29 Aug 2020
Photo: Takako Kaneshige
6th August. The day Hiroshima was bombed. After 67 years having past and being in a place as far as Melbourne, it’s hard to blame people for sometimes forgetting about what’s special about this day. However, even if not remembered, the fact that a disaster had occurred 67 years ago will not change.
Junko Morimoto (80), an artist and children’s book illustrator currently living in Sydney, was a victim of the Hiroshima atomic bombing and had seen many tragedies with her very own eyes as she fled for shelter with her family at the age of thirteen. Vivid nightmares of the bombing still haunt her, even after 67 years have passed.
On 5th August, 2012, peace group Japanese for Peace (JfP) held the Hiroshima & Nagasaki Peace Concert 2012 in the Village Roadshow Theatrette of The State Library of Victoria. In this event, on a large canvas of 1.8 meters wide and 1.2 meters tall, Morimoto, with her tiny body of a height of less than 150cm, painted out the victims of atomic bombing with ink.
Photo: Takako Kaneshige
With all her clothes coordinated in black and a black beret on her head, Morimoto went on stage and stood in front of an audience of 200, with all of them looking at her so intensively that they were frowning and holding their breath. For the 30 minutes she was on stage, Morimoto painted out a nightmare that one would never forget.
Morimoto comments on painting scenes of the bombing live as a very hard job. According to Morimoto, she even cried as she first painted the scenes of atomic bombing in front of an audience.
Before she went on the stage, Morimoto looked at the canvas for a few minutes in silence, mourning for those she was about to paint out after finishing drafting the picture. Part of the audience even shed tears at the finished art.
Wthin the audience, stood nine students from Hiroshima Jogakuin Junior High School, the school Morimoto went to during the bombing period. It was a coincidence that they just came to Melbourne. It was even more of a coincidence that, as a gift for their host family, they had brought ‘My Hiroshima’, a children’s book that Morimoto wrote 25 years ago.
‘My Hiroshima’ (Japanese title “Watashi no Hiroshima”) was first published by Harper Collins, a local Australian publisher, as an English children’s book in 1987.
‘It was a huge shock for Australia at the time to have a children’s book published with its theme based on atomic bombing.’ recalled Morimoto, as she looked back at the time of the book being published.
Before publishing ‘My Hiroshima’ in 1987, for four years Morimoto had been publishing at a pace of one illustrated children’s book per year. Japanese folk tales ’White Crane’, ‘The Inch Boy’, ‘Piece of straw’ and ‘Kojuro and the Bears’ were all published in English by Harper Collins.
The four books were respectively granted 3rd, 2nd , 2nd and 1st of the award of ‘Children’s Book of the Year’, the highest glory a children’s book could get in Australia. Everyone from the industry was looking forward to the prized Japanese illustrator’s next book.
The book that was finally published was nothing like the four folk tales Morimoto had published before. ‘My Hiroshima’ was a book about the disastrous scenes of atomic bombing Morimoto had experienced as a child, almost screaming out the tragedy of war.
As a result, ‘My Hiroshima’ was not even nominated to the award that year.
‘”It can’t be helped because it’s just too extraordinary.” Anne Ingram, the chief editor of Harper Collins and I thought. But then, one of the top reviewers on Australian children's literature at the time called Maurice Saxby commented that it was a shame on the country for not giving ‘My Hiroshima’ a nomination in his book review column in the papers. Seeing that, and knowing that those who were interested had had a read, both Anne and I were satisfied.’
Compliments towards the book did not stop just there. Almost all the primary schools in Australia ended up having copies of ‘My Hiroshima’ in their library, offering the opportunity to read the book to ten thousands of students, thus resulting in many Australians around the age of 30 to share the childhood memory of reading ‘My Hiroshima’.
The book was later translated and republished again and again, first in Japan, then in America and the rest of the world. This year, with financial help from Japanese citizens, city of Hiroshima and the Japanese government, HPS International Volunteer board chairman Hiroe Sato published a new edition of ‘My Hiroshima’ with Japanese and English printed side by side. 40 copies of the book’s new edition each were sent to each and every one of the 206 primary and junior high schools in Hiroshima.
‘My Hiroshima’, one of the most nationally popular children illustrated books in both Japan and Australia, would not have been published if not for two friends who have now passed away.
One was Morimoto’s best friend. She had been sending information about atomic bombing to Morimoto since Morimoto started having her books published, with hopes of having a book about the bombing published someday.
‘Please write a children’s book about the bombing.’ she had been saying.
Sadly, this best friend of Morimoto’s passed away due to cancer just before Morimoto was awarded with the best ‘Children’s Book of the Year’ award for ‘Kojuro and the Bears’.
Morimoto had apologized and sworn in her best friend’s memory, ‘Next year. Next year I will definitely have a book published on the bombing!’
The other was Morimoto’s childhood friend, a victim of the atomic bombing. She was only around thirty, and happily married with two kids when she was diagnosed with acute radiation syndrome (ARS), which is also known as atomic-bomb sickness.
When Morimoto went back to Japan, she had told her friend about publishing ‘My Hiroshima’. Whilst receiving treatment from the Genbaku Hospital ( a hospital specializing in treating ARS), Morimoto’s friend sent her a bouquet of roses. ‘There’s something I want to give Junko. I wish you all the best.’
When ‘My Hiroshima’ was finally published, Morimoto brought the book with her during her visit to her friend, who was then fully hospitalized and waiting for her time to come. ‘Congratulations on finally having it published.’ She passed away soon after Morimoto’s visit.
‘“My Hiroshima” would never have been completed without their support.’ said Morimoto.
The one who gave the last push to having the book published was Anne Ingram, the chief editor of Harper Collins at the time.
After hearing about Morimoto’s plans on writing a book in atomic bombing, Ingram had suggested the project at one of Harper Collins’ publishing conferences. However, ‘No, we can’t publish something like that.’ Everyone from the company argued against it.
Yet, Ingram was not someone who would easily give up.She headed straight to the headquarters of Harper Collins and persuaded the CEO himself in order to get ‘My Hiroshima’ published.And thus, the book was finally published.
‘My Hiroshima’ is a book that would never have been published by the author alone. Flipping over the pages, a lovely and peaceful Hiroshima is there before our eyes – until a small atomic bomb was dropped down by the enemy forces. With delicate touches of art, the scene of the city turning into a picture of hell within a blink of an eye in the book seems unbelievably real. The vividness of the book remains, even after 25 years after it was first published.
‘Mankind is a stupid race. They always repeat their faults over and over again. The ones who create war, bombs and nuclear weapons are not koalas, nor kangaroos. Only human creates them. And it is only human, that can stop it.’
The disaster she had experienced is one that should never happen again.
The 80-year-old artist continues on her journey, spreading her message around the globe as she goes.
Original Japanese text and photos (unless otherwise credit mentioned): Noriko Tabei
Translation: Yin Ki Kyra LEUNG