Visiting Nagasaki: August 9, 2011


August 9, 2011                                 Nagasaki: Sixty-Six Years Later

Shiroyama Elementary School

Today was the 66th anniversary of bombing of Nagasaki.  I was curious to compare Nagasaki’s city memorial to the one we had attended in Hiroshima.  But first we were to attend a ceremony at Shiroyama Elementary School.  The school has a special connection to the anniversary of the atomic bombing.  Satoko told me that on the ninth of every month, the school holds an assembly to remember the student and teachers that lost their lives.  We walked to the school from our hotel and the weather was humid, overcast and threatened rain.

At the school gymnasium we all removed our shoes.  Two rows of five-year-olds were ushered in before us and, as they shuffled by in their matching indoor slippers, I was immediately charmed.  We were seated in the rear corner of the auditorium and were surrounded by rows of children ranging from about five to thirteen years of age. In the United States the room would be in chaos with its occupants threatening mutiny within a matter of moments.  But these children all sat in orderly rows, facing forward with their knees raised close to their chests.  Some would peek cautiously at us before quickly turning back around.  If a child moved, a teacher would gently nudge them back in place.

The ceremony began with an address made by who I assumed was the principal.  Afterwards, the children stood in unison and sang a song and presented rows upon rows of paper cranes to a makeshift altar at the front of the auditorium.  They even made a water offering in memory of the victims lost.  On this day sixty-six years ago, an atomic bomb obliterated the children and teachers of this school.  As I listened to the children’s voices raised in song, I couldn’t help but picture the blast of a plutonium bomb and all of these little lives disappearing in an instant.  I found the wall of stoicism I had been able to maintain throughout the trip begin to crack.

The assembly ended and our group made a quick visit to the school’s small museum.  It had been fashioned out of the remnants of the school building destroyed in the blast.  There were photos of the destruction of the school scattered among children’s drawings and more paper cranes.  By the time everyone had exited the museum, we had become a bit late for the memorial so we hurried through the rain to the ceremony. All evidence of last night’s candle ceremony had already been cleared away.  By the time we arrived, all the seats had already been filled.  But fortunately, there were screens set up directly outside, so we were still able to watch.  The ceremony was in Japanese without the simultaneous interpretation that we used in Hiroshima.  Luckily, the programs we were given had an English translation.

Nagasaki City Memorial

If Hiroshima’s memorial was for the politicians then Nagasaki’s memorial was for the community.  There was a minute of silence much like in Hiroshima, but instead of a single bell tolling the city had requested that all of the churches throughout the city participate.  It was so moving to know that even the people who were not at the ceremony were still able to participate in the memorial.  Hibakusha spoke and, once again, children sang.  Here, I feel like the city makes a conscious effort to educate their children about the atomic bombing and integrate them into the city’s remembrance ceremonies.  Following the ceremony, we gathered once more in the basement of the Hibakusha shop.

Reflection Meeting

Our group was joined by Rumi Tanaka, who is the founder of the city’s Atomic Bomb Survivors Council.  Tanaka was thirteen at the time of the blast.  Out of his six family members, five were killed. His group now works for the abolition of nuclear weapons and for the compensation of victims, both living and dead.  Like most of the Hibakusha we have listened to, Tanaka emphasized that the average age of a Hibakusha is seventy-seven.  They will work as long as they can, but the survivors need younger generations to carry on their cause.  I am surprised that it has taken me this long to realize why so many Hibakusha have been willing to meet with our group.  They all seem to be aware that their numbers are dwindling fast.  And once they are no longer living, who is going to remember them?  Who is going to tell their story?  As each one gives testimony, they have the expectation that we will be the ones to keep their memories alive.  As we sit here and bear witness, we have the responsibility to pass on the lessons born from their suffering.  When we leave Japan, we do so carrying this new weight upon our shoulders.

Farewell Dinner and Karaoke: Revisited

I spent the next few hours of free time wandering about Nagasaki with Tom and Allen in what would be another fruitless search for Japanese t-shirts with nonsensical English phrases on them.  We found ourselves in a shopping mall that was enormous with a super market and movie theater attached to it.  We had a surprisingly great lunch in the mall’s food court.  We explored a bit more, stumbled upon Andy, and the four of us made our way to the train station, where we met up with the rest of the group and headed to our farewell dinner.  Dinner was great.  The open bar was even better.  Elisa plied our table with her own concoction of muddled oranges and sake.  It was fascinating to see some of the Asian students let loose, some doing so much more than others.  I turned at one point only to see Bamba, our fearless Peace Family leader, chugging a third of a pitcher of Kirin.  Koko wandered through the crowd, asking students “Are you happy?” with her sweet smile.  Atsushi made a point of speaking with every student, thanking us for our insights and comments.

