First days in Japan: Reflections on Nagasaki

August 12th, 2011

Immediately following my travel back from Washington D.C., I found myself on a plane to Japan. As part of a rather substantial grant awarded through ASIANetwork, myself and three other students (plus one faculty mentor) were provided an opportunity to conduct research on varying topics in Nagasaki. As the ASIANetwork website sums up our projects well (forgiving a slight mistake when reporting what I assume to be graduation years):

“Mentor, Marjorie Rhine, Department of Languages and Literatures

Heather McFarlin, ’11 and Rhiannon LaVine, ’11, “Spatial and Temporal Variations of Volcanic Materials at Mt. Unzen, Kyushu, Japan”

Scott Nussbaum, ’13, “Mapping Nagasaki for Digital Representation in a Computer Game”

Monica Wilson, ’11, “Ethnic Expression and Identity on the Urban Landscape: A Cross Cultural Comparative of China Towns in Nagasaki, Japan and San Francisco, U.S.A.”

Four students from the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater will be engaged in three very different projects during their three week stay in the Nagasaki/Shimabara region of Japan. Heather McFarlin and Rhiannon LaVine, both geology students, will study the spatial and temporal variations in mineralogical and geochemical compositions throughout the slope of Mt. Fugen, the highest peak of the Unzen group of highly dangerous volcanic mountains. Collected data will be taken back to their home campus for analysis in order to determine the relative time and type of volcanic activity in this area. Scott Nussbaum will carefully photograph the city of Nagasaki and collect a library of sounds, and also develop an archive of relevant facts, historical and otherwise, that can be utilized by him to create a video game based on Nagasaki. Monica Wilson plans to study the configuration of the China Town in Nagasaki for later comparison with the China Town in San Francisco in order to explore the ways in which space shapes and is shaped by the identity of its’ inhabitants. She seeks to discover how neighborhood layout, architecture and urban design, economic ventures, and community and recreational resources can provide a wealth of knowledge about the identity of those who call the space home.”

The day of travel was rough on all of us. We were relieved once we landed in Fukuoka and made our way to the night’s lodging. The following day we took a train to Nagasaki, the city in which we will spend the majority of our time.

Situated in the heart of the city, blocks away from the harbor, we are no more than a few streetcar stops from anything that may catch our interests. Despite a prime location, I wouldn’t call Nagasaki a very “happening” city. Compared to the trendy, bustling metropolis of Tokyo or the gritty genesis of hip culture that is Osaka, Nagasaki is rather tame. It has its charm in its foreign-influenced history (evident in much of its architecture), but it is not the place to go if you’re looking for the infamous Japanese contemporary cool.

As it is very much reliant on its unique history as a port city for its tourism industry, many of the sights are geared toward the exotic. There are old Christian churches, Chinese-styled temples, a Dutch trading post; all of which are rooted in its Portuguese founding in the 16th century.

Obviously, much of the tourism comes from people who want to see one of the cities that was devastated by the atomic bomb. Our arrival in Nagasaki, August 9th, coincided with the 66th anniversary of the incident. In order to take part in the commemoration, we made a point to visit the hypocenter, Peace Park, and the Atomic Bomb Museum. None of the spots were overly crowded, and their visitors were solemn. Many visitors to Japan note that they feel out of place in the country (a foreigner usually sticks out like a sore thumb). While I’d be lying if I said that I never felt that way at all, I usually don’t feel nearly as out of place as some. This is a direct result of the fact that I did spend some time living here and have gotten used to the lifestyle. Though on that day in Nagasaki, as a foreigner (moreover, as an American), I did feel more out of place than usual. I wasn’t treated or regarded any differently by the Japanese, I just felt separated. It was as if I was on the other side of the fence solely because history dictated it as such. It was a sort of guilt that had its origin wholly in my own mind. Walking through that museum and visiting those sites induced the phrase “This should not have happened” to be repeated in my head.

Disgust, guilt, sadness…but above all else, remembrance.

I’ve always held rather strong opinions on the use of nuclear weapons, especially the use of them during WWII. Visiting those sites only served to solidify those opinions.

The experience affected us all, drawing out tears in some as we walked past physical representations of the memories and remnants of the devastation. In addition to the above, Nica has written the following to express her own reaction:

“On August 9, 1945 at 11:02 AM, the atomic bomb “fat man” detonated over Nagasaki, Japan. It was the second and (to date) last time nuclear weapon was used in an act of war. On August 9, 2011, I was able to visit the site of this devastating tragedy along with 3 of my fellow students, my professor at whitewater and her 13 year old daughter. It’s hard to imagine that the site had been a mass of wreckage, devastation, and literally hell on earth not even a century ago. At the hypocenter of the impact stands a pillar monument, which on this day was laden with thousands upon thousands of cranes in honor of the victims who died and suffered after that day.

The hypocenter monument is a small part of a larger complex that includes the Nagasaki peace park (where you will find the peace fountain), peace statue, Atomic Bomb museum, and the National Peace Memorial Hall. It’s a peaceful, albeit sombering, experience to stroll through the expansive parks and appreciate the quiet solitude and beautiful gardens.

Most sombering though, had been the Atomic Bomb Museum. The museum itself does a fine job of explaining the events that led up to the use of the bomb, the development of the bomb, and how the bomb worked. Even as we walked through the halls show casing the devastating effects of the bomb (melted glass bottle chunks, singed and torn clothing, the burning of skin, development of keloid scars, etc), there was a very neutral tone to the museum. They were not trying to place blame, and placing blame or rationalizing the event is not really the point of the museum. The point of the museum was to bring to light the long-lasting devastation of the use of atomic bombs and to promote the de-armerment of nuclear weapons while promoting peace.

Yet, as an american, I could not escape from the overwhelming guilt of knowing that my people, a major part of my personal identity, were responsible for this. Everything i felt came from something internal, from seeing the melted clay that replaced three cremated children, the twisted and broken environment, and the personal stories of tragedy shared on the museum walls, and knowing that it was the USA who did that. It’s impossible to escape from a sense of responsibility and wrong doing when you know that.

At the same time, I left the museum feeling as if I needed to fight against the use of nuclear weapons. That I could add another voice in support of nuclear dearmerment across the globe.

The museum is working towards a goal of ever-lasting peace, and I left the museum feeling like that was the only way to make up for past mistakes.”




















The clock that stopped due to the blast at 11:02 a.m.













The hypocenter. Note the bundles of colorful origami cranes draped over racks on either side of the monument. These cranes decorated every bit of memorial statuary.




















More cranes.













High school students at the hypocenter.













A sculpture depicting the suffering caused by the bomb.












Our group at Peace Park.


A more uplifting post next time, I promise.


(Photos courtesy of Marjorie Rhine and Nica Wilson.)

One Response to “First days in Japan: Reflections on Nagasaki”

  1. juk Says:

    Thanks for the reflective post. Just thought I’d share a poem by one of the A-bomb survivors here.
    A Skinless Throng
    Yamamoto Yasuo
    In the big shelter at the foot of Mount Hiji
    a skinless throng
    looking up
    or lying face down
    or sitting with legs crossed
    were crying “give me water”
    they were all still alive
    their spasmodic cries and groans
    filled the air-raid shelter from the farthest dark corner to the exit
    like a huge musical instrument
    they resounded making a ghastly howl.
    My wife and I
    carried on a shutter
    our dear child, burnt alive, naked
    into the naked group.

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