The Atomic Bombing of Hiroshima is The Stuff of Reality TV

A 1950s television show did the unthinkable: surprise a victim of the Hiroshima bombing by introducing him to one of the bombers on live TV

by Mike Meginnis

Running from 1952 to 1961, This is Your Life was an emotionally intense experiment in early reality TV. Subjects were lured to the studio under false pretenses, then host Ralph Edwards presented them with a leather-bound book featuring the name of the show and the name of the subject (and the name of that episode’s commercial sponsor). The subject was allowed several seconds to react with apparently genuine surprise and/or horror before Edwards launched into the story of his or her life. The host’s storytelling was punctuated by the appearance of significant people from the subject’s past: teachers, childhood friends, former colleagues.

TIME once called This is Your Life “the most sickeningly sentimental show on the air,” which is, of course, why people loved it. During the handful of episodes I recently watched, I wept no fewer than three times. The show seems to be most itself when exploiting the tragedies of its subjects’ lives, and so the purest This is Your Life episode of all must be the one that tells the story of Kiyoshi Tanimoto, a Japanese Methodist minister and survivor of the atomic bombing of Hiroshima.

Many of This is Your Life’s guests were in the entertainment industry, so it was often necessary to construct elaborate subterfuges to get them to the studio without spoiling the surprise. In the case of Tanimoto, this was not necessary. Japan did not receive the program. At the time, Tanimoto was visiting the United States with 25 young women, fellow survivors of the atom bomb who had been badly disfigured. They were going to Mount Sinai Hospital for reconstructive surgery, and Tanimoto believed that he was in the studio to be interviewed about these women and their suffering.

Ralph Edwards was a prolific creator of game shows, and his signature program was Truth or Consequences, a wacky sort of prototype for shows like Nickelodeon’s Double Dare, which explains the tendency of This is Your Life to feel like a game show. There are prizes, but all the questions are rhetorical and the answers rarely heard. The idea is that the show’s research team has already learned everything there is to know about the subject, so when Edwards asks Tanimoto a question, there is clearly a correct answer and that answer is so strongly implied by the question’s phrasing that there is in fact no need to speak it.

In a representative exchange, as Edwards describes the morning of the bombing, he reaches the moment when the Hiroshima air raid siren sounded (the show attempts to make the memory more vivid for a startled Tanimoto by playing the same sound in the studio) and asks, “Did you run for cover?”

“Uh,” says Tanimoto. The answer is no, but he feels like that’s not what he’s supposed to say.

“Not when the siren blew,” says Edwards. “You were used to that. Every morning it went off, didn’t it? As I understand, there were U.S. Army reconnaissance planes flying overhead most of the time, so this was taken for granted, this air raid siren.”

My description so far fails to capture how truly repellent This is Your Life can be, but I do believe that the show was made with good intentions. Edwards got the idea for the program when asked to do something for paraplegic soldiers (presumably survivors, like Tanimoto, of World War II) in Birmingham General Hospital. He decided to tell the life story of one of those soldiers in a way that would make sense of his terrible present circumstances by weaving a narrative that began with happy childhood and concluded with the promise of a better future. In other words: The program had been conceived of as a means of making sense of the effects of war on ordinary people.

However, that need to make sense of the past at all costs, combined with the norms of 1950s television, makes Tanimoto’s episode seem painfully tone deaf when it’s not grossly offensive. It’s not only that Edwards mostly refuses to let his subject speak, it’s that he continually takes the liberty of describing Tanimoto’s feelings and memories to Tanimoto, often speaking over him to do so. While the minister speaks in a normal, human voice, Edwards, who came up in radio, continually speak-shouts in a domineering, condescending tone. He embodies an America that will bomb your home, kill your neighbors, surprise you with an interview on a deeply personal, traumatic experience and then — rather than allow you to tell your own story — tell you what happened and how you felt about it. At times, This is Your Life feels like a nightmare in which Bob Barker breaks into your home to shout a condescending bedtime story made up of your worst memories while all of America watches.

The most striking moment of Tanimoto’s episode comes at the halfway mark, when he is finally allowed to speak about what he saw after the bomb detonated. “I saw the whole city on fire,” he says. “And many people running away from the city in the silence. Their skin peeling off and hanging from face, from arm, but strange to say, in silence, it looked like a procession of ghosts.”

“Did you know that Hiroshima had been the first city to feel the force of atomic power?” asks Edwards.

“Well, I didn’t know what happened,” says Tanimoto. How could he have? The question is absurd.

At this point, Robert Lewis, copilot of the Enola Gay, makes his second appearance. We have heard from him once already, near the six-minute mark, when his silhouette spoke a foreboding line about where he was on the morning of August 6, 1945: flying over Japan, in a bomber. This first appearance seemed to tip the show’s hand as to Lewis’s identity, and while I imagine it was introduced primarily as a way of building suspense, I wonder if it was also designed to give Tanimoto some warning of what would soon happen.

