Nation & World

In shadow of Hiroshima, a city stands as an afterthought

Tourists visit the Peace Statue in the Nagasaki Peace Park, built in 1955 to commemorate the atomic bombing of the city. That Nagasaki was bombed second after Hiroshima during World War II has made it an afterthought in the history of and debate over nuclear weapons.
Tourists visit the Peace Statue in the Nagasaki Peace Park, built in 1955 to commemorate the atomic bombing of the city. That Nagasaki was bombed second after Hiroshima during World War II has made it an afterthought in the history of and debate over nuclear weapons. New York Times

When Miyako Jodai was 6 years old, the United States dropped an atomic bomb on her hometown, the port city of Nagasaki.

She was knocked unconscious, and her home was destroyed. She spent the next several days huddling with dozens of others in a cave on the side of a mountain.

“I was so scared,” she said. “I was crying, and I stepped on some of the bodies of the injured people, because there was no room to walk.” When she finally ventured out, the city was still ablaze with towering flames.

Jodai was one of the fortunate ones. The bomb dropped on Nagasaki the morning of Aug. 9, 1945, killed about 74,000 people, about half as many as those who died in the bombing of Hiroshima three days earlier.

On Friday, President Obama will become the first sitting American president since the end of World War II to visit Hiroshima. Nagasaki is not on the itinerary.

While invoking Hiroshima has become a universal shorthand for the horrors of nuclear war, Nagasaki, on the southwestern island of Kyushu, has mostly lived in the other city’s shadow.

“We know that the very highest mountain in Japan is Mount Fuji,” said Tomihisa Taue, mayor of Nagasaki, in an interview in his office. “But we don’t know the second-highest mountain.”

Yet many in Nagasaki recognize that Hiroshima, in some ways, stands in for both cities. They say the message they want the world to take from Obama’s visit – that nuclear weapons must never again be used – does not require that he set foot in their city.

Taue suggested that Nagasaki could also serve as a potent coda to Hiroshima’s opening of the nuclear age. “I would like the president to say, from Nagasaki to the world, that this site should be the last place on earth to experience the atomic bombing,” he said.

That Nagasaki was bombed second has made it an afterthought in the history of and debate over nuclear weapons, even though many historians argue that the bombing was harder to justify precisely because it was a repeated act.

If one accepts President Harry S. Truman’s rationale that the Hiroshima bombing was necessary to force Japan’s surrender and end the war, the moral calculus for dropping a second bomb on a civilian population three days later is more contentious.

Close to 700,000 people a year visit the Nagasaki Atomic Bomb Museum, compared with nearly 1.5 million at the Hiroshima Peace Memorial, where Obama will lay a wreath on Friday.

Even in the office of the Nagasaki Atomic Bomb Survivors’ Council, a sticker on a cabinet illustrates the city’s secondary status – “No More Hiroshimas: End the Arms Race Now.”

Jodai, now 76 and a retired schoolteacher, said she admired the president’s decision to visit Hiroshima and understood that his schedule did not allow him to visit both cities. Still, she said, the Nagasaki survivors should at least be invited to the ceremony in Hiroshima.

I feel like Nagasaki has been abandoned and thrown away.

Miyako Jodai, a bombing survivor

“I feel like Nagasaki has been abandoned and thrown away,” she said.

As Japan wrestles with its own history of wartime atrocities, and as scholars and politicians here and in the United States continue to debate the use of the atomic bomb, Nagasaki, in many ways, offers a more complex narrative than Hiroshima does.

One of the earliest Japanese cities to have contact with traders from the West, including Portuguese and Dutch explorers, Nagasaki is also the oldest and densest stronghold of Roman Catholicism in Japan.

When U.S. pilots dropped the bomb the devastation swept across Urakami Cathedral, then the largest cathedral in East Asia. About 8,000 Catholics in the area were killed. For the Nagasaki Christians, long ostracized in Japan over their faith, it was a bitter truth that their community was destroyed by a predominantly Christian nation, in a mission blessed by a Roman Catholic chaplain.

Nagasaki’s Catholic heritage, combined with Hiroshima’s vocal role as a center of anti-nuclear activities, helped give rise to the Japanese saying “Ikari no Hiroshima, inori no Nagasaki,” or “Hiroshima rages, Nagasaki prays.”

At a 6 a.m. Mass on Monday morning, about 100 parishioners sat in long wooden pews in the cathedral, rebuilt not far from its original site. The Rev. Ritsuo Hisashi, the head priest, said he was less concerned about whether Nagasaki was commemorated as a global symbol than about the call for the elimination of nuclear weapons.

Nagasaki’s archdiocese, along with 15 others in Japan, also opposes efforts by Prime Minister Shinzo Abe to overhaul the country’s pacifist constitution, imposed by the United States after the war.

Nagasaki’s leaders have also been forthright in their reckonings with Japan’s wartime actions before the United States dropped the bombs.

Bitterness lingers

In 1990, Hitoshi Motoshima, then Nagasaki’s mayor, was shot and wounded by a right-wing nationalist after he suggested that Emperor Hirohito bore some responsibility for World War II.

Around the same time, a city assemblyman, Masaharu Oka, founded a museum to commemorate the Korean laborers who were conscripted to work in wartime factories in Nagasaki and who were either killed or wounded by the atomic bomb.

Housed in a former Chinese restaurant up a steep hill, the museum has a decidedly handmade feel. In addition to photographs of Korean survivors and a replica of the cramped quarters where Korean laborers lived, the museum displays a gallery of graphic photos from the Rape of Nanjing in China and of Unit 731, the biological and chemical warfare research facility where Japanese scientists experimented on humans in China.

Toshiaki Shibata, the former secretary-general of the Masaharu Oka museum and the son of two bomb survivors, said he was glad Obama would not visit Nagasaki. Shibata, 65, whose dyed lavender hair gives him an impish air, contends that Obama’s visit is aimed at bolstering Abe’s efforts to change the constitution and draw Japan into war.

“It would be better if he doesn’t come here,” Shibata said.

Yoshitoshi Fukahori, 87, a bomb survivor, said he did not quite understand the fuss about the president’s visit. While he welcomes it and hopes Obama will speak of a nuclear-free world, he said he was not expecting much. A visit to Nagasaki, he said, is not necessary.

“After long experience, I see people get their hopes up, and then are disappointed,” he said. “So I don’t want to put too much stock in words.”

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