I Did Not Know (fiction), Part 7: Urakami

March 21, 2003

Myrna was surprised by how empty the plaza was.

Sure, there were a few people walking about. One looked like another tourist, but the others might have just been local people going about their business. The adjacent neighborhood also seemed to be … very typical for Japan. The liveliest spot was where a flock of pigeons had gathered. As pigeons, there was utterly nothing remarkable about them. Nothing about their behavior indicated that they were a place which had been hit by a plutonium bomb.

Before Myrna was the statue of a man with his right arm pointed up and his left arm pointed outward. She was in Nagasaki Peace Park, in Urakami, the predominantly Christian neighborhood in northern Nagasaki which had been ground zero.

She walked out of the park, and within a few minutes, she was before St. Mary’s Cathedral. Before it were some statues and other remains of the old cathedral. But what caught Myrna’s eye was not so much the physical remains of the bombed cathedral, but the sign which advised tourists not to enter the cathedral unless invited, in order to reserve the space inside as a place for parishioners to worship. Myrna did not see many tourists around at all. However, when she thought about it for a moment, she realized that even if it only happened once a day that a tourist barged in to gawk at the inside of the reconstruction of the cathedral which had been near the epicenter of the Nagasaki atomic bombing, it would be very tiresome to the people who went to the cathedral to practice their religion.

This was already Myrna’s third day in Nagasaki, and she had learned a little about the history of Nagasaki’s Christians and its martyrs. She knew that, even if the bomb had never been dropped on Nagasaki, St. Mary’s Cathedral, which had been for a time the largest Catholic church in all of East Asia, would be a historic place.

She was staying with a friend of Lou’s, Hana Miura. Myrna had been a bit nervous about it, since it was her first time staying in the home of an actual Japanese person, but Lou taught her the essential etiquette. It helped that Hana was one of the most gentle people Myrna had ever met.

“You speak English well,” Myrna observed during her first evening in Nagasaki.

“No, I don’t speak English well,” Hana replied.

Myrna learned that Hana was originally from an island called ‘Okinoerabujima’, which was even further south than Yakushima, and that Lou had been an English teacher on Okinoerabujima for two years. Hana had not been formally one of Lou’s students, but they became language exchange partners, and they still tried to meet each other once a month.

Myrna spent her first day in Nagasaki getting to know Hana and settling in, and went with her at night to the top of Mt. Inasa. The second day Myrna went to Glover Garden and wandered around the historic neighborhoods around it. It reminded her of Mojiko a little, but it was bigger than Mojiko Retro, and had buildings with even stronger European influences. Of course, the signs pointed out subtle features which gave away that these buildings were not entirely European. She also spent some time in the afternoon at Nagasaki Harbor, where she passed by the Mitsubishi shipyard, and saw a massive ship under construction. It looked like a giant steel skeleton with constant blue flashes of electric torches.

Myrna walked from the cathedral back to the park. There were certainly less people here than in Glover Garden. Of course, a lot of the visitors at Glover Garden were Japanese, and Hana had mentioned that, when her family visited, they all went to Glover Garden, but they did not go to Urakami at all.

As Myrna walked around the park again, she found a memorial to the Korean forced laborers who died and suffered. The memorial was sponsored by the ‘Nagasaki Society for Korean Human Rights’, and included an apology to the Koreans for forcing them to work in Japan.

As Myrna passed by the Peace Museum, she asked herself, should she go in? After all, she had already seen the Peace Museum in Kokura.

She decided to go in. A lot of the exhibits were similar to the ones in the Kokura peace museum, but they had a different meaning for Myrna. When she first arrived in Kokura, she had only be familiar with it as the victim of the atomic bomb, so photos of the ruins seemed natural However, she had gotten to know Nagasaki a little, and could even recognize a few of its landmarks. Seeing Nagasaki in ruins … felt different.