The minister does seem prepared when the time comes. The moment is staged such that we cannot see Tanimoto’s face, but he moves quickly to shake Lewis’s hand. For his part, the pilot looks nervous and deeply ashamed. As he recalled into a microphone before entering the set, Lewis famously wrote in his log “My God, what have we done?” after seeing all of Hiroshima ablaze. (The same phrase would appear on the cover of TIME on the 40th anniversary of the bombing and had been widely reported in the atom bomb’s initial coverage, though it was frequently trimmed to only the first two words; apparently, the question that followed was not one that most people were eager to ask.) Though the handshake itself seems to go well, when the two separate, they both become more cagey. Lewis struggles to meet Tanimoto’s eyes, and Tanimoto leans away from Lewis, regarding him with what appears to be a mix of skepticism and concern bordering on fear. Edwards braces Tanimoto with a hand on his back, presumably with the justification that the shot will look better that way. When Edwards lowers his hand, Tanimoto takes another small step backward, his hands clenching.

Lewis proceeds to narrate — at length and without interruption — his experience of bombing Hiroshima. His speech is uneven, and he sways slightly as he speaks. (Alcohol may have had something to do with it; in a This American Life story about This is Your Life, Allison Silverman reports that “people say” Lewis was drunk.) Referring to Lewis’s famous quote and to the way that Tanimoto thought “My God, my God” as he searched for his family, Edwards wraps things up with a neat little bow: “And so Reverend Tanimoto, you on the ground, and you on your military mission, Captain Lewis, in the air, both appealed to a power greater than your own.” The pair continue to regard each other across a gap of four feet. They are sharing a moment far stranger than Edwards, than This is Your Life, than 1950s America, is willing to acknowledge.

When Edwards dismisses Lewis from the stage (to the latter’s visible relief), Tanimoto does something enormously kind: He smiles warmly and shakes Lewis’s hand. Lewis touches him with both hands, and Tanimoto does the same, holding Lewis there an instant longer after he begins to pull away.

The rest of the episode functions as a lengthy coda. Tanimoto’s wife and children are brought onto the stage, and he is delighted to see them. Edwards narrates in brief the days, months and years that followed: Tanimoto’s struggle and failure to help the survivors, the way he brought food to his family, the bombing of Nagasaki, the emperor’s radio announcement of Japan’s surrender, the rebuilding of Hiroshima. Tanimoto appears to be on the verge of tears. Edwards explains about the disfigured young women that Tanimoto has travelled to help, whom U.S. media called “the Hiroshima Maidens.” (In Japan, these women were understood as members of a much larger category called hibakusha, meaning “explosion-affected people.”) Two of the maidens appear on This is Your Life. “To avoid causing them any embarrassment” the program does not reveal their faces; they appear only as shadows behind a screen. One of the pair speaks at length in Japanese. Edwards translates her statement: “They said they’re happy to be in America and thankful to the United States for what they’re doing now for them.” Of course Edwards doesn’t speak Japanese; he already knew what they would say.

We break for an advertisement for nail polish. This is the second such ad; the first came at the outset of the show. There would have been another in the middle, but, as Edwards explained, the sponsor kindly allowed them to forego that advertisement due to the program’s serious nature.

Once the ad is over, prizes are distributed to Tanimoto and his family: a 16mm film of the episode and a projector with which to watch it; a 16mm movie camera; for Mrs. Tanimoto, a custom-designed golden charm bracelet; for Mr. Tanimoto, cufflinks; and finally, for the Hiroshima Maidens and other hibakusha, a medical fund to pay for their care. Robert Lewis, who has been awkwardly standing behind the couch and over Tanimoto’s shoulder for some time now, finally speaks up: “Mr. Edwards, on behalf of the entire crew that participated in that mission, my company, and my lovely family, I would like to make the first contribution.” (Not everyone in the crew would have appreciated such a gesture: Lewis’s copilot, Paul Tibbets, insisted right up to his death that they had been in the right.) The audience applauds. The sponsors each contribute $500. The audience applauds.

“I know that our audience will be just as generous,” says Edwards, “for this is the American way.”

It is Edwards’s need, the need of his program and the need of their sponsors to retell this story — the story of an incomprehensible horror perpetrated by the American military on behalf of the American people — in a way that allows America to remain the hero. The fact that we destroyed the lives of so many can be forgiven, or at least forgotten, if now we pony up for some of their treatment. The “American way” is not wholesale slaughter, but the selective generosity that follows. It is our magnanimity in bloody victory.

Tanimoto remembered his experience on This is Your Life fondly, according to his daughter, who discussed it with Allison Silverman for This American Life. The minister shared his episode with English-speaking guests to his home and even exchanged letters with Robert Lewis. (I would much rather read their correspondence than see This Is Your Life ever again.) But those letters never assuaged Lewis’s guilt. The pilot later took up sculpture, and his most notorious piece was called “‘God’s Wind’ at Hiroshima?” It was a marble mushroom cloud with blood pouring down the sides.

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