Rebooting memories of life before the nuclear devastation of Hiroshima
A Japanese initiative to colourize photos of Hiroshima survivors, taken before the war, has been hailed by the UN as a way to breathe new life into conversations about peace, and a world without nuclear weapons.
Only a few survivors of the World War Two Hiroshima and Nagasaki nuclear bombings are still alive to share their memories. Acutely aware that she is part of the last generation to be able to talk directly to the hibakusha – those who survived the Hiroshima nuclear bomb – Anju Niwata, a young Japanese peace activist born and raised in Hiroshima, launched a project called “Rebooting Memories”, which involves colourizing photos taken in the city before the war, featuring survivors, and the families and places lost in the bombing.
Ms. Niwata uses a combination of software and interviews with survivors to accurately bring colour to the black and white photos she borrows from the survivors. “The black and white photos may appear lifeless, static, and frozen to us”, she says.
“By colourizing the photos, however, the frozen time and memories of the peaceful lives before the bombing gradually advance and start breathing. It takes a long time, but I am always encouraged by the hibakusha’s joy at seeing the colour photos.
Her efforts have been warmly welcomed by the hibakusha, who played a big part in helping people around the world to understand the devastating impact of nuclear weapons, in the years following the Second World War.
Tokuso Hamai was evacuated from Hiroshima when he was two-years-old, before the bombing. All of his family members were killed. As part of Ms. Niwata’s project, he went with her to the site of the barber shop that his father used to run, in Hiroshima’s Nakajima district.
Today, any remains of the shop, and the buildings around it, have disappeared, buried under the Peace Park built to commemorate the tragic event, and remember the victims.
Standing at the site, and looking at the colour photographs, sparked Mr. Hamai’s memories of pre-War Hiroshima. “I recalled what I had forgotten”, he says. “If the photos were black and white, this would not have happened. What I recalled first was a green avenue of cedars. I remember picking cedar buds as bullets for a toy gun.”
Ms. Niwata’s aim of reviving awareness of the consequences of nuclear war is wholeheartedly supported by Izumi Nakamitsu, the UN Under-Secretary-General of Disarmament Affairs, who is herself Japanese.
“Disarmament is part of the DNA of the United Nations. The first General Assembly session took place in London, just a few months after Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The shock of the nuclear bombings made a huge impact on everyone in the world at the time.
“Since then, it's been part of a priority agenda of the United Nations and it is even more important today because we are again in a dangerous world where conflicts and tensions are on the rise. There are some 13,000 nuclear weapons in the world's arsenals, relations between nuclear weapons states are tense. This poses existential threats, and I think it’s important that people start to imagine the impact if they are ever used.
I think Ms. Niwata’s project will have an enormous impact. if you can visualize how things were, it enters your imagination more vividly, and will do something to your mind and then your heart.”
When she took part in the SDG Global Festival of Action, a UN event filled with dozens of inspiring speakers from around the world, Ms. Niwata was encouraged to see that she was far from the only young activist working towards peace, each using different methods to achieve the same goal. “It is my mission to continue spreading the thoughts and memories of the atomic bomb survivors into the future and realize a world free from nuclear weapons”.
In 2019, a General Assembly resolution, “Youth, Disarmament, and Non-proliferation”, reaffirmed the important and positive contribution that young people can make in sustaining peace and security.
That same year, the UN Office for Disarmament Affairs (UNODA) launched the #Youth4Disarmament outreach initiative, recognizing that young people like Ms. Niwata play a critical role in raising awareness and developing new ways to reduce threats from weapons of mass destruction and conventional arms.
The initiative connects geographically diverse young people with experts to learn about current international security challenges, the work of the United Nations, and how to actively participate.