Ben Hills

The priest in his white tunic poses in the blazing sunshine in front of his church, beside the charred, decapitated statue of a saint – a stark reminder of what happened here 50 years ago. “It was a devilish weapon,” says Father Takeshi Kawazoe, the head priest at the Urakami Cathedral. “But we must never forget that it was Japan’s militarism and aggression that brought the bomb upon itself.”

The bomb weighed five tonnes, was shaped like a melon, and called Fat Man after the portly British wartime Prime Minister, Winston Churchill. It was twice as powerful as Little Boy (former President Franklin D. Roosevelt) which three days earlier obliterated the city of Hiroshima.

At 11.02 am on August 9, 1945, Fat Man’s plutonium core reached critical mass 500 metres above the belltower of this, Asia’s largest Catholic cathedral, instantly uniting the priest and his congregation, who were celebrating Mass, with their Maker.

In one of the war’s most tragic ironies, 14,000 of the 70,000 who were killed were Christians, descendants of people converted by the Basque missionary Francis Xavier who had survived nearly three centuries of cruel persecution.

That night, Emperor Hirohito overruled his bitterly divided War Cabinet and announced his decision to unconditionally surrender, ending the “Great East Asian War” which Japan began in 1931 with the invasion of China, and which had taken as many as 20 million lives.

Briefed on the bombing, and with tears in his eyes, the Emperor said: “I fear for the very survival of the Japanese race. In order to hand down the nation called Japan to posterity, there is no alternative for me but to keep as many of its people alive (as possible) so that they may again stand on their own feet.”

In a speech two days later, he referred specifically to the “new type of bomb”. If Hiroshima’s significance is that it began the nuclear era, Nagasaki’s, many historians believe, is that it ended the greatest war ever to engulf the planet.

It made a liar of Hirohito’s War Minister, Korechika Anami, who had been demanding every Japanese fight to the death and strutting around in the days after Hiroshima boasting: “I am convinced the Americans only had one bomb, after all.” That was surely history’s most preposterous miscalculation.

On the wall of Nagasaki’s museum is a copy of the letter taped inside an instrument canister that was dropped with Fat Man, and recovered by the Japanese. If the Government needed further persuasion that Japan was doomed, this was it.Addressed to one of Japan’s top nuclear physicists, three of those involved in the Manhattan Project wrote: “As scientists, we deplore the use to which a beautiful discovery has been put. But we can assure you that unless Japan surrenders at once, this rain of atomic bombs will increase many-fold in fury.”

And yet it is Hiroshima which dominates world attention, which has made its martyrdom the centrepiece of the international peace movement.

Tomorrow , 50,000 pilgrims, Japanese and foreigners, will be there to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the bombing, while in Nagasaki just one tenth of that number will attend a simple ceremony concluding with a candle-lit procession to the rebuilt cathedral.

At Hiroshima, scores of memorials draped with garlands of paper cranes line the enormous peace-park, between a museum the size of two large apartment blocks and the skeletal remains of the “atomic bomb dome”. Nagasaki’s museum is a perfunctory display which includes a human hand fused in an ingot of glass and the bomb’s “hypocentre” is marked by a plain black obelisk in a garde n of wilting hydrangeas.

Hiroshima, of course, was the first. More people were killed there – 120,000 in the initial blast. But there is more to it than that. Father Kawazoe explains that Hiroshima’s symbol is a fist clenched in anger, Nagasaki’s two hands joined in prayer.

“Hiroshima tries to hide its military past by shouting loudly, but here we can face up to our history. We know why we were bombed. This was Mitsubishi ‘castle town’ and people had to bow (in gratitude) when they passed its buildings.”

Like most people I met during a week in Nagasaki – and unlike almost everyone I interviewed last year in Hiroshima – Father Kawazoe acknowledges Japan’s aggression caused the war and the bombing brought it to an end, saving many Japanese and American lives.Christians and Buddhists, priests and politicians, academics, hibakusha (bomb survivors) and ordinary folk I spoke to shared this view.

Father Kawazoe was a child of 13 the day the bomb dropped, saved by having stepped a split second earlier into a bomb shelter which the children were excavating in their school yard. Of his class of 50, only nine survived, and that miracle persuaded him to devote his life to God.”We w ere training to fight with sharpened bamboo sticks and we would have been massacred if the war had continued and the Americans had invaded. People were brainwashed, just like the followers of Aum Shinrikyo (the doomsday cult accused of the Tokyo subway poison gas attack) today. The bomb probably saved my life.”

For those who doubt that the port of Nagasaki was a military target – not an innocent civilian city as is sometimes portrayed – a committee of local citizens has organised a “revisionist” museum display, putting the bombing in its context of the 14-year war in which Japan conquered half of Asia.

The exhibits include accounts of slave labour, germ warfare and atrocities such as the 1937 “Rape of Nanking”, Japan’s greatest war crime, in which at least 100,000 soldiers and civilians were raped, castrated, beheaded, disembowelled, impaled and shot in a two-month orgy of violence. The group is staging a rival ceremony to the one which will be attended by Prime Minister Tomiichi Murayama, demanding that the Government make a “full apology and restitution” to the war’s Asian victims.

