Pitch: One Instrument: Propaganda and Censorship in the Post Atomic Occupation of Japan (A Virtual Reality Documentary)


Immediately following the August 6, 1945, and the August 9, 1945,  bombings of the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the United States Office of Censorship imposed an embargo on the images coming out of the two cities. News reports, as well as scientific information, were tightly controlled and vetted by the Office of Censorship and later by the Supreme Commander ofthe Allied Powers which prevented the American public (and many others in the world)  from learning the truth about the impact of the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. In 2020, the 75th anniversary of the bombing will be observed by both the United States and the Japanese. The story of United States censorship and the impact this has had on the historical narrative about the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki has implications not only for the burden of responsibility for the death of hundreds of thousands of civilians in Japan but also for the current narratives of wartime atrocities committed by the United States. This immersive Virtual Reality (VR) documentary will juxtapose the narrative told by the United States government that covered the human toll in the days immediately following the bombings against the actual embargoed images of the damage. The immersive world of post-atomic bomb Hiroshima and Nagasaki will give the viewer an opportunity to experience the cognitive dissonance of listening to the actual news broadcasts of the time played over the historical footage. This VR documentary will use the latest technology to bring conflicting narratives of the time to the general public. There are two phases to this plan, one to work on a short two-minute prototype of the documentary and the next phase to work on a longer 12 – 15 minute documentary that will be included in the events recognizing the 75th Anniversary.

Proposal Goal.

This proposal proposes the initial research and development of a prototype for an immersive VR documentary that addresses the ethical conflicts that the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki should have immediately produced in the United States population but did not because of the narrative that was imposed by the government’s effective propaganda and censorship campaign. Specifically, this proposal seeks funding to support the investigation of film and audio footage that can be used for a self-directed immersive virtual reality documentary. The documentary will use original still images and footage of the damage to human life and property from the Hiroshima and Nagasaki while listening to the propagandistic narrative that was promulgated by the United States government officials and the press. This will include a 360-degree audio track that will change with the audience/participant’s head direction, so as to move the participant through the logic of the creation of the United States Government as savior and hero of WWII in spite of the atrocities that were committed against the citizens of the Japanese people.  This immersive experience will give the viewer a feeling of the cognitive dissonance that is created by the conflicting images and contrived narrative of the US government.

The idea is to show the viewer how the tightly controlled narrative was instrumental in the later justification of the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.


2020 will mark the 75th anniversary of the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. In 1945, in the confusion and obfuscation of the damage wrought by the atomic bombs, very few images were taken. A film crew from Nippon Eigasha was assigned to make a documentary of the bombing, but the film was later confiscated by the occupying Americans and never to be seen for the next twenty-five years (http://www.hiroshimapeacemedia.jp/?p=27622).

Some may argue about the exact start of the atomic age (The Manhattan Project or the bombing of Hiroshima), but it was following the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki that impact of the nuclear age burst into the popular imagination, despite the absence of the actual images from the scene of devastation. The lack of a photographic record in the crucial first year, the censoring of most stories from Japan and a “heroic” propaganda narrative pushed by the government led to the United States citizens being woefully uninformed about the use of the atomic bomb.

From the outset, the Supreme Commander for the Allied Powers (SCAP) tightly controlled much of the information both within Japan and the international release of information (Braw 45). The persistence of the narrative is astounding, and all these years later it still interferes with what we know now regarding the bombings, the surrender of the Japanese, and the use of propaganda and censorship by the United States. Partly from the tenacity of the narrative in the education system throughout the US (take a look at the Wikipedia page on Japanese censorship under the occupation of Japan) and partly from the oral history that came down from the initial propaganda, the understanding of the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki remains veiled in an argument of doubt and uncertainty.


Ultimately, this VR documentary is modeled on the immersive documentaries of the XR for Change format. The XR for Change format designs immersive documentaries designed to create empathy and understanding of situations that are outside of the user’s everyday scope.

While there have been many immersive documentaries and “viewer directed” 360 films, very few of them have taken on historical events (outside of Zombie Nazi games!) and even fewer are working with historical footage and audio. This presents both challenges and opportunities. Some of the challenges are the physical limits of the actual footage because it is grainy, or shot at the wrong distance or angle. To create the immersive world the user needs to have the 360 vision and all footage has to be “seamed” to create a 360-degree vision of world inside the headset; no historical footage was shot with an immersive structure in mind. The opportunity is to open the door to others who might want to create immersive historical documentaries a la a Ken Burns type of story with still and moving images.

