Joy Kogawa

Work in progress: Gently to Nagasaki

Chapter Two

For well over a decade, Gently to Nagasaki was a title without a book, tenacious and puzzling, a peg on the bathroom door with no garment hanging from it. In the past it was the other way around. Books were finished, handed over, and still—no title.

Why did I have this title? Gently to Nagasaki?

In the late 1970s, I finished a draft of a semi-autobiographical novel. The book had no title, and in the end, was given a title I had not thought up: Obasan.

For the most part, what happened to the fictional family in the novel was what happened to mine. We Canadians of Japanese ancestry found ourselves suddenly enemies of our country, because Canada was at war with Japan. We were “evacuated” in 1942 to the mountains of interior British Columbia. None of us returned to our homes, mine being in Vancouver.

The family in my novel ended up after the war on the Prairies, as did we. But throughout the story was a mystery. The young mother had gone to Japan before the war and disappeared there. This was entirely fictional. My real mother never left.

“What happened to the mother?” asked Louise Dennys, of Lester & Orpen Dennys, the publisher who finally accepted the book.

“I don’t know. I think she vanished,” I said. “Isn’t life like that? People disappear. Isn’t that what happens in real life?”

“The reader has to know, Joy. You need to go back and revisit the question,” she said.

I took the book back into myself, and searched for the answer. Where did the mother go? The answer to the mystery arrived, and inserted itself as a clue.

August 9.

That is the day the atom bomb was dropped on Nagasaki. That is where the missing young mother in Obasan was in 1945. That is where I, as the author, placed her. But where that answer to the mystery of my creation came from, I have no idea. It was not a city about which I knew anything, except that it had been bombed.

Now, decades later, re-examining the themes in my work, incubating new thoughts and feelings, and going Gently, to Nagasaki, I have come to understand that now, there is a specific lesson I am to learn. The lesson is this: every enemy is a beloved friend.

That lesson, that treasure, is in the midst of the devastation known as Nagasaki.

What has struck me with some fascination was the significance for Christians of August 6 and August 9, the two dates the atom bombs fell on Japan. The first, Hiroshima Day, is called the Day of Transfiguration in some Christian calendars. On that day, Jesus is said to have gone up a mountain with his three closest disciples, Peter, James and John. While the three looked up in fear, Elijah and Moses, the prophet and the law-giver, appeared on either side of Jesus, whose form had become “exceeding white”. Mark 9:3. …And his garments became glistering, exceeding white…. The man who healed the sick, restored the sight of the blind and made the deaf to hear, the man from Galilee, was “transfigured.” The light within him was, for a moment, made visible on the outside.

So it was, that on the day commemorating Christ’s transfiguration, the city and citizens of Hiroshima were obliterated.

A little boy looked up and saw a white parachute against the sky. “Look at the parachute!” he cried just before a bright glistering light of death like no other flashed upon the world and changed us forever.

My brother, a retired Episcopalian priest in Seattle, told me that the word “transfiguration” (in Japanese hen-yo-bo) also meant “disfiguration”. The Day of Transfiguration became then, on August 6, 1945, the Day of Disfiguration. This one word with two meanings and the two events on the same day merged in my mind. The transfigured one was disfigured. The disfigured one was transfigured.

For centuries, until about forty years ago, the story of the transfiguration was read on a Sunday that was followed three days later by Ash Wednesday, a day of fasting and penitence. The Day of Trans/Disfiguration in 1945 was followed, three days later, by an unparalleled day of ashes. The second bomb fell on August 9 with pinpoint precision, directly over the pre-eminent spot of Christianity in all of East Asia.

If ever the Christian West had friends in Japan, it was there, in a valley between mountains. That sacred place, the Urakami neighbourhood in Nagasaki, was home to Japan’s Hidden Christians, a people who had survived centuries of the most grotesque tortures and martyrdoms. The surviving remnant had come home from exile at last, to safety, to their neighbourhood and to the finally tolerated practice of their faith. There they worked in the fields as farmers and re-built their lives. The Christians that Japan failed to annihilate after centuries of unimaginable cruelty, the Christian West managed to do in an instant.

It has been said what makes humans unique is not that we use tools—other animals do that, nor that we have language—that too is an attribute of other animals, but that we are creatures who seek meaning. For many people, particularly following the Holocaust in Europe, the search for meaning is heinous. The answer to the question of meaning is that there is no meaning.

But I cannot accept meaninglessness as an answer to Nagasaki. For me, that incomprehensible event on August 9, 1945, the immolation by the Christian West of its Christian family in Asia, means that a certain truth has been made starkly visible. It provides the moment for recognizing what lies behind the words of Jesus the Christ. At Nagasaki, the impossible prescription “Love your enemy” is transformed into a description, “You love your enemy”. We no longer have to love the enemy. All we have to do is to realize that we already do love them without knowing that we do.

The task for me then, the arduous but happy task, is to recognize this. For the rest of my life, what is required is to discover the ways in which this is true. If I move by thought or word or deed, to defeat or deface an enemy, I am acting to harm a beloved friend, one who is of greatest value and to whom I owe deep loyalty.

The Goddess of Mercy is there in Japan the beautiful, Japan the terrible, Japan the country of my ancestors. Although I fail Her lessons again and again, She teaches me patiently that the enemy is not an enemy. It is Her presence I attend as She leads the way gently, to the place where the sacred children of the Hidden Christians died begging for water.

Water, my Goddess.

Omizu kudasai!

Joy Kogawa, CM, OBC is a Canadian poet and novelist of Japanese descent. She was sent with her family to the internment camp for Japanese Canadians at Slocan, British Columbia, during World War II. She works to educate Canadians about the history of the internment camps, and was active in the fight for government redress. This piece is an excerpt from a work in progress entitled Gently to Nagasaki, and has been adapted for this project.