this subject … We waited some years to see if a Chinese artist would paint it, but it didn’t happen. So we decided we would have to paint Nanking ourselves, since it was our brothers and fellow Japanese who committed that atrocity.

This painting was completed in 1975 and was the beginning of a period in which their work moved beyond concentrating on the Japanese as victims. In John Dower’s words, ‘when they visited the United States …they began to see that the bombs were but one manifestation of a forbidding world’. Among other works, they commemorated the horror of the Auschwitz ‘final solution’—their largest mural, 3.4 x 16 metres, completed in 1977—and, Minimata, the industrial disaster involving mercury poisoning of sea water, the result of a discharge from a fertilizer factory, that killed and crippled thousands of people from the village of Minimata on the island of Kyushu.


There were mountains of corpses, piled with heads at the centre of the mound. They were stacked so that their eyes, mouths and noses could be seen as little as possible.
In one mound a man’s eyeball moved and stared. Was he still alive? Or had a maggot moved his dead eye?
Water! Water! People wandered about searching for water. Fleeing the flames, crying for water to wet their dying lips. An injured mother with her child fled to the riverside. She slipped into deep water, then scrambled along the shallows. Running as the raging fire engulfed the river, stopping now and then to wet her face, she ran on until finally she came to this spot. She offered the child a breast, only to find it had breathed its last.
The twentieth-century image of Madonna and child: an injured mother cradling her dead infant—is this not an image of despair? Mother and child should be a symbol of hope.

Iri and Toshi Maruki, translated by John Junkerman

Barbara Marcoń writes in Third Text of the prohibition of publication of any reports about or photographic images of the impact of the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki as part of the Occupation’s focus on the future, meaning that it wasn’t widely discussed and did not immediately become a ‘collective trauma’, as distinct from an individual trauma, in Japanese society. As he noted, ‘Denial of participation in the trauma and exclusion from solidarity leaves suffering victims to themselves’. This happened to a shocking extent. Victims were shunned within their own society and, in the early aftermath, when US doctors came to study the effects of nuclear radiation on people, they did not offer any medical treatment or advice. In his paper ‘Beyond the Imagination’, given at an Arena-sponsored conference on nuclear war towards the end of 1981 and later published in Arena no. 60, John Hinkson spoke of the shunning of victims as the creation of a new social category, the hibakusha, ‘those who have seen hell’, ‘which serves to normalise the rest of the social structure by the exclusion of those who, by virtue of their experience and continuing existence, contradict normalisation’.

There can be no doubt, however, that even within the occupation period the Hiroshima Panels contributed to the growth of public awareness in Japan. Ghosts was shown at the Tokyo Metropolitan Museum in February 1950. ‘Fearing action by the US Occupation authorities, people at first came to see it singly or in small groups. No one wrote about the picture, or scarcely spoke of it. But each day the attendance grew’ (1958 catalogue).

Both within Japan and beyond, the public reception of the panels was inevitably affected by the politics of the Cold War period. Many exhibitions were sponsored by the peace movement, which was regarded as a communist front.[1] People and art critics who otherwise might have responded to the Panels positively were quite likely to have been discouraged by this association and this reaction still persists. In a brief review posted in early 2012, Alan Gleason, a translator, editor and writer who has lived in Tokyo for 24 years wrote:

I think I avoided visiting the Maruki Gallery for so long not because of any aversion to seeing such violent imagery, but out of a fear that I would find their work overly didactic and short on artistic value, as political art often can be. But the Marukis’ work is neither of those things. What makes the Panels (and their other murals) so successful and compelling is the integrity of the Marukis as artists who used the full range of their talent and experience to convey the horrors they saw.

Do these images convey anything of the uniqueness of the atomic bomb? Certainly the portrayal of great numbers of naked dead and disfigured people, their clothes stripped off by the strength of the explosion, their skin and features burnt and damaged by the combination of the blast and intense heat, seems particular to nuclear bombing. But think also of the fire-bombing of Tokyo in which Ham reports proto-napalm being used.

