Thomas Kenning: Solemn Feats of the Atomic Tourist

solemn feats

The following is an excerpt from Thomas Kenning’s ebook, Solemn Feats of the Atomic Tourist: A Peace Tour of Nuclear War in Japan.

Chapter Ten – Make music, not pleasure.

In the annals of history and in the minds of the outside world, Nagasaki will always be second to Hiroshima, and therefore tragically dispensable.  When people hear the name “Hiroshima,” they are most likely to cluck their tongues in pity.  When they hear the name “Nagasaki,” they are more likely to say “Oh yeah.”

Today is the sixty-sixth anniversary of the bombing of Nagasaki.  It’s the day that people from the outside world are more prone to take note of the city.  But here, the whole city seems dedicated to repeatedly, every five minutes or so, nudging its citizens and reminding them – it happened here, too.  There are the peace park and the museum, of course.  The hypocenter marker and the one-legged torii.  It’s easy to encounter any of these by chance while walking around the Urakami neighborhood.  But there are also the decorative tiles placed sporadically on the sidewalk which cherry blossoms – the Japanese symbol of peace and friendship.

And then there is Shiroyama Elementary School.

Shiroyama Elementary School

Rain falls gently in starts and stops.

Our Peace Tour has been invited to the memorial convocation at Shiroyama Elementary School.  The campus sits half a kilometer from the hypocenter, high on a hill, at nearly the same altitude at which the bomb detonated.  There were no other structures in a line of sight to deflect or absorb the fury of the bomb.  As a result, the school was hit with the full force and heat of the blast.  But the school had a strong concrete construction, so the building still managed to survive partially intact.  It may have actually been worse, then, that the students were outside of its protective walls, enjoying their summer break.  Outdoors or in their wooden homes, they stood little chance of survival.

Unlike Hiroshima, Nagasaki requires their municipal schools to hold session on the anniversary of the bomb’s blast.  The idea is, as time passes, to not let this become just a day off, but to ensure that the memory of the bomb is not lost.  It is a savvy move on the part of a city attempting to ensure that as a symbol of peace the bomb is not forgotten, either.

The bomb is an integral part of this school’s identity.  It holds a similar memorial ceremony not just annually on the ninth of August, but on the ninth of every month.  Between that and the nuclear museum housed in a preserved portion of the bombed-out 1945 school, and the massive shrine of paper cranes in the school courtyard, these kids are confronted almost constantly with the memory of a bomb that was dropped six decades before they were born.

At this young age, they probably spend more time thinking about weapons of mass destruction than most Americans will in their whole lives.  Sitting on the gym floor in neat, even rows as their classmates on stage offer messages of world peace, do these children’s minds wander to lunch or baseball?  Does the repetition of the horrible render it mundane in the same way that the casual violence of a video game desensitizes American children?  I wonder, what is the point of diminishing returns for all of this remembrance?

 That said, as I look around me, there are a number of my fellow Americans moved to tears at the spectacle of hundreds of somber schoolchildren, their voices raised in unison.  When asked to contemplate the dead, they respond by singing songs of peace.


Nagasaki Peace Memorial Ceremony

The clouds that have hung menacingly overhead since yesterday finally break open.  The rain clears and the sun appears, much as it did sixty-six years ago today.  It was similar cloud cover that spared the primary target for the “Fat Man” bomb, the city of Kokura.  The people who lived there went about their day, maybe grumbling about how cold and wet it was, oblivious to the fact that a rainy day had saved their lives.  But conversely, those rays of sun that appeared in the skies over Nagasaki forecasted its doom.  Our fortunes are made in the heavens.

                As we queue up near the Nagasaki Peace Memorial Park, the heat is sweltering and the humidity is oppressive.  The crowd is large, but still only a fraction of the size of the crowd at Hiroshima.  It seems to be a much older crowd, too.  One imagines that many of these people aren’t here exclusively out of an interest in the antinuclear or peace movements, but because they have some personal connection the bomb.  They are hibakusha or know someone who is or was.

