Monday, August 9, 2010


(The setting here is 1995, yet rewritten in 1999 to include the (then) current political activities of Nagasaki's mayor and residents.)

Compared with its counterpart in Hiroshima, Nagasaki`s Peace Museum is much smaller. But where the exhibits lack in size they make up in emotional power. Here, it is strictly about the bomb`s effects on the victims, free of any politics or moralizing. Rubble lies on display under glass. The photos are horrifying. One picture I had seen in various books. It shows a woman lying on her side on a blanket, with a look so blank it`s as if she has transcended the pain and confusion around her. The look is of a person resigned to death. It is an image that shocks me each time I see it and haunts me still.

But it`s the poems and drawings by children which tear into you the most. The stories are so sad, of losing parents, of witnessing terrible things, yet being completely incomprehensible to it all. My friend and I leave the museum in silence until she says, “My heart hurts.” We continue walking until we reach the one-legged torii, one leg of this Shinto arch blown away by the bomb. From a distance it appears perfectly solid. What a perfect metaphor for the justification for nuclear weapons: the simultaneous prevention of, and preparation for, war.

The next morning, the ninth, we follow a large crowd up a flight of stairs into the Peace Park. Out front, there are many photographs of the victims and the damage to the city. As I look at them, a news team begins filming me, making me feel incredibly uncomfortable and conspicuous. I don`t like them intruding on this private moment of mine, yet aren`t I, in looking at these pictures, currently intruding on the pain of someone else? In any case, the camera crew, in assuming I`m American, films my reaction to the photos as if courtroom footage of a man when pronounced guilty.

After passing through metal detectors, we join the crowd of twenty-eight thousand. This service begins much like Hiroshima`s did, with flower and water offerings, a speech, then the minute of silence. As in Hiroshima, the latter was as moving as it was tragic. Somewhere behind me a woman wails, a sound so mournful that tears begin to well up in my eyes. Here in Nagasaki, the schoolchildren sing of the dead , their shrill voices cutting out the sound of the cicadas as they hover above the crowd. When the politicians begin their speeches, people begin to file out. As I leave, I pour water over a black stone, then say a prayer for the dead, knowing that my thoughts can little more console the dead than can the hollow words still ringing on the mikes.
I`m still not sure what brought me to the services. An odd curiosity? A hope to feel closer to the people of my host country? Or maybe a sense of Catholic guilt and a hope for atonement for my country`s sins? Judging from the large number of foreigners with blank looks, peace activists carrying placards, neo-hippies singing, Native Americans beating drums, or Hindus bearing pictures of Gandhi, it appears that what everyone really wants to do is to look forward and do whatever`s possible prevent these memorials from spreading to other cities. The people of Nagasaki have been especially active here, Mayor Itcho Ito in particular. He traveled to New York last May and was present at the commitment by the five major nuclear-armed states to eliminate all nuclear weapons. Yet Nagasaki`s goal had always been elimination within this century, which doesn`t, at the moment of writing, appear feasible. This autumn, a group of NGO`s and citizens will gather in the city in order to continue the fight...

Meanwhile it seems most Japanese are tired of looking back and want to forget. While the hibakusha live day to day with the effects of the bomb, most Japanese don`t appear to think much about those two days in August. With recent nationalistic statements made by top politicians, with the national anthem and national flag given official status without public debate, and with the Diet preparing to reevaluate Article 9 of the Constitution, Japan at the close of the Twentieth Century is becoming more and more an unfriendly place. I sincerely hope that to the people of Japan, “Peace” means more than just a popular brand of cigarettes.

On a hill in Nagasaki is a monument dedicated to twenty-six men who were martyred for their Christian beliefs. At the beginning of this century, the Japanese revered their Emperor as divine, the latest in a long line reaching back more than two millennium to the sun Goddess, Amaterasu. Perhaps the Japanese, like the saints on the hill, were punished for this blind religious belief. In their case, however, the tragedy was multiplied ten-thousand-fold.

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