Portuguese explorers looking for shipping routes. Catholic missionaries looking for converts. Dutch traders looking to swap goods. British arms merchants looking to sell their wares. Opera lovers looking at a lovely Japanese woman waiting for her American lover to return.
Nagasaki, both real and imagined, has been in Western eyes for half a millennium. But no eyes had more effect on the city than those of a Texan named Kermit Beahan.
On Aug. 9, 1945, Beahan was peering down 30,000 feet at the city through a bomb sight in the nose of a B-29 Superfortress nicknamed Bockscar. Beahan glimpsed Nagasaki through a brief opening in the clouds, "pretty as a picture," and released a bulbous, plutonium-packed bomb nicknamed Fat Man.
The atomic bomb exploded 1,840 feet above the city, and in an instant blasted or incinerated shipyards, factories, barracks, temples, churches, schools, homes and an estimated 40,000 people. Within a few days, World War II was over.
Nagasaki is the atomic age's "second city."
"When most people think of the atomic bomb, they think of Hiroshima," said Atka Jimba, a local resident.
Hiroshima was bombed first, three days before Nagasaki. "Hiroshima" would be the title of John Hershey's famous New Yorker article turned into a book. "Hiroshima Mon Amour," the famous French film. Nagasaki, bombed hours after the Soviet Union declared war on Japan and invaded Manchuria, wasn't even the top item on the front page of The New York Times the day it was destroyed.
After the war, Hiroshima was the more iconic choice for atomic tourism. It sits on a main bullet train line south of Tokyo. Nagasaki is tucked between two peninsulas on Kyushu, the southernmost major island of Japan. I had gone to Hiroshima on my first trip to Japan. It wasn't until my fifth visit, nearly 20 years later, that I made it to Nagasaki.
Like most visitors, I arrived in Nagasaki by train, which puts you roughly nowhere. The station sits near the northeast side of Nagasaki Harbor, with the heart of the old city well to the south. The atomic bomb sites are to the north. Still, there were a collection of hotels around the AMU mall and easy transport anywhere else, so I made the train station area the base for my exploring.
NAGASAKI'S CHRISTIAN MARTYRS
The location put me in a good position for visiting the old Christian quarter of Urakami. Portuguese traders arrived in Japan in 1542. Within seven years, missionaries under future saint Francis Xavier spread out across Kyushu and the main island of Honshu. The later conversion of Nagasaki's warlord cemented Christianity's foothold in Japan, especially when he ordered thousands of his minions to follow his example and be baptized.
But Japan was roiled by battles among competing factions. When the warlord Toyotomi Hideyoshi was able to extend his power throughout all of Japan in 1591, he saw the Christians favored by his former enemies as a political and cultural threat. He had heard how missionaries in the Philippines had begun with conversions and ended up with colonialism under Spain. Japan would not follow that path.
In 1597, Hideyoshi ordered 26 Christians from around Japan to Nagasaki and crucified them on Nishizaka Hill. Christianity was completely banned in 1614, followed by the expulsion of nearly all Westerners by 1641.
When Westerners were allowed to return more than 200 years later, missionaries found a small number of Japanese in Urakami who had retained their faith. The Christians were banished from their neighborhoods, but French Catholics built the Oura Catholic Church, facing Nishizaka Hill. It is officially known as the Cathedral of the Martyrdom of the 26 Saints of Japan.
Nearby, a large group relief sculpture memorializes the martyrs. When the last restrictions on Christianity were lifted in 1895, Catholics built the larger red-brick Urakami Cathedral, completed in 1914.
Nagasaki's most popular annual event, the Kunchi Festival in October, has its roots in the attempt to stamp out Christianity. The Suwa Shrine, carried throughout the city, was used to replace the statue of Christ or the Virgin Mary. It was traditional for residents to open their homes to all visitors during the event making it easy for authorities to look for signs of Christian practices. Those who stayed away from the festival were also suspect.