Eventually, this documentary will have a running time of 12 – 15 minutes but the initial goal of this abbreviated prototype will be a running time of about two minutes. The objective is to help create a different view of the history of the bombings and to bring the viewer into a fuller understanding of the way the US government’s narrative shaped and continues to shape our opinions about the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.  The two-minute video will be a proof of concept and hopefully a way to pique the interest of a larger group of editors and historians in order to have the longer video available for mid-2020 distribution.

The vision for this film is that the immersive experience brings the viewer closer to the historical reality of the time. Immersive documentaries are different from the other modes of learning. In the 360 experience, the viewer is inside of a particular world, much like our own lived experience this historical “world” has the advantage of sight and sound simultaneous, unlike the movie or television experience, the viewer is locked into a 360-degree experience of the world just like our lived experience. This allows the viewer to become aware of the moral conflicts through an empathetic experience (and the inability to turn away). But how much and for how long? This will take some trial and error on the part of researchers and editors. In addition, the use of spatial audio or ambisonic techniques in audio will help to guide the user through the documentary with sound cues and techniques such as head-related-transfer-functions where the audio adjusts to the user’s head movements. This should help to guide the viewer in and out of intense viewing periods within the documentary.

For this first part, the techniques, thesis behind the documentary, and the research will be useful to other VR filmmakers. Since the XR for Change Festival will be held in June of 2019, I have applied to present a talk about the process of making this prototype and why the digital humanities is interested in this type of programming for the public.

Issues addressed

Censorship has always been an issue in the humanities from the censoring of library books to the control of media stories; these acts weigh heavily on a healthy democracy, its freedom of speech, as well as academic freedom and first amendment rights. One Instrument will address acts that are antithetical to the functioning of an informed and vibrant society in which the humanities play a central role.

One Instrument sits right in the middle of social action, public information, digital innovation, and general public audience engagement in its humanities focus.

Social Action

One Instrument directly addresses the issue of censorship in a free society and in particular in the United States. As a vehicle for social change, it examines the place of information embargos for the purposes of control of a particular narrative that makes the US government look inept or monstrous. Since the United States has been in a wartime state for the last twenty years, what does that mean to our current society?

Public Information

One Instrument puts together information that while previously available has not necessarily been juxtaposed in this way before by taking old content and revealing it against the backdrop of censorship through immersive technologies.

Digital Innovation

Immersive XR/VR is one of the newest forms of technology for use with the general public. The experience, though, according to Sol Rogers in Forbes, is one that needs to be doled out in small increments of ten minutes. This form of filmmaking can reach a wide audience because it will be available for use on YouTube and other video platforms.

Public Audience Engagement

The level of audience engagement is great since the new technology draws in younger people already accustomed to engaging in this form of media consumption. The subject of Hiroshima and Nagasaki will bring in an older audience interested in looking at the experience of public censorship and WWII.

Enhancing the humanities through innovation

Immersive technologies are currently used for gaming and to a lesser degree for immersive documentaries such as the NY Times “Displaced” an 11-minute 360 video about the perils children face when being displaced from the homes because they have turned into a war zone.  There is also the interactive video, “Terminal 3” which brings a user through the immigration experience at a United States airport port of entry meeting with an immigration agent. These videos are being used to see if they can help the viewer develop empathy towards the subject of the video. These technologies hold much promise to enhance the understanding of the “humanity” part of the humanities by leading people on a journey to investigate experiences that they might never have as a member of a certain group.

Works Cited

Brau, Monica. The Atomic Bomb Suppressed: American Censorship in Occupied Japan: American Censorship in Occupied Japan. Routledge, 2017.

“History of Hiroshima: 1945-1995 (Part 25, Article 2).” Hiroshima Peace Media Center, 2013, www.hiroshimapeacemedia.jp/?p=27622.

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  1. Posted February 3, 2019 at 4:41 pm | Permalink

    Having no experience with the projection of a VR video, I have no idea what the difficulty level on this project would be. What kind of software is needed to convert the videos to VR film? Do we have access to protools for mixing the audio for it? And does anyone working on this project have familiarity with the process needed to do the VR conversions?

  2. Posted February 5, 2019 at 4:08 pm | Permalink

    Being a sensitive subject, what is the plan on how to obtain the actual footage of the bombmings? Do you think that the Japanese would have a more ‘objective’ video documentation of the events?

    • Posted February 5, 2019 at 6:14 pm | Permalink

      The Japanese want the footage everywhere. There are many people in Japan who never want to see the nuclear bomb used again. The United States has a lot of the footage in the public domain. In 1977, most of the documents and films from the occupation were declassified, so it is free for use. I’m not sure about objective. Their experiences were suppressed and the US did everything it could to avoid being accused of crimes against humanity.

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