A couple of weeks ago, I had the fortunate opportunity to travel to Nagasaki to visit the Institute of Tropical Medicine at Nagasaki University. Nagasaki, as many (depending on age) know, was the site of the second military atomic attack in history and the first and only plutonium bomb explosion. The explosion on Nagasaki killed 73,884, wounded another 74,909 and sickened hundreds of thousands in the years following the attack. More than 70% of those killed and wounded were women, children and the aged.
Rolling into Nagasaki, however, one would never know that anything ever happened. It is, by Japanese standards, a tiny town, worn down and clearly not nearly as blessed by the Japanese economic miracle as Kansai/Kanto, but a typical Japanese city, nonetheless. There is no subway in Nagasaki due the the unique and narrow configuration of the city along a river delta, but street cars run the length of Nagasaki and can quickly take one to any location. It is a beautiful city with a long and complicated history which has much more to offer than just the atomic bomb attack.
The city of Nagasaki operates an impressive museum on the atomic bomb attack, meticulously detailing its history, the attack itself and the long felt after effects. The museum complex is located not but 50 meters from the bomb site, which is memorialized through a peace and remembrance park. People from all over Japan regularly make the trip to visit the museum and I was not the only non-Japanese present. The presentation itself points no fingers at the United States but rather criticizes war and the horrific destructive power of atomic weapons. The human costs are well detailed through multimedia displays, actual pieces of burned and melted items, human remains, testimonials and data. As an American, it was an intense view of the great costs of Word War II, which are often ignored and mostly forgotten here likely due to the mass suppression of information regarding the horrific effects of the attacks. Unfortunately, American schoolchildren do not see photos of the intense devastation.
There are many in America who view the United States as a Christian country, and criticize, for example, Islam for it’s alleged savagery and backwards brutality. Yet, Christians were responsible for the death and destruction spread across Nagasaki. The atomic bombs were called a gift from God by Truman, yet would Christ himself have approved? Nagasaki is the heartland of Japanese Christianity, at one time providing home to the largest Christian cathedral in all of Asia. Christians in Nagasaki were routinely persecuted, killed and tortured by the Japanese authorities due to perceived economic exploitation by Portuguese merchants in the 16th century. Practicing Christians were forced to conceal their faith for nearly 300 years until the Meiji Restoration in 1868 and, to this day, the Christian influence is obvious in Nagasaki. Conversations with older Japanese people reveal that there was little support for the war all over Japan, but the residents of Nagasaki in particular were the least likely to be in support of the war and the least likely, outside of Okinawa, to have any measure of support for the mainland central government. Yet, the Americans saw fit to exterminate Japan’s largest Christian community and, in the process, burn the massive Cathedral which was situated not but 600 meters from the bomb site. One cannot discount the effect that years of propaganda depicting the Japanese as uniformly less human and calling for their total extermination (like insects) fueled the choice of Japan to serve as a principal attack site.
Conversations with Nagasaki residents reveal that the atomic bomb is very much on their minds, particularly since this year marks the 65th anniversary of the attack. People attempt to make sense of the event and will tell stories of their parents and grandparents who were killed or survived the attack, even if some silently try to avoid any outward signs of having been affected. Survivors of the attack were met with considerable scorn, marginalized as diseased and untouchable for years afterward, being discriminated against for marriage and employment. Movies and literature explore the topic, not the least of which is Ishii’s “Horrors of Malformed Men“, which portrays, in a gruesome and avant-garde fashion, a marginalized community of deformed freaks which operate on the fringes of society. The movie was banned in imagined anticipation of offending survivors, but the result is to marginalize the victims even more. It could be said that the people who died in the initial blast fared better than the survivors.
An older gentleman expressed to me his discomfort at discussing the bombs with an American, but I reassured him that it was me who should be uncomfortable. While there is certainly resentment toward the United States government all over Japan, I never sense any particular resentment toward individual Americans. I do however, feel that Japanese people are disappointed that the Americans ignore their concerns, not only in regards to the bomb attacks, but also toward the continuing difficulties that result from the presence of so many US military bases throughout Japan. This is something I don’t think I was particularly cognizant of when I lived here, perhaps due to a combination of age, education and linguistic ability.
People of my generation were raised to believe that the American military was a force for good. Soldiers were likened to superheroes, selfless defenders of the weak and the oppressed. As an adult, I would very much wish this to be true and I know that there are a great many honorable and proud individuals who join the military hoping to be superheroes. However, as I have grown older, I have come to known that the American military is a force to serve the aims of a self-involved America, protecting American business and political interests around the globe. This, of course, is very much to be expected. World War II was no exception. I would however, greatly wish that the Americans would be those superheroes I was taught to respect but maybe that’s asking way too much.
Many argue that the atomic bomb attacks were a great catalyst which helped to end the war and spared millions of American and Japanese lives. This may or may not be true. People can freely argue history and speculate on what might or might not have been but the ends do not make any wartime actions right. There are some things which are just plain wrong. What the Japanese military did in Nanking was wrong. What the Germans did in Auschwitz and Dachau was wrong. But neither those make the atomic bomb attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in the least bit right.
One thing that my relationship with Japan has taught me is that it is unproductive to search for people to blame. Rather, we should look at actions and events and figure out ways to keep them from happening again. Americans are obsesses with the fight between good and evil, in Japan these poles are mired with shades of gray along with distinctions between groups and individuals. While this attitude is not unique to Japan nor do I put it into practice very well (ask my wife), it’s a laudable goal. As humans, we are all to blame for horrors such as the atomic bomb, as individuals it is our duty to never forget the human potential for destruction.
On the upside, I was able to hang out with the excellent folks from the Nagasaki Tropical Medicine Unit.