Five years ago, a magnitude 8.9 earthquake crushed Japan. If that wasn’t enough, this seismic event triggered a tsunami that pushed the Pacific Ocean inland and caused massive flooding. The flood waters then damaged the Fukushima nuclear power plant and caused a meltdown, but if any single nation on the planet can overcome this chain of near biblical disasters it’s the Japanese.
The quake is the largest ever known to hit the island nation and the fourth largest on Earth since the year 1900. Numbers give the scale of devastation. Almost 16,000 people died, most of them from drowning. There are still 2500 missing. As many as 125 000 buildings are either damaged or destroyed. Property damage amounted to tens of billions of dollars alone. The total cost is much, much higher and includes factors such as lost production, expenditures to improve flood control, maintaining temporary shelters for displaced citizens, decontaminating the nuclear power plant and more. All told, the disasters of 2011 are expected to cost between $200 and $300 billion.
I visited Japan a few years before the earthquake. At the time, I was teaching English in South Korea, which is only a three-hour ferry ride away from the Land of the Rising Sun, the home of ninjas, Tokyo Rose and Godzilla. The ferry docked in a city called Fukuoka and then I travelled by bus to Nagasaki, site of the second atomic bomb dropped by the US during World War II.
I went to Nagasaki for two reasons. The first was to celebrate New Year’s Eve and the second was to visit the Atomic Bomb Museum so I could better understand the impact the nuclear explosion had on the city and its people. I left with a deep respect for what the Japanese can accomplish when faced with extreme hardship.
The museum focuses on the effects and consequences of the A-Bomb, but also explains the development of nuclear weapons. One section of the museum is dedicated to stopping the proliferation of nuclear arms. There is also a sanctuary where the names of every known victim in Nagasaki are enshrined. Aerial pictures taken after the blast show a city of 250,000 residents literally reduced to heaps of brick and ash.
The displays are fascinating and disturbing. Two in particular will never escape my memory. The first is a life-sized model of Fat Man, which was the codename given to the bomb. It’s astonishingly small. I had imagined that a device capable of such total destruction would be large and imposing. It wasn’t. Fat Man was heavy (10 000 pounds), but only 10 feet long and five feet in diameter. It was oval shaped with a square tailfin assembly. Aside from the bomb, the other display in question haunted me.
It’s the shadow of a man. When a nuclear bomb is detonated, there is the destructive force of the blast and also an indescribably intense heat approaching 4000 degrees Celsius. Many objects don’t burn, they are instantly vaporised. The objects absorb the sun-like heat. Behind them is an area less affected by the searing temperatures, a “shadow.” At Nagasaki and Hiroshima, there were many such shadows of things like trees, pillars or pipes charred into wood, metal and even stone. In the museum at Nagasaki, there is a section of a wooden wall that was once the exterior of someone’s house. On it, you see the shadow of a man. The shadow is his headstone. He was vaporized.
That single display symbolizes what happened to Nagasaki and Hiroshima – they disappeared. The citizens, gone. The infrastructure, destroyed. The economy, eliminated. The resolve to rebuild, unshaken.
Of course, the scars of World War II weren’t cut into those two cities alone. The entire nation was in ruins and Japan lost 2.5 to 3.1 million people, but in only 50 years they rebuilt and reinvented the country into the world’s third largest economy.
This transformation is abundantly visible in Nagasaki. I scoured the city for remains of the carnage. I had imagined I’d see bombed-out buildings with fractured windows and crumbling walls. I saw nothing of the sort. Only three ravaged structures remain. One was half of a stone archway. It was formerly the main gate to an ancient temple, but now it stands awkwardly in a modern neighbourhood of pre-fab concrete and glass. Not far away, there were the jagged foundations of a prison which rise four inches above an immaculately well-manicured lawn. On the site of the former Nagasaki cathedral, there is a collection of statues that once decorated the church facade. I found the statues very interesting because of their texture. On the back of Saint John, the stone is smooth, but the front was exposed to the blast. The heat made the stone bubble and form small craters. It actually looked like the inside of an Aero chocolate bar.
Today, Nagasaki is a beacon of modernity. Were it not for the knowledge of what happened at 11:02 a.m. on August 9, 1945, a visitor would never guess what occurred. People drive new cars and dress in the latest fashions. They work and live in buildings designed with cutting-edge architecture. The city is linked to the rest of Japan with high-speed trains.
I fully agree with the way the citizens of Nagasaki describe themselves in a slogan, “Comparing the scenes of Nagasaki immediately after the bombing with the appearance of the city today, one cannot help but be impressed by the remarkable spirit of survival and the immutable strength of the people of Nagasaki.”
I would carry that quote one step further and say that the remarkable spirit of survival and immutable strength aren’t limited to one city. The entire country rose from the ashes of destruction. They will do the same again.