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'I'm the only one who can depict this': A-bomb survivor paints his tragic experiences

Masayoshi Ozaki is seen in Isahaya, Nagasaki Prefecture, on Aug. 20, 2021. (Mainichi/Kentaro Nagaoka)

ISAHAYA, Nagasaki -- An artist in this southwestern Japan city was exposed to the atomic bombing in Nagasaki 76 years ago, when he was 13 years old. After the war he began depicting his experiences through paintings. What are his thoughts behind the artwork he has continued to create?

    The painter, Masayoshi Ozaki, runs a small art class in the Nagasaki Prefecture city of Isahaya and teaches children the fun of painting. He was born in 1932 in the prefectural village of Yue (the present-day city of Shimabara).

    The 89-year-old atomic bombing survivor, or "hibakusha," who spent his childhood in the city of Nagasaki, was a boy who loved to draw and was always scribbling with pagodite stone. When he was in the fifth year of elementary school, his father passed away on the battlefield in Burma (now Myanmar). His mother and siblings were evacuated to Shimabara, and only Ozaki remained in Nagasaki to attend a junior high school under the old education system.

    This photo shows Ozaki when he entered the former Chinzei Gakuin Junior High School. (Photo courtesy of Masayoshi Ozaki)

    In 1945, Ozaki entered the former Chinzei Gakuin Junior High School. In order to prepare for the U.S. military landing on the Japanese mainland, he was forced to walk three hours a day to the Koshikiiwa area (now around the Tadewaramachi neighborhood in the city of Nagasaki) to dig trenches, and was unable to devote himself to his studies.

    On Aug. 9 that year, Ozaki was again on his way to dig trenches, despite it being during the summer vacation. He and his friends met in front of the torii gate of Fuchi Shrine in the city's Fuchimachi district, but one of them suggested that they skip their work that day and go for a swim. They eventually decided to go to the nearby lumberyard of the sawmill of Mitsubishi Heavy Industries Ltd.'s Nagasaki Shipyard & Machinery Works. However, another of Ozaki's friends said, "My mother made me a lunch box of rice, so I can't take a day off today," and Ozaki decided to accompany him to dig trenches.

    Just before noon, when Ozaki was digging a hole with his pickaxe as usual, the sky suddenly glowed pink. He felt heat on his back, and a warm wind blew around him. It was from the atomic bomb that dropped at 11:02 a.m. He made his way over Mount Kompira to find the city familiar to him had disappeared. He later heard that three of his friends who had gone to the lumberyard 1.7 kilometers from the hypocenter had died. Six days later, when Ozaki returned to Shimabara, where his family had evacuated, he found his portrait on the Buddhist altar at the family home.

    Ozaki suffered from the aftereffects of the radiation exposure following the bombing, including hair loss and bleeding gums after the war. Although he was impoverished and unable to study sufficiently, he got a job at the local government office and supported his family as the eldest son of four siblings. In the meantime, he studied hard at night, and at the age of 20, he entered Nagasaki University's faculty of arts and sciences (now the Faculty of Education). He paid for his school, living expenses, and art supplies through his part-time job.

    Ozaki dreamed of turning his love of painting into a career. After graduating from university, he continued to paint while working as an art teacher at a junior high school. The experience of the atomic bombing was cruel and painful to recall, but when he decided to paint an abstract work in red and black, the atomic bomb naturally became the theme.

    Ozaki's new work depicting the area around Urakami Station after the atomic bombing is seen at his studio in Isahaya, Nagasaki Prefecture, on Dec. 7, 2021. (Mainichi/Kentaro Nagaoka)

    At the age of 37, Ozaki quit his teaching job and became an independent painter. He moved to Paris and temporarily withdrew from A-bomb painting. However, after returning to Japan, he saw a picture of refugees in a newspaper, which overlapped with images of A-bomb survivors and repatriates. His anger at the mistreatment of innocent civilians became the driving force behind his painting series "Muko no Tami," or innocent people, which spanned 15 years and depicted the strength and resilience of human beings.

    In his picture book "Boku wa Ikiteiru," which roughly translates to "I am alive," published by Chobunsha Publishing Co. and based on his own experiences, Ozaki depicted blackened bodies and people wandering around after the atomic bombing. "I am the only one who can depict my own experience of the atomic bombing," he reflects -- and this thought has continued to drive him on as a survivor who narrowly escaped death.

    The A-bomb survivor now has a studio in his home where he teaches painting to children. Ozaki says, "Children are interesting because they react honestly." He tries to give his students different subjects each time so that they don't get bored, and he also tries to develop their lively sensitivity. At the same time, he says, "I'm 89 years old, so I'd actually like to close the class and concentrate on painting."

    In 2020, the 75th anniversary of the atomic bombing, Ozaki created an epic 10-meter-wide painting titled "Nagasaki Muzan" (Tragic Nagasaki), with the hope of "leaving my experience to children while my memory of the atomic bombing remains." And this fall, he made four paintings of the scenes he saw that day in the city of Nagasaki, including Urakami Station and the Zenzamachi neighborhood.

    "I want to keep shouting through my paintings, 'I don't want war, and the atomic bombing is scary.' Because I am the only A-bomb survivor in Nagasaki who continues to paint." A strong sense of responsibility keeps Ozaki holding his paint brushes.

    (Japanese original by Kentaro Nagaoka, Nagasaki Bureau)

    In Photos: Nagasaki A-bomb survivor tells the tragedy through paintings

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