Yeah, I should have let Mother Nature win that one. There’s wet, there’s “caught in a typhoon,” and then there’s what happened to me today. I set out for the Peace Park and attached museum in a fairly strong rain that got a lot worse before I made it out of the park. After Hiroshima everything on the nuclear war front is a little muted; my guidebook says that if you’ve been to the bigger museum in the north, much of what you encounter in Nagasaki will be redundant, and that’s a pretty fair assessment. I liked — if one can be said to like anything in this category — the memorials and museum in Hiroshima more, thought they generally did a better job of explaining things and telling stories.
The hypocenter of the explosion in Nagasaki is marked with a tall dark granite obelisk that I’m sure is much more impressive and interesting on a nice day. In the rain, it just looked tall and wet. To the northwest, a fragment of the grandest Catholic church in Asia (at the time of the bombing) stands intact. Unlike Hiroshima there isn’t a single iconic representation of the bombing in Nagasaki; the church wall fragment is probably the only thing that qualifies, and it hasn’t received nearly the amount of attention as genbaku-domu.
There is comparatively little detail in the Nagasaki museum about the history of the city, though it notes (as almost everything I’ve ever read about the city) that it was the first city in Japan to open up to international trade in the 17th century, and that it had a large foreign population, and that it had a large Christian population. More on this later. There are some very well-done exhibits that demonstrate exactly how big the fireball was, how the fires spread, where the blast pressures were, and, ultimately, what the radiation distribution patterns looked like. I had some minor techincal quibbles (for instance, they’re alpha and beta particles, not rays, and neutrons are neutrons, not neutron rays. A neutron ray is a comic book weapon and doesn’t mean anything. Neutron emission, on the other hand, is a serious problem.) For displays that don’t spare a lot of gruesome detail, they’re comparatively thin on scientific data — though the section on human effects had some excellent micrographs of both marrow and gastric epithelium. (They helpfully provided control samples of both so that people unfamiliar with micro pathology could see the difference. Sadly, the vast majority of people will walk away from this display and think, “Wow, that looks really.. different.” Which is perhaps to be expected: I can’t think of a quick way to explain what a neoplastic cell looks like, and why it’s bad, and how it’s different from a normal cell on microscopy.)
Hiroshima is a more emotional museum. Nagasaki is a more in-your-face place. There really need to be warnings on the exhibits — kids don’t need to see this kind of stuff. I barely wanted to look. Chances are you’ve seen at least some of the footage and photographs, so I don’t need to elaborate. Whatever you’ve seen in a book or on TV, it’s way different when it’s been blown up to wall-size. If Hiroshima was designed to make you sad, Nagasaki seems designed to disgust you. Which might very well be the point.
Still, the Nagasaki museum has a number of things to recommend it, not the least of which is their excellent collection of what I’m calling “altered objects” — coins, glass, clothing, personal items that were caught in the blast and generally melted. The bottles, the coins, the porcelain.. it’s remarkable how they survived the blast force, but succumbed to the heat. The one that will probably disturb most people is the human hand that melted into a glass bottle and then fused with concrete, though I think if the label didn’t mention anything 95% of the visitors wouldn’t be able to tell. Ditto for the helmet with the skull inside. If you didn’t know what you were looking at, or what you were looking for, you’d never be able to say for sure.
Towards the end is an exhibit dedicated to Dr. Nagai Takashi, a physician in Nagasaki at the time of the bombing. He lost his wife in the attack, and developed leukemia himself, but wrote prolifically and worked heroicly to treat his patients even as he lost his own fight against the cancer (he died in 1951). Stories like this help to put the bombing in perspective — 75,000 died immediately, and another 75,000 were injured, but those numbers are so large as to defy understanding. A personal tragedy, on the other hand..
Also included on special exhibition is a collection of photographs from Hisashi Ishida that show various sites around Nagasaki in the aftermath of the bombing. Ishida was a judge in Nagasaki at the time, and his 120+ photographs provide some of the most comprehensive documentary evidence of the devastation as seen through local eyes. As journalism they’re remarkable; as art, they’re captivating. Chances are you’ve seen at least one of his pictures without knowing anything about it; they were taken after the fires were out, and the dead were collected, and the reconstruction begun. They record the urban landscape that was left after the bombing, without the obvious human elements. (It’s easy to take a picture of a badly burned human and turn it into a statement about the evils of nuclear war; it’s something else to show a flattened Nagasaki Medical College and do the same.) They’re great pictures.
