Yoshito Matsushige — an interview with Robert Del Tredici

by

Matsushige-Portrait

Introduction


The dropping of the atomic bomb on Hiroshima has arrived at the age of 75. This bomb was so powerful its first use was justified as demonstrating that this weapon meant, at last, the end of war itself. But the bomb, without missing a beat, spawned instead a Cold War that, after 2 billion, 365 million, 200 thousand seconds of paranoid, hyper-active nuclear peace, has, according the The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, brought us to within one hundred seconds of a war that promises to wipe the human race clean off the face of the Earth.

It is time to touch base with some of the hard-won wisdom from Hiroshima and Nagasaki. In Hiroshima we meet Yoshito Matsushige, a photographer who took the only known pictures on August 6 after the A-bomb exploded overhead. He had two rolls of film but could not bear to take more than five shots that day. He describes the anguish he went through taking those few historic images.

In Nagasaki we meet Tsue Hayashi, whose 15-year old daughter Kyoko had gone to school early on August 9 and did not come home. Tsue spent 21 days searching the ruins for Kayoko. She tells us, “ I wondered, What on earth is the wisdom of mankind? Whatever it was, I hated it. Who invented this bomb? If they had such great brains, why couldn’t they also invent a way to help the victims recover? I think mankind opened the lid to the box that God said not to open in the Bible. I hope mankind never uses the A-bomb again.”

— Robert Del Tredici

Yoshito Matsushige, Hiroshima, Japan, September 5, 1984

At the time of the bombing I was a photographer working for the Chugoku Shimbun newspaper in Hiroshima. I was also an official reporter for the army. I lived 2.7 kilometers from the hypo-center. Part of my house was a barbershop. My wife was cutting hair and running the barbershop. I was hit by the A-bomb there. At around midnight, early August 6, an air raid sounded. I got on my bicycle and went to army headquarters. That morning at seven I returned home, took breakfast, read the newspaper, and was getting ready to go to work when the A-bomb was dropped.

What happened? What did you see from your house?

At first I saw something shining and sparkling—it was a kind of twinkling light, like you see from a sparkling electric live wire. The next instant there was this huge white flash, like a giant magnesium flash-bulb. I couldn’t see anything anymore after that. Then I heard a blast and when the blast hit, my body jumped in the air about one meter and I was thrown against the wall. My wife cried, “Bombing! ” and ran to me. I grabbed her hand and we both got out of the house. We crossed the streetcar tracks and went out into the field across the street. I thought the bomb had landed right on my house. ••I went into the field holding my wife’s hand, but I couldn’t see her face because of the blast and the uranium dust. Every-where there was dust; it made a grayish darkness over everything. But I could feel the warmth of my wife’s hand, and it was this that made me realize she was still alive and also that I was still alive.

What time was it?

It must have been about 8:40 A.M. A few minutes later the grayish darkness began to go up into the sky, and I thought, I am a newspaper photographer and a reporter for the army, so I have an obligation to make sure where the bomb was dropped. It was time to go to work. When I got back to my house it was in ruins. I pulled my army uniform and my camera out from under a heap of plaster and left home at nine. I walked east down the streetcar tracks to the Miyuki-bashi Bridge. I was heading for the center of town.

Did you see anything like a mushroom cloud in the sky overhead?

No. I was just looking directly in front of me, straight ahead. But I don’t think I could have seen it anyway, since I was right underneath it. When I got to the Takano-bashi Bridge, the central part of the city was surrounded in flames. I knew then that I’d never get into that area.

Were you thinking at all about the kind of bomb that had caused such destruction?

I guessed it had not been an ordinary bomb. At army headquarters I would sometimes hear secret information, and one time a rumor was going around that there existed bombs the size of matchboxes which could destroy large buildings. I thought this bomb must have been not exactly the same, but something like that. Military people had also been saying that the United States had invented some kind of very special small-sized bomb.

I’ m surprised to hear that! I thought the atomic bomb had been a very closely kept secret.

Well, ordinary Japanese people knew nothing of this. But army headquarters was talking about it. If any of us in the military spoke out about such secret information, the police would have come and arrested
us.

Where did you go when you saw the fire?

When I saw the fire I knew I had to go back and try another route if I was going to reach my office or army headquarters. That fire on August 6 was no ordinary fire; it was a fire maelstrom. And it was moving fast up the street, coming right for me. So I was forced back to the Miyuki-bashi Bridge. When I got there I saw a crowd of people. Most of them were burned. It was at this time that I remembered, I was a professional photographer, that this was a great disaster, and that I should try to photograph it and get the pictures to the newspaper or to army headquarters.