There was also a special temporary exhibit dedicated to Ghosts of Kokura. Myrna had seen it long ago – after all, it was one of the most famous films of the 20th century. A lot of people say that the documentary was why the United Nations banned the use and development of nuclear weapons in 1948. However, Myrna did not know much of the background of Ghosts of Kokura.

The U.S. military had sent in film crews to Kokura and Nagasaki to documents the effects of the atomic bombs, as a part of their large-scale experiment in how nuclear weapons worked. The film footage was classified, and was intended only for military use However, one of the members of the film crew felt it was his moral duty to reveal the nature of the atomic bombings to the world, so he smuggled footage to the Society of Friends, who in turn passed the footage to the Canadian filmmaker, Pierre Lafleur, who made Ghosts of Kokura. Pierre Lafleur was not familiar with Japan and its culture, nor did he understand many of the medical and scientific details of what was happening in the footage, which is why the documentary has a number of mistakes. For example, the film claims that the bomb destroyed Kokura castle, whereas in fact, Kokura castle had burned down much earlier and had been merely a stone foundation at the time of the bombing.

The U.S. government, which occupied Japan immediately after the war, had imposed a censorship regime which limited how much Japanese people could learn about what happened in Kokura and Nagasaki. Ghosts of Kokura, of course, was banned in Japan, even as it was seen by millions of people around the world. Multiple people managed to smuggle the film into Japan, and as more and more Japanese people saw it, it inspired protests against the U.S. occupation. One of the smugglers had dubbed the film in Japanese, but rather than translating the film, they created their own commentary on the footage, which was very different from the original. This version was still the best-known version in Japan.

Myrna pondered the improbable circumstances which led to the documentary’s creation, and wondered, what if it had never been made? Would U.S. military leaders still have been prosecuted in an international war crimes trial? Would there still be nuclear weapons? Would Myrna even be here, or would civilization have been destroyed?

After Myrna left the museum, she felt it was her duty – to Nagasaki – to go inside the Peace Memorial. It was a solemn space. She walked slowly. She went into the media room – which was empty of other people – and listened to seven stories (she read the subtitles). She heard the story of a student who had been working as a tram operator when he felt a light so strong that it ‘shone through’ him. She heard the story of a woman who married after the war, and was kicked out of her husband’s family immediately when they found out that she survived the Nagasaki bombing. She heard the story of a Korean who had been forced to work in the Mitsubishi shipyard at the time of the bombing. She heard the story of a man who lost his wife and two young children to the bomb. She heard the story of a woman who said that, when she saw her daughter graduate from junior high school, she felt happy, yet happiness was very rare in her life as a survivor. She heard the story of a senior high school student who described the rings of death – the people in Urakami died first, and every week, the people in the ring around the previous week’s zone of death died. She heard the story of a Dutch veteran who was imprisoned in a POW camp in Nagasaki at the time of the bombing.

She then walked into the innermost space of the memorial, where a zone of silence was enforced. Engraved on the tall stones inside were the names of everyone who was known to have been killed by the bomb in Nagasaki.

Myrna submitted to the zone of silence, and let the space, the meaning behind it, and the stories wash into her.

After about ten minutes, she got up, and left the memorial. As she was in the plaza again, she saw the pigeons once more, and thought, if she did not know what this place represented, it would be an ordinary and unremarkable park. And something about that felt right. It felt right that, even after the horror of the bomb, there had been enough healing in Urakami that it could lose some remarkableness.

To be continued…


Preview of Part 8: Return to Kokura

After they returned to Ana’s apartment, and Ana started cooking dinner, she asked Myrna “Do you know why I have such strong feelings about the atomic bombing?”

“You live here,” Myrna replied.

“And why do I live here?”

“Your job?” Myrna asked.

“Yes, but why did I look for a job here when I already had one in Kumamoto?”

“I don’t know,” Myrna said. Then she remembered something. “You said something about speaking with a Kokura accent, like your father, so…”

The realization hit Myrna’s tongue like an anvil.

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