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Nagasaki’s ‘providential’ nightmare shaped by religious, ethnic undercurrents


Staff Writer

This is the first report in a five-part series looking at the impact of World War II still being felt in Japanese society.

August is high season for tourism in Nagasaki. One morning last week at the Nagasaki Peace Park, the venue for an annual televised ceremony to commemorate the Aug. 9, 1945, atomic bombing of the city, throngs of tourists wearing name tags hanging from their necks were shuffling in and out of buses, snapping pictures in front of the iconic Peace Statue.

Shigeyuki Anan, a 61-year-old local historian, walked past the 10-meter bronze statue of a male deity built after World War II to wish for eternal peace. “It cost ¥40 million to build, at a time when there was no legal protection at all yet for hibakusha (atomic bombing survivors),” he said coolly.

Then he stopped at the remains of old, nondescript stone walls on the park’s edge. “This is part of the wall of a prison that used to be here,” he said, adding that 32 Chinese and Korean wartime laborers, who had been incarcerated there, perished in the bombing. “Not many people, even residents of Nagasaki, know this.”

Seventy years after a U.S. B-29 bomber dropped the plutonium bomb code-named “Fat Man,” wiping out a third of the city, killing 74,000 people and leaving hundreds of thousands more injured and suffering from lifelong effects of radiation, Nagasaki — long overshadowed by Hiroshima as the second city in the world to suffer an atomic bombing — still has many little-known stories to tell.

One longtime taboo is that the A-bomb hit the city’s underprivileged people hardest. Due to a series of mishaps and the day’s weather, the U.S. bomber changed its target at the last minute from downtown Nagasaki to an area known as Urakami, some 3 km north of the city center. Urakami — which was integrated into Nagasaki in 1920 and no longer exists as an official place name — happened to be where descendants of kakure kirishitan (Catholics who went underground in the early 17th century, when Japan closed its doors to the outside world and banned Christianity) and the burakumin social outcasts lived.

The burakumin people in Nagasaki — who made a living from leather-tanning — were relocated to Urakami in the 18th century to live closer to the underground Catholics and were forced to serve as low-level guards to keep the Christians in check.

The plutonium bomb killed 8,500 of the 12,000 Christians and 300 of the 900 burakumin in Urakami, according to the city’s records and other writings from that time.

Anan, who has viewed the atomic bombing of Nagasaki as a lens through which to look at wider issues of human rights and discrimination against religious and ethnic minorities, says some Nagasaki residents — who were faithful to the local Suwa Shrine — took the bombing of Urakami as a sign that non-Shinto believers were “punished.”

“They said the bomb fell in Urakami, not Nagasaki,” Anan said.

Such a sentiment among locals polarized Nagasaki, keeping them from uniting in an appeal for peace, experts say.

Nagasaki’s postwar peace activism has also suffered because there is no monument that can immediately call up people’s memories or spark their imagination on the magnitude of the indiscriminate killing.

Nagasaki has no structure like Hiroshima’s Atomic Bomb Dome, a building used before the blast to exhibit prefectural products, whose skeletal remains have been preserved. The structure was registered as a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1996.

In Nagasaki, less than a kilometer away from Ground Zero was Urakami Cathedral, which had provided spiritual relief to Nagasaki’s Christian community since its completion in 1925. The bombing turned the church, which was called the largest Catholic church in the East at the time, into rubble in a matter of seconds, leaving behind saint statues whose heads were blown off or whose faces were smeared with charcoal.

Despite a campaign by citizens and municipal assembly members after the war to preserve what’s left of the church as proof of the war’s ravages, then-Mayor Tsutomu Tagawa and church leaders decided to demolish the cathedral and build a new one from scratch. Only a fraction of the brick wall damaged by the bomb has been preserved. It now stands close to the Ground Zero site.

The rebuilding of the cathedral and construction of the Peace Statue mark a huge defeat for Nagasaki’s postwar peace movement, argues Shuichiro Baba, a retired journalist for the Fukuoka-based regional daily Nishinippon Shimbun who has written extensively on Nagasaki’s reaction to the A-bombing.

“Nagasaki had a church destroyed,” Baba said. “The United States, the country of Christianity, destroyed a symbol of their faith with a B-29 bomber. If the gutted cathedral had been preserved the way it was, its impact would have been enormous. It would have forever demonstrated and condemned the U.S. government’s responsibility for the atomic bombing.”

Instead, the city commissioned local sculptor Seibo Kitamura to create the Peace Statue. According to Baba, who examined interview and lecture transcripts of the artist from the 1950s, Kitamura “embodied no wish for peace.” The statue was built in the late 1950s, when hibakusha were still struggling to meet their daily needs with no medical or financial assistance from the government.

The semi-nude male deity points to the heavens with his right hand, which is meant to symbolize the horror of atomic bombs, with his left hand stretched to the side to express a wish for eternal peace.

“Kitamura said that the peace statue had to be a male deity, not a female, and that it had to be huge,” Baba said. “After the statue was completed, he laughed off a question from a reporter who asked whether peace can really be achieved in this world, saying humankind can never overcome their desires.”

Nagasaki also remains divided over another local figure: Takashi Nagai (1908-1951), a medical doctor, Catholic convert and best-selling writer, who played a significant role in shaping the postwar image of Nagasaki as “a city of prayers.”

The response to the A-bombing from survivors in Nagasaki is known to be somewhat muted compared to that of hibakusha in Hiroshima, as in the popular expression: “Ikari no Hiroshima, Inori no Nagasaki” (“Hiroshima rages, Nagasaki prays”).

