Pictures from a Hiroshima Schoolyard
Study Areas: Japan, Children, World War II, US/Japan Relations.
The film Pictures from a Hiroshima Schoolyard chronicles the remarkable story of an American Christian minister who was inspired to preach about nuclear destruction, the reaction to that sermon that prompted a gift from American youngsters to school children in Hiroshima, and the stunning drawings that those children sent to the Americans as a token of their thanks. The film weaves together interviews with Hiroshima hibakusha (atomic bomb survivors), historical photos, and video footage to tell the story of the connection between All Souls Unitarian Church in Washington, D.C. and the students from Honkawa Elementary School in Hiroshima.
The story—and the film—begin in November 1946 when A. Powell Davies, minister of All Souls Unitarian Church, read an article in the Washington Post celebrating the atomic bomb task force. The article was accompanied by a photo of an angel food cake in the shape of an atomic bomb mushroom cloud, which was being proudly cut by the celebrants. Davies was incensed by the nonchalance with which the dropping of the atomic bomb was being treated, and a few days later he preached an Armistice Day sermon titled “Lest the Living Forget.”
Dr. Davies’ sermon came to the attention of Dr. Howard Bell, who was serving with the occupation forces in Japan. Dr. Bell wrote to Dr. Davies and told him of the miserable conditions under which children in Hiroshima were trying to learn. He asked that American children clean out their school desks and send their pencil stubs, used crayons—anything they could spare—to help the children in Hiroshima. In a February 1947 sermon, Dr. Davies raised up this topic, and in response, the children of All Souls Church collected a half-ton of schools supplies which were then shipped to the school children in Hiroshima. Some of those materials ended up at Honkawa Elementary School, one of the schools close to the hypocenter of the Hiroshima atomic bomb explosion.
Imagine the surprise of the parishioners at All Souls Church in 1948 when they received a shipment from the children of Honkawa Elementary School in Hiroshima. To express their gratitude for the gift, the children produced beautiful drawings created using the materials they had received from these Americans. Pictures from a Hiroshima Schoolyard tells the story of these drawings, the artists who created them, and contemporary parishioners of All Souls who found them in the church’s archive.
Honkawa Elementary School lies just outside the grounds of what is today the Peace Memorial Park. During the war, many of the students there had been evacuated to the countryside, but on August 6, 1945, about 400 children and twelve teachers were filing into their classrooms when the atomic bomb exploded over Hiroshima. All of the teachers and all but one student died immediately or soon thereafter, and only the shell of the newest ferro-concrete wing of the school survived the blast. Many of the children who had been sent to the countryside were now orphans, as their parents, who had remained in Hiroshima, died.
The situation at Honkawa Elementary School in the years after the war is narrated in the film by the artists, now aging men and women, many of whom still reside in Hiroshima. They talk of extreme deprivation, losing many family members to the bomb, and the radiation-induced illnesses that they, their friends and relatives have suffered from. Classes soon resumed in the bombed-out shell of the remaining building to give the remaining children a sense of normalcy. In their drawings, the artists portray a school with rain and wind streaming through the openings where windows had once been, and sixty children in each class crowded together on the few chairs and desks available. The view from the classrooms was of the Atomic Bomb Dome that still stands today as a remembrance of that day in 1945. In a city where it was said that nothing would grow for 75 years, cosmos, a flower closely associated with autumn in Japan, began to grow amidst the debris in the schoolyard. One student reminisces that with no baton to use in their relay races, they used cosmos flowers instead.
But none of the drawing reflect the grim realities—poverty, lack of food, inadequate housing and infrastructure, a devastated landscape—that the children confronted every day. The brightly-colored drawings are a stark contrast to the actual reality of the students’ lives. They depict happy children playing games, beautiful kimono, festivals, cherry blossoms, and even the car a boy hoped to one day own (drawn by a student who had never seen a car). The bright colors belie the largely monochromatic landscape and anticipate a brighter future. Indeed, one of the artists interviewed stated nostalgically, “I miss these times. Everyone was happy.” Each drawing was carefully labeled with the student’s name in Roman letters and his or her age.
Mr. Kaya, a young teacher at Honkawa Elementary School who had fought in the war, was tasked with sending the drawings to All Souls Church. In the film we have the opportunity to witness the reunion of one of the artists with her now-elderly teacher. Through their discussion, we learn of Mr. Kaya’s pain as he mourned his fallen comrades in those post-war years. He states that he was simply doing his job when he collected the drawings, painstakingly addressed the box, and sent them off across the sea.
In 1948 the drawings were exhibited in several locations in the U.S., but soon they were relegated to storage and largely forgotten by the people of All Souls Church. In 2005 the drawings were brought out of storage and members of the church decided to restore them. Soon a movement grew to re-establish ties with Honkawa Elementary School, and to locate the student artists who were still living. Today, twenty-two of the forty-eight artists have been located, and a number of them are featured in this film.
In 2010, a group from All Souls Church traveled to Hiroshima with the newly-restored pictures for an exhibition at the Honkawa Elementary School Peace Museum. (http://www.honkawa-e.edu.city.hiroshima.jp/; in Japanese only.) Pictures from a Hiroshima Schoolyard captures the reunions of the artists with their drawings in the exhibition hall, a part of the school which has remained standing since the August 1945 bombing and is now a peace museum maintained by the school.
Throughout the film, artists and members of All Saints Church share their thoughts on the connections, past and present, which resulted from a seemingly simple exchange nearly 70 years ago between children in the U.S. and Japan. We hear about the pain that the Japanese children endured, but we also see their delight that their childhood creations are being treated with respect and which are agents which further conversations about peace and reconciliation. Teachers and older students alike will appreciate hearing firsthand from the survivors of this horrific tragedy, and are reminded of the lasting effects of kindness and generosity, as well as the capacity for forgiveness and reconciliation. Younger students will find this film to be a gentle introduction to the events of August 6, 1945, and will identify with some of the scenes and items depicted in the drawings. The website for the film (www.hiroshimaschoolyard.com) includes a gallery of images, including some of the drawings by Honkawa students, and educator resources are being developed.
Anne Prescott is the Director of the Five College Center for East Asian Studies.
Fore more information on this film, please visit the Pictures from a Hiroshima Schoolyard official website.
Last Updated: November 13, 2014.