You feel a certain amount of pressure to be emotionally moved when visiting Nagasaki’s most important atomic bomb sites such as the Peace Park, the Nagasaki Atomic Bomb Museum, and the Atomic Bomb Hypocentre Park (the spot above which the “Fat Man” bomb detonated at 11:02 on August 9, 1945). If many of us who have paid homage to these places are completely honest, then it has to be said that they can be a bit underwhelming. Sure, they’re sufficiently interesting and evocative to make visiting them worthwhile, but, personally, I have taken more away by reading good books on the subject. Reading gives a deeper, longer, more informed immersion, a closer attachment to the victims and survivors. Of course, it’s not an either/or choice. Ideally, you can both visit and do some reading, and a good recent edition to the book choices is The Nagasaki Peace Discourse by Nagasaki-based academic Geoffrey C. Gunn. As a short, readable work, it’s a good introduction which gives a nice overview and – being fresh off the printing press – includes the latest developments in the Nagasaki story. It is also an excellent introduction to the literature on Nagasaki; the book is peppered with generous suggestions for further reading.

The Nagasaki bomb killed twenty thousand people in the immediate blast, and double that number from the effects in the coming weeks; at the time the city had a population of about 240,000. 

Most people located within 1.5 km of the hypocenter were killed, and fires destroyed most wooden structures in the neighbourhoods girding the harbour, including the historic Centre. A large proportion of Nagasaki’s Christian community lived and then perished in the Urakami area, as did prisoners incarcerated at a site within the present-day Peace Park. Many Chinese labourers and even more people of Korean descent lived or worked in the area. The Urakami district was also a place of congregation for burakamin or outcaste peoples, and they too were victims.

Gunn does a good job of situating the atomic bombs in context. Fire bombing of Japanese cities had become “the new norm and removed the line between civilian and combatants.” The most murderous of the American bombing raids came on the night of March 9-10, 1945 when Curtis LeMay unleashed 334 B-29s against Tokyo. Around 100,000 Japanese were killed and at least a million made homeless. This kind of callous slaughter opened the door to nuking civilians. 

Gunn compares how Nagasaki and Hiroshima have handled their atomic legacies; Hiroshima was from early on more actively anti-nuclear whereas Nagasaki took a more restrained path. The author follows how the Nagasaki discourse has evolved, in particular the struggle by the local government in Nagasaki to bring world attention to the danger of nuclear weapons, and the struggle by victims for recognition. He also deals with recent developments in the Japan nuclear debate: the Fukushima nuclear disaster of 2011, which has raised questions about Japan’s large civilian nuclear power industry, and secondly the 2017–18 Korean missile crisis and the related issues of Japan taking a more assertive military stance. 

The first chapter looks at Nagasaki’s unique history. During the Tokugawa period (1603–1868) it was Japan’s main window onto the prohibited foreign world. Nagasaki also stood out for the size of its Christian community, long suppressed, and then blossoming again after Nagasaki was opened up as a treaty port. One of the sad ironies is that the place the bomb hit – the northern Urakami factory district – was the main settlement of Christians. 

The second chapter was among the most eye-opening for me. It looks at the experiences of the first journalists to see the aftermath of the bombing and American censorship attempts to suppress the story.

… a grey area exists in the history of the Hiroshima/Nagasaki bombings during the 1945–1947 period. The results of medical studies performed by the US army were not disclosed until long after the event. Even though there ‘may have been’ significant casualties in this period from fallout and radioactive contamination in these two cities, the US military-industrial complex, in full Cold War mode, already advocated the potential use of A-bombs as tactical weapons, ‘and would definitely have wanted to suppress evidence of risks from fallout, in order to present them as “clean” weapons differing from conventional explosives only in their potency.’

Censorship by American occupation forces, which lasted until 1952, the year the United States handed back (with the exception of Okinawa and some other islands) sovereignty to the Japanese, meant that the general public didn’t see any graphic images of Hiroshima and Nagasaki until seven years after the bombs were dropped. 

Nagasaki boasts a lively civil society, and though “a conservative city both socially and politically” Gunn says the authorities have strived admirably “to connect with a global audience not only to win attention to their victimhood but to spread the anti-nuclear proliferation message.” Mayors have often been pitted against “nationalist or war revisionist opinion, political pressure exerted by Tokyo and even brutal handling by local yakuza crime syndicates.”

Being mayor of Nagasaki seems like a dangerous job; in 1990 “a pistol-wielding rightist shot Mayor Motoshima Hitoshi in the back. Miraculously he survived.” The assassination attempt was a result of Motoshima’s critical statements about the emperor’s role in the Second World War. In 2007 Mayor Itoh was assassinated by a gangster, though this was not politically inspired.

Author Geoffrey Gunn is an emeritus professor at Nagasaki University. He has written numerous books on Asian history, and is also an editor at and contributor to the excellent Asia-Pacific Journal. As a twenty-year resident of Nagasaki, he brings a lot of local knowledge and sensitivity to the book. However, the book doesn’t get as up and close as I had hoped.

Rather than a narrative focus on individuals and families who the author knows personally and follows through the years, he summarises some of the existing literature and news stories; this keeps things at a distance. Doing that is easier than conducting interviews and shaping the material into a narrative. Gunn made a conscious choice to go that route; for a start, the few direct witnesses who are still living are very old and he didn’t want to cover old ground. “The Nagasaki National Peace Memorial Hall for the Atomic Bomb Victims has compiled and archived many hundreds of oral histories of atomic bomb survivors. Samples have been translated into English.” He recommends: Nagasaki Speaks: A Record of the Atomic Bombing (1993) by fellow Nagasaki resident Brian Burke-Gaffney, and Susan Southward’s Nagasaki: Life after Nuclear War (2015).

In fairness to the author, there wasn’t really space for long victim narratives, because The Nagasaki Peace Discourse is part of a series called “Asia Briefings” and the book is, as labelled, a brief 160 pages (of which about 115 are text). This makes it an excellent first-choice read on Nagasaki, and certainly a good follow-up update read to some of older works.

The Nagasaki Peace Discourse: City Hall and the Quest for a Nuclear Free World is published by NIAS Press. (NIAS stands for the Nordic Institute of Asian Studies, which is part of the University of Copenhagen.) The book is also available from and various other retailers.