AN ISLAND ON AN ISLAND
Not everyone was evicted by the 17th century order to "close" Japan. A small group of Dutch traders was allowed to remain. These Protestants kept to trade and not proselytizing. Even they were limited to a small artificial island, Dejima, in the harbor. Chinese traders stepped into the vacuum, bringing with them the philosophy of Confucianism, which many embraced.
Today the Chinese-funded Buddhist temples and the memorial to Confucius are remnants of that past. Dejima is no longer an island, having long since been reached by reclamation to give the burgeoning post-war harbor more facilities. But the neighborhood remains a cosmopolitan meeting place in the 21st century, full of restaurants serving Portuguese cakes and Chinese stews, still entertaining foreigners and Japanese alike.
GUNS, ROSES AND A BUTTERFLY
It would take a country that wasn't even in existence when the ban began to end that ban. In 1859, Commodore Matthew Perry of the U.S. entered Tokyo's harbor with what the Japanese called "the black ships." Using a mix of diplomacy and coercion, the U.S. signed treaties to open Japan to trade. Within a generation, foreigners were common sights again on the streets of Nagasaki. President Ulysses S. Grant visited Nagasaki in 1878, planting two banyan trees.
Among the first to move to Nagasaki was Thomas Blake Glover, a British entrepreneur who introduced the locomotive and founded Kirin Brewery, among his many accomplishments. A major source of income came from funneling arms to factions within Japan, particularly those seeking to elevate the largely ceremonial emperors to their long-lost position above the warlords.
Glover built a house surrounded by a beautiful garden overflowing with gaudy rose bushes that today is a top tourist spot. His home, built in 1863 high on the hillside above Nagasaki Harbor, is believed to be the oldest Western-style building in Japan. It's surrounded by many other Western-influenced homes built from 1870 to 1912. Because they were made of brick and stone instead of traditional Japanese woods, many could be restored after the atomic bomb blast.
Glover married a Japanese woman, and Nagasaki is happy to promote the legend that their East-meets-West love story inspired Italian opera composer Giacomo Puccini to write "Madame Butterfly." Nagasaki was the setting of the story of the courtesan Cio-Cio San, who gives her love and then takes her life because of the American, Lt. Pinkerton. Statues of Cio-Cio San and Puccini are set in the Glover Garden, which was restored after World War II. Modern touches include the bizarre sight of air-conditioned escalators that move visitors up and down the flower-filled hills.
Many of the inventions that flowed into Japan through Nagasaki transformed the feudal, farm-based collection of fiefdoms into a modern nation. The locomotives introduced by the West pulled the armaments made in Nagasaki throughout Japan. Ships built at what would become the Mitsubishi naval yard expanded imperial reach throughout the Pacific, their work culminating with the battleship Musashi, with 18-inch guns, bigger than any on a U.S. warship.
Japan grew richer and more powerful, its military pushing into Korea and China before the ultimate clash with the West came — the surprise attack on the U.S. at Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941. What the Japanese called "the Greater East Asian War" would kill millions over the next four years, and effectively came to an end in the summer skies over Nagasaki.
By the morning of Aug. 9, 1945, U.S. and allied forces had rolled back Japanese advances and dropped the first atomic bomb on Hiroshima. The Soviet Union had declared war on Japan and thrust millions of troops into Japanese-held Manchuria.
Having heard no response to calls for an unconditional surrender, Bockscar lifted off from the island of Tinian at 3:47 a.m. with orders to drop the second atomic bomb on Kokura, an industrial center in Kyushu. But the cloud cover so thick that the B-29 couldn't find the city. The crew flew on to its second target, 95 miles to the south — Nagasaki. The bomb was to be dropped on the Mitsubishi shipyards near the harbor.
Cloud cover was thick there, too. But Beahan, the bombardier, finally spotted a clearing and recognized the outline of the city. Fat Man was released and fell to just above the city, where it detonated.
