August 7, 2005
I am standing with my daughter on the rooftop of Nagasaki's sleek new art museum looking out at the breathtaking view of the harbor and surrounding mountains. The sunlight reflects off the rippling water like jiggling pieces of gold. A fresh, salty breeze tickles my nose as a wave of nostalgia for Boston and the Cape rises in me. Both Boston and Nagasaki are port towns, packed with history and influence. Both are home to large Roman Catholic communities. Both have endured religious persecution. Both are centers for learning. I can hear the familiar cling clang of a tram in the distance and turn to see construction cranes sprouting like exclamation marks on the cityscape.
''Kakkou ii!" says my 11-year-old in Japanese, translating it with a resplendent ''Cool!" She has just confirmed the recent press coverage I had read lauding Nagasaki as the new ''hip" place to visit in Japan. I am in complete agreement with her on this one, so happy to be here finally after so many years in Japan. Then it hits me. I look up at the clear blue sky and try to imagine the mushroom-like atomic death cloud that utterly destroyed the city 60 years ago, on Aug. 9, 1945.
Mention Nagasaki and you immediately think: atom bomb. Along with Hiroshima, which was bombed three days earlier, there is no other place on earth that can claim this horrific distinction. The anniversary on Tuesday will be recognized throughout the world. Still, I am learning that there is so much more to Nagasaki than its bitter history. In fact, cool things abound — and, I am soon to learn, enticing things as well.
At the lovely Hotel Monterey Nagasaki, amid Portuguese-inspired blue ceramic tiles, and a cathedral-style stained-glass window of a platinum blond St. Joseph (in the mini-wedding chapel), I am greeted by our guide from the prefecture tourist office. She and I immediately bow and exchange name cards in ritual Japanese mode. Hisata san's card reads ''Overseas Enticement Division."
I love it, I think to myself, recalling all the funny takes on English I've read over the years, and then I cannot wait to set out and see all the enticing sights.
For most foreign travelers, Nagasaki is off the beaten track. It is along the western coast of the big southern island of Kyushu, just a bit too far from Tokyo or Kyoto. However, with a government-backed plan to showcase the city's history and arts, supported by better transportation, a good variety of hotels, and delicious cuisine, Nagasaki seems well on the road to becoming Japan's new cultural center. The new Nagasaki Prefectural Art Museum illuminates the city's international and diverse image.
Nagasaki has a rich history as a port of trade. James Clavell's book ''Shogun" and the tale of ''Madame Butterfly" are set here. Even ''The Last Samurai" with Tom Cruise touches on an important episode in Nagasaki's history.
It's impossible to equate much that is cool with the atom bomb unless you look at it from the point of view of peace. Nagasaki, along with Hiroshima, is home to the Japanese peace movement, promoting the global elimination of nuclear arms, which blossomed here through the deep cracks of anger and destruction left by the bomb.
How about ''cool Christianity"? It's a stretch, but not impossible. The city has always been home to the largest Christian population in a country dominated by Buddhism and Shintoism. Roman Catholic missionaries once governed the city. Later, during a period of brutal ethnic cleansing, thousands of Christians were murdered and martyred. The faith went underground and, miraculously, survived. Cool.
I first heard about Nagasaki and the atom bomb from my father when I was a child. During World War II, as a 19-year-old seaman in the Navy's 7th Fleet, he came to Nagasaki to help rescue American POWs, two weeks after the bomb. His shocking, sad story has stayed with me. When the invitation to the grand opening of the Prefectural Art Museum arrived in the mail at home in Tokyo, it was like the beckoning hand of fate. I had to go.
At the museum, we descend from the rooftop into a throng of guests. It is a very important and symbolic day for the city. Wealthy art patrons who have flown down from Tokyo blend with a sea of government officials. Mothers chasing after their toddlers weave among sprightly gray-haired ladies in matching hats and sneakers, blond foreigners, blue-jeaned students, and artists of all ages, shapes, and styles. Here it is, the perfect Nagasaki blend of sophisticated and simple, local and international. The H-shaped building designed by architect Kengo Kuma straddles a canal waterway, symbolically connecting it with the city's historical role in sea trade. The opening exhibition is a collection of rare and valuable Spanish paintings. Christian themes dominate, reflecting both Spain and Nagasaki's close connection with the Catholic Church and their historical relationship.
