Few journalists bother to visit Nagasaki, even though it is one of only two cities in the world to “meet the atomic bomb,” as some of the survivors of that experience, sixty-six years ago today, put it. It remains the Second City, and “Fat Man” the forgotten bomb. No one in America ever wrote a bestselling book called Nagasaki, or made a film titled Nagasaki, Mon Amour. “We are an asterisk,” Shinji Takahashi, a sociologist in Nagasaki, once told me, with a bitter smile. “The inferior A-bomb city.”
Yet in many ways, Nagasaki is the modern A-bomb city, the city with perhaps the most meaning for us today. For one thing, when the plutonium bomb exploded above Nagasaki it made the uranium-type bomb dropped on Hiroshima obsolete.
And then there’s this. “The rights and wrongs of Hiroshima are debatable,” Telford Taylor, the chief prosecutor at the Nuremberg trials, once observed, “but I have never heard a plausible justification of Nagasaki”—which he labeled a war crime. Kurt Vonnegut Jr., who experienced the firebombing of Dresden at close hand, said much the same thing. “The most racist, nastiest act by this country, after human slavery, was the bombing of Nagasaki,” he once said. “Not of Hiroshima, which might have had some military significance. But Nagasaki was purely blowing away yellow men, women, and children. I’m glad I’m not a scientist because I’d feel so guilty now.”
A beautiful city dotted with palms largely built on terraces surrounding a deep harbor—the San Francisco of Japan—Nagasaki has a rich, bloody history, as any reader of Shogun knows. Three centuries before Commodore Perry came to Japan, Nagasaki was the country’s gateway to the west. The Portuguese and Dutch settled here in the 1500s. St. Francis Xavier established the first Catholic churches in the region in 1549, and Urakami, a suburb of Nagasaki, became the country’s Catholic center. While the rest of Japan was closed to the West, Nagasaki remained open for trade. Thomas Glover, one of the first English traders here, supplied the modern rifles that helped defeat the Tokugawa Shogunate in the nineteenth century.
Glover’s life served as a model for the story of Madame Butterfly, and Nagasaki is known in many parts of the world more for Butterfly than for the bomb. In Puccini’s opera, Madame Butterfly, standing on the veranda of Glover’s home overlooking the harbor (see left), sings, “One fine day, we’ll see a thread of smoke arising…“ If she could have looked north from the Glover mansion, now Nagasaki’s top tourist attraction, on August 9, 1945, she would have seen, two miles in the distance, a thread of smoke with a mushroom cap.
By 1945, Nagasaki had become a Mitsubishi company town, turning out ships and armaments for Japan’s increasingly desperate war effort. Few Japanese soldiers were stationed here, and only about 250 of them would perish in the atomic bombing. It was still the Christian center in the country, with more than 10,000 Catholics among its 250,000 residents. Most of them lived in the outlying Urakami district, the poor part of town, where a magnificent cathedral seating 6,000 had been built almost brick-by-brick by the parishioners.