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Then and Now Photo Essay

December 21, 2013

Life After Death in Nagasaki

What happens when a city is destroyed by a nuclear weapon

At 11:02 am on August 9, 1945, Nagasaki died.

In the space of a few moments the atomic bomb that fell on the city vapourized, burned, shattered and poisoned over 80,000 people. Nagasaki was the second city to suffer this fate.

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Half a torii shrine, at the top of the stairs, survived the blast.

The city has rebounded spectacularly from that fateful day.

In December 2013 I went there. I wandered the steep streets, rode the vintage streetcars and mingled with the outward-looking inhabitants. Today it is a bustling port city, one of the linchpins of the world's third largest economy. It is beautiful and modern. It's clear that, for the most part, the place has moved on.

Nagasaki Port

The sun sets over the port of Nagasaki.

Street Cars

The quaint streetcars leisurely ferry people back and forth across the city. Many of them date back to the 1940s.

Yet you don't have to look far to find scars from that fateful day. Plaques and memorials across the city tell of unthinkable horrors. Here and there a piece of scenery disfigured by the fireball has been left in place as a reminder of man's inhumanity to man. Thousands of people that witnessed the event continue to live there too, still bearing the awful scars and ailments we've come to associate with nuclear weapons.

That same shrine from another angle. In the before picture you can see the other half of it that has been flung down.

In this photo essay I'll tell the story of Nagasaki's holocaust. We'll look at the events leading up to August 9, recalling a world descended to depths of barbarism and savagery 21st Century minds can scarcely fathom; ISIS and Assad seem positively humanitarian when seen alongside the hemisphere-spanning catastrophe that was the Pacific War. We'll walk through Nagasaki's streets that bore silent witness to the devastation and hear the harrowing tales of those who lived to tell them. We'll ask the burning question, 'Was it all necessary?' before wrenching ourselves back to the present to remind ourselves that the cruel fate that befell Nagasaki is one that hangs over us all, even today.

The experience was emotionally exhausting and deeply affected me. Much of what you'll see and read here is disturbing and some of the pictures contain graphic content. This is not for the squeamish.

Yet if we are to live under the persistent threat of nuclear annihilation we must never forget what that entails. Examining what apocalyptic capability and portentous responsibility our leaders hold in their hands is sobering and is one of the best ways to avoid a repeat of this cataclysm. We must take an unflinching look at Nagasaki.

To keep things short and accessible I've only included the Then and Now photos I took on this page. To read the accompanying article follow this link. All the Then and Now photos are also included in the main article, in addition to a number of other photographs.

Life After Death in Nagasaki: The Full Article

If you just want to see the Then and Now Photos keep scrolling down.

The difference a day makes. The first photo was taken on August 8, 1945. The second photo on August 10. Nagasaki has been wiped from the earth. When conducting analysis of the atomic bombings after the war, the Americans used the term 'Ground Zero' for the first time to describe the epicenter of the blast. Hiroshima and Nagasaki were the original Ground Zero.

Urakami Cathedral has been rebuilt today. You can just see the belfry peeking out from behind the new building on the left of the recent photo.

Urakami Cathedral's belfry cast down by the blast. It is one of the surprisingly few remnants from that day left in place.

The destruction could scarcely have been more total.

Though I couldn't line up the pictures perfectly in the day's failing light, the mountain ridge in the back matches and this is the correct streetcar station.

The larger memorial in the background is dedicated to the numerous streetcar drivers who were killed that day. On this spot there was a streetcar line, very near the hypocenter. As you can see, the initial blast of heat caused the skin of the streetcar's occupants to boil. Then the enormous shockwave that followed demolished the streetcar and blew their bodies onto a siding.

The entrance gate to Nagasaki Medical College. Though shielded from the blast by a hill, the shockwave still managed to crack the stone pillar on the right and move it several inches.

The new buildings constructed to replace the old at Nagasaki Medical College are hidden behind trees. Though the original concrete buildings survived the initial blast, they were soon consumed by flames. All of the city's water towers were knocked down in the shockwave, depriving the survivors of any means to fight the growing conflagration. They could only watch helplessly as these buildings, and their invaluable medical supplies, were gutted.

This dorm, used to house foreign medical students studying at the university, was the only building to survive the blast that remains in use today. It was difficult to find, tucked away in a corner of the rebuilt university's grounds, yet the blackened concrete walls offer grim testimony to the events of that day.

A local landowner put up a plaque to show the famous torii shrine that survived the blast once stood here. If you look carefully you can see a bridge spanning a small stream in the 1945 photo that has been paved over today. The white fencing on the left in the 2013 photo shows the stream's route today.

This children's playground was once the site of the Mitsubishi steel and armaments works. Industrial lathes withstood the shockwave but their operators were turned to ash.

The air raid shelters at Yamazato Primary School today. The colourful collections of origami on the right are present at all the atomic bomb memorials.

Highway 34 running through the middle of town.

Nagasaki today.

Follow these links to read the full article included with the photos.

Part 1: Dropping the Bomb.

Part 2: A Walking Tour of Nagasaki.

Part 3. The Bombing's Aftermath and the Decision to Drop It.

Join the Project

As far as I am aware this project is the first of its kind to focus on Then and Now photography around the world. I am hugely excited to continue expanding the site so that eventually it includes cities, towns and battlefields from across the globe, giving people everywhere the opportunity to better appreciate the history that surrounds them.

You can be a part of this project too! If you would like to see your own city given the Then and Now treatment simply let me know! I'll do all the research, mapping, photo editing and web design for you. All you have to do is get out there and take photos! It's a neat way to learn about the history of the place you live and a fantastic way to spend an afternoon getting out and exploring your hometown!

If you are interested go to the Get Involved page for more information.

On This Spot is a labour of love borne out of my love of history. These pages take a tremendous amount of work to put together and backpacking through Europe while developing the project is very challenging. If you like what you have seen here and would like to see the site continue to expand consider donating! The money will help give me the means to visit the remaining battlefields and cities on my itinerary in France, Belgium, the Netherlands and Germany while helping other people put together Then and Now photo essays for their own cities. Any small donation is massively appreciated!

I hope you enjoyed the site and a huge heart-felt thank you for participating or donating!

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