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Nagasaki, My Grandfather and Me


The grave of Robert Bowie, the author’s paternal grandfather and a doctor who lived in Nagasaki, above, and died in 1911. The gravesite survived the American atomic bombing of the city, Aug. 9, 1945. BRIAN BURKE-GAFFNEY

NAGASAKI, Japan — The live fish of the day, taken from a tank that occupied half the restaurant’s floor space, was squid. Its translucent flesh, cut into neat strips draped carefully over its body, twitched gently as the man explored it with his chopsticks. “When you’re done, we’ll cook the rest of it,” the waitress explained, in English. “Baked or tempura?”

The meal was the final surprise in a day of surprises. History, of which Nagasaki has a lot, had brought us here in June 2018. Americans may recognize the city as the target of the second atomic bomb, which was dropped August 9, 1945. There are many ironies in that choice of target. In the 16th century, the first Christian missionaries landed in Nagasaki; at the end of the century, the Japanese executed 26 Christians, turning them into martyrs.

Unesco recently added several hidden Christian sites in the Nagasaki region to its list of World Heritage sites. Nagasaki is the one place in Japan that was open to Westerners during the years that Japan closed itself off. Once it reopened, in 1853, a lively foreign community developed in Nagasaki’s southern end.

That’s where my grandparents, Robert Bowie and Rosa Muriechowski, met and married. He was an American doctor trying to make a go of it in a country where two of his older brothers had settled; she was a visitor from Russia.

Nagasaki was also where my father was born in 1905. And where my grandfather died in 1911 and was buried.

We children begged our father to take us to Nagasaki, but he wouldn’t, because he was sure that everything he once knew was obliterated in 1945. The house. His father’s hospital. His father’s grave. My father died in 1995, and though he visited Japan many times during his long life — he was an art historian who specialized in East Asian art — he never went back.

That’s a shame, because there’s much to discover in Nagasaki. The Nagasaki Atomic Bomb Museum and adjacent Peace Park mark the moment when much of the northern part of the city was destroyed, and they form a deeply moving memorial. But destroyed doesn’t begin to convey the magnitude of the devastation.

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“Pulverized,” we were told. “It was impossible to tell what had been buildings, what was road.” Clay roof tiles were deformed and coins were fused. Half the population was killed or injured, and a large share of the city’s housing was destroyed. The survivors were hungry, often ill, and soon they would be cold and wet.

Away from the hypocenter, the damage was arbitrary. There’s a stone torii, or temple gate, one of whose legs was torn away by the blast. Half of it is still standing; the rest lies along the side of the path. It’s the gate to the Sanno-jinja shrine, whose two camphor trees, at the entrance, were severely burned by the bomb’s blast. Yet they survived and are growing and shading the shrine’s entry still.

Dejima Island, where Westerners were confined for much of the period from 1634 to 1853, has been rebuilt and restored. The combination of Western-style houses decorated with Eastern goods and designs is fascinating, and there are just enough signs and furnishings to allow visitors to imagine the loneliness of the business agents who stayed for several years, as well as the lights and entertainments available when the ships from Europe arrived. We wandered it at twilight, slipping our shoes off and on as we entered buildings.

Shortly after my father’s death in 1995, I was surfing the Internet and came across an article about the International Cemetery in Nagasaki. I wrote one of the authors an email, not sure I’d get an answer. But a few days later, an answer came. My grandfather’s grave had survived the war.

Brian Burke-Gaffney, the Nagasaki historian who answered my email, met us at our hotel more than 20 years later. He showed us the site of my grandparents’ home. It’s gone, but the building next door to it survives. My grandfather’s medical clinic was nearby, along with the bar-restaurant my grandmother was running when my grandfather arrived in Nagasaki. That was another surprise — family lore held that she had been a tourist who had gone to see the American doctor when she got sick.

Up on the hill to the south of us Oura Cathedral soared. The memorial to the 26 Christian martyrs and Unesco World Heritage Site was the site of my grandfather’s funeral. Urakami Cathedral, several miles north, was very close to the bomb hypocenter. That church was almost completely destroyed, another irony.

My grandfather was buried in the International Cemetery a few miles away. The iron fencing that once surrounded the grave is gone, taken during the war, and there’s a crack in the memorial cross. A cherry tree shades the grave. I stood beneath it, thinking of my father as a little boy at his father’s funeral. My grandfather, buried far away from his family but next to one of his closest friends. My children, back in the United States, who are still touched by the Japanese influences their great-grandparents introduced into our lives. The wonder that despite all the destruction, this small cemetery had survived for me to visit in 2018.

This is an opinion essay.

We welcome your comments on this article.  What are your thoughts?

Alexandra Bowie is a freelance writer living in Brooklyn. She is the book critic for the Brooklyn Bugle and has been working in local politics for many years. She has a law degree from Boston University and a philosophy degree from Bryn Mawr College. Follow her on Twitter @abowie917

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