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Keigo Miyagawa at his home and atelier recalling memories of the Ota River. His current plan is to draw people who were dying while begging for water after the atomic bombing. (Nishi Ward, Hiroshima)
The Dead Body of a Baby Still on My Mind
Keigo Miyagawa (male, 86 years old)
Nishi Ward, Hiroshima
By Gen Okamoto (male)
Mr. Miyagawa's 1994 work Calamity of Hiroshima 1, which depicts what he had witnessed from his experience of the atomic bombing, such as babies, piles of dead bodies, and oxcarts. (Image provided by Keigo Miyagawa)
Naked babies, dead bodies floating up and down in the river, school girls laid out on the riverbank-50 years later, these scenes that he witnessed after the atomic bombing began to appear in the works of traditional Japanese painter Keigo Miyagawa (86), who lives in Nishi Ward, Hiroshima. What thoughts went into his work? He talks about them now as the 70th anniversary of the atomic bombing approaches.
Mr. Miyagawa's birthplace was in the vicinity of the Ota River called Nishihara in Asaminami Ward. When he was 15, he applied to join a special attack corps without telling his parents. But he wasn't admitted because of his bad eyesight. "We had been taught that we could be a real man only by becoming a soldier, so it was very frustrating that I couldn't pass the selection process. However, that saved my life." About three years later, on August 6, 1945, he was exposed to the atomic bomb on his way to Hiroshima Technical School (present-day College of Engineering at Hiroshima University). He was on a bicycle in Oshiba, Nishi Ward, which was about three kilometers [1.9 miles] from the hypocenter.
Just before the bombing, the chain on his bicycle broke, and he was repairing it under a big cherry tree. It was then that a flash sparked, and he was blown away by a huge blast, becoming unconscious. Even after he regained consciousness, he couldn't comprehend what had happened.
The only thing he could do was to follow the surging crowd of people running away from the city center. He arrived at his house in the late afternoon to find that the ceiling of his house had been blown off.
Three days later, Mr. Miyagawa rowed down a river by boat to search for his two missing uncles. As he came closer to the city center, there were more and more dead bodies floating up and down in the river.
He tried to push his way through the corpses, but the boat kept bumping into them. Soon the oars were blocked by all the bodies that had sunk to the river's bottom, so he could go no farther. On the riverbank were piles of dead people who had tried to go into the river, leaving no space for him to land his boat.
Climbing a collapsed bridge railing, he at last landed near the Aioi Bridge. The area was still surrounded by fire, smoke and a terrible stench. He noticed a newborn baby lying on its back, holding its hands up, dead. He heard people around him screaming and begging for water and help, but none of them seemed to be the baby's parent.
"I asked myself in despair, "How could such a horrible thing happen?'"
One of the two uncles that Mr. Miyagawa was searching for had gone by oxcart to his building demolition post, and ever since then his whereabouts remain unknown. The other uncle was found, but about ten days later he passed away. Mr. Miyagawa carried his uncle's body by cart to a riverbank and cremated the corpse with wooden boards detached from his house. It was dusk. When the fire engulfed his uncle's body, Mr. Miyagawa thought his uncle's fingers looked as if they were moving. Though it might have been an illusion caused by the smoke, he was frightened.
Mr. Miyagawa's parents told acquaintances that at the time of the atomic bombing, their son was somewhere far away from the hypocenter such as Asakita Ward because they thought if they told the truth, their son would not be able to marry and would face discrimination.
Many of Mr. Miyagawa's paintings depict, in addition to ordinary scenes, Buddha, which he chose as an object out of his hope for peace. He kept refusing to paint scenes directly related to the atomic bombing. He says, "It was partly because of my shame for surviving the bombing."
However, when the 50th anniversary of the bombing arrived, he came to think about the end of his career as a painter. Then between 1994 and 1999, he painted three works each titled Calamity of Hiroshima from his feelings of responsibility as a survivor.
No matter how he paints, he thinks that the real smell and heat at that moment can never be expressed. So many times, he thought of burning these works. But in the end, he did not because he sensed a looming crisis of the number of younger people with no direct experience of the atomic bombing continually increasing.
From 1999 to 2000, he painted a masterpiece titled The Ota River, spanning one meter [3.3 feet] high and seven meters [23 feet] wide. On the canvas, the Ota River flows from left to right. Along the river, from the upper to the lower side, he painted scenes of the four seasons in Hiroshima to depict before, during and after the war-sailing boats going to and fro in the winter snow, people enjoying cherry blossoms on trees fully abloom in spring, the whole city on fire following the atomic bombing that fateful summer, and building cranes busy reconstructing the city in autumn.
Mr. Miyagawa also drew himself and a woman sitting at a riverbank. The woman, he explains, is someone he met three times while working on the piece, but who later lost her life as a result of her exposure to the atomic bombing.
"I painted this work not to show it to someone, but to record what has been stuck in my head. The Ota River symbolizes peace and, at the same time, also bears witness to the horror that happened in the past, that is, of the many dead bodies floating along the river. I want many people to learn what really happened."
* Originally published in Japanese in the series "聞きたかったこと [So tell me. . . about Hiroshima]," The Asahi Shimbun (Hiroshima morning edition), May 21, 2014.