These images cannot capture what is singular about nuclear, as distinct from conventional, weapons of mass destruction: the immense power of nuclear weapons and the impact that is not immediately visible, that is, their subsequent and long-term effects on human bodies—‘radiation sickness’ and cancer—and on the built and natural environment —the long-term persistence in the environment of radioactivity. And, above all, in the event of a widespread nuclear war, the creation of a ‘nuclear winter’, meaning the end of life on earth. No images without some written or spoken interpretation can convey these consequences although, once understood, images—such as the ‘mushroom cloud’ or the radiation symbol—can symbolise quite complex meanings.

In this respect some of the most telling images of the nuclear devastation are photographs of what remained of people near the centre of the blast, people who were instantly vaporised—shadows, silhouettes where once there were living beings, what Marcoń calls ‘a kind of photograph within a photograph’. There was one such photograph in the Hiroshima Nagasaki exhibition at Gasworks Park in October 2012. And yet, these silhouettes don’t have the immediate effect of ‘awakening basic feelings’ but provoke a questioning, a reflecting on their meaning and then a chilling realisation. It is as though the highly abstract, technical, emotionally cold method of killing people from a distance is parallelled in their representation in these photographs. We need both culturally meaningful images, poetry and all of the arts, and the interpretive words—the combination of art and intellectual interpretation—to move us to break with our inability to act. Images that have the power to move us and remind us of crucial events in the past can become part of the collective memory that binds us. If forgotten, our power to work together in opposing threats to our existence is diminished.

In relation to nuclear threats this present period is just as dangerous as the early 1980s—Gareth Evans talked of nuclear Armageddon in the Melbourne Age in August 2012—and the changes to our life-world, dramatically ushered in by the dropping of the A-bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, have been accelerating since, in all spheres of existence. And yet the social processes of normalisation continue. As John Hinkson argued back in the early 1980s,

[W]e all face quite basic difficulties if we are to respond to the Bomb; our unawareness is structured by everyday commitments or patterns of existence into which we are locked in order to live in the modern world. Not only our ideologies are at work here but the more basic cultural ground out of which ideologies are constructed.

Since reading John Dower and John Junkerman’s book, and seeing the very good reproductions of most of the Marukis’ collaborative works, I feel even more in awe of Iri and Toshi Maruki’s commitment and achievements. But it is the overwhelming experience of actually seeing those first eight panels, in Melbourne in 1958, that stays with me, as it has for over half a century.

Note: With many thanks to Richard Tanter for help with obtaining the images of Fire and Water and John Dower and John Junkerman’s book. 


Dower, John W., ‘Japanese Artists and the Atomic Bomb’ in John W. Dower, Japan in War and Peace: Selected Essays, New York, New Press, 1993.

Dower, John W. and Junkerman John, The Hiroshima Murals: the Art of Iri Maruki and Toshi Maruki, Tokyo and New York, Kodansha International, 1985.

Gleason Alan, Unforgettable Fires: The Hiroshima Panels at the Maruki Gallery at: < 26/1/2012>

Ham, Paul, Hiroshima Nagasaki, Australia, Harper Collins, 2011.

Hinkson, John, ‘Beyond the Imagination’, Arena, no. 60, 1982.

Iri Maruki and Toshiko Akamatsu, The Hiroshima Panels, catalogue for the 1958 Australian tour, designed and produced by Edwards and Shaw, Sydney.

Marcoń, Barbara, ‘Hiroshima and Nagasaki in the Eye of the Camera: Images and Memory, Third Text, no. 113, November 2011.

Maruki, Toshi and Iri, http:/… 21/8/2012.

[1] After the war the Marukis both joined the Communist Party, which was then supporting the US occupation’s policy of demilitarisation and building a democratic society. At that stage the CP wasn’t concerned with nuclear matters and because of that and the prohibition on public discussion and displays about the bombing they worked on the panels in isolation. In 1964 they, and others who refused to acknowledge any difference between the US A-bomb and the socialist A-bomb, were expelled from the party.

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Cleo Macmillan

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