Image: Morven Gregor
Thinking of myself as a phoenix,
cling on until now.
But how painful they have been,
those twenty-four years past.
Those words were written by Tsutomu Yamaguchi, often described as the luckiest – sometimes as the unluckiest – man of all time. He was the only person officially recognised as a survivor of both the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, both of which mark their 70th anniversary this week.
Yamaguchi was on a business trip to Hiroshima when it was bombed on 6th August, 1945. The death toll in the immediate aftermath was 80,000. Although badly burned, he returned to his home in Nagasaki. Three days later, a nuclear weapon was dropped on Nagasaki, killing another 70,000. Extraordinarily, he survived to the age of 93, spending his later years campaigning against nuclear weapons. As part of his campaign, he wrote a book of poetry, And the River Flowed as a Raft of Corpses.
The bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki achieved their goal of forcing Japan to surrender, although the terrible cost has haunted the world’s imagination ever since. In the 1970s, Allen Ginsberg wrote ‘Nagasaki Days’:
I walked outside & the bomb'd
dropped lots of plutonium
all over the Lower East Side
There weren't any buildings left just
groceries burned, potholes open to
stinking sewer waters
That section of the poem was called ‘Everybody’s Fantasy’. It wasn’t a fantasy, however, for the citizens of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. One survivor, Sumako Fukuda, spent much of her subsequent career as a poet writing poems exposing the effects of the bombing; she died in 1974 at the age of 52, her death a consequence of the after-effects of being exposed to atomic weapons.
Scotland is linked to Nagasaki through the figure of Thomas Glover, the Scottish merchant who drove, some might say forced, the opening of Japan to Western trade and influences. His son survived the bombing of Nagasaki but then took his life. Alan Spence wrote the novel The Pure Land about Glover.
In early years of the 21st century, the poet Gerry Loose forged another connection between Scotland and Nagasaki. He had learned that an arboculturalist and resident of Nagasaki had succeeded in growing saplings from the seed of a Kaki tree (‘Kaki’ is Japanese for persimmon) that had somehow survived the explosion. Loose travelled to Japan to see if it was possible to bring a sapling from that tree to Scotland. In 2002, children from East Park School planted the tree in Glasgow’s Botanic Gardens against the backdrop of a march towards another war, this time in Iraq.
Shortly afterwards, the Kaki Tree was stolen. Loose writes in Ten Seasons, a book that grew out of his residency at the Botanics, ‘I like to think of it growing in a suburban garden, radiating its own kind of peace, regardless of the intentions of its new servant, the person who stole it.’
Loose actually had another sapling taken from the Kaki tree. After the theft, he chose to secretly replant the second sapling in another location. The planting ceremony was quieter this time, but the invite he wrote has words that ring loud and clear to this day.
‘Nothing is ever lost; this kaki tree then, stands equally as a symbol for commemoration and for peace. As it grows, its message will spread to new generations; as long as there are new generations, as long as there is hope, as long as there is need, kaki trees will be planted here to remind us of that.’
The image that accompanies this blog was taken by Morven Gregor. To see more examples of her work, visit her website.
Ten Seasons by Gerry Loose is published by Luath Press.