The story behind one of Japan’s most iconic 20th century works

In this episode we dive into one of Japan’s most iconic 20th century works, the Masao Ohki Hiroshima Symphony.

The United States ended WWII by dropping the world’s first Atomic Bombs on the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki on August 6 and August 9, 1946, respectively. The bomb ended the worst conflict in human history and saved the lives of countless US soldiers in the Pacific Theater, but at what cost?

In the case of Hiroshima, it cost the lives of around 80,000 civilians in an instant. Over the next few decades, many thousands more civilians would die from radiation and injuries.

This episode isn’t about passing moral judgement though. It’s about the violence that kicked off the post-1946 artistic direction of Japan.

We found that while it’s easy to poke holes in the logic of anti-war and anti-bomb painters and musicians after WWII, it’s impossible to judge their stances without a proper understanding of the social climate they came from.

They experienced horrific pain. They saw unspeakable violence. And they weren’t personally responsible for the international hurt their government caused. Our goals for this episode were two-fold:

We wanted our audience to join us as we explored once-confidential government documents related to the Atomic Bomb. Through that research, we wished for our listeners to form an individual and informed opinion on the happenings of August 1946. (You can read the declassified documents here)

We desired to explore the back-drop of the Hiroshima Symphony. Was it written out of anger? Hurt? What other art inspired it?

Hopefully, “Ghosts of Hiroshima” will relate to the above questions.

You can listen to the Hiroshima Symphony on our website as well.

The Masao Ohki Hiroshima Symphony

Iri and Toshi Maruki started creating their famous “Hiroshima Panels” in 1950, and they gradually worked towards completion over the next 32 years. Masao Ohki was inspired to write his Symphony No. 5, or the “Hiroshima Symphony,” after seeing the first six panels.

Masao Ohki’s Hiroshima Symphony doesn’t follow conventional symphonic form, and it can best be described as a “programmatic” work. It tells the story of six of the Hiroshima Panels. It follows a “program,” if you will.

Perhaps the most defining feature of the Masao Ohki Hiroshima Symphony is the sound of ghosts–eerie strings playing high pitched notes.

Those ghosts serve as the inspiration for Ep. 5, “Ghosts of Hiroshima.”

Ghosts of Hiroshima Episode Transcript

`Imagine with me that it’s a Monday morning. But it isn’t a particularly bad Monday morning. You actually got enough sleep the night before. You get up, you open the blinds, and it’s a clear sunny day. The sky is blue. Birds are chirping. You get dressed and head out for a cup of coffee because it’s beautiful out there. 

As you walk east, which happens to be away from the center of the city where you live, you realize that you’re walking right into the sun. You wish you’d stuck with a coffee shop closer to home because it’s hotter outside than you expected. 

As you walk past a hospital with a decorative wall around it, you think to yourself that the shade from that wall looks appealing; you duck behind the wall for a quick breather. You dab the sweat off your face. 

You hear the faint sound of a jet overhead, and you briefly wonder what a plane of that size is doing overhead. But it’s not unusual, and you quickly dismiss the thought. 

And that’s when it happens.

The sky suddenly splits open and a fierce white light blinds you. You’re terrified, but you’re too dazed to imagine what that flash of light might be. As you involuntarily avert your eyes, you see two children, who aren’t behind the wall like you, frantically running past you on the sidewalk. 

You try to yell at them to get behind the wall, but you only get a croak out because you’re throat is somehow too dry to speak. An unstoppable force suddenly seems to simultaneously lift you off the ground, singe the clothing off your body, and slam you down on the ground, and the last thing you remember is an earth-splitting boom. 

And the fact that those children, who had started to head towards you when you called, are gone. Instantly vaporized before your eyes. Only two shadows on the sidewalk remain.

This is Backstage Podcast.

Hello and welcome to this week’s episode of Backstage Podcast: where we tell you true stories about music and its musicians. My name is Justen Blackstone. In today’s episode, we plan to look at Masao Ohki’s Symphony No. 5, otherwise known as the Hiroshima Symphony. You’ll probably notice that this episode is heavy on the history, and a little lighter on the music. It’s an important adjustment for the subject matter, I promise. Join us as we delve into one of the most tragic events in human history, and how a composer used art and music to express his own experience to the world. 

You’ve undoubtedly recognized the aforementioned Monday morning as the morning of August 6, 1945. It was the day when the US military dropped a 9,700-pound uranium gun-type bomb, the world’s first atomic weapon, over the Japanese city of Hiroshima. 