What kind of a camera were you carrying, and how much film did you have?

I had a small 6 x 6 Mamiya viewfinder camera and two rolls of black-and-white film, 100 ASA, twelve exposures per roll. So I had enough film for twenty-four pictures. That was a lot in those days. Ordinary people had no film at all. It was because I was an army reporter that I had those two rolls. But I ended up taking only five photographs that day.

Is this photograph on the Miyuki-bashi Bridge your first photograph that day?

Yes. I took it at a little after eleven A.M. This bridge was 2.2 kilometers from the hypocenter.

 West end of Miyuki Bridge (Matsushige 2)

Miyuki Bridge, Hiroshima, roughly 2,300 meters from the hypocenter, photograph by Yoshito Matsushige, approximately 11 am, August 6, 1945, April 2013, Chromogenic print, 9 x 12 inch.

What is that building?

That’s a police station, the Senda-cho Station House. In front of it they had set up a temporary medical treatment center for injured persons. Two officers are putting calking oil on bums. The oil came from the army food-storage warehouse. Injured people were everywhere. Both sidewalks of the bridge were crowded with dead and suffering victims. When I saw them I realized I had to take a picture, and I tried to push the shutter, but I couldn’t. It was so terrible. These people were pathetic. I had to wait. Most of the people were students, children.

I always thought they were old people in this photograph.

No, these are mainly students from the Hiroshima Girls’ Commercial High School and from the Hiroshima Prefecture Daiichi Middle School. They had been mobilized to make a fire break in case of a bombing raid.

Why did you take only five photographs on that day?

Before I became a professional camera-man I had been just an ordinary person. So when I was faced with a terrible scene like this, I found it difficult to push the shutter. I was standing on the Kyuld-bashi Bridge for about twenty minutes before I could do it. Finally I thought, I am a professional cameraman so I have to take pictures. Then I managed to push the shutter.

Soon after, I took a second picture, but I couldn’t push the shutter a second time without crying, because it was a really terrible scene. It was just like something out of hell, and I didn’t feel like taking many pictures. I was just dumbfounded.

West end of Miyuki Bridge (Matsushige 2)This photograph was taken moving in closer to the people after taking the photograph on the left.From in front of the police box, both sides on Miyuki Bridge were full of dead and injured people. From that evening, the injured were taken by truck to Ujina and Ninoshima Island.Just after 11 a.m.

West end of Miyuki Bridge (Matsushige 2)This photograph was taken moving in closer to the people after taking the photograph on the left.From in front of the police box, both sides on Miyuki Bridge were full of dead and injured people. From that evening, the injured were taken by truck to Ujina and Ninoshima Island.Just after 11 a.m.

My viewfinder was fogged because of my tears. I understand why you ask me why I did not take more pictures, but in reality it was very difficult. When I set my camera at somebody who was asking for help I could not really push the shutter.

Does that mean several times you thought of taking a picture and then decided not to do it?

Yes—there was one time. It happened when I left the Miyuki-bashi Bridge at around two, when the flames were more subdued. I went to my newspaper office down-town. The way was very` difficult. I could find no street. Everything was gutted, a few fires were still burning here and there, roof tiles were everywhere. It was hard not to walk on the dead bodies. I tried not to, but I had to. On the way I passed Hiroshima University. There is a swimming pool at the university. The previous day it had been full of water, but when I passed by in the afternoon there was almost none. It must have evaporated because of the fire. All that was left was a little water in the bottom of the pool, and people had jumped in to get to the water, but it must have been almost boiling, and the people couldn’t get back out of the pool, so they died in the hot water. There were seven or eight people like boiled fish at the bottom of this pool.

Was this a scene you tried to take a picture of?

It was such a terrible situation I didn’t think of my camera at all. I felt I was going. crazy. So I just kept trying to get to the newspaper company. When I finally got there I tried to enter the building but I walked only a few steps into it. I couldn’t go in farther because of the heat. When I couldn’t get into my building I walked back into the street. Several dead bodies were lying in front of the building. I went to the corner, and there was a street-car. I went up to it and looked inside. It was jammed with people. They were all in normal positions, holding onto streetcar straps, sitting down or standing still, just the way they would have been before the bomb went off. Except that all of them were leaning in the same direction—away from the center of the blast. And they were all burned black, a reddish black, and they were stiff. It was about twenty people in all. They had all died instantly. I felt that they had their eyes open even though they were all burned. This was the scene I tried to take a picture of. I put one foot up on the street-car and looked into it. I put my finger on the shutter for one or two minutes, but I could not push it. I refrained from taking the picture. It was too terrible to take a picture of. This was the only scene I was going to take a picture of but did not.