Towards the end of the dinner, Dr. Kuznick asked Allen and me to present a gift to Atsushi and we could not have been more excited.  Allen immediately turned to me and said, “Okay, I know exactly what I’m going to say.” I let him take the lead and was so glad that he did, because what he said was perfect.  As I knelt reverently at Atsushi’s feet to present him with is gift, this is what Allen said: “Atsushi, I think I can speak for everyone when I say that the thing we will miss most is your absolute radiance.” I could not have put it better myself.

Thanks to the open bar at dinner, karaoke was a bit more raucous tonight.  The rooms were more integrated and most of us spent the night hopping from room to room.  At one point, I discovered the ‘party room,’ as Tom called it.  Here, I sang a Weezer medley with Yuya and Nick.  Yuya has worn a Weezer tee nearly every day for the past two weeks and I think he was thrilled to find student who knew who the band was, let alone know the lyrics to their songs.  Nick then became a karaoke god, stealing the heart of every girl in the room with his impeccable rendition of the Pokémon cartoon theme song.

The Hypocenter

Back at the hotel, we ran into Allen on our way up the elevator.  I hadn’t realized that he had left the night’s festivities early and had spent the last couple of hours walking.  He had gone back to the hypocenter and offered to take us back there with him.  I thought it sounded like a nice way to say goodbye to Nagasaki and Nick, Elisa, Tom, Allen and I headed back into the night.

Sometimes profound moments have a way of sneaking up on you.  I’ve spent the last ten days waiting for something.  I had been expecting something- a lecture, a photo or a lock of hair- to give me some great revelation.   Hoping for some alteration of my perception that would allow me to glean some brilliant insight into the problem of nuclear technology.  Instead, Tom almost tramples a kitten.

The five of us had made our way to the hypocenter.  It was now dark, devoid of spotlights, tourists or their cameras.  The cairn stood there in the night, nearly blending in with the trees behind it.  We made our way towards it while Tom and Allen debated whether or not modern jazz was the only authentic music genre.  I stop the group as Tom neatly steps over a tiny orange, striped kitten, which merely rolls over, stretches, and playfully bats at his shoe.  He picks her up and we all begin to lavish her with affection.  The kitten’s purr fills the night air.

Next to me, Elisa begins to sob quietly.  She sits on the ground and I follow her, gently rubbing her back and asking her if she is alright.  We all settle on the ground with her, directly in front of the hypocenter.  The kitten, apparently pleased that we have decided to stay for a while, settles in front of us and bathes herself.  Once she has made herself presentable, she moves among us, gently butting up against our hands before settling down once more.  It was unsettling to see something so young and vibrant thriving on the site of so much destruction.  Elisa speaks through her tears, “Do you realize where we are? Do you realize what happened here?”  We are all silent.  We are all crying.

The past several days, I had felt a vague disquiet about all I had seen and heard on my visit.  Each city memorial, hall and museum had left me somewhat dissatisfied.  As we sat there, we shared a moment more poignant than any service or ceremony that we had witnessed on this trip. I finally was able to feel with these four people what I had been numb to for the last ten days.  Our group has been engaged in intellectual debates about the risks and merits of nuclear weapons.  We all played with rhetoric and dissected political machinations and in doing so lost sight of what should have been a very simple conclusion. After visiting Hiroshima, I was heartbroken.  Here, in Nagasaki, I became angry.   On this spot, the United States dropped a bomb that didn’t merely kill men, women and children.  It vaporized them as though they had never existed.  No one should ever have that kind of power.  The Atomic bomb doesn’t let individuals play God.  It allows them to become the four horsemen of the Apocalypse.

Nick is the first to leave.  He first walked up to the monument and prayed for a moment.  I hear him whisper, almost helplessly, “I wish I had water with me.”  Other similar offerings already lay at the foot of the obelisk.  As Nick heads back to the hotel, I know that I can’t leave without paying respect in some way.  I rifle through my messenger bag for a pen and paper.  I use them to write a letter to Nagasaki, to the dead, and to the Hibakusha still with us.  On this trip, I had brought with me a book of short stories by Neil Gaiman.  Gaiman opens his book with a quote that had stuck with me since the flight to Osaka.  I had wondered at its meaning but I think I may finally understand it.  So I wrote, quite simply:

“But where there’s a monster there’s a miracle.” –Ogden Nash, Dragons Are Too Seldom

From the ashes of an unspeakable nightmare rose a community motivate by neither revenge nor hate, but rather driven by love and the desire for peace.  Nagasaki, you have inspired a resolve in me to become an advocate for change in this world.

Amy Langford, United States of America (August 9, 2011)

I stood, folded my letter, and gently placed it atop a profusion of paper cranes at the base of the monument.  I whispered a goodnight to my new friends and, with nothing else to say, I walked alone back to the hotel.


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