There are some things you should know as we jump in: First, we won’t be making value judgements in this episode. WWII was a war, and war always results in tragedy. We know how heated the atomic bomb debate can be. We don’t plan to engage in that debate. We urge you to decide for yourself whether the first nuclear attack was morally justifiable.

For instance, we got most of our information from hundreds of WWII documents in the National Security Archives. They show letters and memos between generals, scientists, and even the president, and you can see how the decision to drop the bomb was reached. We’ll link to that on the website.

Secondly, we studied the details of the bomb and the hardships that Japanese civilians faced because we wanted to understand where Masao Ohki was coming from when he wrote his Fifth Symphony. Was it written in anger? Did he create it out of grief? How do Japanese people feel when they hear the symphony? We wanted to know, and we thought that you would too. 

Thirdly, we decided to look at this particular piece because there are surprisingly few lasting works based on tragedies in the 20th century. There are certainly a high number of works, but only a handful have entered the regular repertoire. Shostakovich’s Leningrad symphony and Britten’s War Requiem count as lasting works, for instance. 

What makes the story of Hiroshima and Nagasaki unique though, is that several important works emerged from the ashes. We think Ohki’s Symphony No. 5 should sit at the top of that list, if only because he is actually Japanese. He wasn’t just some academic composer taking advantage of someone else’s tragedy. We’ll mention some of the other pieces of music and art tied to the atomic bomb before we’re done.

Lastly, this whole episode deals with decidedly unfunny subject matter. This is heavy stuff. So if we say something that in your opinion sounds flippant, disrespectful, or maybe a little bit too humorous to be appropriate for the occasion, then understand that we are trying to cope with the bunches of horrific journal entries and accounts we’ve had to study. We aren’t sharing them all here, don’t start covering your ears.

So there’s the disclaimer.

Let’s start off with some background about the making of the bomb.

Believe it or not, the atomic bomb got started by two GERMAN chemists, Otto Hahn and Fritz Strassmann, in 1938. They actually discovered nuclear fission, not the bomb, but fission had to be discovered first.

Britannica says that Fission is the “division of a heavy atomic nucleus, such as that of uranium or plutonium, into two fragments of roughly equal mass.” That process is what releases all the energy in the explosion.

After the discovery of fission came Lise Meitner and Otto Frisch’s theoretical paper that built upon that discovery and explained the possibility of using it for a bomb. By the way, Otto Frisch was the son of both an artist and a concert pianist. Lise Meitner, his collaborator on that theoretical research, was his aunt. I really hope the four of them shared Christmas together every year. Imagine the gifts. 

Anyways, let’s move into the early 1940s. The British “Maud” Committee frantically worked to establish the nuclear bomb as a weapon that could actually be developed. They turned a theoretical concept into a practical one. The Maud Committee shared its research with the United States. How nice of them.

By 1942, the United States Atomic Bomb effort was fully underway, and we start getting into some stuff that we actually learned in history class. It was called the “Manhattan Project.” President Franklin D. Roosevelt gave the project over to Vannevar Bush, the Director of the Office of Scientific Research and Development, and FDR was informed that the world’s first nuclear weapon could be in play before the end of WWII.

 Atomic bomb research was now officially in the hands of the military, and the Manhattan Project was born. Over 600,000 American civilians would be employed by the Manhattan Project by the time the bomb was dropped. That’s all-time employment, by the way; peak employment at a given time was around 125,000. Apparently there was high turnover at these jobs.

By 1943, military officials were trying to decide on a suitable target. Should they drop in on Germany? They decided against the Nazis because if the atomic bomb malfunctioned on its descent towards the earth, Germany had the resources to study the weapon and create one of their own.

Tokyo also entered the discussion, but the dilemma was basically the same. The weapon was new, and if it didn’t work as planned, the US would be dropping billions of dollars worth of deadly top secret research into Japan’s lap. 

Intelligence reports around that time indicated that Japanese engineers were nearing a breakthrough in airplane technology though.This technology could have turned the tables of the war, so it had to be stopped. The target would be Japan after all.

The US military initially decided on Truk Harbor as a target. It functioned as a hub for Japanese Naval forces, and if the bomb was defective, it would be next to impossible to recover. Obviously, Truk Harbor did not last as the inaugural atomic target.

The first target, as we all know, was Hiroshima.

In case we lost you in that crazy 2-minute history of the atomic bomb, here’s a review.

Otto Hahn and Fritz Strassmann discovered fission in 1938. Lise Meitner and Otto Frisch then explained, in theoretical terms, how that discovery could be used in a super bomb. Frisch was the one who coined the term “Fission,” by the way.