"I saw a mushroom cloud bubbling and flashing orange, red and green," he later told the Houston Chronicle. "It looked like a picture of hell. The ground itself was covered by a rolling black smoke. I was told the area would be destroyed, but I didn't know the meaning of an atomic bomb."
The bomb had been dropped about three miles north of the harbor, on the wrong side of the hills, right on top of the Christian enclave of Urakami. But the plutonium bomb was so powerful that precision wasn't necessary. It blasted then scorched the city, followed by a cascade of radiation that would claim lives for years to come. In all, up to 75,000 would die.
"Concentric circles of death. Concentric circles of the devil," wrote Dr. Tatsuichiro Akizuki, who treated survivors after the blast.
Though the Nagasaki bomb was more powerful than the one used on Hiroshima, the topography of the city saved thousands of lives. In Nagasaki, the ridges around the harbor absorbed the blast and heat. Neighborhoods were tucked into the narrow valleys that ran like fingers down to the sea. But the radiation would spill over everywhere.
Faced with the second atomic bombing in days and a Soviet juggernaut, Emperor Hirohito decided that Japan must surrender. He recorded a message to his people — his high, thin but regal voice heard for the first time by his subjects. Even then, a group of officers attempted a coup to force Japan to keep fighting. It was put down and, after a wave of suicides by top officers, Japan accepted the end. Aug. 14 was celebrated as Victory over Japan Day (V-J Day) in the United States. The official surrender was signed Sept. 2 on the battleship USS Missouri anchored in Tokyo Bay.
REMEMBER — AT LEAST PART OF THE STORY
On the surface, Nagasaki has recovered from the blast. A city of 250,000 during the war, it now has a population of more than 410,000.
From a simple circle of trees planted at ground zero soon after the blast, the memorializing of the bombing has grown to include a museum, memorials and the hypocenter obelisk — the spot over which the bomb exploded.
It's not hard to find the atomic bomb museum and memorials on most days. Just follow the lines of blue uniformed schoolchildren trooping up the street. They come to the hypocenter, marked by a black obelisk. After hearing from instructors, they bow deeply in silence.
Visitors follow a spiral ramp that tells the story of the city and its destruction. More affecting than the photographs are the small pieces in the exhibit such as a melted Rosary or a piece of stained glass from a church, its angel's face scorched and pockmarked. There is a model of the Fat Man bomb, pointed down. A chilling exhibit near the end shows the stockpiles of nuclear arms around the world the thousands upon thousands of bombs much more powerful than the one that decimated Nagasaki. Outside are blackened statues and crumbled walls of the original Urakami Cathedral.
"It happened so many years ago that you have to leave behind the hate," said Atsuko Yakeishi, 50, a resident visiting the museum. "There are lessons for everyone here. My father survived the bombing, but he doesn't want to talk. It is too painful. But I think he has to speak while he can."
Will Roth of Baltimore was a rare American among the visitors the day I visited. He said he came wanting to learn about the bombing from the Japanese perspective. While struck by the awesome destruction, he was unsettled that the museum did little to put the bombing in a context.
"There was one very small part where they said Japan was responsible for starting the war, but it was off to the side. Anyone could easily miss it," Roth said.
An English-language video on Japanese expansionism is a rare example of context. The Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere was officially a way to kick out Western colonial powers from Indochina, Indonesia and the South Pacific.
"In fact it was simply an invasion by Japan," the narrator says.
The area around the museum has dozens of memorials, some fronting busy streets, the light standards for a nearby baseball park looming through the trees.
A monument to women killed in the blast warns: "We must not allow any more war! Nor the use of atomic weapons! Let us guard our precious green earth and preserve all life of every kind."
Tucked away near the elevator for disabled visitors is an uncommon sight, a monument of contrition, stating the Japanese were not the only ones to suffer in the bombing. A marker notes that 10,000 Koreans were killed or injured. It says they were "deprived of the liberty to live as free citizens within their own country," forced by the occupiers to come to Nagasaki to toil in war industries.
