Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Nagasaki, August 9, 2010

“From a blackened body came a faint voice; ‘water, water, water…’”

I arrived in Nagasaki on the afternoon of the 65th anniversary of the atomic bombing of that city. From the number of tourists waiting for the unreserved cars on the train, I thought there would be a crowd of visitors here, like in Hiroshima, if not the same international attention. But when I made my way to Hypocenter Park in the suburban area of Urakami, it was fairly unpopulated. The Nagasaki Atomic Bomb Museum was excellent. Maybe it was the lack of crowds, but I think it was the design of the information that was much more effecting. Someone I met in Hiroshima told me that there were more pictures taken in Nagasaki immediately after the bomb for some reason, so that there are many more pictures of dead and dying people. This was certainly my experience of the museum.

It’s very difficult to put this all in words. Do I tell you how the museum gave an excellent explanation of how the blast, the fires, and the radiation impacted the topography and people of Nagasaki, this narrow bay surrounded on three sides by mountains? Do I describe the horror of the pictures, like the one of an adolescent girl, seemingly unharmed but terrified, standing in front of a charred skeleton? Or how the evidence of the bomb on structures (here are roof tiles – see how the surfaces boiled? here is a deformed fire tower – see how its metal supports warped?) somehow provided me relief from the evidence of the bomb on humans (here are Dr. so-and-so’s glasses taken from his dead body, here is the shadow of a fire watchman coming down a ladder burnt into a wall, here are the bones of a human hand in a melted bottle). Do I tell you about the pictures and recordings and writings of the hibakusha, the survivors? Do I mention that maybe the Hiroshima museum did a better job of complicating the role of that city in the war than did the Nagasaki one? Do I tell you how the museum took me right back to the early 1980s and my acute and daily fear of nuclear war, shared by many the world over. (Do you remember, as I do, watching The Day After on TV, and how no advertisers would buy ad space once the bomb went off?) Do I describe the room that parallels the post-WWII arms race with the anti-nuclear movement, and establishes solidarity between Nagasaki and people in places where nuclear weapons are developed, tested, and dumped: the Bikini Atoll; Nevada; Hanford, WA; Ronneburg, Germany; New Mexico; Semi Palatinsk. Yes, I think I tell you about this. Whereas Hiroshima strikes me as the site that addresses the international political stage, Nagasaki seems to be the one that takes a stand with international anti-nuke movements. Whereas the much of the commentary about Hiroshima this year was about the presence of UN Secretary General Ban Ki Moon and US Ambassador to Japan Roos, and the hopes around Obama’s anti-nuclear statements, the mood in Nagasaki is much more that it is the people of the world, not the leaders, who can and will make a world without nuclear weapons a reality.

The Nagasaki National Peace Memorial for the Atomic Bomb Victims next door to the Museum is a large but simple building, with fountains and flowing water everywhere, inside and outside the building. Here and there are writings and testimonies of survivors, as well as a registry of all the known victims of the bomb. The epigraph above was the phrase that stuck with me. The Memorial, while naming and picturing all those who died, seems specifically designed to provide solace to this one soul. “Here is the water you desired,” the building seems to say. “May you receive the comfort from it in perpetuity that you could not receive then.”

The proprietor at my inn told me that there would be a lantern ceremony along the river at 7pm, so I made my way from the museum back to Hypocenter Park, where a small crowd of maybe 200 people was gathered for speeches. Though a few foreigners dotted the crowd, it seemed mostly comprised of locals: families with children, elderly women, groups of friends, a Little League team (go Shiroyama!). As people were gathering up the prepared lanterns to carry down to the river, it started to sprinkle and I noticed the most beautiful rainbow rising up from behind the monolith that marks the hypocenter. With the rainbow to the east and the setting sun to the west, I joined the crowd, carrying lanterns. We processed in fits and starts across a busy intersection, past a sports complex where people jogged in the cooler dusk air, and where a group about the same size as ours of ladies in kimonos practiced their Bon Odori dance. This lantern floating ceremony was more organized than that in Hiroshima, where everyone put their own lantern in the water and the lanterns were then left to their own devices, some catching fire, most moving slowly down the river up against the embankment. In Nagasaki, we carried our lanterns down to the riverbank where volunteers loaded them onto structures that were strung together, and then later pulled by a boat down the river. As the lanterns disappeared in the distance, the crowd dispersed.

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