Tag Archives: Hiroshima

Nagasaki

On August 6th 1945, the first atomic bomb to be used in war was dropped on Hiroshima. Three days later, and seventy-five years ago today, on August 9th 1945, a second bomb was dropped on a second Japanese city, Nagasaki in Kyushu.

I lived in Japan for twenty-seven years, and two months before I moved back to the UK I decided to visit Nagasaki. My primary reason for visiting was to make a kind of pilgrimage, since Nagasaki was the site of the martyrdom of the twenty-six martyrs of Japan, but I couldn’t go there and not visit the Atomic Bomb Museum. Ever since I visited, I have been meaning to write about what I saw and felt, and I am only just getting round to it today, spurred on by the anniversary of the bombing.

It feels a little strange to be sitting here, on a pleasant August evening in a village in the north of England, but, as far away as a city on the western edge of Kyushu feels, the way I experienced it for three days at the end of January and beginning of February in 2019 still feels very close. What follows is my impressions, the images and the conversations that have stayed with me.

There is a Celtic Christian term for places where the membrane between heaven and earth feels particularly thin or porous: thin places. Whether we consider ourselves particularly spiritual or not, we may encounter an atmosphere somewhere which seems to tug at our heart or call to us in a moving way. Scientists have suggested that this could be attributed to ’emotional residue’, that somehow an echo of something remains and we can tune into it.

I have felt a kind of timeless, otherworldly atmosphere in the small side chapel on the site of Julian of Norwich’s cell. In that place I felt I could sit and be with her, across the centuries, that somehow the world was turning outside but in that quietness I could tune into something going on in another dimension.

I felt the same feeling in Nagasaki, but it did not bring me peace. I walked around the city and wondered at the ordinariness of life going on around me. It seemed like any other Japanese city; people commuting to and from work, buying groceries, schoolchildren in uniform, the red kites wheeling in the sky overhead. It felt normal and yet – I found it profoundly disturbing. It felt like the moment of the atomic blast was somehow trapped in time, and that it was just out of sight, just out of reach, but that across time and space it was there, all the time. I remember walking around, thinking, how can life just continue? Don’t they feel it?

On that first afternoon, I walked up from the centre of the city to the Atomic Bomb Museum. The first exhibits describe the city of Nagasaki on the morning of August 9th; how many people, what kind of work they were going to do. It was just another ordinary Japanese city, its people exhausted by war, still engaged in the hopeless work of contributing to a war effort for a war that was already lost. Following on from there, there are eye witness accounts (as there are throughout the museum) of what happened when the bomb detonated above the city. There are items from Urakami Cathedral, very close to the epicentre of the blast; rosaries, crucifixes, statues. In the subdued lighting of the museum, these objects, particularly the damaged statues, have an eerie quality.

I moved through the museum, trying to take in what I was seeing, but at the same time not wanting to. It’s just too much. The eye witness accounts are told in a matter-of-fact way, the horror recounted without much emotion – the experiences of people who had no words, maybe, to describe the scale of the suffering, and no way of escaping what they had to endure.

I reached the end of the museum and went into the tiny shop to buy a book by Dr. Takashi Nagai (more of him later). I asked the two women who worked there, what is it like to be here every day? They answered enthusiastically, telling me they were glad to be there, that it was a good place to be. Seeing what must have been my horrified expression, they asked if it was my first visit to the museum. Hearing that it was, they said, oh yes, of course, it’s a terrible experience, but working here every day, we see people come from all over the world to learn about what happened here, and to pray for peace, and that makes it a good place.

Although there is a memorial hall where visitors can go to sit quietly, to ponder, to pray, I decided instead to walk the short distance to Urakami Cathedral. Inside, there were ropes strung across to prevent anyone walking around the cathedral, but there were two men sitting at a desk and when I asked if I could go past the ropes and sit to pray, they said I could. I sat there for a long time, at first numb, not knowing what to think or pray. Gradually I found the words: Lord, have mercy.

When I felt ready I walked over to Dr. Nagai’s tiny home, where he had spent the last years of his life. A Roman Catholic convert, in August 1945 Dr. Nagai was working at Nagasaki Medical College Hospital. He had done research on radiation and so was uniquely and horrifyingly qualified to understand the injuries the survivors of the bomb had, and to know the radiation sickness that would follow. His wife was killed by the blast, but their two children had been taken to safety outside the city, following reports of what had happened in Hiroshima. After the war Dr. Nagai built a small hut in Urakami district and lived there with his son and daughter. There he wrote a number of books, including the one he is most famous for, The Bells Of Nagasaki.

By then I felt I had taken in as much as I could, and headed back to the centre of the city, and checked into my hotel. I spent the next day visiting sites connected with the Nagasaki Martyrs. Despite the horror of the persecution of Christians, the facts are inspiring and humbling and I was glad I had decided to visit.

