Column: Encounters with History (Letter from Japan, Part 6)

News Abroad

Mr. Thompson, Professor of Public Administration, University of Nevada, Las Vegas, is the author of Gambling in America: An Encyclopedia. His most recent book is: Parables from a Not Quite Paradise, Nv 89154: The History News Network Essays . He is a columnist for HNN.

This spring Mr. Thompson is a visiting professor at Osaka University of Commerce. This is the sixth of his"Letters from Japan."


A while ago I was cleaning out an attic. It was an old house. More than seventy years of stuff had accumulated there. Things that should have been thrown away long long ago. A letter in his handwriting. A young person in a troubled romance, begging forgiveness, begging that she take him back. Telling her that he wanted to spend the rest of their lives together. What if she would have said “no.” I was born ten years later. The war had already started.

In 1997 she was my interpreter. It was her first visit to the museum. Mine too. I was taking in the history, reading the exhibits as fast as I could. We paused together at a panel explaining the selection of the targets. The writing in both English and Japanese said the second bomb was intended to fall on Kokura. She had a stunned look on her face. She almost trembled. She said her parents were children at the time. They both lived in Kokura. She was born in 1968. The war had been over twenty-three years.

Kokura is not on all the maps. It has disappeared as a political unit. It is now just a place, a part of a bigger city, a railway stop on the Shinkansen train line between Tokyo and Hakata. I looked out at the platform. I saw an elderly couple, a young girl, a few children running around on the platform. The city had disappeared. The city was not meant to be a city. Maybe that was part of fate in a Buddhist or Shinto kind of way. But they were meant to be, to have lives, to live there, now. Maybe clouds have hidden Kokura from the map makers. That's OK. Clouds hid Kokura from the Bockcar on August 9, 1945 , so the people I saw could be on the train platform, their lives could continue, their lives could begin.

Urakami Prison

Let's take a walk and visit a prison.

I love to receive the "Bushisms" from my liberal friends. You know, the ones that imply that our leader is not exactly playing with a full deck, or that all Texans are barbaric rubes (right now they are saying, "well, Duh, aren't they?"). Here is one I recently received over the email: "You know in Texas they abolished the electric chair. Yeah, they replaced it with electric bleachers. Ha ha ha ha." Ha Ha Ha.

Come walk with me and let's visit a prison where there was a large execution. Actually 81 prisoners were executed at the same time. No, they weren't on bleachers, they were executed in their cells, all at the same time. In the same moment. It was the largest simultaneous prison execution in history--that is recorded history--anywhere, at any time.

And those executed did not include the types of serial killers, ax handle murderers, chainsaw sadists, and child sex killers that take the juice occasionally down yonder. No. Their numbers included political prisoners, war protesters, prisoners of war from China (32 of them), Korea (another 13), some from the Philippines and maybe even a few from the U.S. Army, probably along with some petty thieves who thought they would be receiving a short sentence--and actually did, as I think about it.

This large execution was unique in other ways too as 53 guards and prison employees also suffered the pains of capital punishment. The execution also took down most (actually all) of the prison structure as well. The Urakami prison foundation remains. It is located in the Peace Park . Near the sidewalk that runs from the water fountain to the statue seated in perpetual prayer, beside the monuments from the Cuban government and the people of St. Paul, Minnesota.

It is 300 meters (a length less than three Dallas Cowboy football fields long) from the hypocenter marker--the place in Nagasaki above which the Fatman went off. The execution was at 11:02, 9 August 1945 (that's how they do the military clock and calendar). Oh, one thing more. It didn't take place on W's watch.

comments powered by Disqus