Seeds not bombs: Artist Hiroshi Sunairi on Hiroshima and "A-bombed trees"

Sixty-four years ago today, at 8:15 a.m. Japan Standard Time, the American B-29 bomber Enola Gay unleashed fury on the city of Hiroshima, dropping an 8,900-pound uranium bomb called "Little Boy." Some 70,000 people died instantly, according to military estimates, and 70,000 more succumbed to radiation poisoning within the next five years.

For artist Hiroshi Sunairi, subjected to endless hours of "peace education" classes growing up in Japan, Hiroshima gradually started becoming "Hiroshima," a concept that, after he moved to New York and witnessed the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, gained a deep, new significance. While Hiroshima's citizens turned tragic violence into a pledge for peace, Sunairi says he was shocked that the U.S. responded to an attack on its soil with vengeance.

Born in Hiroshima to a mother he recently learned had in utero radiation exposure, Sunairi has embarked on a project to both remind the world about Hiroshima's history and to transform it through an act of sharing and growth. He's been distributing seeds of hibaku trees -- "A-bombed trees," including persimmon, jujube, Japanese hackberry, chinaberry and round-leaf holly -- for people around the world to tend. He's found support from Tree Project participants across America -- from Irvine to Charleston, New York City to my kitchen in Minneapolis -- and in countries including Bolivia, Italy, Canada, The Netherlands, Switzerland and Japan.
Over several weeks, Sunairi and I discussed the project -- which will be exhibited at The New York Horticultural Society in December 2009 -- via email. I'm happy to share our conversation, undoubtedly the first of several, today.

Paul: I planned on starting out this interview talking about art -- your past works, the project's relation to other planting projects by artists, etc. -- but now that my first seed has sprouted, I see the project a bit differently: as a point of personal connection with not only you and Hiroshima but with people like Sora Akiyoshi in New York, Ruth Ann Brown in Portland, Piergiorgio Traverso in Rome.

So: tell me about Hiroshima. The city, especially to those of us in the west, is known for one thing: the American nuclear bomb -- the first ever nuclear weapon used in warfare -- dropped there on August 6, 1945, which killed 140,000 people or more. What's a striking detail -- the people, the foliage, the types of industry there -- about it, aside from this painful history? What's your connection to the city (did you grow up there or have family there), and what are your memories of the city now that you're living in New York?

Hiroshi: I am from Hiroshima, born and raised, and I came to the US when I was 18. Thus, the atomic bombing of Hiroshima is something that I was familiar with when growing up. "Peace Education" is set up in every elementary school in Hiroshima. Through very visceral documentation and stories, I learned what happened quite young, just as anybody in Hiroshima does. That is my connection to the Hiroshima that the world knows. However, I also have a memory of Hiroshima as an individual growing up, as young person without any connection to the "Hiroshima" the world knows. I was a young boy riding my bicycle to high school, hanging out with friends after school in downtown Hiroshima. Clothes shopping, eating out, and playing games at arcade game centers, those types of ordinary memories also exist in me.

Now living in New York, I think about Hiroshima in a different way. The Peace Education that I used to find annoying when I was young now seems quite profound, philosophically. When faced with 9/11 nearby and the war afterwards, I was shocked observing the US turning its mourning into an anger and retaliation. As young boy, I learned that people in Hiroshima who suffered in the aftermath of the atomic bombing believed that retaliation was not the answer, but working to diminish all nuclear weapons was. That type of peaceful thinking in me reacted strongly to the recent actions of the US.

Then, I became quite fascinated with something that I grew up with: the Peace Constitution of Japan, article 9, which basically prohibits an act of war by the state. This is quite natural thinking not just in me, but in all Japanese after the war. Then, I decided to make works based on my roots within the context of the world.

Paul: Today is the 64th anniversary of the bombing of Hiroshima. How did the bombing affect your family? Do you commemorate the anniversary each year?

Hiroshi: My family never did commemorate the day of the atomic bombing. Unless a member of the family is affected or has a special relationship to the history, normally regular Hiroshima citizens don't commemorate the day. It is the background of everyday life in Hiroshima.

I didn't feel a connection to that history until I taught a class at NYU in 2004 about making art about the idea of peace. When I invited students to come to Hiroshima for a group exhibition I curated, then the history of Hiroshima became a backbone for that class. Also, I was invited to exhibit my work at Hiroshima City Museum of Contemporary Art in 2005, the year of sixtieth anniversary of the atomic bombing.

Then, one day in Hiroshima, as my mother was talking to her older sister about my involvement with the issue, my mother was told that she was internally affected [while her mother was pregnant with her]. I guess my grandmother, with my mother in her womb, was looking for her daughter, who worked for street car company in the city of Hiroshima, after the bombing. This all came as a surprise for us, however this did not affect the way my family felt about the history. It still stayed just as background for a regular Hiroshima day.

Paul: You've used hibaku in past works, including A Night of Elephants (below), a 2006 piece in which you created a cage-like structure shaped like an elephant and put dried branches from Hiroshima's hackberry trees inside of it, noting in an accompanying essay that people in Hiroshima -- unlike mythic elephants -- are starting to forget what happened on Aug. 6, 1945. (The elephant's memory has also been referenced in works related to the memory of 9/11 and its victims). How will the Tree Project be physically manifested as art when it's complete? Will you have actual hibaku at the NY Horticultural Society exhibition or only photo-representations?

Hiroshi: The "Tree Project" exhibition at The Horticultural Society of New York is only a halfway culmination of what the project will be. Yes, we will have Hibaku seedlings from anyone who succeeded in sprouting their seeds near New York City as well as photo documentation of Hibaku seedlings and all the people who participated in this projects, plus some of the ceramic elephant foot pots I make. There will be more things in the installation, which I don't know, yet, but as an artist, I will make this show not only a documentation of the project, but an interesting art exhibition as well.

The other long-term goal I have with the Tree Project is to make it into a public-art project in which we'll plant the fully grown seedlings in the ground in different parts of US and the world. I have this idea about creating a Hibaku Tree Garden on the top of some tall buildings in New York, making it into contemplative and green space for the public. I have a project title already in mind: Oasis in the sky. That is more like the final stage I imagine. The exhibition in December is just a prelude.


mamichan said...

I totally tried to get a seed after I saw your other post on it and am so bummed Hiroshi's out of 'em. Most of my dad's side of the family are Nagasaki hibakusha. Article 9 and the current Japanese constitution were written (for the most part) by American expats in Japan at the time.

Hiroshi Sunairi said...


You will be getting them, but just not now. Sometimes in Fall, I will get them, then I will email you what I have. Please be patient!!

Hiroshi Sunairi
Tree Project

mamichan said...

Thank you Hiroshi!! Tanoshimi ni shitemasu.

lindjoy said...

Is it possible to receive hibaku seeds? I am leading a retreat in September 2013 with the broad theme of our relationship to trees and the spiritual connections. Would really like to have some seeds for a small group of participants (no more than 10). Any information regarding seed availability is requested!
Shirley Lindsay, clsb@comcast.net