Nagasaki: Marking the 70th Anniversary

Jackie Copleton’s debut novel, A Dictionary of Mutual Understanding is set in Nagasaki during the Second World War. As the city marks the 70th anniversary of the dropping of the atomic bomb on 9th August, she explains how living in Japan inspired the book and why the stories of the survivors must never be forgotten.

The little boy was probably seven or eight years old, licking away at an ice cream in the humid summer heat as he sat beside a fountain. I wonder why it is him I remember most of the 30,000 people who gathered at Nagasaki Peace Park in 1995. We were there to commemorate those killed 50 years earlier when America dropped an atomic bomb on the city.

My job as an English teacher had taken me to Nagasaki in the 1990s. The city has a rich tradition of trade with the West, beautiful shrines, noisy festivals and fascinating islands but it is that one moment in history – 11.02am, August 9, 1945 – that has defined it. When the five-ton plutonium bomb called Fat Man fell from the B-29 bomber Bockscar one-third of a mile above the city the blast obliterated flesh and buildings over three square miles.

In the chaos of war, the number of people living in Nagasaki at the time is hard to determine. Estimates put the figure at 210,000 with 74,000 killed and 75,000 injured. Nearly 121,000 were left homeless. Three days earlier, Hiroshima had been hit by the world’s first nuclear weapon, which killed 140,000. Nagasaki was the second city targeted, and remains the last, for now. By August 15, Japan had surrendered unconditionally.

The Japanese called the bomb “pikadon” – brilliant light and boom – a new word for a new kind of horror. Survivors are called “hibakusha”.  Theirs is a terrible story of horrifying wounds, isolation, suicide. It took 12 years for them to gain access to a dedicated medical programme. Many shied away from society ashamed by their injuries. Others endured years of ill health and cancers after radiation contaminated their bodies.

On August 9, 1995, standing beneath a giant statue that keeps vigil over the city’s inhabitants, I watched Prime Minister Tomiichi Murayama make a speech as a group of Korean former prisoners of war stood nearby. But mostly I remember that boy. Perhaps he stayed with me all these years because of his proximity to that fountain, built as a memorial to the victims who died crying out for water. “Mizu, mizu,” their last words spoken. Perhaps it was because he was surrounded by photographs of children wounded by the bomb. The photographer Yosuke Yamahata entered the city on August 10 and among the images of torched bodies, there are moving pictures of a boy carrying a badly burnt younger lad on his back, a woman breast-feeding her injured baby, a shocked toddler standing among the rubble, staring straight at the camera.

When I came to write my debut novel, A Dictionary of Mutual Understanding, that little boy eating his ice cream provided the inspiration for Hideo Watanabe, a seven-year-old child supposedly killed during the bomb. Forty years later, a badly scarred man turns up on the doorstep of a lonely Japanese widow in America claiming to be the grandson she thought killed that day. I wanted to imagine what it would be like to lose a child in this way and to have to live with that loss for decades. I wanted to imagine life as a hibakusha.

My character Hideo went to Yamazato Primary School, which had a roll call of 1,600 children before pikadon and only 300 afterwards. Shiroyama Primary School was being used as a factory when Fat Man detonated over the Urakami district. Around 1,400 children and 29 teachers were killed there. As burnt bodies rotted in the sun, cremations took place, some in school yards. Orphans would later return to those spots to dig into the earth in search of charcoal, the only remains of their dead parents or siblings.

“All those kids,” US President Harry S Truman told his Cabinet after the city was hit. “It was a terrible decision. But I made it,” he wrote to his sister, Mary. The moral conundrums of that decision are still argued to this day. Some deem those bombs war crimes, others argue they saved hundreds of thousands of lives by ending the war in the Pacific. Today, around 193,000 survivors remain alive. The youngest are 70, those still in the womb when the bomb fell. Some have become kataribe – storytellers – a Japanese tradition of passing on history to new generations. Their message is a simple one: “Never again.”

One of the most famous hibakusha was the nuclear physicist Dr Takashi Nagai, who was hurt during the bomb but gathered together doctors, students and nurses to try to save the wounded. When he returned home three days later, he found his wife Midori dead, picked up her bones and went back to a relief centre to continue his work. He later moved to a tiny hut built on the site of his former home and called it Nyokodo, “Love your neighbour as yourself house”. A Catholic convert, he collected testimonies of survivors before his death from leukaemia in 1951 at the age of 43. He once wrote: “The people of Nagasaki prostrate themselves before God and pray: Grant that Nagasaki may be the last atomic wilderness in the history of the world.”

But Japan is also wrestling with another terrible nuclear legacy. When the biggest earthquake in Japan’s history followed by a tsunami struck in March 2011 the disaster caused the deaths of nearly 16,000 people and a meltdown at the Fukushima power plant. In 2012, 200,000 people demonstrated against nuclear power in Tokyo. Under occupation by the US after the Second World War, Japan renounced war but today that pacifist constitution is under threat as the government moves towards militarisation. Peace organisations based around Hiroshima last year called on US President Barack Obama to visit Hiroshima and Nagasaki and apologise for the bombs. They wrote: “We strongly believe that in order to abolish nuclear weapons, it is essential to recognise that the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki were crimes against humanity.” The peace groups argued this would increase pressure on Japan to acknowledge its own war record.

Japan caused the death and suffering of millions of people in its occupied territories, on death marches, in POW camps, as human vivisection experiments in China, forced labour on the Burma railway and mines, or as sex slaves. On August 9, thousands of people will congregate once more at the Peace Park to mark the 70th anniversary of the atomic bomb. When the last hibakusha die, it will be our turn to keep on telling their stories to our children in the hope that we can live in a world free of nuclear arms.

Another survivor Reiko Yamada recently spoke to NBC News about meeting schoolchildren in Boston some years back. One boy asked her if the US authorities had said sorry. She said: “After I told him the government didn’t apologise, the boy rushed to me and started crying. He said, ‘I will apologise here on behalf of the government,’ and started to hug me.”

Children shouldn’t have to apologise for or worry about nuclear war. They shouldn’t go to school and never return. On hot summer days children should be enjoying ice cream.

This article first appeared in the Daily Record.

The bronze statue in the Nagasaki Peace Park

The bronze statue in the Nagasaki Peace Park

The fountain in Nagasaki's Peace Park

The fountain in Nagasaki’s Peace Park


Doves fly over the cenotaph dedicated to the victims of the atomic bombing at the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Park in 2013

Doves fly over the cenotaph dedicated to the victims of the atomic bombing at the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Park in 2013


Jackie Copleton’s debut novel, A Dictionary of Mutual Understanding, is out now.

Mutual Understanding resized

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