Sunday, January 10, 2010

Japan - Day 6

When I woke up at 6 am, fairly refreshed by a long snooze, it was to find the wild-eyed anxious face of Chris staring at me. The poor guy had not slept a wink, haunted by the denizens of the train station (and train stations can attract quite a few unsavory characters in the wee hours of the morning). He was ready to go!

My mother used to call my father El Abominable Turista de las Nueve, a play on words about the Abominable Snowman that makes fun of his tendency of wanting to start his tourism while everyone else was asleep. Well, Chris and I put one on him when we turned into Los Abominables Turistas de las Seis, looking for places to visit at 6 am

Nagasaki sits at the land end of a deep ria, a submerged river valley, in which the ocean has advanced into the land as a narrow dagger that cuts deep into the heart of Kyushu (the southernmost of the three big islands of Japan). The Korean peninsula lies just across the narrowest portion of the Sea of Japan. Nagasaki's first claim to fame is that it was the port first reached by the Dutch and Portuguese seafarers in the 1600's. At the time Japan was under the political control of the shoguns, who looked at the Europeans with extreme distrust. The shogun determined to limit contact with the Europeans, who were restricted to Nagasaki as the only port that would receive their ships. Nagasaki thus developed as a typical multicultural city, with strong influences from nearby China and Korea, interspersed with Dutch and Portuguese enclaves. One of these enclaves was the Catholic church, who used Nagasaki as the center of its missionary efforts, led by the Society of

One of the missionaries was a young Mexican named Felipe de Jesus. According to the stories my Mom used to tell me when I was a kid, young Felipe--Felipillo--was a very hyperactive child (not unlike yours truly, which is why the story was to me) and in his many antics had killed a fig tree that grew in the family yard. In exasperation his nanny used to say that he was a hopeless case, and that only if he were to become a saint the dead fig tree would come back to life. Well, many years later, as a missionary in Japan, Felipillo suffered martyrdom when the Shogun rounded up all the missionaries and their converts, crucified them, and abruptly put an end at all contact with the outside world until the mid 1800's. After the prophecy "Cuando la higuera reverdezca Felipillo sera santo" the fig tree came back to life!

I tell you this story because we did visit the monument and chapel to the 26 martyrs of Nagasaki, to commemorate the memory of San Felipe de Jesus.

The second reason why Nagasaki is know is because on August 9, at 11:02 in the morning, it was obliterated by the detonation of the second atomic bomb the United States dropped on Japan. 150,000 civilians died in what to this day remains as one of the most infamous acts perpetrated on a civilian population. The site of the detonation is deep in the heart of the city, where the old Catholic cathedral used to stand. Hypocenter Park is now a serene place surrounded by simple memorials and thousands of paper prayers for world peace. I was struck with a memorial to the Koreans that died during the blast. It was a kind of apology offered by the Japanese people, who acknowledged invading Korea in the early 1900's, depriving the Korean people of their right to independent government, and enslaving them to come work in Japan to support the war effort. Japan is ashamed of what they did to others, and dedicate this hallowed ground to the cause of peace throughout the world, and a nuclear-free world.

Why the United States took the decision to perpetrate this horror is one of the big puzzles of history. The war had already been won, and Japan was trying to negotiate the terms of surrender. Some think that the dropping of the bombs in Hiroshima and Nagasaki was to justify to the American taxpayer the expenditure of 2 billion dollars in the Manhattan project. Others believe that it was a show of force to the USSR (which backfired into the Cold War, the expenditure of trillions of dollars into a MAD program (Mutually Assured Destruction), and the absurd proliferation of nuclear weapons). But why civilian populations?

A nuclear-free world seems an impossibility nowadays, but has to be the dream of any good person on Earth. President Obama was largely granted the Nobel Peace Prize because he is the first world leader, ever, who has committed to ending MAD and seeking a nuclear-free world.

A visit to the Atomic Bomb Museum is a shocking testament to the brutality of war. Armchair warmongers, who click on the remote control as if they were releasing Fat Man from Bock's Car at the time they mutter "Nuke 'em", should come and see what comes of it all. Maybe then they would understand the words of Sherman as he surveyed the devastation his troops had wrecked on the South: War is Hell.

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