Essays & Images on Cities, Travel and Contemporary Culture. A web journal of James A. Clapp, Ph.D., an UrbisMedia Ltd. Production

Vol.107.7: A BOMBS

©2013,UrbisMedia

Exactly 75 years ago today the Enola Gay released the first atomic bomb over the city of Hiroshima. I was five years old at the time, but over the years I’ve read a shelf full of books on the subject that can be mind-muddling. Somewhere between Pearl Harbor, and a little Japanese schoolboy spending years in pain in the hospital as his skin flakes off like over fried chicken, there might be an answer to the lingering questions. They were no more resolved by my visits to Hiroshima and Nagasaki recounted below. In the time of COVID-19 the A-bombs, together responsible for perhaps a quarter of a million casualties, seems almost quaint against our expanding list of Malthusian population regulators. But our thermal nuclear capabilities must be a reminder of our capacity to do the job with greater alacrity.

Hello Kitty Hiroshima

We straggle off the bus in a heavy downpour and, across the narrow river looms the domed building that has become iconic of the occasion of the first nuclear explosion in anger in the history of human aggression. I had seen it many times before in grainy photos of the devastated landscape of Hiroshima—August 6, 1945—now retained as the centerpiece of the “peace park” despite having been nearly at ground zero.

Curiously, our guide Fujiko (not quite her real name), smiles at me in the gale cold blowning rain, asking me if I got a good photo of the “dome,” as if I were getting a snapshot of her kid wearing a Hello Kitty mask, or some such innocent visual of Japan. It’s like the denial with a smile is in perfect working order.

I suppose that being a guide for Westerners, and particularly Americans, to a site that fairly screams of ugly defeat, can’t be easy for the attractive lady with the ready Japanese welcoming smile. She speaks about the event that brings us all there with a dispassionate detachment—the blast, the firewind, the 130,000 killed—as though it was some other country’s ancient history, not just something in the lifetimes of most everybody on that bus. Maybe that’s the only way to do it. But I wonder.

Does it come with the Japanese DNA, the insular isolation, or the operant conditioning of a bowdlerized history in its transmission of denial from generation to generation: that ability to hold together a society that maintains a superficial Hello Kitty cuteness—what they call kawaaii—or the almost obsequious bowing and courteousness, with that subliminal mean streak we still remember,* but which they endeavor to deny away. Is it an aftereffect of the radiation?

This was not my first encounter with the thermonuclear conclusion to what the Japanese call (despite the verbal contradiction)“The Pacific War.” Some years before I had a similar experience in Nagasaki where, after wandering over the hill that was it’s ground zero I made my way to its “holocaust” museum where the curators appear to have intended that American visitors not miss their interpretation of the bombing; all captions and commentaries for the exhibits were translated into English.

One caught my eye in particular. It was a linear timeline titled “Events Leading Up To the Nagasaki Atomic Bombing” in text and photos that ran for several yards along a curved wall and lit with spotlights. The timeline was divided into yearly panels. The discomfort I had been feeling for much of the day gave way to astonishment when I read the English below the Japanese characters describing the “first” event: “May 5, 1943, The Japanese fleet at Truk Bay is proposed as an atomic bomb target at a meeting the Military Policy Committee.”

Somehow this didn’t seem to align with the history of events in the Pacific Theater that I was familiar with. To my knowledge, there was no such decision-making organ as “The Military Policy Committee.” And why, except to add to the ambiguity of the statement, not specify “American,” or “Allied” policy committee. Owing to the curved wall I thought that perhaps the timeline started beyond the door, or around a corner. I looked there, and on the wall behind, but there was no sign there, or anywhere, of December 7, 1941. Excuse me, folks, did you not see Tora! Tora! Tora!?

I did not come to Japan unaware of the deep strain of denial about the causes and events of the war that yet pervades their culture. The national paranoia of a long-cloistered island, the monarchism and militarism and, the sense of racial superiority that got them into trouble in the first place, have been modified and challenged by the war’s end and their nation’s impressive reconstruction and economic success. But the bomb did not obliterate those characteristics.