The next day, my third in Nagasaki, was my last. After I had checked out of the hotel I went to Starbucks near the bus station to wait until it was time to catch the bus to the airport. While I was waiting for my coffee, I spoke to the three young women who worked there. They asked why I had come to visit Nagasaki, and what I had thought of the city. In turn I asked them how it felt to grow up there. Did they think a lot about the atomic bombing? No, they said, not really. In primary school we studied what had happened, and of course we pray for the victims every year on August 9th. One of them added, my grandfather was a hibakusha (被爆者, ‘person affected by the bomb’) and because he lived with us, we saw how his health had been affected every day. They were happy to chat and wished me a good journey back to Tokyo.

I felt relieved to leave, and once the bus had passed through a tunnel and was on the other side of the hills that form a kind of basin around the city I felt better, and once the plane took off I was glad to know I was leaving Nagasaki behind. It was a strange experience, an unnerving experience, being in a city where such a horror had happened, and feeling the echoes of that horror. Writing about it, following my steps in my mind, has brought back some of the feelings even now.

The resilience of the human heart is an amazing thing. We get through traumatic events because the only option we have is to go forward. We live with the ideas and memories of what human beings are capable of doing to each other. In China, after the end of the Cultural Revolution, people who had been persecuted, denounced and ‘struggled against’ by their neighbours, and then sent down to the countryside, returned to their former homes and lived near those same neighbours. In Rwanda, in Bosnia, people live with the people who killed their loved ones. We are a resilient species, but we are also capable of inflicting terrible things on each other; we have the scientific knowledge to create terrible weapons, yet also the will to survive the horror others can inflict.

One year at school in Tokyo I gave the Year 12s an assignment to make a poster about one of their grandmothers (or great grandmothers). One of the sections was to be family and childhood. Several girls wrote about Hiroshima:

“My grandmother was born in Hiroshima. A week after the bomb was dropped, she went into the city and saw terrible things. She told us that what she saw was so terrible that she would never tell anyone about it. But she did.”

“My grandmother had an elder brother. She loved him very much. After the bomb he got sick with radiation sickness and died in her arms. Although she got married, and had children and grandchildren, she never got over it. Her heart was always broken.”

Lord, have mercy.

August 6th, every year

Sky at dusk

There are some dates that are not ordinary dates: March 11th, June 4th and two dates this week, August 6th and 9th. So much is written and said every year about the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and every year it seems too much, and never enough.

It seems too much because it feels so overwhelming, the images are so iconic and so horrific. Interspersed with interviews with survivors, dignified and mildly-spoken elderly Japanese people who re-tell their stories of the hell they experienced. It is hard to know what to think, other than, make it stop.

And every year, nothing is ever enough, because the years pass and it doesn’t seem like we ever gain any clarity, we make no progress to making sure it can never happen again. I have no words of wisdom, I only have some snapshots of what I have heard from Japanese people over the years. In the absence of anything else, I offer them here:

About fifteen years ago some students made posters about their grandmothers in my class. Two students wrote about their grandmothers’ experiences of the atomic bombing of Hiroshima. One wrote that her mother was outside Hiroshima that day, but went into the city in the days following the blast. She swore that she would never tell anyone what she had seen, because she didn’t want to pass on the horror, ‘but she did,’ wrote the student. She didn’t write any more, but I always wondered what her grandmother had told her.

Another wrote that her grandmother’s beloved brother was caught in the blast, but wasn’t killed that day. Instead, he died in her arms a week later, poisoned by radiation. ‘It broke her heart.’ Although she went on to marry and have children and grandchildren, there was always heartbreak because of the brother she had lost. Hers was a life put back around unimaginable grief.

There is a remarkable resilience in the human spirit. People live through horror and somehow put their lives back together around it. In China I have met people who lived through the Cultural Revolution, who were treated very badly, got sent down to the countryside, but then years later returned to the city, maybe had neighbours who were part of their persecution, and somehow manage to live with that.

When I first lived in Japan, I met a woman who had lived in China as a young child. I don’t know why her family was there, but her mother had died and as the Japanese retreated she and her father tried to get some money to get back to Japan. She stood by the side of the road, holding her mother’s beautiful kimono, begging strangers to give her a few coins for them.

I have a friend whose mother is from Hiroshima, and was a small child on that day seventy years ago. She was outside the city, but saw the flash when the bomb was detonated. It’s one of her earliest memories.

Mine is of my brother and our dog.

Hers is the flash of the atomic bomb.

What’s yours?