A radiologist married to a woman from a longtime underground Christian family, Nagai quickly rose to fame after the war with essays based on his vivid account of caring for A-bomb victims as a physician despite suffering serious injuries, becoming ill, and losing his wife in the catastrophe.

In particular, “The Bells of Nagasaki,” published in 1949, became such a big seller it spawned a popular song under the same name and a movie based on Nagai’s life. Nagai, who suffered from leukemia, received visitors at his bedside from famous American educator Hellen Keller and even Emperor Hirohito.

Nagai’s remarks and writings, however, have been a source of fierce debate to this day. He suggested in “The Bells of Nagasaki” that the bombing of Urakami was a “providence of God,” and that Urakami was chosen to be a “sacrificial lamb” — views that some observers say were used to buttress the U.S. position that the bombing of Nagasaki helped put a swift end to the war and liberated the rest of Asia from Japan’s aggression. The observers say the comments also silenced other A-bomb victims in Nagasaki with different views on the bombing.

“It has long been extremely difficult to publicly criticize Nagai, as he was lionized by both the Occupation forces and Japan’s ruling class. And because some Nagasaki citizens viewed him as a figure that would boost the standing of hibakusha,” said Shinji Takahashi, a visiting professor of philosophy at Nagasaki University.

Takahashi is one of the first academics to criticize Nagai, writing in his 1994 book “Nagasaki ni Atte Tetsugakusuru” (“Philosophizing in Nagasaki”) that Nagai’s words “left hibakusha in Nagasaki with no choice but to keep quiet.”

“It became taboo to discuss Nagai and his views of the A-bomb, and deprived Nagasaki victims of the option to rage, pursue accountability and seek compensation,” Takahashi wrote.

Anan, before wrapping up a daylong tour of A-bomb-related sites in Urakami, stopped at Nyokodo, a two-tatami-mat wooden studio from where the bedridden Nagai penned his books in his last years. Next to the studio is a monument that says the property in Urakami used to be the house of a chokata — referring to one kakure kirishitan family in each community that was assigned the duty of orally passing on the Christian teachings and ceremonies.

Nagasaki was once home to 50,000 underground Christians, who organized a secret network of believers and passed on their faith over many generations until they were finally liberated in the Meiji Era (1868-1912), when Japan ended 250 years of seclusion and opened itself to Western powers.

Anan said he’s neutral on Nagai, noting that his “God’s providence” comments were meant to encourage Christian followers in Urakami, who, after being devastated by the A-bombing, faced further discrimination.

And while the debate over Nagai is far from over, 70 years on, it’s probably better that way so the war will stay in people’s minds, he said.

“The debate isn’t over, of course,” Anan said. “Sure, he was probably used by the Occupation. But we need to look at his words in the context of Christian persecution in Japan. I think that, through the controversy, we can keep reflecting on what the atomic bombing has meant.”

  • preventallwarsdotorg

    Memories of Hiroshima/Nagasaki Atomic weapons (NW) bombing do cause understandable bitter emotions; but sadly, humanity and its national political leaders have yet not utilised its lessons, because:

    a) those NW bombs were dropped to end a very brutal ‘conventional weapons’ war (CW). Yet, no effective international effort to completely prevent CW’s is evident. If this is accomplished, NW’s become inconsequential;

    b) with post-1945 multiple countries NW’s possession, any further unilateral use would likely invite retaliatory indiscriminate destruction with identical weapons, destroying the initial national political leader ‘attacker’. But no pro-war leader ever wishes to die in any war. (Therefore, NW’s have not been used again despite the many post-1945 CW’s.)
    This personalized/selfish, but very effective, deterrent to post-1945 NW’s is yet to earn humanity’s acknowledgement; its national leaders continually engendering NW’s anxieties.
    (Let NW-possessing leaders continue to harbour them, if they may. But even they inherently know now that their use is in any war is impractical. Yet, they continue to hedge their inevitable voluntary NW’s talks/disarmaments with undue public anxieties.)

    c) with the highly efficient post-1945 NW’s deterrence, priority should be on how to prevent the many/devastating (but now ‘un-winnable’) CW’s. It isn’t.
    And a very well defined and published route now exists to completely prevent them and stop their horrible consequences. However, humanity and its national politicians continue to ignore this, while promoting further anxieties on unusable piles of NW’s!

  • preventallwarsdotorg

    PM Shinzō Abe need to remember that the 6th/9th August 1945 atomic bombing of Hiroshima/Nagasaki occurred during a long and brutal conventional weapons’ war. Therefore, to absolutely prevent nuclear weapons wars (NW), conventional weapons wars (CW) must be prevented. And his compatriots may be trying hard to convey this message to him.

    Recent moves by PM Shinzō Abe to rearm and increase Japan’s involvement in CW wars are not encouraging signs for worldwide wars prevention and Japan’s long-term peace.
    And clear evidence exist from Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria and Ukraine that because of widespread digital technologies/internet usage, worldwide TV news coverage and globalisation; all 21st century wars are very rapidly becoming ‘un-winnable’ for any countries which dabble in them -including all military super-powers!

    China is however still flexing its military muscle against Japan and others in the adjourning South China Sea. And because of past military histories and antagonisms, expected war prolongation and frustrations; and China being a nuclear power, any war with Japan would be very very messy indeed. This should be avoided.

    Japan PM Shinzō Abe and China’s President Xi Jinping need to know that to obtain absolute worldwide war prevention is now very feasible. It is available for everyone’s benefit. National political leaders only need to seek, find and establish its readily available modes.

    Worldwide war prevention can indeed now be obtained easily; but national political leaders need to be interested in the project; just as former Presidents of USA Ronald Reagan and USSR’s Gorbachev were interested in and collaborated in dismantling the mighty USSR and much of communism.