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.