Dangerous Memory in Nagasaki

Alexander Brown, Japan Women’s University [About | Email]

Volume 20, Issue 2 (Book review 1 in 2020). First published in ejcjs on 14 August 2020.

Review of McClelland, Gwyn (2020) Dangerous Memory in Nagasaki: Prayers, Protests and Catholic Survivor Narratives, London: Routledge. Hardback, 216 pages, ISBN 978-0-367-21775-4.

Keywords: Nagasaki, atomic bombing, memory, trauma, theology.

Much of the recent debate on the history and memory of the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki focuses on the political use to which these memories are put. Much of this research is concentrated on the remembrance of Hiroshima and has shown how memory serves to reinforce Japanese victimhood while eliding issues of Japanese wartime responsibility. Nagasaki, on the other hand, continues to be neglected by scholars of memory, something Gwyn McClelland addresses in his new book Dangerous Memory in Nagasaki: Prayers, Protests and Catholic Survivor Narratives. The difference between the way the bombings of the two cities are remembered, he notes, has been over-simplified in the expression ‘Hiroshima rages, Nagasaki prays’ (ikari no Hiroshima, inori no Nagasaki) (P. 28). By bringing a theological perspective to his oral history of Catholic survivors in the Nagasaki, McClelland questions this stereotypical characterisation of Nagasaki, showing that the survivors’ prayers do not indicate a passive acceptance of the injustices of atomic war but rather, express their ‘dangerous memories’ of the event, troubling official Japanese, American and Catholic accounts of the bombing.

This monograph is based on McClelland’s PhD thesis, which was awarded the John Legge prize for best thesis in Asian Studies by the Asian Studies Association of Australia in 2019, and appears in the Asia’s Transformations Series edited by Mark Selden. McClelland conducted in-depth oral history interviews with twelve hibakusha who experienced the atomic bombing of Nagasaki, nine of whom were members of the city’s Catholic minority. With the coming of Christian missionaries to Japan in the mid-sixteenth century, Nagasaki became host to a large Christian population before repression by local daimyō lords suspicious of the growing power of the new religion began in the late sixteenth century, leading ultimately to the outlawing of the religion by the Tokugawa bakufu in 1614. Nevertheless, the religious community survived, despite regular waves of persecution, resulting in a distinctive syncretic religious community known as the senpuku kirishitan (hidden Christians). McClelland’s argument hinges on the overlapping of the Catholic community’s memories of historical persecution by the Japanese authorities with those of the American attack.

The book is informed by a theological perspective derived from the work of Catholic theologian Johann Baptist Metz on ‘dangerous memory’. Metz drew on his traumatic memories as a teenage conscript in the German army to develop a theological and historical critique of the suppression of the memory of Auschwitz in German society, the Christian church and theology. Drawing on the questioning spirituality of the Book of Job, Metz developed the idea that in a complacent post-war Germany, which was reluctant to address the complicity of the church and of society in the Nazi atrocities, memory could be a dangerous thing. McClelland identifies a number of ways in which the memories of Nagasaki bomb survivors are ‘dangerous’ in this sense, for a post-war Japan that has papered over the discrimination faced by the Catholic and burakumin outcastes who lived in the Urakami valley where the bomb was dropped and sought to paper over Japanese responsibility for the war. He also questions official church narratives of the bombing and the institution’s role as a brake on the development of civic political movements for peace and nuclear disarmament in Nagasaki.

In Part One, McClelland introduces the three themes of the book: fissures, survivors and bodies. In Chapter One, he explains the geography of the Urakami valley and its place within the fissured geography of Nagasaki. Due to its long association with outcaste Christian communities and burakumin outcaste groups, Urakami is situated both physically and culturally on the margins of the city. In Chapter Two, he introduces his interview subjects, who include eight men and four women. The majority are Catholic, though three non-Catholic subjects are included for balance. Among them are two ‘official’ Catholic voices, that of Catholic nun Katoka Chizuko and monk Ozaki Tōmei, but the remainder are lay Catholics, some of whom have questions about their faith. Chapter Three theorises the bodies of the dead and the survivors of the bomb, arguing that their placement in a landscape already haunted by the dead and tortured bodies of persecuted Christians informed survivor’s traumatic memories of the blast.