Unfortunately, the Nagasaki museum was — you knew this was coming — overrun by school groups, all of whom were going through the exhibits at as high a speed as possible and without any regard for anyone else in the museum. I don’t know if my school outings to museums were this disruptive to other patrons, but I’d like to think we were better behaved than these kids. They banged into me. They barged in front of me to see the displays. They yelled at each other. I watched two elderly women make their way through the museum — with people of that age, you really have to wonder whether they’re hibakusha or not, don’t you? — before being engulfed in a tidal wave of teenagers. This wasn’t the museum experience I wanted; I can’t think this was the experience they wanted, either.
Both museums make the point that while there might have been good military reasons for attacking Japan with nuclear weapons, those were not the only reasons for bombing Hiroshima and Nagasaki. There’s a not-so-subtle critique of US defense policy in the closing days of World War II — that at least part of the reason the United States decided to use the weapons was to justify the enormous expense of the Manhattan Project and to point out to the Russians that, yes, they worked, and you’d better pay attention to this in the post-WWII world. There was a fair volume of correspondance that suggested that the United States needed to warn Japan first, give them an opportunity to surrender or face nuclear attack. The counterargument, of course, is that Japan never would have surrendered, never would have given up the fight, and so a long and bloody battle for the home islands would have ensued, resulting in more deaths than the two attacks combined. (I’ve heard versions of this argument from a number of nuclear apologist authors, and I always bought it, until I realized that in rejecting the Potsdam Declaration Japan may not necessarily have been rejecting the idea of calling a truce — Potsdam promised nothing to ensure the continuation of the Emporer’s reign, which was known at the time to be a pre-condition to Japan’s surrender.) It is, of course, impossible to say what would have happened had there been a warning issued. But I can’t help wonder what might have happened had things played out differently.
The overriding message of both museums is, obivously, that mankind must never again use nuclear weapons — a laudable goal, and one that is really hard to disagree with, certain neoconservatives with their hands far too close to the reins of power for my tastes notwithstanding. Both cities are devoted to the antinuclear cause, and activists of all stripes like to both cite them and hang out here to pester tourists. (This was more of a problem in Hiroshima than it is in Nagasaki, probably a result of the crummy weather here.) The thing to say here is that, of course, it would be nice if we were able to stuff the nuclear genie back in the bottle so we wouldn’t have to deal with this legacy of destruction and the freak-out over Iran and North Korea (something that takes on a whole new dimension when you’re practically within rock-throwing distance of that strange land). But while we’re making that kind of a list, I’d like to have a lot of things I’m never going to get, so it’s pointless to wonder. I’m familiar with a lot of the chronology and the history of the development of nuclear weapons, and of the strategy behind their use (or at least the theory of the strategy behind their use) and hindsight being 20/20, the whole idea was insane. How we ever got out of the Cold War without blowing ourselves up is a total mystery to me. How we’re going to get out of the present ra — which, despite many assertions to the contrary, doesn’t really have any good historical parallels — is also a total mystery to me.
But the hell of it is, having been to these two places, I can almost understand why the Cold War strategy worked. Until you come here, nuclear war is an abstract thing, the consequences of which are pictures and models and statistics. It’s not really concrete — wasn’t really concrete for me until I came here. I’m not saying this is what happened, but I think that, knowing full-well the consequences, knowing the lessons of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, made it less likely for guys like Kennedy to pull the trigger. If you look at the history of the Cuban Crisis you can see how many times it would have been damn simple to just fire a couple of nukes off, and blow it all to hell (and, if you read Scott Sagan’s book, you’ll realize how damn close it was on a couple of occasions thanks to stupidity and accidents in the command and control networks). It was a poker game with the highest stakes possible, but the stakes were high, and the Soviets and the Americans knew they had to get it right, because they both knew the consequences of getting it wrong. I don’t know how well I’m explaning this idea, so I’ll try again: The fact that the consequences of getting it wrong were so high necessarily meant that all parties would do everything to prevent it from going wrong in the first place. (This is, to borrow from Sagan’s work, an example of “high-reliability theory,” and is echoed in much of his research on the nuclear command and control systems.)
Oh, yes. The peace park. Um. Good intentions aside, the giant statue at the end of Peace Park is.. awful. I’m sorry. I can’t think of a nice thing to say about it. It’s this green dude, with one hand pointed at the sky, and the other stretched out towards the horizon. I have no idea what it’s supposed to represent. It’s really confusing. I mean, okay, the Cenotaph in Hiroshima isn’t hugely representative of anything, but at least it works as part of a larger motif (the peace flame and Genbaku-domu). This.. is just there. I’m willing to give a large part of the blame over to the weather, but Hiroshima’s park seems much nicer. I’m not enough of a landscape architect to explain why, just that it feels better to the soul. (I think it’s the preponderance of concrete and tile in Nagasaki.)