                The form of the Nagasaki Memorial Service is familiar from Hiroshima.  Superficially, they are very similar, featuring a large congregation around the city’s central memorial to the dead, speeches from politicians, and the release of doves.  This feels like a ceremony more for the people than for the politicians.  Quite noticeably, in Hiroshima, no hibakusha speak during the formal ceremony.  In Nagasaki, a hibakusha offers the most moving speech of the day, recounting her personal experience as well as articulating a message of peace.  In Hiroshima, individuals were invited to lay flowers on the memorial for the dead, but this took place after the conclusion of the ceremony, while the attendees were filing out.  In Nagasaki, this is one of the central acts of the ceremony, giving survivors and attendees the chance to participate directly in the proceedings.

Well, attendees aside from our Peace Tour.  We’ve been shut out of the main ceremony due to lack of seating, so we watch the proceedings from a television monitor set up outside of the park, in front of the hibakusha shop.  The sun beats down from a clear sky now.  An old woman nearby faints in the simmering heat.  Japanese cops, capable and without guns, rush from four or five directions to come to her aid.  They carry her prone form into the air-conditioned cool of the hibakusha shop.

The symbolism here in Nagasaki centers on what was absent sixty-six years ago.  The memorial statue itself is a man extending one arm in prayerful mourning and the other in prayerful peace, two impulses that, if they had been heeded in the final summer of the war could have avoided the tragedy of the atomic bombs all together.  Large wooden pails of water are laid before the memorial to acknowledge the dying pleas of the bomb victims for mizu – water.  At 11:02 am, the precise time that the bomb dropped, a woeful air raid siren sounds over the city.  As in Hiroshima, that alarm was never raised all those years ago, but would have saved many more lives if it had been.

I have stopped sweating, a sure sight of oncoming heatstroke, and I take refuge with Allen and Amy inside the shop, too.  The ceremony is coming to an end, in any event.  Amongst the shops blown glass cranes and fine china rice bowls, I find a set of postcards featuring scenes of the atomic devastation of Nagasaki – the mushroom cloud, the ruined buildings, even the dead and wounded…  It’s the convergence of the grandiose and the mundane.  I have to buy it because I can’t believe it.  What are you supposed to do with these?  Are you supposed to send a card with a picture of a bombed-out elementary school serving as a makeshift field hospital full of the wounded, miserable people and a note like, “Thinking of you in Nagasaki?”

Kitsch is possible even when the theme is massacre, it seems.


So did the atomic bomb work?

Of course we know that two bombs detonated killing a combined 150,000 by year’s end and leveling the better part of two cities in the process.  But for all that death and destruction, it’s not clear that this display of power convinced the Japanese government to surrender.  The United States had been routinely leveling Japanese cities through the use of conventional bombs for months by the time surrender came on August 15, 1945.  For example, the infamous March 9-10, 1945 raid on Tokyo left 16 square miles of the city in rubble and 100,000 people dead, an attack easily on par with the immediate destructive capacity of the atomic bomb.[1]  Why would the Japanese care if the United States could deal this kind of devastation from one bomb or a thousand?  Indeed, in the declassified memos detailing the Imperial leadership’s decision to surrender, the entry of the Soviet Union in the Pacific War on August 8 is of much greater note than the atomic bomb, which warrants precisely no mention in those documents.[2]

Maybe the atomic bomb didn’t work on the Japanese.  But the Soviets got the message loud and clear.  Truman’s closest advisor, Secretary of State James Byrnes famously forecast that the bomb was not going to make the world safe for democracy – it was going to make it safe for America.  The United States tried to keep its development a secret from its supposed ally, though Stalin knew of its existence thanks to the infiltration of the Manhattan Project by Soviet spies.  He understood the implications of Hiroshima quite clearly, responding to the bomb’s detonation – and this American duplicity – by jumpstarting the Soviets’ own nuclear program.  This tension would ultimately contribute to a breakdown in postwar relations and a dismal arms race that would last for over fifty years.  But for five years in the late 1940s, the United States was the only nuclear power in the world, and as such, enjoyed a position of dominance in international relations.  The atomic bomb was not the last shot of World War II.  It was the opening shot of the Cold War.

[1] David McNeill. The night hell fell from the sky. Japan Focus, March 10 2005.

[2] Gar Alperovitz , The Decision to Use the Atomic Bomb and the Architecture of an American Myth.  (New York: Knopf, 1995).

Thomas Kenning holds an MA in History from American University and currently lives in Washington, DC.

Solemn Feats is now available as an ebook here on Amazon.

Check out his other writings and musings:  and


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