Most Americans of my generation have probably formed at least part of their impression of the Japanese city on one or two popular images. Mine were formed (and somewhat misinformed) on both such images.

The first image is of some guy in a silly-looking dinosaur suit climbing out of a soundstage pool and tromping through the center of a modular Japanese metropolis. The fire-spitting dragon, and related megamonsters, wreak wreckage and havoc in Japanese cities (and most recently, New York City) in a long-running series of cult sci-fi ‘B’ films.

The second image is more realistic and more sinister: the vast panorama of flattened urban landscape and twisted towers and bridges, punctuated by the occasional shell of a building of sterner construction, of Hiroshima, Nagasaki, or fire-bombed Tokyo.

In the first images Japanese and western movie actors overact in badly-synched dubbed dialogue, racing across the movie screen in search of the appropriate militaristic answer to vanquish the reptilian aggressor and save the city. In the second, newsreels and stills of shocked, scorched, and irradiated victims of nuclear holocaust are a grim testament that military might and technology can be a monster of more devastating proportions.

The two images are, of course, not unrelated. Godzilla and related monsters that are monstrosities of nuclear radiation seem an apt product of a form of cultural paranoia that may well have had its roots when Perry’s black ships pried open an unwelcoming Japan in the late 19th century. (True, a vanguard of Jesuits in their black robes had arrived three centuries earlier seeking souls and trade concessions, but that ‘God-zilla’ came ashore with less fanfare.) And not to be discounted are the gods of the seismic netherworld that have conspired to make this shaky archipelago perhaps the most perilous perch for human habitation on earth.

But how far does this go in explaining the exasperating inscrutability of the Japanese, perhaps humankind’s prime example of contradiction incarnate. Mind you, these are the folks that back in the 1930s arrogated to themselves the role as prime representatives of the Asian races against Western pollution and colonization while using borrowed Western technology to fist subjugate their “inferior” fellow Asians before taking their first disastrous step to getting their asses kicked by those “inferior” gaijin. Indeed, there are gut-churning examples of the most heinous racist behavior toward their fellow Asian Koreans and Chinese,** including the abduction of Korean girls as “comfort women” for their troops, the slaughter of some 300,000 Chinese in Nanking, and the merciless medical experiments on Chinese and POWs in Manchukuo.

Back on the bus, somebody behind me asks Fujiko what Japanese school kids are taught about the “Pacific War”? I don’t look back to see if the questions come from one of the Chinese among our group; Japanese bowdlerized textbooks have long been an irritant in Sino-Japanese relations. My mind swings back to that museum in Nagasaki and I recall the school teacher leading her grade school class through the exhibits —where they will not learn what happened on December 7, 1941. Fujiko lamely replies that they have a long national history to study and that they sometimes don’t get to cover the war. I feel like letting out a heckling meow, Hello Kitty-like.

Three Hills in Nagasaki

There are places on the face of the earth that are etched by the nexus of time and circumstance.   The Atom Bomb Museum in the hills of Nagasaki is not far from what was ground zero on August 9, 1945.   I’d spent most of the day in the area beneath the bomb’s detonation.   The nearby hill that was directly beneath the blast is now a shrine called The Peace Park, a focal point of anti-nuclear demonstrations and a variety of sculptural memorials from various nations.   On the long staircase leading up from the main street below I had followed the ascent of a troop of drum-beating monks in white and black robes, chanting, I could only guess, some incantation to ward off any fissionable repetition.

At the summit of the hill most of the reminders of what effect “Fat Man,” the plutonium bomb that exploded three miles above this district called Urakami, have been erected since that fateful day.   A fountain greets one at the top of the staircase.   Its sign explains that water was precious to the parched throats of the victims.   An array of monuments for different nations offers sculptural pity and regret, some serene depictions of mothers holding dead babies, others with mouths with silent screams, or hands grasping at the sky in torment.   The last of these is nearly genre; similar holocaustal evocations can be seen at Dachau, the Holocaust section of Pere Lachaise Cemetery in Paris, and elsewhere—blackened bronze figures in the throes of cruel death.   On this hilltop in Nagasaki only the flattened footings and grotesquely-twisted reinforcing bars of a couple of buildings at ground zero are artifacts of the blast.

