NAGASAKI – There is a section of Shiroyama Elementary School, run by the city of Nagasaki, that does not match the rest of the modern building.
This section has been preserved to remind visitors of the devastating damage inflicted by the atomic bombing on Aug. 9, 1945.
Located only 500 meters from the hypocenter of the blast, the three-story, reinforced concrete building was heavily damaged. Even today, black scorch marks evidently caused by the heat and flames are clearly seen on the walls of the section of the school housing the old staircase.
Some 1,400 pupils were killed at the school or in their homes.
The stairwell section of the school is “the biggest relic” of the atomic bombing of Nagasaki, said 75-year-old volunteer guide Matsuyoshi Ikeda.
Ikeda was a second-grader at the school when the city was attacked. He survived unharmed because he had taken refuge in a bomb shelter, but he lost his parents and grandmother.
In Hiroshima, several large structures — including what came to be called the A-Bomb Dome — have been preserved as a reminder of the Aug. 6, 1945, bombing of the city. In Nagasaki, on the other hand, buildings damaged by the bomb were successively torn down in the process of rebuilding.
Heavily damaged Shiroyama Elementary School was also rebuilt in stages, with only the stairwell section left as it was.
When the city prepared to dismantle it in 1979, Tsukasa Uchida, 83, and other graduates of the school began campaigning to preserve the stairwell to pass on the memory of the atomic bombing to future generations. Their intervention paid off as the city decided to preserve it.
In 1999, this section of the old school building became a peace memorial hall, used to exhibit photos and other reference materials relating to the atomic bombing. It is now visited by 30,000 to 40,000 people a year, including students on school excursions. Uchida, Ikeda and other former pupils work there as volunteer guides and talk about their experiences of the bombing.
“Unlike the Atomic Bomb Dome, you can walk inside the school building here and feel the strength of the atomic bomb blast,” Uchida said.
The building, along with three other sets of remains in the city, including the former belfry of Urakami Cathedral, will shortly be designated as cultural heritage sites by the government. This will be the second designation of atomic-bomb remains after the A-Bomb Dome in Hiroshima in 1995.
“If things cease to exist, they disappear from the minds of people as well and become nothing but old stories,” Ikeda said, suggesting he and other volunteers will step up efforts to preserve the heritage of the atomic bombing.
The bomb dropped on Nagasaki detonated only 500 meters from Urakami Cathedral, completely destroying it.
Although there were calls for preserving the destroyed cathedral as a historical site and building a new church on a different site, Christians in the city decided to demolish and rebuild it in order to establish a place of worship on the original location.
But Christians now have mixed feelings because the belfry of the original cathedral, which withstood the blast, is due to be designated a cultural heritage site, instead of the church itself.
“We couldn’t bear to see the destroyed cathedral,” Catholic Shigemi Fukahori, 82, recalled. “The first thing we had to do was to rebuild it.”
Fukahori was a divinity school student when Nagasaki was hit. On his way home from a shipyard where he worked under a student mobilization program, he was stunned when he saw what had happened to the cathedral.
The 50-ton bell tower had been blown into a small stream 35 meters down from the church. It was too heavy to be moved and remains in the same place even today although the flow of the stream has been diverted away from it.
The year after the bombing, Christians built a temporary church with their donations. “We wanted a place to pray though we lived in shacks,” Fukahori said.
The Nagasaki Municipal Assembly adopted a resolution in 1958 to preserve what remained of the cathedral, but the mayor decided the following year to remove the rubble.
The cathedral “has to be in Urakami,” which is a symbol of local Christians’ faith and persecution since the Edo Period (1603-1868), Fukahori said. “We couldn’t leave it as a wreck.”
While appreciating the designation of the bell tower as a cultural heritage site to remind people of the bombing, Fukahori said, “I’m afraid our devotions may be interrupted as a result of an increase in tourists.”