The Nagasaki Peace Memorial Hall does not force you to feel. There’s nothing emotionally imposing in the design. Reserved in everything but sincerity, it operates like a resonance chamber capable of amplifying and reflecting back whatever emotions you bring with you. Emotions you may not even realize you’re carrying. I certainly didn’t.
Outside, a path leads you around parallel glass pillars and a shallow pool. I read a single sentence of basic information—the kind of encyclopedic data I’ve probably heard a dozen times: August 9th, 1945: 5 ton weight: 70,000 killed. Thirty seconds later I was weeping. At the time, the tears seemed unaccountable, disconnected from the way I understood my emotional state (I felt like I felt just fine). It was more like someone else crying through me—an echo in a haunted ravine. I stepped back for a few minutes and let my body go through whatever it needed to go through.
Wedged there, facing ground zero, I gradually began to realize how the density of past and future were squeezing me on both sides:
From the past—my grandfather, born and raised in Japan, who returned to the ashes a decade later to operate in a position of power and occupation over the first people he ever associated with community. From the future—signal noise as we hold our collective breath while two narcissistic lunatics taunt each other across the ocean backed by thousands of times more barbaric fury than what obliterated this city.
The memorial’s stoic design of wood, water, and glass—edges honed for cracking hearts—had given these lurkers in my subconscious permission to express themselves. Which proves there are different types of forgetting. Data can stay crystal clear while the blood siphons away. This is why reading is never enough. To reach those spaces daily life leaves little time for, sometimes we have to go straight to the source. Hold our hands over the radiance of the earth—in this case, where thousands of bodies were vaporized and the less fortunate were left scorched and irradiated, surviving to witness their friends, families, lovers, and children vanish from the world.
Back in 2006 I stood in the New Mexico desert where they unleashed the bomb’s prototype. Trinity, too, is an unassuming monument—a nearly invisible pyramid of stones offsetting a panorama of ancient geography. There I felt awe. There I felt the aptitude of imagination and the creative power of technical precision. In Nagasaki I found Trinity’s shadow. Confusion and sorrow. The powerlessness of fear. The insignificance of my own anger.
I knew the only way I would get through the rest of the day was by tracking down one more landmark: the one-legged tori of Sannō shrine, pictured here. The explosion had ripped it in two like a wishbone. But one half remained standing. Here was something else I could identify with. How we’re all crippled in some way. Amputated people, miraculously maintaining enough balance to stay upright. Sannō’s semi-gate once stood in a wasteland; now it’s nestled into a thriving city rebuilt. In the shadow of our nuclear past and potentially bleak futures I can’t help trying to scrape off a little optimism from Nagasaki’s sheer resilience, and take it with me on the train.