It was a pleasant, sunny day with a cool breeze coming up off the harbor.   Instinctively I looked up.   On that day the heat at this spot where I stood reached 4000 degrees Celsius.   On that day those in whose place I stood were vaporized, which made them the “lucky” ones of the 70,000 who died in the gruesome afflictions of wind, heat and radiation.

In fact, it was the industrial city of Kokura, in northern Kyushu, not Nagasaki, that was the primary target for “Fat Man” on August 9.   But that day Kokura was covered in smoke, and with the B-29 running low on fuel, Nagasaki was selected.   Even that city might have been spared because of cloud cover, but a “decision” was made, literally in the last minutes, to drop the bomb by radar.

In a sense, Nagasaki has remained in “second place”.   Having been “first,” and having had a more direct hit with greater losses, Hiroshima is the city associated more with the history of atomic warfare and has become the “Mecca” of the ant-nuclear movement.

At the terminus of Nagasaki’s Peace Park is another fountain, and atop it sits, literally, a two-story figure of a man of incongruous, steroid-pumped, body-builder, proportions.   One arm skyward, the other pointing to the side like a traffic cop, and an almost Buddha-beatific smile on his face, he conveys all the warmth and meaning of bad Soviet-era political sculpture.   Its message is vague, but then an atomic bomb can make a scramble of meanings and emotions for ages.

Of more interest was the group of Japanese pilgrims assembled along the edge of the fountain pool.   They wore T-shirts with Japanese characters on them, some carried banners of characters, and they sat quietly listening to the guttural intonations of a speaker with a bull-horn amplification.   Only a drawing of a mushroom cloud on one of the banners provided me any legibility.

A slight unease came over me as I had to walk around the group to get to the other side of the fountain.   I’d wanted to take a photo but quickly dismissed the idea.   The mood is somber, and perhaps intensely personal for some of the pilgrims who seem of an age to have had relatives who were victims.   From the side of my eye even tried to see if there might be some people showing the effects of having been victims, crippled bodies, or radiation-disfigured skin.   But I am leery of looking and, although some of them look up at me their faces are, to put it stereotypically, ‘inscrutable’.   I feel that they know I’m an American, and I almost reflexively try to affect a contrite appearance.

Then I noticed another symbol among the Japanese characters on banners and T-shirts: a cross.   They are Christians, and I wouldn’t be too much of a stretch, I hazard a mental guess, that they’re Roman Catholic.

Although I have long ceased “practicing” the faith that was drummed into me by Sisters of St. Joseph and then put at risk by black-robed Jesuits, my apostasy has been somewhat tempered by an abiding interest in the “history” of Catholicism.   In the early morning I had made my way up another of Nagasaki’s hills, this one up to a hill upon which, in 1596, the Shogun Hideyoshi had twenty-six Catholic Japanese coverts and their European priests crucified on the site that now bears a bas-relief of each of them on a shrine.

I went up that hill in search of some sign of the presence of Francis Xavier, the Spanish Jesuit who was the first missionary to Kyushu in 1549. In the museum behind the shrine are a collection of artifacts from the days of the Jesuit mission including some writings from Xavier himself, and stained-glass coats-of-arms of the families of Xavier and his co-founder of the Society of Jesus, Ignatius Loyola.   But much had been lost, destroyed by the bomb, and the church built by a French Jesuit in 1814 to commemorate the twenty-six martyrs was partially destroyed as well.

One can well understand the basis for the shogun’s brutality.   By the time of his little demonstration of the Roman execution method, there were already nearly a third of a million Roman Catholic converts in Japan.   Like his successors, he was afraid that the converts would act as a “fifth column” for a Spanish invasion, a fear that the rival Protestant Dutch helped to encourage.   So the persecution of Catholics began in earnest a few years later, and over the years tens of thousands were brutally tortured and killed.

