Monday, June 14, 2010

The Bells of Nagasaki

I first heard of The Bells of Nagasaki/Nagasaki no kane whilst reading John W.Dower's Embracing Defeat,and again recently I was reading through a new book from Iwanami Shoten called Nagasaki Urakami Cathedral 1945-1958 An Atomic Bomb Relic Lost and was reminded of it again. The translator, William Johnston in his excellent and thought provoking introduction depicts the events leading up to the use and decision of using the atomic bombs, through the Potsdam meeting, the Franck Report, to Oppenheimer's feelings of committing a sin. He also mentions Albert Einstein's enthusiasm for exploring the idea of Atomic energy turned and how he wrote to President Roosevelt to persuade him not to use the bomb, although this letter was found unopened on the President's desk shortly after the president's death. Johnston describes the author Takashi Nagai, a doctor of the radiology department of the University of Nagasaki, with his knowledge of radiology and atomic power, his account of the bombing sometimes goes into giving scientific explanations of how the bomb was created, and the of the immense force it unleashed. The book was originally published in 1949, although at first it was banned by the occupying forces, but after protests from friends of the author, the Department of Defence gave permission with the proviso that it appeared with an appendix describing Japanese atrocities in the Philippines. The book begins with eye witness accounts, Chimoto working in the fields, seeing the plane and the small object falling through the sky, a bomb!. Shielding his eyes from the flash, when he looks again the blast is flattening tree's up the side of the mountain like an invisible bulldozer, other's who saw it recall it as 'a huge lantern wrapped in cotton'. Nagai's narrative moves to his own experiences after the blast, he was pinned to the ground by some fallen debris, his first thoughts are of how he will care for the wounded, as the surviving staff and students begin to recover themselves from the initial blast they realize that the dean, (Nagai), was buried alive and they begin to figure out how to reach him, one observes 'it must have been a bomb like the Hiroshima one', Nagai manages to free himself. The narrative briefly moves to Professor Seiki's account, who was knocked unconscious, when he comes around the sky is filled with a grey cloud, the 'sun was a reddish brown disc, it was dark like evening, it was cold'. Surveying the scene, whole departments of the university building had disappeared replaced by a sea of fire, with corpses lying everywhere. Nagai's team begin to collect themselves they start treating the wounded, knowing they faced a huge task, Nagai tells his team they 'must confront with quiet determination', Nagai himself was suffering from a severed artery. Soon though the hospital building catches fire, and the survivors have to be removed to the safety of a nearby hill, a few hours after the explosion black rain began to fall, and as the fires were taking the oxygen from the air, some people began suffering breathing difficulties. In the evening they watched as Urakami Cathedral suddenly burst into flames.

Nagai's narration follows the efforts of his team as they begin to make their rounds, with limited supplies and food they begin administering care to the wounded and dying. Returning to the ruins of the university they see the skeletons of their colleagues 'if only it were a dream'. They establish a base at Fuji-no-o,some distance from the centre and continue to make their rounds to the surrounding villages, tending survivors,one by one though the team begin to succumb to their wounds, and signs of atomic sickness begin to appear, walking back from their rounds Nagai's leg freezes up with pain, although this didn't stop him visiting the wounded 'I knew that if I went I would probably die but, thinking that to offer my life for one unknown person would be a worthwhile sacrifice, I set out on my journey'. On returning his condition worsens and feeling the symptoms of Cheyne-Stokes respiration he fell into a coma, but remarkably he recovers. The last segments of the book are given over to Nagai's scientific observations about the effects of radioactivity and cases of treating atomic sickness, and also his faith,building a hut near the centre of where the bomb struck he continued to study it's effects, he notices the decrease in radioactivity is rapid and disagrees with the theory that it would take seventy five years to clear.Talking with some visitors to his hut some time after he tells them, 'All these human lives, all this material wealth, all this time, all this mobilization of the powers of the human race - if all this had been directed to peace'.


Bellezza said...

All I've read about Nagasaki, which isn't much, came from my High School history classes. What an interesting read this must be, in that it all really happened, and what a tragedy that the letter remained unopened on the President's desk. (Confirming my faith in political leadership: nil.) Thank you for such a thorough and interesting review on a topic I should know more about.

Literary Dreamer said...

One of the highlights of my time spent in Japan was in visiting Nagasaki and being able to attend the Peace Ceremony, held every year on August 9. I cannot do justice to everything I did there, even just what I did on that day, in a comment, but I will point out that the book, The Bells of Nagasaki, and its author, Takashi Nagai, are featured prominently in the museum, much as Sadako is featured in the Peace Museum in Hiroshima, and that since I've visited there, I've wanted to read this book.

In fact, I think every American should visit Hiroshima and Nagasaki at least once in their lifetime. Both are beautiful cities and well worth visiting, even without the reminders there of how horrible war can be.

me. said...

I've not made it to Hiroshima or Nagasaki,(i'd very much like to),i watched last year's Peace Ceremony on t.v,to be there in person must have been quite an experience.Dr Nagai's scientific explanations offer many insights into the effects of the bomb,and he was obviously debunking many myths that were circulating at the time,the book was also made into a film in 1950,which i've yet to see.