I just happen to be in Japan for the 70th anniversary of the dropping of the atomic bombs. Since I signed up with the State Department’s STEP (Smart Traveler Enrollment Program), I recently received an email from the embassy in Tokyo reminding me of that fact and telling me that this is often the occasion for protest gatherings, hence the “stay aware of your surroundings” and “avoid large crowds” reminders that are the mainstay of such correspondences. Here in the hinterlands, I saw no evidence that the days would be marked by any observances whatsoever, and so I went in search of any such history. I happened to find some very interesting possibilities in the nearby city of Nagaoka, so off I went on Saturday to see what I could see. (Just having sidewalks was an allure as well, as was the rumor that there was a German bar as well as an Irish one. “Riches run wild,” as my dear friend J would say.)
Nagaoka is a 45-minute ride on the local train (or 12 minutes on the Shinkansen, for nearly triple the price) from Urasa, a perfect day trip. It’s not known for anything in particular at the moment aside from being the second-largest city in Niigata Prefecture, a place with light industry and heavy snowfall, but a little digging taught me that the area had long been disputed in Japanese history, passing back and forth between various warlords and samurai over the centuries. What caught my eye were events that transpired in the 20th century, most notably a fire bombing by the Allies, a huge earthquake nearby, and most significantly, the creation of the preserved birthplace and separate memorial hall for Marshall Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto, the architect of the bombing of Pearl Harbor.
The city today is not the city it was. Here’s a map of the current downtown, superimposed (on the right-hand side) over the map of what the place looked like before August 1, 1945, when 125 B-29 bombers dropped incendiary bombs and turned 80% of the city to rubble:
What is now the city hall plaza was before the inner courtyard of an ancient castle. While I love the symbolism of reusing the location, it currently doesn’t conjure up any images of imperial glory, and I was hard-pressed to find the ruins that were allegedly nearby:
The good news is that the local citizenry live in the here and now, and they have a very active sister city relationship with Honolulu, Hawaii (as well as Fort Worth, Texas, and Trier, Germany). This year, the famous Nagaoka Fireworks, held locally on August 2nd and 3rd, will be seen in Pearl Harbor on August 15th and 16th. In addition, there is a beautiful artistic image of fireworks composed of 202 children and exhibit of nearly 6,000 cranes that will also be on display in Honolulu as well. Everyone here hopes and prays for a peaceful future, and I join them in that.
Here’s a shot of contemporary Nagaoka, looking back towards the train station where I arrived:
One very useful fact of life in urban Japan in this region, even when the towns are quite small, is covered sidewalks on the main roads in the city centers. They’re great for both snowy winters and, on 95-degree days, sunny summers as well. This is a shot of one such street:
I wish I could show you more of the nearby Nagaoka War Damage Exhibit, because it is a well-designed small exhibit space that brings home, as these places so often do, the stark reality of what military campaigns due to the lives of ordinary civilians. Alas, the helpful and polite staff make it clear that photography is off limits. But at least I can share a picture of the front entrance:
Inside, one can see a pictures of the political turmoil of the 1930s prior to World War II, a reconstructed bomb shelter, and a replica of the “pumpkin bombs” (similar to the “Fat Man” bombs that carried the atomic bombs) that were dropped over the city, releasing a large number of independent incendiary devices that ignited on contact and wreaked havoc on the wooded and paper structures of much of the housing. Upstairs, on a separate floor, there were pictures of many of the nearly 1500 people who died in the attack (many were never identified and were buried in a mass grave following cremation). As in the National Museum of Soviet Aggression in Georgia and the Jewish Museums of both Germany and Poland, it is always deeply sobering to glance at the faces of the innocent fallen – the mischievous schoolchildren, the elegant wedding couples, the babes in arms, wiggling and slightly out of focus. Back outside the exhibit, here’s a clock that reputedly survived the attack and still proudly tells the time, albeit now hemmed in by different neighbors than before:
Just to cleanse the intellectual palette, I have to inject some of the whimsical and downright hilarious aspects of the day. I was charmed by the street art of different men’s feet – here are the zori slippers:
There are also lovely statues of children gracing the downtown thoroughfares, for reasons I could not ascertain. Here’s one jauntily graced by a scrunchy:
…and finally, the LOL sign for a local salon. Read very, very carefully all the way to the bottom:
The next stop was the display commemorating the Chuetsu Earthquake of October 23, 2004. It was a magnitude 6.8 “event,” and there were many aftershocks, some in the 6 range. 68 people died and 4785 people were injured. Over 160,000 buildings, both residential and other, were damaged. This wasn’t small potatoes. Here’s a picture:
As part of the educational mission of the exhibit, there was a table filled with what every good (person or household, it’s not clear) should have to be prepared for the next time around. I only hope our friends on the West Coast are taking preparatory steps like this:
I was touched that amid this tribute, there was obvious concern for people who are still recovering from another terrible quake, this one in Nepal. The box depicts the Nepali flag:
The last stops were those in honor of Isoroku Yamamoto, both his birthplace and a memorial hall with mementos and artifacts telling the story of his life. I was quite surprised by all I learned, and I am looking forward to sharing it with you. He was born in 1884 to a modest family of samurai lineage, one of six sons, and so was actually adopted by another samurai family, the Yamamotos, who didn’t have any male children. This was apparently quite common to keep family lines going when the gene pool let you down.
An interior shot:
Yamamoto attended the Imperial Japanese naval academy, saw action in the Russo-Japanese war, and later became known for his strong anti-war sentiments. He studied for a couple years at Harvard (there was a shot of him in front of the Widener Library in 1919, only four years after it opened). and he also spent time as a naval attache in the Japanese Embassy in Washington, DC. As a result he spoke fluent English and traveled extensively in the US. His postcard collection reflected stops in Vancouver, BC, Seattle, San Francisco, Los Angeles, and a number of other international cities. It is said he admired Benjamin Franklin and loved to play poker.
Which is why it is all the more ironic that it became his duty to plan and execute the attack at Pearl Harbor. There is speculation that he was in some political difficulty due to his pacific stance, and that this was a way to “redeem himself” in the eyes of his superiors. Wiki tells us that “two of the main reasons for Yamamoto’s political survival were his immense popularity within the fleet, where he commanded the respect of his men and officers, and his close relations with the imperial family.” It pays to have friends in high places when the going gets tough.
Whatever the reason, once the attack became his responsibility, he did his duty to the best of his ability. He believe that by delivering a crushing initial blow, the Japanese could convince the United States to negotiate an end to the conflict. As history tells us, though, the exact opposite was true. And in a final note of irony, it was an American Lockheed P-38 Lightning, the “Nip Clipper” flown by Ashland and Rohrer, that shot Yamamoto’s plane out of the sky over New Guinea and caused his death. Part of the wing of the plane and the remains of the metal seat he was strapped into were on display in the memorial hall, along with his sword, his glasses, his cane, a New Testament and Psalms, and his gambling cards and chips. He had just celebrated his 59th birthday two weeks before his death.
After that kind of emotional experience, a girl tends to get peckish. And since I was in a location where I could, allegedly, get German food, German food I tried to get. Well, there was German beer, but it was really really expensive and the Kirin on draft was really really cheap, so I compromised there, but I was determined to have as much Deutsch as I possibly could out here, so here’s a shot of lunch at Baden Baden:
So…in Japan, tendering my respects to warlords and admirals, and dining on cuisine from the other Axis power during the 70th celebration of the atomic bombs. Sometimes my head just swims with the astonishment of it all.