The organisers are also offering conducted tours of Mitsubishi’s facilities, which were rebuilt after the bombing – the shipyards, steelworks, arms factories and the torpedo test range.

Mitsubishi, Fat Man’s target, is still the nation’s largest defence contractor and the city’s largest employer.

Hitoshi Motoshima, the scholarly former mayor of Nagasaki, has no doubt who was really to blame for the war, and so the bombing. In 1988, as the Emperor Hirohito lay on his deathbed, he spoke publicly about Japan’s aggression and said the emperor “bears some responsibility”. Motoshima was quickly reminded who dictates Japanese history. Black-painted loudspeaker trucks flying the rising sun flag surrounded city hall as ultra-nationalists screamed: “You’ll be punished, in the name of heaven!”

One year later, a would-be assassin shot him in the shoulder. Last April came the political pay-back when he was defeated after 16 years as mayor.

But, from his home overlooking Nagasaki’s harbour, he says: “I have no regrets. It is a historical truth – the emperor bears responsibility, and so do I.” Now 72, Motoshima, who lost several relatives in the bombing, was drafted into an army artillery unit and later taught at a military cadet school. “The Germans understand the truth about their war, but not the Japanese,” he says. “We are still hiding the truth, that it was Japanese aggression that started it.”

Indeed, many people in Nagasaki are fuming that, when he came here a fortnight ago to lay a wreath, Hirohito’s son and successor to the chrysanthemum throne, Emperor Akihito, mumbled only a meek and muted few words of sympathy.

“I would have liked to have heard one word of apology from him for Japan having caused the war and all the horror it brought upon the people of Asia, as well as the many victims in Japan,” said one survivor who, after what happened to Mr Motoshima, wanted to remain anonymous.

Although he says nothing can justify using “the devil’s weapon”, and calls it “using a cannon to kill a fly”, Mr Motoshima concedes that the bombs brought the war to a speedier end than would otherwise have been the case – and thus may have resulted in fewer people being killed.

The homicidal General Curtis LeMay’s B-29s were systematically incinerating every human habitation in Japan with napalm. More than 100,000 died in a single night in Tokyo, and the bombers had only reached number 64 on the list of 100 targeted cities – many more hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of Japanese civilians would have been killed.

As well, if the former mayor is correct in believing that Japan would have fought on until November, there would have been frightful casualties when the Americans invaded, first the island of Kyushu, then the heavily-fortified Kanto plains near Tokyo. Although its navy lay on the bottom of the ocean, Japan still had 2 million men under arms, heavy artillery, and thousands of kamikaze planes. Just 125 kilometres from Nagasaki are the beaches of Kushikino where, on November 1, Allied troops were due to begin Operation Olympic, the vanguard of an invasion involving more than 1 million men.

It is monumentally inconsequential to debate today whether 100,000 or 500,000 of them would have become casualties – this was a slaughter President Truman was determined to avoid, even if meant using The Bomb.

As for the Japanese, the holocaust on Okinawa – where one third of the island’s population was killed or committed suicide rather than surrender – shows that Hirohito was more than justified in his fear that Japan was about to commit genocide on itself.

Those who, 50 years after the event, hypothesise that Japan was on the brink of surrender, that a “demonstration” bomb would have done the trick, that the Japanese believed the Soviets would broker a peace, would do well to read the factual record of those War Cabinet meetings and reflect on whether these are the words of a beaten man: “I believe that, if we fight through, even if it means eating grass and sleeping in the fields, we will be able to find a way out. This is the embodiment of the warrior spirit … of doing everything to save one’s country as long as one has life. I call upon all soldiers to devote themselves to defeating the enemy.”

That was War Minister Anami, Japan’s most powerful man (Hirohito, remember, was a god). And this was not 1943 when the Japanese Reich was at its height and world conquest seemed just a few months away. He was addressing Cabinet the night Nagasaki was bombed.

After Hirohito broadcast his surrender three days later, Anami’s troops drove around the still-smouldering rubble of Nagasaki denouncing it as a fake, and leading the survivors in rousing choruses of “May the emperor live 10,000 years.”

“Everyone cried when we heard the broadcast,” says Shizue Nobeta, one of 335 survivors who live in a nursing home overlooking Nagasaki run by the Immaculate Heart sisters. “But then we realised we would have food again, electricity, the bombing would stop … we were so relieved.”

Ms Nobeta has survived to the age of 76, and her friend and fellow resident Yasu Fujita is 80. Of Japan’s responsibility for the war, and the bombing, Ms Fujita says: “Every Japanese should reflect on this, especially the people of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. We started the war. We were the aggressors, not just the victims.”

Publishing Info

Pub: Sydney Morning Herald
Pub date: Saturday 5 August 1995
Edition: Late
Section: News And Features
Sub section: News Review
Page: 26
Word count: 1636
Keywords: History
1. Before and after the Bomb…
2. Many historians believe the bombing of Nagasaki ended the war.
3. ‘We must never forget’…Father Takeshi Kawazoe