The British Maud Committee then worked to establish the nuclear bomb as a very real, and not theoretical, possibility. They shared their research with the USA.

President Franklin Delano Roosevelt proceeded to establish the Manhattan Project in 1942. That essentially brings us up to speed.

Remember that British Maud report that we mentioned? Well that committee pointed out the bomb’s ability to disseminate vast quantities of radiation. The scientists were concerned that in the military’s push for the biggest blasting radius the world had ever seen, the generals would forget about the horrific amount of radiation. That radiation, as we now know, eventually killed more people than the blast did and made life almost unbearable for many of the survivors.

Anyways, the committee’s report on radiation was conveniently ignored before the drop. 

Lieutenant General Leslie Groves, who died in 1970, was the guy at the top of the food chain throughout the Manhattan Project. He had a hand in deciding where the various crews would work on the bomb, and he helped strategize how the military would use it. You could say he was a project manager.

The reason we needed to explore General Groves’ role in the Manhattan Project was that we wanted to know whether or not the different groups of scientists around the country had contact with each other. Did they collaborate on this project, or did they just carry out their own little duties without thinking about the big picture? 

It turns out that Groves preferred to “compartmentalize” the Manhattan project, to borrow the description from the National Security Archive. The different groups of scientists did NOT collaborate, per se. 

This all comes back to the radiation factor that I mentioned a few moments ago. Some groups of workers calculated the effects of the radiation output. Other groups tried to accurately determine the blast radius. More groups planned the production of the bomb, while still others tried to pick a suitable target. Long story short, the groups working to quantify the radiation output and the groups working on targeting did not work together.

You can probably see where I’m going with this.

Based on the NSA’s documents, it looks like the senior leadership team grossly misunderstood the effects of the radiation. We could be wrong about that–remember, we aren’t trying to make judgement calls–but we found plans that strategized how to move American troops into the target area only 30 minutes after the blast to do cleanup reconnaissance. 30 Minutes. We know now that if the US had decided to send those soldiers in 30 minutes after the explosion, they would have ended up dead and poisoned like the people in the target radius. They would have at least become horribly sick.

Furthermore, it appears that most of the research exploring atomic bomb radiation had to do with keeping the US bomber pilots safe after the drop. That was important of course, and since this was war, the government obviously wasn’t concerned with keeping the enemy safe. I mean, they were figuring out how to drop the largest bomb in history. 

But did the leadership of the Manhattan Project know that Japanese civilians would be dying of radiation-induced cancer 30 years later? Did they know that babies would be deformed? 

It appears that they didn’t know. It seems like General Groves’ compartmentalization led to a certain degree of ignorance, shall we say, among the decision makers. 

At least that’s what we could tell from reading the primary sources. 

Sorry, it sounds like we’re getting into judgement-call territory again. We’re not. We just wanted to understand the real background here. We want the story to be as vivid to us postmodern Americans as it was to Japanese civilians in 1945. 

Besides, President Truman didn’t kill those people. It was the victims’ own emperor, Hirohito, who sentenced them to death by refusing to surrender, and we won’t get into the debate of whether or not the terms of surrender were reasonable. We’ll let you go down that rabbit hole on your own.

Speaking of Truman (and you knew he would have to come up at some point, right?), we just wanted to say a few quick words about him. We’ve heard some rather lively debates about whether he should be regarded as an American hero or a villain of some kind. Here’s the deal.

It was FDR who kicked off the Manhattan Project. It was FDR who turned the investigation of nuclear warfare over to the military. And according to many historians like Professor Barton Bernstein, Truman inherited a premade decision rather than making his own. In other words, the atomic bomb was the plan all along, and Truman simply went along with it.

The other side of the debate claims that he reached his own very personal decision after vigorous research and careful thought. 

One thing we can all agree on? Truman was dealt a pretty rough hand. FDR forced himself into a fourth term and promptly died. In fact, his fatal stroke came on April 12, 1945, just a few months before the Atomic Bomb dropped. 

Truman’s unfortunate defining moment, the dropping of the atomic bomb, came four months into his presidency. Doesn’t sound fair to me.

Here are Truman’s words to reporters after FDR died and he was sworn into office: 

Quote 1:

“Boys, if you ever pray, pray for me now. I don’t know if you fellas ever had a load of hay fall on you, but when they told me what happened yesterday, I felt like the moon, the stars, and all the planets had fallen on me.”

One more thing: Truman didn’t even know about the atomic bomb until April 24, 1945. 

