Saturday, October 10, 2015

Nagasaki Day 1: Atomic Bomb Museum

Nagasaki Day 1: Atomic Bomb Museum
Nagasaki Day 2: Battleship Island (Gunkanjima)
Nagasaki Day 3: Cruise Ship, Glover Garden, Mt Inasa
Nagasaki Day 4: Temple Street, Wrap-up

I'm in Nagasaki this weekend.

We get a lot of public holidays in Japan, and thanks to the Happy Monday System a few of them fall on Mondays making it a long weekend. So this coming Monday is off for Health and Sports Day. To be quite honest most people I know just treat these days off as random holidays without attaching too much significance to the meaning behind it.

By taking the Friday before off as well I had four days off in a row. Had been planning a trip to Nagasaki for some time, glad it's finally happened.

Nagasaki is in Kyushu, one of the four main islands in the Japanese archipelago.

Kyushu (pronounced Q-shoe) is in the southwest of the country. The name literally means nine provinces, which I'm guessing is a historical reference to when it was actually divided nine ways; today it consists of eight prefectures.


Nagasaki city outline
It's a little less than 2 hours by air from Tokyo to Nagasaki. We caught an early morning flight out of Tokyo and landed at 9.30 am. Nagasaki airport is on an island in Omura Bay to the north of the city. There's a bus every 20 minutes from the airport to the city center, the journey takes about 45 minutes.

The city, surrounded by green hills, is incredibly picturesque. Feels very similar to Islamabad or Abbottabad as you're driving through.

Historically, because it sits on a natural harbor, it was a major port in Japan's trade with Europe, starting with the arrival of the Portuguese in the 16th century. Indeed, had it not been for the atomic bombing, Nagasaki today might simply have been known as a bigger version of Hakodate - one of the few connections Japan had to the outside world during long periods of isolation.

Our first stop after an early lunch was the Atomic Bomb Museum. The museum is to the north of the city center, around the area above which the bomb exploded mid-air on August 9, 1945.

According to the official version of events, initially there were 17 cities the US had selected as potential candidates for atomic bombings, including Tokyo, Yokohama, and Osaka. These were eventually whittled down to two: Hiroshima, which had a large Japanese military presence, and Kokura - another place in Kyushu - the site of a large munition plant. After the bombing of Hiroshima, the intended target of the second bomb was Kokura. However, due to intensive air-bombing by the US of nearby cities, on the morning of the attack there was a large smoke cover over Kokura. And so the bomber Bockscar changed course and dropped "Fatman" over the secondary target Nagasaki.

The museum has a replica of the bomb used.

It packed 21 kilotons of TNT, which "was as though some 5,200 trucks carrying four tons of dynamite each were piled together and detonated all at once."

One kilometer from the hypocenter, wind speeds reached 170 meters per second.

It's probably hard to wrap your head around what that means or how fast that is. Consider the strongest hurricanes, known as Category 5 storms, like Katrina. At their most powerful, these storms reach wind speeds of around 180 miles per hour.

170 meters per second is 380 miles per hour. So this bomb within an instant after detonating and a kilometer away from where it exploded produced winds that were more than twice as strong as the strongest recorded hurricanes.

Much of the exhibits in the museum aim to show the effects of the bombing. The long and short of it is that everything in its path was destroyed, incinerated. Usually when there's a fire you call the fire department, except in this case the fire department was gone as well. As was the city's entire water supply. There was nothing left of people except dust, or in some cases, shadows on walls near where they stood.

Having been to the Atomic Bomb Museum in Hiroshima, I somewhat knew what to expect. Nevertheless, you can never really be prepared for what you see.

Here for example is the testimony of a survivor.

Another section of the museum plots the history of nuclear tests since World War II, and also where things stand currently with respect to who has weapons, who's ratified the CTBT, etc.

Pakistan represent
Pakistan represent part 2

Connected to the museum is the Nagasaki National Peace Memorial Hall. The main function of this building is to remember the victims and provide a place for prayer and contemplation. The design fittingly is quite minimalist and actually wouldn't be out of place for an art museum.

In the basement there is the Remembrance Hall. Glass pillars are in the middle, pointing you towards the bomb's hypocenter. While at the far end is a shelf containing names of all the victims.

Remembrance Hall. Glass pillars point to the bomb's hypocenter

Instead of laying floral wreaths at the site, people make connected links of paper cranes called orizuru. These cranes are a symbol of peace and a thousand cranes connected together signify a wish being granted. It's quite common to see arrangements of a thousand cranes around the Memorial. In many instances, these have been created and donated by elementary and middle school kids from Japan and around the world.

Paper cranes linked together, a symbol of peace

Outside, the roof of the memorial extends the glass pillars on top of a reflecting pool of water.

Water here aims to draw attention to the complete lack of it in the immediate aftermath of the bombing.

A bit further away from the Museum and the Memorial is the Peace Park. This area is dotted with memorials and smaller tributes. I've included some of the main ones below.

One is a statue commemorating the 50th anniversary of the bombing, of a woman holding a child. The child is supposed to represent Japan on the day of the bombing, while the woman is the help extended to it by other nations.

This next monument marks the hypocenter, the point directly above which the bomb exploded. It was the first structure built after the bombing, though not in the form it is now.

Before the bombing Nagasaki had the largest Catholic church in East Asia, the Urakami cathedral. Some remnants of the cathedral's walls have been moved to the Peace Park.

Finally, at the far end of the park are the Fountain of Peace and the Peace Statue.

The fountain is supposed to represent an angel's wings. Water again is a symbol for the plight of the atomic bomb victims, many of whom died in search of water.

The Peace Statue was created by local sculptor Seibo Kitamura. The statue's right hand points upwards to signify the horror of nuclear weapons, while the outstretched left hand is a hope for eternal peace.

The statue is not without criticism. Some feel that the local government didn't do enough to preserve the Urakami church, which could have served as a better and more powerful reminder of the atomic bomb, especially coming at the hands of a largely Christian United States. More on that here.

More generally, in the wake of the 70th anniversary of the atomic bombings, current Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has come under severe criticism for passing through controversial changes to Japan's self-defense laws. Very broadly, these changes allow Japan's Self-Defense Forces to support Japan's allies in combat overseas, for the first time in Japan's constitution.

Most of Japan's population is now a post-war generation. So there is concern that the memory and lessons from World War II are fading and that Japan is wavering a bit on its ideology of peace. 

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