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Washington museum showcases Japanese artefacts on atomic bombings

world Updated: Jun 13, 2015 10:35 IST

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A pocket watch that stopped at 8:15am when the first atomic bomb dropped. A sprawling picture of twisted bodies and screaming faces engulfed by the flames. The school lunch box of a girl who disappeared without a trace.

As the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II approaches, American University Museum in Washington is showcasing artifacts and art recalling the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

At a time of intensifying focus on Japan's reluctance face up to its militaristic past, the exhibition provides a different perspective on the end of the conflict one in which Japanese were the victims.

That has the potential to upset American veterans. Defenders of the use of the atomic bomb say it alleviated the need for a land invasion of Japan that would have cost many American lives.

The precise death tolls from the bombings are unknown, but it is believed about 200,000 people were killed. On the 50th anniversary of the bombings in 1995, a fierce controversy surrounded an exhibit at the Smithsonian Institution of the Enola Gay the B-29 plane that dropped the bomb on Hiroshima, Aug 6, 1945.

The exhibit was dramatically scaled back because of veterans' protests that it portrayed the Japanese as victims rather than as aggressors.

That year, Peter Kuznick, director of the university's Nuclear Studies Institute, responded to the controversy by staging an exhibition of artifacts the Smithsonian wouldn't.

Doing so at a private institution, and not a government-funded one, made it less contentious. He's reprising that effort, 20 years on, with a display that opens today and runs until Aug 16.

It includes six pictures on folding screens by the late Iri and Toshi Maruki, a husband-and-wife couple whose powerful depictions of nuclear horrors, known as the Hiroshima Panels, are being shown in the US capital for the first time.

In an adjacent room are 25 artifacts collected from the debris, among them a rosary, a glass fragment removed from the flesh of a casualty, container of sake rice wine, a student's cap and a student's shoe.

The Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum and the Nagasaki Atomic Bomb Museum have also provided an explanatory account of the bombings with graphic photos, such as panoramas of the two levelled cityscapes, and wrenching images of the victims.

Kuznick said the primary aim of the exhibition is to portray the human suffering caused by the atomic bombings that ushered in an era in which absolute destruction of the planet became possible and "nobody's future is guaranteed anymore."