Nearby is the white, 30-foot-tall Peace Statue, which was unveiled in 1955 to mark the 10th anniversary of the bombing. A fountain symbolizing survivors' search for water to drink was erected in 1969.
By then Nagasaki was on its way to reconstruction, the Mitsubishi shipyards building oil tankers, while homes and shopping centers went up where once there had been only radioactive rubble
"When I was growing up, there was no visible mark left on the city," said Yakeishi, the local I met at the bomb museum. "It was only later when I learned the history and also found out that people here were still dying from radiation that I knew what happened."
Only a few ruins were allowed to remain, most famously the one-legged Torii, a Shinto arch that had one of its two supports blasted away. It stands for many locals as a great symbol of the city — broken, but not destroyed. It's about 900 yards from the hypocenter.
The necessity and the morality of the bombings would be debated as soon as the fighting stopped.
But at the time, beyond Japan, there was mostly rejoicing that the war was over. Beahan would later say he hoped he was the last person to ever release a nuclear device.
But at the time, bombing Nagasaki was the "best way out of a hell of a mess."
Trains: Nagasaki is not on the Shinkansen bullet train line. It's reached from Tokyo or Kyoto by trains via Hakata Station in Fukuoka. The two-hour trip costs about $45
Plane: Regular fares from Tokyo are expensive — usually more than $800 roundtrip. All Nippon Airways and Japan Air Lines serve the route. ANA's website can be used to book flights on Asia Skynet, a discount carrier. Look for Super Tabiwari Fares. They require a two-month advance purchase. Roundtrips can be less than half of the normal fare. www.ana.co.jp/English. Low-fare seats are limited and sell out early for peak travel periods.
Sights: Nagasaki Atomic Bomb Museum, 7-8 Hirano-machi, Nagasaki. On the web at www1.city.nagasaki.nagasaki.jp. Admission is $2.50. The hypocenter (sometimes spelled hypocentre) obelisk and Peace Statue are nearby.
One-legged Torii, 2-6-56 Sakamoto, Nagasaki, near the hypocenter.
Urakami Cathedral. 1-79 Motomachi, Nagasaki. The original was destroyed in the atomic blast. Rebuilt in 1959 and further remodeled in 1980 to more resemble the original, its courtyard includes the original bell that was toppled by the bomb.
26 Martyrs Memorial, 7-8 Nishizaka-machi, Nagasaki. Sculpture of the Christians crucified in 1597. A small museum is located behind the memorial.
Glover Garden, 8-1 Minami Yamate-machi, Nagasaki. Former Western enclave with gardens and homes. Statuary related to the "Madame Butterfly" story.
Chinese temples: Sofukuji Temple, 7-8 Kayjiya-machi, Nagasaki. Begun in 1629, this Buddhist temple is the oldest surviving building Nagasaki. Confucius Temple. 10-36 Oura-machi, Nagasaki. Known as Koushi-byo, the centerpiece of the 19th century red building is a statue of the philosopher Confucius, surrounded by six dozen disciples. There's a small museum of Chinese history.
"Spectacles" bridge: A Chinese-built bridge whose reflection can create the optical illusion of a pair of eyeglasses. It crosses the Nakashima River not far from the Hamano-machi shopping center.
JR Kyushu Hotel Nagasaki. A good choice for those traveling by train, with a discount for Rail Pass. 1-1 Onoue-machi, Nagasaki. www.jrhotelgroup.com. From $90 per night.
Nagasaki Hotel Monterey. For those looking for a bit of history, this Portuguese hotel off Hollander Slope near the Confucius Shrine is a good choice. 1-22 Oura-machi, Nagasaki. www.hotelmonterey.co.jp/Nagasaki. From $100 per night.
Best Western Premier Hotel Nagasaki, 2-26 Takara Machi. Nice modern hotel in the city center. Easy to make reservations from U.S. www.bestwestern.com.
More information: Japanese National Tourist Organization. www.japantravelinfo.com or 213-623-6301