July 2011

Arts & Letters

‘Nagasaki: The Massacre of the Innocent and Unknowing’ By Craig Collie

By Lian Hearn

Nagasaki stands at the head of a deep-water harbour on the western coast of Kyushu. It was where foreign traders came to Japan, each leaving a distinct legacy. The Chinese brought their red temples and their cuisine; the Portuguese left behind a faith and liturgy preserved for hundreds of years by the ‘hidden Christians’; the Dutch contributed western medicine, science and political ideas. Japan’s first western-style hospital and its first Catholic cathedral were built here.

Among the multitude of tragedies of World War II, the fate of Nagasaki stands out; the reasons why form the foundation of ABC journalist Craig Collie’s new book. On 9 August 1945 it was not the primary target. The American plane Bockscar, carrying the atomic bomb Fat Man, was originally directed to Kokura, another city on Kyushu. Cloud cover saved Kokura, as the Americans wanted accurate photographs. The weather almost saved Nagasaki too, and a series of human and mechanical errors almost led to the abortion of the mission. At the last moment Major Sweeney, the commanding officer, had the choice of going for Nagasaki or dumping the hugely expensive plutonium-loaded weapon in the ocean.

The explosion was over Urakami, 500 metres from the cathedral and the Franciscan hospital. Collie – using diaries, letters and interviews with survivors – builds up details of the lives of 44 Nagasaki residents, with special emphasis on 11, including doctors, teachers, schoolchildren, mobilised students and a newspaper publisher. Two Australian POWs are included. Collie also gives the background of American motives, Soviet ambitions in the Far East and the half-hearted attempts of the Japanese government to find a face-saving way to end the war.

Collie’s sympathies, as in his previous book, The Path of Infinite Sorrow, incline towards ordinary Japanese people, highlighting the tragedy and relating poignant individual testimonies. Collie is at his best when recording their memories in his plain journeyman style, but he is not writing history. Although there is an extensive bibliography, sources are not attributed and his version of historical events, gliding over such contentious issues as the role of the emperor in war and peace, and the extent of Japanese knowledge about atomic weapons, is mainly shaped by his desire to put together a gripping story.

Nagasaki so nearly escaped. This account – and it is gripping – inspires a feeling of profound regret. Three generations have now lived ‘under the shadow of the bomb’. The Fukushima nuclear disaster in March has deepened that shadow and reopened the old scars of fear. Nagasaki and Hiroshima have recovered to become vibrant, modern cities, yet the effects of radiation were persistent and the survivors, the hibakusha, have not been treated well.

It’s painful but necessary to be reminded over and again of the history of human use of nuclear technology. Have we ever known exactly what we are doing?

Lian Hearn
Lian Hearn is a writer based in Goolwa, South Australia. She is the author of the Tales of the Otori series, which has sold more than 4 million copies. Lian Hearn is the pen-name used by children’s author Gillian Rubinstein.

'Nagasaki: The Massacre of the Innocent and Unknowing', By Craig Collie, Allen and Unwin, 352pp; $32.99
Cover: July 2011
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