August 9th

 blur

 In Japan August 9th and all the commemorations and remembrances that are every year connected with this date are already over for another year. Here in the UK there are still a couple of hours left. This morning I read an article someone had posted online about the decision by the United States to use atomic bombs to end the Pacific War. While the points it made were ones I had read before, specifically, that Japan was already defeated, but that the US had dropped the bombs to test its new weapons and also to warn the Soviet Union not to try to invade Japan, the quotes from high-ranking military personnel against the bombings were new to me. It all got me thinking about what was done to Hiroshima and Nagasaki and so I have had these thoughts going round and round in my head all day.

The official line is, I suppose, that the atomic bombings of Hiroshima (August 6th) and Nagasaki (August 9th) were necessary to end the Pacific War, that without them the war would have dragged on, and even more people would have lost their lives. This is based on the events in Okinawa, where Japanese civilians fought and died or committed suicide, and there was massive loss of life on both sides. It was believed, apparently, that the same pattern of events would have unfolded across Japan. Certainly, Japan was already on its knees. And equally certainly, the Japanese people believed their leaders (as did the people of the other countries involved in the war) and would have done what they were told. But the atomic bombs? Were they really necessary? Were they really the most appropriate and most expedient way to end the war?

I am no historian, though I do find history fascinating. I really don’t know whether the decision to use the atomic bombs was the correct one. That is why I chose a blur for a picture at the top of this post, because I just don’t know.

But emotionally I know that the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki were wrong. There is something deep and instinctive that reacts in me, that just screams that it was wrong. Even if you want to argue that one atomic bombing was expedient, ended the war, how do you justify the second, over Nagasaki, three days later? And so today I have had three things replaying in my mind, and all I can do is lay them out and wonder if, in writing, I reach some kind of understanding.

Over twenty years ago, when I was first living in Japan, I met a woman who attended the same church in Yokohama. She was maybe ten years older than me and was from the Pacific North-West of the US. Her parents had worked in some capacity on the atomic bomb programme and she was absolutely adamant that it had been right to drop those bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. I don’t remember discussing it with her in any detail, I just remember her being totally convinced and insistent that the bombings were necessary. It came up in conversation, and it just hung there.

Several years later, in the summer of 1995, I was in Washington DC and went to the exhibition at the National Air & Space Museum of part of the Enola Gay. It was the fortieth anniversary of the atomic bombings, and there had been quite a lot of controversy about the exhibition. The original plan had been for a more balanced, comprehensive examination of the events, but after pressure from veterans’ groups the display had become much more narrowly focused.

I remember seeing part of the Enola Gay, and a sign on it telling people that there was no danger of radiation from it. I remember wondering at the mindset that accepted the inflicting of such a diabolical weapon on a whole city, but felt it necessary to reassure individuals forty years later that there was no radiation to harm them.

There was a video as part of the exhibition, interviews with surviving crew members, and towards the end a recording of the navy chaplain praying with the crew ‘for the success of the mission’. The video ended quite suddenly; the voiceover explained that the crew flew over Hiroshima and dropped the bomb. The Enola Gay flew around and watched the explosion, then flew home, mission accomplished. The end.

I walked out of the exhibition in a kind of daze, shocked that a priest had prayed for ‘success’ in such a context. How could anyone think that God wanted human beings to do these things? And also shocked that there was no mention of how many people were killed that day. There was such a disconnect between the bombing and the consequences of it.

And then, at the end of the nineties I went to work at the school where I still work today. One year the final year students made posters about their grandmothers in English class. Two wrote about their grandmothers’ experiences in the aftermath of the bombings. One wrote that her grandmother lived outside Hiroshima but went into the city in the days after the bombing. What she saw was so horrific that she had promised herself that she would never speak about it, but according to her granddaughter she did speak and told her children and grandchildren what she had seen. The trauma of it still echoed in her granddaughter’s words. Another student wrote about her grandmother and the elder brother she loved more than anyone else. He was caught in one of the bombings and died in her arms, of radiation sickness. It broke her heart, the student wrote. Although she went on to marry, to have children and grandchildren and a full and busy life, it broke her heart and she was never the same again. And finally, I have a colleague whose mother is from Hiroshima. She was a toddler on August 6th 1945. She was outside the city but saw the flash of the atomic blast, and that flash is her very first memory.

Living in Japan, I don’t think it’s unusual to hear these stories. I have heard other stories, of grandfathers judged war criminals, of people stranded in China, starving and orphaned, of people growing up in occupied Korea, believing, knowing they were in Japan. I am not trying to portray the Japanese people as simply victims, or to pretend that the Japanese aggression in Korea, China and other parts of Asia didn’t happen.

But the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki are unique in the history of warfare. No other country, as Japan frequently points out, has been attacked with nuclear weapons. Was it necessary to bomb those cities? Did it really end the Pacific War? I really don’t know, because I only have my emotional response, and really, I don’t want to have another response. Some things are so horrific that even being able to comprehend seems beyond my ability. I know the horror is so vast and in knowing that I find I have nothing left to process anything else.