''Nagasaki is a very different city in Japan," says Junji Ito, director of the museum and a Nagasakian who has lived and worked in Europe. ''Historically, we have always existed between cultures. Spanish, Portuguese, Dutch, Chinese, British, Americans, French, Koreans, Russians have all influenced us here and we are proud of this foreign connection. We want the museum to be a place where we can recover our memories and sense of Nagasaki culture with both local and international involvement."
Later, sipping a Starbucks coffee, I look down at the map elaborately hand-drawn for me by a stranger on the airport bus. As a rule, Japanese are friendly and generous with foreign visitors. Approaching a stranger for directions, as I did, will often elicit genuine kindness.
''In Nagasaki it's almost a DNA kind of thing," says Brian Burke-Gaffney. ''It feels very natural to be a foreigner here, unlike elsewhere in Japan. Diversity is a given here." A Canadian by birth and resident of Japan since 1972, and of Nagasaki since 1982, this university history professor is a virtual encyclopedia of all that is fact and fiction about Nagasaki. He has helped officials here so much that they awarded him the near-equivalent of a key to the city. His calm and clear insights reflect his past as an ordained Zen Buddhist monk.
''The atomic bombing is fraught with irony," Burke-Gaffney says, as our conversation quickly turns toward the approaching anniversary. ''Out of a fluke, because of cloud coverage at the original destination, they ended up releasing the bomb above the biggest Christian population in Japan." The US military knew about Nagasaki's weapons factories, so it became a secondary target. The torpedoes used in Pearl Harbor were made here.
''The biggest irony of all is that behind the military industry was this unique, I would say glorious, history of international exchange and cooperation," he adds. ''Have you been to Urakami Cathedral?" I've read that it sat at the epicenter of ground zero. It has been carefully reconstructed and now serves one of the biggest Catholic congregations in Japan.
Down the road, at the 26 Martyrs Museum and Shrine, Father Renzo De Luca, the museum director, says, ''It was a huge event when Pope John Paul II came to visit here in 1981," he says. ''It showed to the world that the church considers Nagasaki's history of deep Christian faith and martydom to be very important. Nagasaki's history is full of unjust killing and martyrdom. I think that this, combined with the Christian concept of forgiving enemies, has helped people here overcome the atom bomb's effects. Typically, in the past, Japanese would revenge a killing. We've gone beyond that here."
Back at the Atomic Bomb Museum, to our surprise, it is not as gut-wrenching as we expected. We first see the famous wall clock with its hands stopped at 11:02, the moment of the explosion. Its tick-tock suddenly stops and we are left in silence. Around the corner, the photographs, videos, and artifacts are displayed with a quiet, educational approach. The message is clearly peace.
Next door at the Nagasaki National Peace Memorial Hall for the Atomic Bomb Victims, the laughter of the staff echoes in the tomb-like building. Memories, photographs, and records of thousands of atom bomb victims — called hibakusha — are gathered here. Sachiko Yasui is one of the ''healing voices" who lectures about her experience as a survivor.
''I lost completely everything in the atomic bomb," she says without a fleck of self-pity. She was 6 years old and trapped under a collapsed house. Everyone in her immediate family perished as did 16 other relatives, some who died later from radiation sickness.
''The 60th anniversary is extremely important," she says. ''It seems like the world is slipping back into a state of war now again 60 years later rather than away from it. . . . I hope that when children hear my story it will help them not only feel the suffering of war but will actually help change the way they think. There are still survivors, but getting fewer over the years. We have to make sure this information is passed on to the next generation."
I ask my daughter what she thinks about the bomb after visiting the museum.
''It's so sad and scary," she replies immediately. Then, with eyes wide open, she asks, ''Do you think this could happen in my lifetime?"
I desperately want to tell her no, but I reply quietly, ''History is our best teacher."
As we step out of the museum, we are flooded with bright sunlight and I feel all mixed up with sadness and joy. I have discovered that indeed, this is one very cool city — with a centuries-long message of peace.
Original article: Thriving city overcomes bitter legacy