Legacies of suffering, theologies of hope: Nagasaki Catholics, the bomb and dangerous memory


Gwyn McClelland

PhD defended at: 

Monash University


On 9 August 1945, the United States dropped the second atomic bomb ever used in
wartime on Nagasaki, resulting in a death toll of up to 70,000 people within the day and around
the same number again from injuries within one year. Of the dead, approximately 8500 on the day
were Catholic Christians, representing sixty to seventy-five percent of their own community and
over ten percent of the total.

While reactions to the atomic bomb in the Nagasaki community are often summarised by
writers as ‘prayer’ and the understanding of the devastation as God’s ‘providence’, my thesis
argues that Catholic atomic bomb survivors of Nagasaki protest the bombing and have complex
and culturally specific memories of its impact and aftermath. My approach is based on interviews
with members of the community located around the hypocenter of the bombing, including nine
Catholic atomic bomb survivors, three other survivors and ten other Urakami community

I consider in this thesis the connections between individuals and their community's
history, and their consciousness of historic communal marginalisation, by drawing on Johann
Baptist Metz’s theological framework of ‘dangerous’ memory. I have chosen oral history for its
narrative perspective, with attention also given to other primary, and secondary sources, including
the landscape of Nagasaki, works of art, dramatic plays, scholarship on Japanese history, and to
historical and theological approaches to trauma.

This thesis examines Catholic memories through the theological concept of ‘dangerous’
memory. ‘Dangerous’ memory is associated with the Christian community͛s understanding of the
crucifixion and resurrection of Christ, and refers to how stories of suffering and alternative
memories challenge established hierarchies and narratives. By this political theology I analyse the
spiritual context of the community, and observe the community’s rebellion against passivity. For
the Nagasaki Catholic survivors, these memories shed light on not only the destruction of the bombing, but also link to past experiences of religious persecution and marginalisation, when kakure or sempuku Kirishitan (Hidden or Secret Christian) groups survived in the countryside after
the banning of Christianity by the Tokugawa regime. The descendants of these people are my
modern interviewees. The focus of this study is the way in which Metz’s concept of ‘dangerous’
memory, in its charge to remember the marginalised, suffering and dead, creates a useful lens to
view the Urakami Christian memory of Nagasaki and its history. Such remembering contains future
implications, including hope for the hopeless, the oppressed and the suffering of the world.