As I was leaving the peace park the sky opened up and dumped gallons of water on me. If it’s possible, it was raining even harder than it was in Tokyo, and I got even wetter. It was in this state — cold, wet, tired, and vaguely annoyed at the crowds in the museum — that I ran into precisely the same mob of kids at the streetcar stop. Or maybe it was another mob; I can’t tell. The uniforms all look alike to me. Giant lineup for the streetcar. I stood on the street, in the rain, periodically being poked by kids trying to sneak by, for 40 minutes, getting progressively wetter. Eventually I managed to climb aboard a streetcar (not the one I needed) and we took off for Nagasaki Ekimae. Well. My agoraphobia, under control for the past two weeks, came roaring back with a vengance as I was packed into a hot, humid, stuffy streetcar full of people. I looked at my watch and realized I had broken my promise to myself: Don’t be on public transit during rush hour. Which is precisely what I was doing.
I don’t know whether getting an umbrella jammed into my crotch was punishment enough or just added punishment. After I finally made it back to my hotel’s stop, I walked the other way down the arcaded street, looking for both an Internet cafe (3rd floor, private booths with doors, open 24 hours a day, if you get my drift). Found it, logged on, checked my mail, posted the brief update you saw here on Tuesday. Went around the corner to the tonkatsu place my guidebook mentioned and had dinner.
A word about tonkatsu. You can find this in North America, sometimes, at Japanese restaurants with good menus. Trust me when I say it is a thousand times better here. For starters, every tonkatsu I’ve ever had in Canada is ridiculously overcooked; the coating here fell apart in my mouth, and the pork cutlet almost melted. Also, the sauce you’re likely to get in North America isn’t anywhere near as good as what’s provided in a proper tonkatsu place — you get a small mortar and pestle. Dump in some sesame seeds and grind them up (the smell of grinding sesame seeds is phenomenal). Add some Japanese-style Worcheshire sauce and stir. It is so good. Tonkatsu is supposed to come with a kind of dressingless cole slaw, but you generally get your own bottle of dressing which, though a little on the gingery side, is also surprisingly tasty. So, so good.
After dinner, a quick trip to Daimaru, the department store across from my hotel, looking for another bag. I have enough stuff that another bag is going to be extremely useful from hereon out, and considering I have essentially one more travel day ahead of me, now seems like a good time to buy the thing. You buy a bag in a Canadian department store, you think, “Ah, they’ll put a sticker on the side so security knows I paid for it.” Not so much over here: I bough a suitcase, and the saleswoman wrapped the bag up and put it into another bag. WTF! I know I’ve complained about the packaging situation here before, but this was absurd.
Came back to the hotel, took off wet clothes, spent an hour drying socks and shoes. Watched Game 3 of the Japan Series, cutting back and forth to a commercial-less Fox feed of the NLCS (damn, that was a nail biter, eh?). Wrote update.
I only took 14 digital pictures today and 23 stills. It was too wet to do any other photography, and even if it wasn’t, the light was flat, boring, and unappealing — “mother of all softboxes” effect, which would be great, except you don’t need a softbox when you’re doing landscape and architecture photography. As I type this, my entire photographic kit is sitting near the air conditioner vent drying out but even with this I think everything’s going in for some servicing when I get back to Canada (the body especially is going to need a CLA; I may just dump my lenses in a box with many silica gel packs and crank the heat on a bit to draw the moisture out).
God, I want tomorrow to be better in the weather department. Toyo phoned earlier this evening and said, “Geez, typhoons just seem to follow you around, don’t they?”
“Don’t give them any bright ideas!”
Oh yes. Hey, kids! Pop quiz: What’s a sure-fire way to not make friends with the people who are staying next door to you at an old-fashioned wood-frame ryokan? That’s right! Get it on when the walls are thin enough that the person next door to you can hear everything! I’m serious. I woke up at 01:30 this morning to moaning from the next room over, and I lay awake for almost 45 minutes while this went on. I wanted to bang on the wall, but then I’d have to admit I’d been listening, and..
I dug out my earphones and my Nomad and jacked the tunes up.
At the communal sink this morning, I gave the guy a hard look. He was confused until he saw me go back into my room. Then, the moment of dawning realization.
He at least had the good sense to be embarrassed.