The ban on Christianity wasn’t lifted in Japan until 1873, and the remainder of the Catholic community completed their Cathedral in 1925 on a hill a short walk to ground zero.   Twenty years later the bomb blew most of it to bits.   By that time the Roman Catholic community in Nagasaki had grown back to number 14,000.   Half of them perished in the nuclear holocaust.

Were those survivors or relatives of the remaining Catholics in pilgrimage at the Peace Park fountain?   I could only guess.   In the vortex of emotions that has been churned up in the history of Western relations with Japan since it was pried open with guns and bibles, such questions were best left to speculation, at least at ground zero.

My country’s dropping of the bomb on Japan had never been an unresolved moral complexity for me; all things considered, I tended to side with the argument that more lives were saved than lost.   I was less sure as I entered the Atomic Bomb Museum on the third hill late in the afternoon.   Here the collected curiosities of melted glass, twisted steel, and clocks eternally stopped a couple of minutes after the B-29 passed over the city, gave their mute testimony of the power of a bomb that is little more than a firecracker when compared to today’s warheads.   But it was the poignant photographs, many taken by American photographers immediately after the surrender, that conveyed the most power.

I shuffled along amongst the exhibits, and dioramas, overhearing, but not understanding, the muffled comments of the Japanese visitors.   The museum is designed around a descending spiral ramp, miming the Guggenheim in New York, and its curators employ the continuity it affords to situate the event of the bomb within a longer history of Japanese relations with the West, and America in particular.

The curators appear to have intended that American visitors not miss their interpretation of the bombing; all captions and commentaries for the exhibits were translated into English.   One caught my eye in particular.   It was a linear timeline titled “Events Leading Up to the Nagasaki Atomic Bombing” in text and photos that ran for several yards along a curved wall and lit with spotlights.   The timeline was divided into yearly panels.   The discomfort I had been feeling for much of the day gave way to astonishment when I read the English below the Japanese characters describing the “first” event:   “May 5, 1943, The Japanese fleet at Truk Bay is proposed as an atomic bomb target at a meeting the Military Policy Committee.”  \

Somehow this didn’t seem to align with the history of events in the Pacific Theater that I was familiar with.   To my knowledge, there was no such decision-making organ as “The Military Policy Committee.”   And why, except to add to the ambiguity of the statement, not specify “American,” or “Allied” policy committee. Owing to the curved wall I thought that perhaps the timeline started beyond the door, or around a corner.   I looked there, and on the wall behind, but there was no sign there, or anywhere, of December 7, 1941.

I did not come to Japan unaware of the deep strain of denial about the causes and events of the war that yet pervades their culture.   The national paranoia of a long-cloistered island, the monarchism and militarism and, the sense of racial superiority that got them into trouble in the first place, have been modified and challenged by the war’s end and their nation’s impressive reconstruction and economic success.   But the bomb did not obliterate those characteristics.

I descended from hill three with muddled feelings about the Japanese.   Why this delusion and denial, this twisted self-absolving revisionist history?   What can possibly be gained from such self-deception?   At the base of the hill, I encountered a teacher with her class of perhaps first-graders, all holding hands as they prepared to cross the intersection.   Compliant to my gesture that I take their photo, they smiled and giggled beneath their pastel-colored caps.   I wondered if the cap colors might represent some rank order, perhaps of their academic performance, in this highly structured society.   But would these kids someday be on their honeymoon to Hawaii and wonder what the Pearl Harbor memorial was all about because they had been fed the deceitful history of their museums and historical texts?

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©2020, James A. Clapp

*That mean streak shows up in the popular humiliation TV programming and in the practice of bullying in schools. See DCJ Archives 52.15

**Theresa Park, A Gift of the Emperor (1997); Hal Gold, Unit 731 (1996). See also, 19. 7: The Death of Iris Chang and the Rape Of Nanking [BR] and 95.5: What Greatest Country?

 

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