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  • Writer's pictureKarl Koerber

Nagasaki - The Second Bomb

Updated: Nov 20, 2022

On this day seventy-five years ago, the second (and last) atomic bomb ever deployed as a weapon was dropped on Nagasaki, Japan by the United States Air Force, killing up to 80,000 people, most of them civilians. Three days earlier, the first bomb had obliterated much of Hiroshima, leaving up to 150,000 dead. The Americans gave the weapons droll monikers: "Little Boy” for the uranium bomb dropped on Hiroshima, and “Fat Man” for Nagasaki’s plutonium implosion bomb.

These two horrific bombings are usually commemorated as a single event, but I’m thinking today about Nagasaki in particular, thanks to Joy Kogawa and her reflective memoir, Gently to Nagasaki. The book is a rambling meditation on conflict, racism, love and forgiveness woven around Kogawa’s own experiences as a victim of the Japanese internment program that uprooted and dispossessed Canada’s ethnic Japanese during the Second World War. I found it deeply moving.

Nagasaki was the centre of Christianity in Japan, an irony Kogawa reflects upon in her memoir. “If ever the Christian West had friends in Japan, it was there…” she writes, speaking of the “…Hidden Christians who had survived centuries of the most grotesque tortures and martyrdoms.” By the nineteenth century this minority had finally been allowed to practice its faith in peace. Then came August 9, 1945, when, “The Christians whom Japan had failed to annihilate through intense persecution, the West managed to obliterate in an instant.”

Did the American military know any of this when they selected Nagasaki as a target? I doubt it. It was just one of those twists of fate that make us wonder.

There has been much debate over whether the atomic bombs were necessary to force the surrender of Japan. Many historians believe that a naval blockade and conventional air attacks, coupled with the threat of the Soviet Union encroaching from the north, would have been sufficient. My intuition is that the Americans wanted to test their bombs “in real life,” and demonstrate to the world the destructive power of their new weapon. And because it was only “Japs” who were killed, the slaughter would be more acceptable in the American public sphere, where the endemic level of racism had been ratcheted up to a fever pitch by the media and government propaganda.

The death toll of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombs was over 200,000, but the Americans had been dropping tons of conventional incendiary bombs on Japan’s population for months. The firebombing of Tokyo that took place March 9 and 10 was the deadliest air raid in history, leaving 100,000 or more dead and destroying 267,000 buildings and over 40 square kilometres of the city. Over the course of the spring and summer of 1945, America firebombed 67 Japanese cities. Up to 900,000 men, women and children perished.

As a young girl, Joy Kogawa was acutely aware of her status as a member of the “others.” In Gently to Nagasaki she recounts her coming to this realization while interned in the Slocan Valley, British Columbia, only a few kilometres from my home.

In Slocan, the best of the ghost towns to which we were sent, our family of four stayed for three years in a log cabin with a cow-dung ceiling at the foot of the mountains. My older brother Tim and I watched newsreels with hundreds of other kids at the Saturday night movies in the Odd Fellows Hall. We saw how unthinkably horrible the Japs were. We were not Japs, my brother said. Except that we were. Not all Germans were Nazis, but all Japanese were Japs.

It was racism that allowed the Americans to firebomb and nuke hundreds of thousands of Japanese with little public backlash, just as racism allowed the Canadian government to strip Japanese Canadians of their homes and possessions and ship them off to remote camps in the British Columbia interior with the enthusiastic approval of the majority of its constituents. But Japan, in those times, was also racist and xenophobic, and the Japanese army committed possibly the most egregious mass murders and atrocities of the 21st century, the sum of which have come to be known as the “Asian Holocaust.” According to the historian Peter Li, the death toll was massive.

…in comparison to the Jewish Holocaust, relatively little has been written about the atrocities perpetrated by the Japanese military in China, Korea, the Philippines, Singapore and Indonesia, where close to 50 million people died at the hands of Japanese aggression. In China alone, an estimated 30 million people lost their lives.

The horrors and suffering humans can inflict on one another have tested Joy Kogawa’s faith in the Christian tenets of love and forgiveness. As a person of Japanese descent, she has tried to find a path through the pain and suffering inflicted by the Japanese during the Asian Holocaust, and that inflicted upon the Japanese by the American firebombings and nuclear devastation. As well, she has had to process the injustice faced by herself and fellow Japanese Canadians during the Second World War internment program.

In the 1990s, her faith was tested once more, as the emotional equivalent of a “Fat Man” detonated in her life with the revelation that her father, an Anglican priest revered by many, was a pedophile who had sexually abused some 300 children, mostly boys, over the span of his career. Her journey of coming to terms with that bombshell is chronicled in her 1995 novel The Rain Ascends. In Gently to Nagasaki, she revisits this difficult episode in her life, writing the following summation of her father’s life, after his death in 1995.

He served, he betrayed, he was revered and reviled, he preached, he wrote, he consoled, he harmed, he suffered, he forgave. He was a gentle father, he cared for his wife and died at last a month short of his ninety-fifth birthday. My father carried his mother within him throughout his life. I have carried him throughout mine.

The bomb dropped on Nagasaki, for all else it represents, was also a turning point in history. It marked the beginning of the nuclear age, with its threat of obliteration hovering over humanity like the sword of Damocles and adding a terrifying new dimension to world politics. As well, in the autumn of 1945, it seems the world took a breath and looked back at the previous three decades of madness with some shame and dismay, resolving to do better. The second half of the twentieth century had its share of war and suffering, to be sure, but it also fostered a greater sense of international cooperation and a renewed effort to resolve global conflicts.

Is there a trend, a trajectory toward a peaceful and sustainable future? It is hard to have a positive outlook these days, with the looming threats of climate change, overpopulation, millions of refugees and festering conflicts around the globe. But I take some hope and inspiration from the writing of Joy Kogawa, who faced the demons in her life with great courage, never shying from the truth, no matter how painful, never succumbing to the temptation to look the other way, always turning to love as her guiding light. There are only two choices: give up or carry on. She consistently chose the latter, even in the face of dark despair and mental anguish. Her example gives me hope and inspires me to avoid the seductive pitfalls of cynicism and apathy.

Joy Kogawa turned 85 this past June. Last year (2019) I attended her talk in Nelson, B.C. on the theme of “The Journey Toward Forgiveness.” In her quiet, self-assured voice she spoke, without notes, about her faith in the transformative power of love and forgiveness. I was touched by her serenity and grace, the transcendence of one who has finally found peace and beauty in this troubled world.

Afterwards I bought a copy of her book Itsuka (Someday) and spoke with her briefly, describing how moved I had been by my reading of Gently to Nagasaki. She thanked me, thought for a moment, and then inscribed the title page of my copy: Itsuka, some day the time of laughter arrives – now?

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