Dispatches: Nagasaki’s Atomic Bomb Museum

Step into Nagasaki’s Atomic Bomb Museum and the most immediate thing that strikes you is a clock hanging behind a glass panel. It stopped working at 11:02 a.m. on August 9, 1945, the minute the nuclear bomb was detonated over the city. Working my way through the rest of the artifacts at the museum, I came across multiple clocks found in the city’s wreckage, all resting at the exact same moment. It was as if time itself stopped when the bomb exploded, engulfed in the same flame and fire as everything else.

A few years ago, the Thoku earthquake and tsunami ravaged the eastern shore of Japan. Just a few months afterwards, I boarded a plane in Korea and flew into Nagasaki. My coworkers all thought I was crazy. Warnings about nuclear radiation had quickly worked their way deeply into the Korean psyche; schools around the country began serving seaweed to combat the suspected spread of radioactive iodine-131, while some parents refused to send their kids to school during rainy days for fear of contamination.

I wasn’t heading anywhere near the rolling blackouts of Tokyo or the Fukushima epicenter, but nonetheless one can’t set foot inside the coastal city of Nagasaki and avoid the nuclear question. Though that question, in the light of Nagasaki at 11:02 a.m. so long ago, is one altogether different. The artifacts, photos, and stories at the museum especially serve to keep past tragedies at the forefront of one’s mind.

Walking into Remembrance Hall made this all the more clear. Perhaps the most somber room I’ve ever entered, the hall is home to 12 pillars of light and the names of all the victims who perished in the aftermath. The first minute inside was almost suffocating, as if the sorrow and burdens of an entire country were channeled here only to manifest themselves into an anchor that kept even the air from rising. The pillars symbolize hope for peace, but one can’t help but feel that they’re holding up so much more than that.

This made it all the more remarkable that outside of this museum, Nagasaki couldn’t feel more different. Look away from the images of human bones fusing with rock, the stories of victims being ignored for their lack of Japanese blood, and what do you see? Green. Trees towering over rivers. Flowers blooming among plants. A port city that was heavily influenced by Europeans, Chinese and Koreans, that is home to a sizable number of Christians, Nagasaki has a look and feel almost unlike any other Asian city I’ve witnessed. It feels like the kind of romanticized European town I’d expect to watch in a Hayao Miyazaki film. Electric trams extend through the city and the salty ocean air glides along easily.

As cities like Manila in the Philippines have shown me, it’s not given that World War II’s destruction can be fully overcome, especially when incompetence and corruption reign. Ruins remain, and buildings can be painted over yet still house nothing inside, mere shadows of their former selves. So while I walked through Nagasaki on a cloudless day, taking in the lush scenery around me, I couldn’t help but be impressed at how far the city has come from total devastation. It’s not easy to rebound, and with that in mind I thought again of the earthquake and tsunami disasters that ravaged the other side of the Japan. I couldn’t help but think that, somehow, they’ll make a comeback as well.

After all, the most wonderful thing one can say about Nagasaki is that time didn’t really stop on that day 65 years ago. It continued its inexorable march forward, and the black rain that burned away the lives of so many stopped falling. Eventually, the sun peaks through and the sky opens up. It’s blue.

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