Sunday, August 9, 2015

Nagasaki Reflections

Today marks the 70th anniversary of the bombing of the Japanese city of Nagasaki, an act that, along with the bombing of Hiroshima on August 6, led to the unconditional surrender of Japan, thus bringing an end to World War II.

In American history, the bombing of Nagasaki is often overshadowed by the bombing of Hiroshima.  I learned in high school history that two atomic bombs were dropped on Japan in August of 1945, but the only one I really remembered (prior to 2008) was Hiroshima.  I'm assuming that Hiroshima made the more lasting impression on me for several reasons.  The first is that the book Hiroshima by John Hersey was a required reading for that class and I have a knack for remembering book titles.  The second and probably most important reason is that the Hiroshima bombing was the first ever atomic bombing (after the initial test) and usually the first of anything gets precedence in our collective memory.  The detonation of the uranium based "Little Boy," as it was known, unveiled mass destruction the likes the world had never known before.  Hiroshima was a game changer.

As I alluded earlier, I failed to remember the bombing of Nagasaki prior to 2008.  (To clarify, I didn't forget that there was a second bombing, I just never committed the name of the city to memory as I did Hiroshima.)  In 2008, I had the unique opportunity to visit Nagasaki while chaperoning a People to People Student Ambassador delegation.  During that visit, I gained a profound appreciation for the Japanese city that was never a primary target for the atomic bombing, but rather just a Plan B.  (The target for the second bombing was the city of Kokura.  Due to poor visibility, the plan to bomb Kokura was scrapped and Nagasaki, a secondary target, was bombed instead.)

While in Nagasaki, we visited the Nagasaki Peace Park, which is located near the hypocenter of the explosion.  (A hypocenter is similar to ground zero.)  

The park features many memorials and gardens but is dominated by the massive Peace Statue.  It is said that the statue's right arm points upward as a warning of nuclear weapons.  The horizontally extended left arm is meant to symbolize peace.  The statue's closed eyes symbolize prayers for the bombing victims. 

Also within the Peace Park is a smaller area called the Hypocenter Park.  This is the area directly beneath the hypocenter, where the bomb exploded 500 meters above.  It features a tall black column in the center surrounded by concentric, ground level circles that radiate outward like ripples. 

Physically being there evoked a solemn response in all of us, even in the typically bubbly and talkative teenagers.  As I noted in my journal,

"It was an eerie place, a place that causes one to whisper, much like Ground Zero in New York City.  There must be something innate with us all that senses when a place is hallowed ground, for we adults did not have to remind the students how to act or to keep their voice levels low.  They just automatically did it; many of them didn't speak at all."
Our delegation also visited the Nagasaki Atomic Bomb Museum.  I must admit, I was quite nervous while touring the museum.  Even though I had nothing to do with the bombing of Nagasaki, I wasn't even alive during WWII, I still felt as if it might be a sensitive area for many Japanese given that so much death and destruction resulted from the two bombs that my country dropped on them.  (For the record, I believe the United States did what it had to in order to end the war that the Japanese brought to us in 1941.) History, despite its facts, is still sometimes subject to perspective.  I was apprehensive on how the events of WWII, especially the atomic bombings, would be portrayed in this museum.  I was very concerned that the students and I might be on the receiving end of  some ill feelings as we toured its exhibits and artifacts.  I mean, it was pretty obvious we were Americans and it wasn't like we could blend in.  We truly stuck out like sore thumbs.

Despite my concerns, I was pleasantly surprised on how well the events leading up to that fateful day were depicted.  There were many before and after photographs of the city as well photographs of the city's reconstruction.  Artifacts that survived the heat and force of the explosion were also on display: coins that melted together, a glass bottle that melted into the concrete, ceramic roofing tiles that bubbled, and a clock that remains forever frozen at 11:02 (the precise time of the explosion).  It was a very somber experience, especially seeing the affects that the bombing had on the inhabitants of Nagasaki, but one that I found very eye opening and educational.  It was a sad reminder that war, regardless of who the winner is, is never pretty.  

Despite my initial reservations and nervousness, I was very relieved at how well we were treated and accepted by the Japanese visitors who were also visiting the museum.  This experience was one of many during my two week visit to Japan.  Overall, I found the people of Japan to be the most gracious and respectful of all the different cultures of the world that I have encountered in my travels.  They made a profound impression on me. 

I applaud the Nagasaki Atomic Bomb Museum, for it has taken great responsibility for educating its visitors and in trying to ensure that the horrors its city experienced is never again repeated.  There is a section in the museum that encourages each visitor to think about war and the immediate and lasting effects of nuclear weapons.  Above all, the museum encourages peace.

Strands of origami paper cranes, in quantities of 1000, that have been left as offerings of peace by individuals or groups.

A collage made of paper cranes.

I take great comfort in knowing that the bomb that decimated the city of Nagasaki seventy years ago today is also, to date, the last atomic bomb that's ever been detonated.  Hopefully, it will remain that way.

Wishing you health, happiness, and peace.

The Washington Post has a great illustrated history of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings if you are interested.  Click here to view.

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