The Lesson of Nagasaki

This week marks the 82nd anniversary of the nuking of Nagasaki on the southernmost island of Japan which effectively ended the Second World War. It’s not the confluence of that event’s anniversary and the sudden worries of nuclear destruction flying again — although having petulant, spoiled man-children threaten nuclear war on both sides of the Pacific is indeed worrisome — that led to this posting.

No, it’s because of the targeting. Hiroshima and Nagasaki had not been firebombed: they were relatively pristine targets, and as such, good demonstrations of  how destructive atomic bombs could be. The bomb exploded not in an industrial area or the docks but one occupied by women and children. Ground zero in Nagasaki was in the open courtyard in front of Urikami Cathedral, the largest Catholic church in the Far East. It was chosen as the target of convenience as the biggest area of open ground in the city center. The plutonium bomb, tested several weeks earlier in New Mexico, was only used there because the primary target, Kokura, had been clouded over, and thus spared. Used on the back-up target, “Fat Man” killed between 30-80,000 within four months, most in the initial blast or shortly afterwards.

The supreme irony is that Nagasaki was home to most of the Roman Catholics remaining in Japan at the time, and all the seminarians.

Why? The Portuguese had first landed in nearby Tanegashima (which was what muskets became called in Japanese as a result). Nagasaki even became a Jesuit colony for awhile until Japan was reunited. Then, under the shoguns, all the Jesuit missionaries were thrown out or made saints by crucifixion to forestall invasion.

The city was chosen by the shoguns as the only site in the country where foreign traders were permitted to operate during the Tokugawa shogunate. They were allowed to maintain a trading legation in their compounds on an artificial island in the harbor built just for them. But only Dutch and English merchants were granted these privileges, and only because they were Protestants. The Japanese — who understood how Catholic Spain had conquered the Philippines and saw the missionaries systematically undermining Chinese culture – were not about to put up with any more subversive, spying priests.

So the Dutch got a glimpse of the wonders of the East while approved Japanese scholars got a taste of “Dutch learning” as they called it. This provided the sole point of contact between the Japanese and the Western world before President Lincoln sent warships to open up the islands once again to the outside world.

Though the cathedral was rebuilt, only a few brick pillars and some broken statues survive, as can be seen above, standing not far from the Ground Zero Monument.

Truly, God works in mysterious ways… but what lesson is to be drawn from this? Was it allowed to happen by chance or was it divine judgment? Was it a cosmic statement – some kind of karmic circle? A warning? After all, in that area the first contacts between West and East began, where Japan first contacted Western arms and where those arms finally defeated them. Or was it some kind of punishment for the Catholic missionaries?

It makes one wonder what other karmic forces may be waiting to be unleashed. I worry about my country, and particularly my hometown of Albuquerque, located between Los Alamos and White Sands. Only the United States has ever used atomic weapons against its foes – and not on armies massed for combat, but on cities largely filled with non-combatants. Only by holding fast to the memories of the horrors of Nagasaki and Hiroshima might such karmic retribution be held at bay.

May God have mercy on us that the hard lessons may not have to be learned again.