It is now 75 years since the United States dropped the second atomic bomb ever used in wartime on Nagasaki, resulting in a death toll of up to 70,000 by the end of 1945.
The Hiroshima bombing will be remembered on 6 August and the Nagasaki bombing on 9 August.
Of the dead at Nagasaki, approximately 8500 on the day were Catholics representing 60 to 75 per cent of their own community and over 10 per cent of the total.
Over the last 12 years, I have studied the immense implications of the Nagasaki bombing on the city’s Catholic community through interviews with survivors, the community and local researchers.
Together with Yuki Miyamoto, an ethicist at Depaul University in Chicago, I have collated some discussion about how the 75th anniversary of the bombing would be impacted by the COVID-19 crisis.
In late 2019 I attended Mass with the people of Urakami, a northern suburb of Nagasaki, Catholics who had travelled from around Japan, onlookers, and Pope Francis, the second Pope to visit Japan after John Paul II in 1981.
The Mass was celebrated at the baseball ground in Urakami Valley just 200 metres from Ground Zero.
The evening before, I visited a hot springs overlooking the valley and couldn’t help but visualise where the 12 survivors were at 11:02am on 9 August 1945, according to their subsequent interviews.
Oral historians write about palpable ‘emotion in the interview.’ As I surveyed the scene, the emotion I had experienced in the interviews welled up deep within.
This year, the closing ceremony of the Olympics was planned for Nagasaki Day, as the nation’s government played up the opportunity to move past adversity into the future.
The Olympics are now postponed, perhaps to be cancelled, and the ongoing COVID crisis will have a major impact on the commemorations of the atomic bombings.
Today, in Tokyo, coronavirus infections are an ongoing concern. Given the emerging and unexpected situation, to what extent will the COVID-19 crisis impact the 75th anniversary of the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki?
Probably partly a result of the Catholic presence there, reactions to the atomic bomb in the Nagasaki community are often summarised by writers as ‘prayer’ and the understanding of the devastation as God’s ‘providence.’
But my new book argues that Catholic atomic bomb survivors of Nagasaki protest the bombing and have complex and culturally specific memories of its impact and aftermath.
Based on a collective biography of the 12 survivors, I consider the connections between individuals and their community’s history, and their consciousness of historic communal marginalisation.
What became quickly clear as I studied the community of Catholic survivors was that their survival of the bomb was understood in parallel to their community’s astonishing endurance of 250 years of persecution which began prior to the Tokugawa Shogunate in 1603.
Their ancestors were the ‘Hidden Christians’ of Japan who went underground, pretending to be Buddhist, in order to avoid maltreatment.
The decision of the Japanese Olympic planners to time the Closing Ceremony for Nagasaki Day had, I believe, ‘dangerous’ implications, even if it was supposed to offer a sense of closure.
By remembering the bombing of Nagasaki, Japan would have brought to mind the Catholics devastated there, who were previously mistreated and made an underclass due to an Imperialist mindset which demonised the ‘Other’, colonialised and subsumed the nation’s neighbours.
I use the word ‘dangerous’ (after Johann B. Metz) because memories can disturb, stoke emotions and unleash dangerous new insights about the past.
‘Dangerous’ memories question hegemonic power and those who oppress others for their beliefs. In particular, the subjugated experience such memories as ‘dangerous’, subversively resisting the ‘prophets of historylessness’, those who adopt ‘victor’s justice’ and who would exclude the vanquished from history.
In my study of survivor narratives, I aimed to discover whether the Catholic narrative constituted such a ‘dangerous’ memory for the wider Japanese community in the context of war-time militaristic and aggressive Japanese Imperial ambitions, also reporting on the human cost of the fateful United States’ decision to deploy the atomic bombs.
Both papal visits to Nagasaki (Pope John Paul II in 1981 and Pope Francis in 2019) occurred on days of inclement weather. Pope John Paul II visited in February.
When he arrived for an outdoor mass there was a rare snowstorm. Pictures of the rally show numbed but stoic believers on a white snowy field, patriotically waving Japanese flags.
Two of the survivors I interviewed, Ozaki Tomei and Mine Toru, had a personal connection to the now-canonised Pope.
The orphanage which took both of them in after the death of their mothers was founded by a Polish Franciscan priest-missionary, Maximilian Maria Kolbe (1894-1941), who gave up his own life on behalf of another, to eventually die in Auschwitz.