How close was this to the center of the bomb?

This was very close—about 300 meters from the hypocenter.

Where did you go after that?

I went back to my house, and there I took the third and fourth photographs. My house was 2.7 kilometers south-southeast from the hypocenter. The fire did not reach this part of the city, but the damage from the blast was terrible. I got home at around two P.M.

The third picture is of the barbershop chairs. That is my wife in the background. She is looking after our valuables.

Yoshiito Matsushige

Barber shop damaged by the bomb blast (Matsushige 3)In the area approximately 2,600m from the hypocenter where Matsushige’s home was located, his wife Sumie was running their barber shop. Although this area escaped the flames, the damage wreaked by the blast was devastating. Sumie was going through their valuables.Around 2:00 p.m. Modori-machi

Barber shop damaged by the bomb blast (Matsushige 3)In the area approximately 2,600m from the hypocenter where Matsushige’s home was located, his wife Sumie was running their barber shop. Although this area escaped the flames, the damage wreaked by the blast was devastating. Sumie was going through their valuables.Around 2:00 p.m. Modori-machi

West Fire Station, Minami Branch (Matsushige 4)Opposite Matsushige’s house was the wooden, three-floor West Fire Station, Minami Branch. This building collapsed in the bomb blast, and the firemen at work in the watchtower also fell as the building collapsed, and 4-5 firemen who were on the second floor were trapped under the collapsed building.Around 2:00 p.m. Modori-machi

The fourth picture is the view out our barbershop window, with the streetcar tracks and a man walking by. The destroyed building is the Kaimi branch of the Nishi Fire Station. It was a three-story wooden building with a watchtower. The blast from the bomb made the building collapse. One fireman was in the watch-tower when it collapsed. Fire trucks and several firemen on the first floor were buried. One of them was seriously wounded and several were injured. Several injured firemen were treated in my house for about one week, beginning that evening. My wife nursed them. Later in the afternoon I went back to the area of the Miyuki-bashi Bridge, where I took my final photograph, the one of the bandaged soldier writing at a table.

Police officer filling in a disaster certificateOfficer Fujita from Ujina Police Station issued disaster certificates for victims of the bombing even though he was injured himself. People who had a disaster certificate could receive emergency relief food and daily commodities.Just after 4 p.m. (or 5 p.m.) Minami-machi 3-chome, at the corner of the Government Monopoly Bureau

Police officer filling in a disaster certificateOfficer Fujita from Ujina Police Station issued disaster certificates for victims of the bombing even though he was injured himself. People who had a disaster certificate could receive emergency relief food and daily commodities.Just after 4 p.m. (or 5 p.m.) Minami-machi 3-chome, at the corner of the Government Monopoly Bureau

Police officer filling in a disaster certificateOfficer Fujita from Ujina Police Station issued disaster certificates for victims of the bombing even though he was injured himself. People who had a disaster certificate could receive emergency relief food and daily commodities.Just after 4 p.m. (or 5 p.m.) Minami-machi 3-chome, at the corner of the Government Monopoly Bureau

That was about four in the afternoon, near the other end of the bridge, on the curve of the kilk trolley-car tracks on the Ujina line.

Who is the soldier? What is he doing?

He is a policeman. He is writing a certificate for people who were hit by the disaster. With a certificate a person could be given a little bread.

Why did you take a picture of this activity?

I don’t know. I didn’t think, “This is important.”

And this was your last picture?

In the evening I was in the vicinity of the present A-bomb hospital and there was a fire. I took two or three pictures of that, but the film at that time was not as sensitive as it is today and none of them came out. I threw the negatives away. If only I knew that those pictures would turn out to be so valuable I might have preserved them. But I had no way of knowing this at the time. I think if the situation had been different, and it had, been Japan that had dropped the atomic bomb on America and  I went to the United States to take pictures of the effects of the bomb, then I might have taken lots more pictures. But here in Hiroshima those who were dying were all my fellow countrymen, my fellow Hiroshimans, and I had never fought with them, so I couldn’t take pictures of so many terrible scenes. You know, if the situation today were different, if the world were not so full of nuclear weapons, these photographs would have been forgotten, or remembered only as relics from the past. But the situation today makes these pictures very important. These views are very meaningful because they are not just about something that happened a long time ago. There should never be war in which nuclear weapons are used. So I hope that you listen to as many people as possible in Hiroshima, and that you make as many people as possible know how terrible the A-bomb is. That is my wish.

Interview translated by Mieko Yamashita.