Art Inspired by Japanese Nuclear Warfare

Elisa Graue
February 19, 2017

Submitted as coursework for PH241, Stanford University, Winter 2017


Fig. 1: Works from Japanese artist On Kawara's best known series, Date Paintings (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

The nuclear bombs dropped on the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki by the United States in 1945 caused extreme trauma and killed over 129,000 people. Decades later, postwar Japan appears to the public to have moved on, yet effects of the bombings remain in unexpected places. Some of these effects "a lingering sense of guilt and helplessness, dependence on the United States as a protector, and the inability to forget and move on" are best exemplified through the art that came after the bomb. [1]


"Nihon no genbaku bung" (Japanese Atomic-Bomb Literature) was the first ever collection of its kind in Japan, comprising 15 volumes of works from true accounts of what occurred to fictional stories. Through this collection of writing, one can sense many emotions, yet two themes are most apparent. One is the sense of guilt expressed through such stories as Shinpan (The Judgment), by Yoshie Hotta, which juxtaposes the suffering of an American pilot and a Japanese officer, both dealing with intense shame. In Shinpan, published in 1963, the reader can detect through Hotta's discussion of this guilt is the Japanese desire to accept responsibility and be able to move on. In other works in the collection, such as the poem "Water, please," from Tamiki Hara's 1947 verse collection Natsu no hana (Flowers of Summer), the painful cries of one soul are used to convey the silent cries for help of an entire nation. [2] This personification of a widespread feeling of helplessness allows us to view Japan as a living being gravely injured, but not without the potential to heal and grow.

Drawing and Painting

A Japanese-born artist living in New York, On Kawara skyrocketed to fame in the 1960s due to his popular series Date Paintings, comprised of simple canvases with the date of each painted atop a single color (see Fig. 1). In extreme contrast, Kawara's earlier works, created after the occupation of Japan, are full of grotesque images of distorted and maimed bodies on tiled bathroom floors. These figurative paintings and drawings, titled Terror of the Bathroom, were considered by Japanese critics to be indicative of the general psyche of the Japanese population post-occupation, conveying the chaos and uncertainty of the country at the time in a disturbing and violent setting. Kawara's portrayal of the figures themselves, observing their own wounds and dismemberment in an oddly detached manner, seems to show Japan's difficulty in coming to terms with the past seemingly doomed to be haunted by it forever. [3] Like much of the post-occupation anime that would become popular in Japan a few decades later, it appears that Kawara's work utilizes an almost ridiculous level of violence, caused by emotions repressed by Japan's collective inability to address the past. [4]

© Elisa Graue. The author grants permission to copy, distribute and display this work in unaltered form, with attribution to the author, for noncommercial purposes only. All other rights, including commercial rights, are reserved to the author.


[1] R. Smith, "From a Mushroom Cloud, a Burst of Art Reflecting Japan's Psyche," New York Times, 8 Apr 05.

[2] Y. Konaka and W. Olsen, "Japanese Atomic-Bomb Literature," World Literature Today 62, No. 3, 420 (Summer 1988).

[3] J. Woo, "Terror of the Bathroom: On Kawara's Early Figurative Drawings and Postwar Japan," Oxford Art J. 33, 261 (2010).

[4] R. Islam, "The Bomb in Japanese Popular Art," Physics 241, Stanford University, Winter 2015.