Yosuke Yamahata
Photographing the Bomb, A Memo (1952)

Seven years have passed since the end of the war, and I am deeply moved to have the opportunity to present this archive to the public, and to recall the occasion on which I took these photographs.

Many articles have been published, both from the point of view of experts and that of victims, about the military capabilities of the bomb and the tragic damage it inflicted. I don't consider it my place to speak about those issues. Rather, I feel it is my duty to allow viewers to judge with absolute freedom the data so starkly recorded by the camera.

It may be useful in contemplating this archive to know the reason I took these photographs and the thoughts I had in mind as I took them, so I shall describe these facts along with the circumstances of the time as accurately as I remember.

Around August 1, 1945, the Tokaido Railway had been the target of daily attacks from carrier-borne aircraft. In order to travel to the News and Information Bureau of the Western Army Corps, I took the Chuo Railway line as far as Nagoya and then transferred to the Sanyo Railway line, then running in place of the evacuated Tokaido line. In the evening of August 5, I passed through Hiroshima, and on August 6 I arrived at the headquarters in Hakata.

The morning of my arrival, Hiroshima was the target of the first atomic attack. At the time, the atomic bomb was known only by the name &quotNew Style Bomb,"and only the people who knew the extent of the damage in Hiroshima felt the full fear of its enormous strength. The military authorities issued orders for soldiers to carry blankets when they went outside, and to limit skin exposure as much as possible. From such details one can begin to imagine the attitude of the army authorities toward the bomb. The general public had even less information to go on, but rumor had it that the new bomb was about ten times more powerful than anything known up to that point.

Three days passed in this manner, and on August 9, just after lunch, we heard the news that another New Style Bomb had hit Nagasaki. Although we did not know the details, I was dispatched immediately to the scene to take photographs, along with the writer Jun Higashi and the painter Eiji Yamada.

If the trains had been running normally, we would have arrived in about six hours. But as it was, the trip took us twelve hours and we arrived at Michino-o Station, just before Nagasaki, at around three in the morning.

I remember vividly the cold night air and the beautiful starry sky. Descending a sloping path that ran along the mountainside, and crossing over the ridge of the mountains, we reached the front gate of the Mitsubishi arsenal. A single sentry holding a fixed bayonet stood guard before the closed stone gate, and when we inquired about the situation within he told us that everything was in ruins, and that the city of Nagasaki was even worse off.

A warm wind began to blow. Here and there in the distance, I saw small fires, like elf-fires, smoldering: Nagasaki had already been completely destroyed. Higashi, Yamada, and I progressed quickly along the prefectural road that ran down the middle of the plain. Stepping carefully in spite of our hurry, we nearly tripped on the human and animal corpses lying in our path.

After we had walked about a kilometer, we were brought to a halt at the foot of a small stone bridge. Leaning up against the bridge, legs flung out before her, a mother cradling a small child mumbled in a plaintive, half-delirious voice: &quotPlease, bring us a doctor . . . a doctor, please, quickly . . ."She had probably been lying there, injured, for over ten hours. We were at a loss for what to do; we had no means to help her, except to try to give comfort and encouragement. The child, of course, hung limp and lifeless in her arms. There were no longer any roads, but we moved on, picking our way over the ashen terrain that extended as far as we could see. In the early hours of summer dawn, after nearly two hours of walking, we finally arrived at the military police headquarters.

I light a cigarette as I recall the road we traversed, and the orders I was given on the day of our departure. I had been directed to photograph the situation in Nagasaki so as to be as useful as possible for military propaganda. At the same time I was concerned to discover the means for one's survival in the midst of this tragedy. These, I remember, were the only two thoughts on my mind as I lay down to rest, gazing up at the beautiful dawn sky and waiting for the light to grow strong enough to begin taking photographs.

The appearance of the city differed from other bomb sites: here, the explosion and the fires had reduced the entire city (about four square kilometers) to ashes in a single instant. Relief squads, medical and fire-fighting teams, could do nothing but wait. Only the luck of being in a well-placed air raid shelter could be of any use for survival.

Even if the medical and fire-fighting teams from the surrounding areas had been able to rush to the scene, the roads were completely blocked with rubble and charred timber. One had not the faintest idea where the water main might be located, so it would have been impossible to fight the fires. Telephone and telegraph services were suspended; the teams could not contact the outside world for help. It was truly a hell on earth. Those who had just barely survived the intense radiation-their eyes burned and their exposed skin scalded-wandered around aimlessly with only sticks to lean on, waiting for relief. Not a single cloud blocked the direct rays of the August sunlight, which shone down mercilessly on Nagasaki, on that second day after the blast.

Although relief provisions and emergency supplies had arrived in the early morning, it was not until midday that rescue squads from Isahaya Army Corps and Omura Naval Cemetery arrived to administer medical care. I continued to photograph in these conditions until about three o'clock in the afternoon, when I had been ordered to set out on my return. I boarded a train conveying seriously injured victims to nearby hospitals, and I reached Hakata at about 3:00 a.m. on the eleventh.

One blessing, among these unfortunate circumstances, is that the resulting photographs were never used by the Japanese army-then struggling to resist defeat-in one last misguided attempt to rouse popular support for the continuation of warfare.

Human memory has a tendency to slip, and critical judgment to fade, with the years and with changes in life-style and circumstance. But the camera, just as it seized the grim realities of that time, brings the stark facts of seven years ago before our eyes without the need for the slightest embellishment. Today, with the remarkable recovery made by both Nagasaki and Hiroshima, it may be difficult to recall the past, but these photographs will continue to provide us with an unwavering testimony to the realities of that time.

Translated by Miryam Sas.
Reprinted with permission from Atomized Nagasaki: The Bombing of Nagasaki: A Photographic Record, edited by Munehito Kitajima (Tokyo: Daiichi Publishing, 1952).

The MEMORY Exhibition