Nagasaki, Japan— Imagine you are from an ancient city with roots that go back centuries. As a proud citizen, you have a deep knowledge and respect for your local history. You know the ins and outs of your culture; the local dialects that are barely understandable in other parts of your own country, your local cuisine that you pride yourself in knowing is some of the best in the world, and the land— the winding mountainous land blanketed with homes and townships that practically blend into the landscape the way they have for centuries.
Imagine, however, that when you leave that city and travel to a foreign land, the only reaction to where you come from by the people you meet is to remember the dropping of an atomic bomb that devastated your home town 70 years ago. Not only is the culture you hold near and dear to your heart not mentioned, to outsiders it’s nearly unheard of. Now imagine that your city that suffered such a devastating and overpowering historical event is also overlooked by comparison to the city that suffered a nuclear attack first. If you are from the city of Nagasaki, you do not have to imagine it. This is a reality.
Nagasaki is a city overshadowed. The residents of Nagasaki, the second city bombed with an atomic weapon, retain a sentiment that their city gets less attention then Hiroshima, the first city to suffer an atomic bombing. Why does Hiroshima get more attention? More people died in the blast in Hiroshima (140,000 by the end of 1945) than in Nagasaki (80,000 in the same period), more of the city was destroyed, and it gets more media coverage and visitors every year on the anniversaries. The tourist numbers may be due to the fact that Hiroshima sits along the bullet train line, or shinkansen in Japanese, which will not reach Nagasaki until 2022.
Nagasaki city itself was not the center of the atomic blast (the bomb detonated over the village of Urakami), nor was it even the first target. The crew of the Bock’s Car had a few different options when it came to the dropping of the second atomic weapon. The first target was the city of Kokura, which according to my grandfather, Jacob Beser, a serviceman on both Enola Gay and Bock’s Car, was covered by haze from the firebombing of Yawata the day prior. Instead they flew back down to Nagasaki, almost aborted when Nagasaki too was covered in haze, but at the last minute Kermit Behan, the bombardier of the mission, thought he saw his target, in a rush shouted, “I got it! I got it! I got it!” but in fact he was a mile and a half off target. Some say the mistake saved lives, sparing the downtown districts of Nagasaki that were originally targeted. However, the Urakami Valley had the largest population of catholics in all of Asia at the time. Urakami catholics battled persecution for centuries, and for them the atomic bomb caused the fifth collapse of their long suffering community.
I quizzed some of my friends back in the U.S. about what they know of Nagasaki. Most knew that it had been bombed by the Americans with its second atomic weapon. Some of them said the use of the weapon there ended World War II, others seemed more conflicted, but no one could tell me anything about the city that didn’t relate to atomic bombs. In fact, Nagasaki is a culturally and historically rich city that is much different from the rest of Japan.
Nagasaki, the Beacon to the West
For generations, Nagasaki’s waters were crossed by thousands of foreigners wanting to reach the mysterious countries to export their goods and expand their trade. They have each imparted a piece of their culture along the way.
After the Tokugawa Shogunate closed Japan off into isolation from the West for some 300 years, only Nagasaki was allowed to maintain business relations with foreign merchants. Dejima was the Dutch trading post island fortress that was the only piece of Japan Westerners were allowed to trade goods during the long period of Japan’s isolation. It was the first place where goods like coffee, sugar and beer first entered Japan mainland in what became known as the Sugar Road. Nagasaki’s residents still retain a palate for sweeter food than the rest of Japan because of it. Chinese had more mobility during isolation and Nagasaki’s China town remains Japan’s oldest and most vibrant. Nagasaki Champon, a mix of seafood, noodles, and vegetables, was originally created to cater to local Chinese, and it is still served today all over the city.
The most popular festival in Nagasaki is called “O-Kunchi,” literally meaning “the 9th,” in Japanese. A shinto festival, O-Kunchi has been celebrated in Nagasaki since the end of the 15th century. It is a traditional holiday celebrated every year for three days culminating on the 9th of October. It was originally celebrated in spite of the Catholics who lived in Nagasaki to entice them over to the Shinto religion with loud gaudy decorations, intricate offerings to the shrines, and neighborhood-by-neighborhood floats. The floats enter shops and businesses all over Nagasaki’s 77 towns to offer their blessings and wishes for good fortune, but they used to also seek out evidence of hidden Catholic communities practicing their religion. Of the 77 towns in Nagasaki City, only seven towns perform each year on a rotating calendar. The festival is open to include the foreigners that have left their imprint on Nagasaki’s culture, and continue to do so into the present day.
Nagasaki is the center of Christianity in Japan, specifically catholicism. In a country where less than one percent of the population is Christian, over seven percent of Nagasaki are practicing catholics. For centuries Christians remained hidden under a ban by the Tokugawa Shogunate. There are a number of churches and religiously significant locations nominated for world heritage sites in the coming year, including Ohura Cathedral, the first church in Japan, the Goto Islands where hidden Christians still practice their unique form of Christianity, and Minami-Shimabara, the site of the Shimabara Rebellion that led Japan into isolation by the Shinto government which feared Western influence by ways of the religion.
Nagasaki Prefecture is famous for its volcanic hot springs, called Onsen. The nearby volcano Mt. Unzen is home to a plethora of Japanese inns with hot sulphuric waters that attract visitors from around the world, and was Japan’s first designated national park. The waters are so hot that at one point in the history of Christian persecution, the captured practitioners of the faith were tortured by scalding. Today the waters are used for healing and other productive means. Hotels have channeled the natural waters to be used for hotel spas. In the nearby towns of Obama Onsen, also famous for its naturally hot waters, there is a plan to power the city with the plentiful geothermal resources.
Nagasaki prefecture has 595 islands near its coast, all with their own unique character and history. Some note worthy islands include Hashima and Kujukushima. Hashima, Gunkanjima as its commonly known, was famously depicted in the James Bond film Skyfall. Gunkanjima means battleship island in Japanese, and earned the moniker due to its appearance of its namesake. It was a former mining community that was abandoned after Japan switched its main form of energy to petroleum fuel in the late 60s. The island recently achieved the UNESCO world heritage status. Kujukushima Islands in the Nagasaki Prefectural city of Sasebo means “99 islands in Japanese” and is part of Saikai National Park, preserving the environment from development.
Overall, Nagasakans don’t feel anger for their shared tragedy with Hiroshima getting overlooked. They don’t hold a grudge. The people of Nagasaki have turned their attention to a higher power. They have bowed their heads in prayer for a peaceful world. They pray and continue to live out their lives proud of their unique culture and of their long and rich history.
Ari M. Beser is the grandson of Lt. Jacob Beser, the only U.S. serviceman aboard both bomb-carrying B-29s. He is traveling through Japan with the Fulbright-National Geographic Digital Storytelling Fellowship to report on the 70th anniversary of the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki and the fifth anniversary of the Great East Japan earthquake, tsunami, and nuclear meltdowns in Fukushima. Using photo essays, videos, and articles, Beser will give voice to people directly affected by nuclear technology today, as well as work with Japanese and Americans to encourage a message of reconciliation and nuclear disarmament. His new book, “The Nuclear Family,” focuses on the American and Japanese perspectives of the atomic bombings. Follow him on Twitter @Aribeser, and Instagram @AriBeser and @HibakushaTNF.