This article accompanies Gwyn McClelland’s article “Catholics at Ground Zero: Negotiating (Post) Modernity” in History Workshop Journal issue 92, where it is currently free access.
Have you ever wondered what happens to collective trauma as eyewitness memory fades? For descendants of eyewitnesses, do results of violence dissipate, vanish, or evaporate? Can we move on from events of history – forgive and forget as it were – as those directly affected are no longer around?
In fact, traumatic or extreme experience endures, with a viscous impact on people and place. There is new and emerging evidence about the varied ways impacts of trauma burden the following generations including in the aftermath of the atomic bombings of Japanese cities. What is also evident is that the new generation are not passive in their inheritance of such complex memory.
Professor of English and Comparative Literature at Columbia University, Marianne Hirsch, confronted the above questions as she examined writing and visual culture after the Holocaust. She developed an apt term, postmemory, to grapple with the discussion of ‘memory’ work in public history, which continues unabated after eyewitnesses pass away.
After carrying out an oral history survey interviewing twelve atomic bomb survivors in Nagasaki, I wrote a book, and continued to wonder about these questions of Hirsch about the future of memory-work. I was interested in the relevance of questions about postmemory in the aftermath of the atomic bombing of this city. I interviewed second and third generation ‘children of the bomb’ and as a result was able to further consider these questions.
In my work among atomic bomb sufferers in Nagasaki, there was evidence of an older postmemory, due to earlier persecutions the Tokugawa and then Meiji governments in Japan had carried out against ‘Hidden Christian’ ancestors, up to the year 1873. In my new article on this topic, recently published in History Workshop Journal, I discuss at length Hirsch’s concept of postmemory from a new Asian-Catholic perspective, in remembering the atomic bombing of this city. I argue here that the affective nature of transmitted trauma and memory results in new and influential post-generational participation in heritage and public history.
The ‘mixed history’ of Nagasaki and its beginning as a Christian town are important to its distinctiveness, as opposed to our knowledge about the aftermath of the bombing of Hiroshima. As a partial result of Hiroshima’s domination of much of the literature about the atomic bombings of Japan, the Nagasaki Catholic minority, located around Ground Zero to the north of the city, is little known outside of Japan. Yet this city was developed as a Christian city by Jesuit missionaries in the sixteenth century, and for a period even known as the Rome of the Orient. In the twenty-first century, Pope Francis recently made his own pilgrimage here where he held a Mass for the faithful.
As I discuss in the new article, there is an influential connection from the aftermath of atomic devastation in Nagasaki to a communal “Hidden Christian” discourse referring to the period of a Christian-ban, including memory of sacred sites of trauma, and of valorised endurance. Christianity was banned by Tokugawa Ieyasu in 1614, and as time went on repression of local Christians became more and more serious, including executions and the use of violent tortures. Local Christians went underground becoming “Hidden Christians” and concealed their faith, using imaginative strategies, symbols and secret societies to remember ‘martyrdoms’ and to pass on to consequent generations narratives and religious practices. Postmemory of the atomic bomb in Nagasaki is highly influenced by such earlier imaginative memory-work of the Catholic community.
Matsuo Sachiko, who was eleven years of age when the atomic bomb was deployed by the United States army, explained how she understood her own suffering of the bomb alongside her grandmother’s survival of a forced exile and persecution as a child. On page 115 of my book, Dangerous Memory in Nagasaki, I recorded as follows what Matsuo said to me in an interview in 2014 about her grandmother: “My grandmother was a survivor of the [1867-1873] persecution [of the Hidden Christians] and at the [time of the atomic bombing] there were still some of these surviving people of the persecutions. So, looking at these people […] if they can do their best and live on, then [I can endure]” In 2018, UNESCO listed twelve new sites as Hidden Christian sites of World Heritage Outstanding Universal Value in the Nagasaki region, which I have written about recently here.
Postmemory relates to the haunting of trauma’s afterlife. The rupture or scarring represented as a ‘black hole’ is also evident for new generations. The grandson of Nagai Takashi (Tokusaburō: Photo above) lost all connections to his mother’s family and thus to ancestral Hidden Christians. Of those I interviewed among Catholic sufferers of the bomb, I’ve written elsewhere about orphans including those who lost and lament their mothers. Their lament is an example of engagement in the ‘imaginative investment, projection and creation’ of postmemory discourse (Hirsch).
Another second-generation sufferer who I discuss at length in the History Workshop Journal article heard his father tell about the experience of the atomic bomb, and became a Christian as a child before he even knew that he had Hidden Christian ancestry. His investment in his identity associating with his ancestors has increased as he learnt more about the history of the city. He related that more than as a Japanese man, he identified strongly as a ‘Child of Nagasaki’.