The 300,000 civilians in Hiroshima weren’t the only residents. A force of almost 50,000 Japanese soldiers lived there too. Hiroshima also carried on a great deal of military industry, so between that and the soldiers living there, the city presented itself as a strategic military location. WWII had become a “total war” in a sense, meaning that the lines between civilian and military targets were often blurred. How are you supposed to view thousands of civilians who go to work every day helping build machinery for your enemy? It was the same way in the US and around the world.

Early in the day on August 6, 1945, the distinction between soldier and civilian suddenly became irrelevant. 

As the world’s first atomic bomb ripped open the summer sky 1900 feet above the city, about 80,000 people died quickly. Some near the point of detonation were killed instantaneously, vaporized into thin air.

Some of the victims succumbed to the intense heat and shock waves. Still others survived the initial blast only to perish in the swirling firestorm that followed. Many of those victims were simply too injured to get away from the firestorm after the explosion.

Historians argue that the death toll climbed to 200,000 within five years because of radiation and other injuries. If you extend that range to 30 years, you’ll see even more atomic bomb-related deaths. We’ll never know the true extend.

Hiroshima residents soon found out that the survivors weren’t necessarily the lucky ones. 

Thousands of people were maimed in an instant. Surviving family members were reunited only to realize that they could no longer recognize each other. 

Others suffered with radiation-related illnesses for years, and many died from cancer. Children were born deformed. The list goes on.

The last thing to keep in mind before we move on to the music—I know, you never thought we would get there—is that violent bombings weren’t new to Japan. They had already suffered what General Curtis LeMay called “The most Destructive air raid in history.” We’re referring to the firebombings of Tokyo that caused upwards of 150,000 civilian casualties.

Again, Tokyo was a necessary military target, and we aren’t implying that the attacks were immoral on the part of the US. We aren’t even discussing the atrocities committed by Japan in the episode. 

The point is that by the end of the summer of 1946, Japanese citizens had experienced indescribable horror.

And we would assume that the arts, both visual and musical, would reflect that.

Not long after the destruction at Hiroshima, two Japanese artists visited to pay their respects to the victims. What they saw changed their lives forever.

In fact, they spent 32 years painting works inspired by the violence brought on by the atomic bomb.

The two artists, Iri and Toshi Maruki, were a married couple. Their styles complemented each other, and they often painted or sketched atop the other’s work to create a completely new idea that couldn’t have been achieved by only one artistic vision.

The works we are discussing here are called the “Hiroshima Panels.” The Marukis started working on them in 1950 and didn’t finish until 1982. Iri Maruki had grown up in Hiroshima, so the project was especially close to the couples’ heart.

There were thirty panels in all, and they represent different aspects of the bomb’s aftermath. Each panel has a unique title, often with a graphic title such as “They Fell Down Moaning in Heaps,” and “Could a Body Vaporize?” We won’t read the rest. They also created panels depicting other nuclear incidents over the next couple of decades, such as a nuclear test near Japan that contaminated the water and sickened a group of fishermen.

The Marukis came under criticism because they put the Japanese people in the role of victim. Why not represent the thousands of Chinese civilians who died at the hands of the Japanese? Why not represent the American POWs being murdered by the Japanese military as the war drew to a close? What about Pearl Harbor?

To their credit, the artists listened to their critics. They included a panel mourning the loss of Koreans who had been in Hiroshima. They memorialized a group of American soldiers who were being held prisoner at the time of the bomb, and they eventually became outspoken proponents of nuclear disarmament. 

Now remember, we aren’t making value judgements here. Japan committed horrific atrocities during the war, they engaged in unprovoked terrorism at Pearl Harbor, and they refused the terms of surrender that would have saved them from the bomb.

In fact, our research has shown us that Japanese citizens were often angry at their government during and after WWII. Author Mark Selden writes the following:

Quote 2: “The torment inflicted by the bomb — together with deep anger at the Japanese state for embarking on a brutal and senseless war and callously failing to protect its soldiers and citizens — nurtured a widely shared pacifism and hatred of war among Japanese.” 

I thought that was interesting.

 I tried to imagine myself as a mid-20th century Japanese citizen. I tried to think as if my country had initiated the war based on purely imperialist ambitions and then committed unspeakable atrocities. You know what? Even then I couldn’t imagine not hating another country for dropping an atomic bomb on mine.

It was tough. Either way, we found it fascinating that so many Japanese citizens embraced pacifism and nuclear disarmament not out of hatred for America, but because they wanted to see an end to that violence. 

