Nagasaki Reflections

June 13, 2012

It’s early morning and the sun is shining in Nagasaki.

Yesterday, leaving Fukuoka after breakfast, Bob and I made our way through the tree covered mountains of Japan on winding narrow roads with one ascent featuring 29 switchbacks. Japan is more beautiful than I expected and there were some lovely views of terraced hillsides newly planted with rice. For the final hour, we made our way to the expressway and drove more quickly towards the southwest tip of the island and the city made famous as site of the second nuclear attack by the US at 11:02 a.m., August 9, 1945.

When you teach, you sometimes find yourself standing by the photocopier reading work left behind by other teachers. One day, as my double-sided math tests were churning out, the bombing of Dresden, Germany by the allies in WWII was my reading material at hand. Famous for being thought by many an unnecessary attack on a target of little military importance, the city was virtually burnt to the ground with incendiary bombs and further immortalized as part of Kurt Vonnegut’s novel Slaughterhouse Five. At the end, the article said that the bombings of Nagasaki and Hiroshima compared to Dresden as wartime atrocities and I remember taking issue with that statement at the time. I had always thought that what I’d been told was true: that the atomic bombs used against Japan shortened a war that was likely to drag on for many months while taking huge numbers of lives on both sides.

Arriving in Nagasaki, we found a lovely, green city with vegetation happily growing at the epicentre of a nuclear blast that was supposed to remain arid for thousands of years. Nature dispelled that myth rather quickly and the museum dedicated to the horrible bombing dispelled my long felt conviction that the atomic bombs were necessary. Quietly nestled among the wealth of information on a timeline leading up to the attack was a statement that the Japanese had actually contacted the Americans about surrendering using the Russians as intermediaries. A quote from General Eisenhower stated his shock when he learned of the attack because, in his opinion, Japan was already effectively defeated.

The museum is, understandably, dedicated to keeping the events of that day in the awareness of people and to promoting world peace. But having lived through the time when nuclear Armageddon was much more in the front of everyone’s mind, in fact at the top of everyone’s minds, it’s interesting for me to note that other fears, for example, global warming and near destitute retirements, now occupy that position. I remember being so taken up as a 10-year old in the collective fear during the Cuban missile crisis that I hid under one of the beds in our house. A museum model, showing the valley with the city at the center that uses lights to show the bomb’s reach (measured in parts of a second) was extremely effective in detailing just how lethal this weapon was, while photographs of people suffering from the effects of a nuclear blast brought it down to a personal level.

What if scenarios are fraught with difficulties, but let’s imagine for a moment that America didn’t use the atomic bomb on those fateful days and accepted a Japanese surrender. All well and good but you could also argue that if America and the world never saw the horrible reality of nuclear weapons, then someone else almost certainly would have given it a try (in Cuba perhaps?) with possibly even more horrific results.

Turning from 1945 to 2012, Bob and I used the gps on my iphone to find an organic-food buffet where we both ate more than our fill before heading for the Akari hostel, which I recommend. Later, I settled in to watch the subtitled film, Twilight Samurai, the story of a single-parent samurai working as an office clerk while trying to raise his two angelic daughters and his senile mother.

Twilight, who has been given his pejorative nickname by his fellow workers because he never goes out drinking with them, is reluctantly recruited to kill another samurai who has refused to commit hari-kari as ordered. Having sold his sword to meet his debts, Twilight faces his opponent with a bamboo long sword and a lethal short sword that prevails in the end, but not before the two opponents sit inside the rebel samurai’s house to have a drink and discuss other possible solutions. He returns home to find his lifelong love waiting for him even though she recently accepted a marriage proposal from another. As the credits roll, we are told they spent three happy years together before he was killed by rifle fire in a battle. Twilight’s life is made even more poignant by the fact the whole story is told as a voiceover by one of his daughters, who concludes in the end that while his life was short, it was one filled with intensity and passion.

I have just one more week of teaching left, so call me Twilight Teacher, for the moment. This is the first time I have left a teaching position without another one to go to since I left to teach in Libya, 10 years ago.  I am returning to Canada to dedicate more of my time to my art. After that, I will step into an uncertain future. Whether it will involve further travels or see me remain largely in the country of my birth remains to be seen, but regardless of locale, I too hope to continue to live with intensity and passion and have many more stories to tell.