In Part Two McClelland elaborates on the themes introduced in Part One through four focused case studies. Chapter Four interrogates the theology of Catholic doctor Nagai Takahashi, who was a prominent figure in post-war Urakami. His understanding of the bomb as an instance of God’s providence (go-setsuri), enabling the sacrifice or burnt offering (sansai) of the innocent Catholics as part of their ongoing trials (shiren), was popularised in a number of books and is one of the sources of the ‘Hiroshima rages, Nagasaki prays’ stereotype of the Nagasaki survivor experience. McClelland’s interviews reveal significant disagreement within the community over Nagai’s theology, which produced conflict within the church more broadly and were ultimately disavowed by the Pope during a visit to Nagasaki in 1981, when he affirmed that war is the work of humanity rather than God. In Chapter Five, McClelland focuses on the figure of Mary as a link between the historic experiences of suffering by the hidden Christians, who were often forced by the local magistracy to step on fumi-e images of Mary to prove their apostasy but often continued their worship in secret by constructing Mary statues disguised as Buddhist bodhisattvas. For bomb survivors, damaged icons of ‘A-bombed Mary’ are a symbol of suffering but also of survival. Chapter Six considers the case of Urakami Cathedral, which was destroyed during the bombing but rebuilt by the Catholic community in 1959. McClelland explores conflicting ideas about this potent symbol, which many Nagasaki residents wished to retain as a ruin in the vein of Hiroshima’s Atomic Bomb Dome. Some Nagasaki residents have been critical of the way rebuilding the cathedral helped to make the American bombing disappear. Yet McClelland reveals that while some Catholics also shared these concerns, rebuilding was also related to historical traumas of persecution as the original cathedral was built by survivors of the last great persecution, which came immediately after the Meiji restoration. Finally, in Chapter Seven, McClelland discusses the survivor’s memories of burnt and injured people crying out for water in the chaos after the blast. These cries remind the author of cries for water during the historic persecution of Christians, in particular during the persecution which occurred just after the Meiji restoration, when Christians were rounded up and exiled to different cities around Japan in appalling conditions.

Part Three brings together the themes and case studies, articulating survivor’s memories with their hopes, laments, anger and protest. Chapter Eight’s main subject is Ozaki Tōmei, who became a monk after losing his mother and his home during the bombing. Ozaki is an active storyteller or kataribe who has published books and adopted a very public role, highlighting the historical persecution of Catholics in Japan. Other survivors, too, narrate their memories to political ends, connecting the bombing with the suffering of Korean and Chinese minorities. Former Catholic mayor of Nagasaki, Motoshima Hitoshi began his career as a conservative, but was later attacked by rightists thanks to his assertion in 1988 that the dying Emperor Hirohito bore some responsibility for the war. In Chapter Nine, McClelland considers the kataribe as voices of protest and mourning in the face of the silencing trauma of the atomic bomb. In a close reading of Fukahori’s Jōji’s story of his siblings, two of whom survived the initial blast but died shortly afterwards, McClelland points out the way survivor testimony shows up gaps in official memories, reinserting the complexity and ambiguity of lived traumatic experience against neat descriptions of instant death from the blast.

The oral histories in this monograph are artfully woven together to produce an account of them as ‘dangerous memories’ which upset multiple overlapping narratives of different powerful actors in Japanese society. However, for a reader who is unfamiliar with the history of the hidden Christians in Nagasaki, the presentation sometimes sacrifices clarity for the sake of constructing this haunted landscape, where fissures, survivors and bodies from different historical periods overlap. I would have liked to see a clearer presentation of the historical background in the beginning, rather than relying on the snatches of history which are introduced to support each theme and case study. Furthermore, while McClelland arranges his oral history narratives and primary and secondary sources like instruments in a symphony to evoke the spectre of dangerous memory, the concept itself remains rather vague. He highlights the political agency of memory, but I wanted to know more about how the relationship between these memories and their public performance. He poses questions about the official church position, such as its divisive role in the peace movement, the dominance of Nagai’s theology and in the decision to rebuild Urakami Cathedral, but I would have liked to know more about how these ‘dangerous memories’ have or have not contributed on a pragmatic level to the politics of memory in Nagasaki and in Japan at a broader level. In the politically charged atmosphere of post-war Japan, the suppression of the memories of both Japanese and American war crimes helped to construct the alliance between Japanese conservatism and American hegemony in the region. Are dangerous memories enough to confront the ever-more troubling consequences of this fraying alliance? How have the fragmentary ghosts of memory actually challenged the more mundane arena of municipal, national and regional politics?

Visual analysis is an important part of the argument in this book which is richly illustrated with photographs of survivors and contemporary sites, maps and archival photographs. Unfortunately the quality of the reproduction of these illustrations is poor, making it difficult to identify some of the features McClelland discusses in the narrative. The publisher has done the author a disservice here and the poor quality printing extends to the type, which is thin and lacking in definition. The author’s useful appendix, summarising the main historical sources drawn upon in his account would be of interest to anyone conducting research on the atomic bombing of Nagasaki.

McClelland concludes his oral history with a reading of a stained-glass window in the reconstructed Urakami cathedral which depicts the bomb-blasted ruins of the old cathedral. Here he presents some final clarifying thoughts on the significance of ‘dangerous memory’. For Catholics, we are told, it ‘illuminates a political and future-focused understanding of memory and how older public narratives of resistance and resilience contribute to recovery and healing for survivors in this project’ (p. 197). He reminds us that by telling their stories, the kataribe articulate a protest, one which addresses both the United States for the bombing and Japan for its mistreatment of Catholics and other minorities. It is the kataribe who sit at the heart of this monograph and the author’s respect for them and for their memories of suffering gives it its strength. For a secular reviewer the theological orientation of the book is challenging and at times frustrating, but if this is theology then it is political theology, alert to the mundane consequences of violence and to the importance of narrative for survivors of trauma, even when those memories are painful, fractured and especially when they are dangerous.

About the Author

Alexander Brown is a JSPS International Research Fellow, Japan Women’s University and an Honorary Associate, University of Technology Sydney. His research focuses on the transnational history of the anti-nuclear movement in Australia and Japan. He is the author of Anti-nuclear Protest in Post-Fukushima Tokyo (Routledge 2018).

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