old photos

Finding Truth and Imagination in Old Photos

I love looking at old photos, and this is one I’ve seen many times. It remains in my grandmother’s photo album – the one with the blue and green geometric pattern on the cover – because despite my best efforts, it refuses to release from the adhesive-coated page. It’s strange because the other old photos in the album are easy to remove. But for some reason, this one stubbornly sticks, keeping secret any words that might be written on the back. 

old photo
Two best friends in front of the Atomic Bomb Dome in HIroshima. The photo was probably taken in the 1950s.

I often asked my grandmother about the photo, but she never gave an answer. In fact, she rarely talked about her life in Japan.

“That’s all in the past,” she would say in her soft-spoken way. “There’s no use remembering the past.” And that was that.

But not for me. I was curious, so over the years, the photo became a puzzle that needed to be solved.

Photo of the Atomic Bomb Dome from the Motoyasu River. I took the photo during a visit to Hiroshima in 2019.

The location was easy to identify. The backdrop is the “Genbaku Dome” or Atomic Bomb Dome – the ruins of the Hiroshima Prefectural Industrial Promotion Hall, where the world’s first nuclear bomb was detonated as a weapon of war on August 6, 1945. It was one of the few buildings at the bomb’s hypocenter that survived, eventually becoming an iconic symbol of peace.

The time was a bit more difficult to pin down. There is fencing around the ruins, so the photo must have been taken at least a few years after the bombing, when reconstruction of Hiroshima City was underway. It might have been taken in the early 1950s, judging from the hair and dress style. The woman on the right wearing Western clothes is my grandmother, and she would have been in her 30s at that time. Seems about right.

But who was the woman in the kimono? For the longest time, I didn’t have a clue. Finally, I convinced my mom to look closely at the photo and she eventually said, “Oh, I think that’s Miyamoto-san. You remember her – Bachan’s best friend.”

I looked at the photo again and pictured the Miyamoto-san I remembered – a brusque woman in her 70s with the gravelly voice of a long-time smoker who spoke with such a thick Hiroshima accent I could barely understand her. I failed to see the resemblance, but I’m sure my mom recognized her.

Now why were these two best friends – one in a Western dress and one in a kimono – posing in front of the Genbaku Dome? They lived in Hiroshima so they weren’t tourists. Was the person taking the photo a tourist, perhaps a friend or relative they were accompanying?

Or could it be a farewell photo, which would be a reason to pose in front of the city’s iconic building? If so, who was leaving?

Unfortunately, my mom didn’t have the answers. And my grandmother and Miyamoto-san passed away long ago.

Unless I can somehow miraculously extract the photo from the album without tearing it, I don’t think I’ll ever have a chance of uncovering the true story. It is frustrating – yet freeing at the same time. By not knowing the truth, I am free to imagine and invent the circumstances around the photo.

How will this photo’s story appear in my novel? You’ll have to wait and see!

Standing in front of the Atomic Bomb Dome in 2019.


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