It should also be acknowledged that no, the Marukis’ dreams of disarmament were not reasonable or realistic. I mean, the Soviet Union was rising at the time. They needed to be held in check. But the Maruki’s anti-bomb sentiment clearly weighed on a generation of Japanese artists and composers.

Masao Ohki was born in 1901 in the small coastal city of Iwata. His father played the Shakuhachi, a traditional bamboo flute, so naturally the young boy did too. You’ve probably heard the Shakuhachi if you suffered through Karate Kid parts II and III. I kind of hope you haven’t. The Last Samurai has it too.

Masao Ohki’s first real exposure to orchestral music came in the city of Osaka when he was in secondary school, and he was inspired to pursue music by the performance of Beethoven’s Fifth and Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture. Man. We think that orchestras today load concerts with too many old favorites.

He took an engineering job after school, but soon committed himself to composition as much as possible. He then won first prize at the Weingarten Competition in 1939, right at the outset of WWII.

His most lasting contribution was his Hiroshima Symphony, completed in 1953. You’ll also hear it called his Symphony No. 5.  It was based on six panels from Iri and Toshi Maruki’s work that we talked about earlier.

The last work he wrote before dying in 1971, his Symphony No. 6, was called his Vietnam Symphony. He was a little bit more anti-American than his contemporaries, apparently; the Vietnam Symphony memorializes those who died fighting against the so-called “Imperialist” United States.

Let’s get back to the Hiroshima Symphony though.

It’s definitely a programmatic work, designed to describe the pictures on the Hiroshima Panels. He follows the panel’s precedent of portraying the different aspect of human suffering during the bomb, rather than indulging in a huge moment showing the detonation. Here are some words from the Naxos recording label:

Quote 3: “Ohki uses ‘Ghosts’ to convey the human impact; the charred living — bodies torn and minds uncomprehending. The music is grim and visceral in its effect. The score makes frequent use of high strings, harmonics, distant, spectral brass, disembodied winds.”

I’m not sure I could think of a better way to describe its effect than “grim” and “visceral.” I was actually thinking that this symphony would have gone well with a Stanley Kubrick film when I read–somehow for the first time–that Kubrick had used Penderecki’s Threnody To The Victims of Hiroshima in “The Shining.” I guess I hadn’t noticed it before. 

Penderecki, by the way, wrote his Threnody To The Victims of Hiroshima in 1960. It was his initial ticket to fame early in his career, and it’s probably the most famous Atomic Bomb-inspired piece in the world. 

As a side note, Soviet composer Alfred Schnittke also wrote a well-known oratoria in memory of the Nagasaki victims. He named it after the city. The reason we find this piece so interesting is that Schnittke came under fire by the Soviet government because they deemed his oratorio to be too “formalistic.” Basically it wasn’t soviet enough. I’m sure that reminds you of our last episode on Shostakovich’s “Muddle Instead of Music” incident.

Anyways, Masao Ohki, the composer of the Hiroshima Symphony, demonstrated the same anti-war sentiment as many other artists of his time. Like the painters Iri and Toshi Maruki, he chose to argue his case against imperialism and nuclear weapons by vividly showing the horrors of the atomic bomb.

Was some of his anger misguided? Certainly. But did his Hiroshima Symphony accurately describe the unfathomable suffering that hundreds of thousands of Japanese people faced? 

We’ll put a recording on the website so you can decide for yourself.

We want to leave you on an upbeat note, so here’s one more little window into post-WWII relations between Japanese citizens and the US. It’s probably my favorite bit from this episode. 

We’re going to tell you about the “Hiroshima Maidens.” 

As you can imagine, many school-age children were left with disfiguring scars and burns in the wake of the Manhattan Project. Dealing with severe hand, skin, and facial damage is hard for anybody, but it’s got to be especially hard on young kids. That’s practically a life sentence for an innocent victim.

One such group of schoolgirls came to be known as the Hiroshima Maidens. For almost ten years after the explosion, they dealt with pain, disfigurement, and reclusive lifestyles. Plastic surgery wasn’t yet advanced enough in Japan to help them, so they formed a support group to try and make it through life. They had no prospects of marriage or companionship because not only did they look different, but future children could be genetically damaged. I can’t even begin to imagine what that level of rejection would feel like.

Fortunately, a  journalist named John Hersey brought attention to the group, and the Hiroshima Peace Centre Foundation was formed. Saturday Review editor Norman Cousins even joined the cause, eventually.

In 1955, a group of the Hiroshima Maidens were brought to America for reconstructive surgeries at Mount Sinai Hospital. Would you guess where that hospital was located?