Ozaki became a brother in the Seibo no Kishi Knights of the Holy Mother order in Nagasaki and later travelled to Poland to meet the man whose life was saved by Kolbe’s actions.
Despite the freezing cold, the Nagasaki Christians went to an outdoor mass in the early morning snow and John Paul II is remembered for his strong message and his ability to deliver it in Japanese (and four other languages). “War is the work of humanity,” he told them.
“War is destruction of human life; war is death.” His speech influenced a gradual transformation of the religious community’s memory and interpretation of the bombing.
“After the Pope stated ‘that’ [war is the work of humanity], he said [we] must talk about it … This was what changed,” Kataoka Chizuko, a religious who is a past Principal of Junshin Girls’ University explained to me in an interview about the papal visit.
“There were a whole lot of people who as victims … [had experienced this pain of ours] … [which] we hadn’t talked about it, concealed within us.
“However, the Pope urged … that we had to work more for the sake of world peace, so if the Pope says so, even if it is painful, alright, our experiences should be added to the discussion … I think this was the kind of change you see.
The Pope’s speech signalled a new paradigm for survivors when he said the bomb was a work of humanity.
Kataoka acknowledges an enormous difficulty in talking about traumatic experiences of the atomic bombing which is not only a personal matter, but is also related to earlier waves of ambivalence in the Nagasaki Church about atomic and nuclear weapons.
The Church’s official stance, especially in the strong Nagasaki archdiocese, was at best hesitant and I discuss in my book how a theology that the bombing may be understood as a part of the providence of God was at least at times damaging for survivors, struggling to even partially recover from the trauma they had experienced.
Pope Francis, though, was unambivalent in his message. Thirty-eight years later, central Nagasaki was shut down for the current Pope’s visit in late 2019.
I stood with the crowd 50 metres from the hypocentre – Ground Zero – cenotaph waiting for the cavalcade as we were soaked by a rainstorm.
Standing under an umbrella, Francis delivered a staunch anti-nuclear message. Eventually, the sun re-emerged for the mass and hundreds of local Catholics sang from high in the stands of the baseball stadium.
So how are we to understand painful events of the wartime past, even as – like the rest of the world – Nagasaki faces the deathly impact of the coronavirus?
The threat of nuclear war is still with us, as Francis pointed out so recently, lending an uneasiness to the upcoming anniversary.
Akira Kawasaki, a representative of Peaceboat Japan wrote to me that as the media directs its attention towards the COVID-19 crisis, it is disappointing for the hibakusha survivors who want to send a clear message about the abolition of nuclear weapons.
Seirai Yuichi, a novelist and previous director of the Nagasaki Atomic Bomb Museum, agrees that the discussion of coronavirus appears to be stealing time from the discussion of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings.
“Society may miss the opportunity for reflection” which the 75th anniversary offers, he wrote in an email to Miyamoto and I.
Meanwhile, the growing tendency of politicians and commentators in Japan to act as if Japan’s wrong acts in the past did not happen (which I would argue are dangerous to the status quo) must be challenged and it’s crucial to remember the negatives of the past, Kawasaki noted in his email.
Importantly, commemorations in Nagasaki offer a model of inter-religious collaboration.
Nagai Tokusaburo, the grandson of Nagai Takashi, the well-known Catholic doctor who assisted in Nagasaki’s recovery efforts, writes that despite the threat of a loss of focus on the commemorations, there are unique religious collaborations in Nagasaki aimed at praying for peace.
Nagai mentioned the shuukyousha konwakai, religious group discussions where those of different persuasions can meet together and consider peace.
Seirai also writes of the inter-religious ireisai memorial service held on 8 August which is attended by Buddhist, Christian and Shinto group representatives to pray for the victims of the atomic bombing and for peace.
Another individual told me that for the Nagasaki Catholic church, which experienced the catastrophic damage of the atomic bomb directly, the consoling of the spirits of those who died and memorial events are deeply important.
He also noted that despite John Paul II’s unequivocal words about the bomb as the work of humanity, a discussion about the atomic bombing interpreted as ‘God’s providence’ continued into the present and that the believers continued to have disagreements over this issue.
Contributing to this article was Dr Yuki Miyamoto, who lectures at Depaul University, Chicago.