Evening Will Come: A Monthly Journal of Poetics (Hiroshima-Nagasaki Feature—Issue 56, August 2015)

Tomoe Otsuki
Ghostly Remnants of the Urakami Cathedral in Itaru Takahara’s Photographs

It has been believed that there are far fewer photographs of the aftermath of A-bombed Nagasaki taken by local civilians than there are of Hiroshima. The primary images of A-bombed Nagasaki were taken by Yosuke Yamahata, a Japanese military photographer, the day after the bomb explosion, and by U.S military photographers during the occupation period (1945-1952). Those photographs taken by the Japanese and American military photographers depict the apocalyptic view of Nagasaki’s ground-zero; and their photographs have been widely disseminated in the domestic and international communities and become the dominant images of Nagasaki’s atomic bombing over the last decades.

Itaru Takahara, a former professional photographer of Mainichi Shinbun (press) as well as a Nagasaki hibakusha, took photographs of the ruins of the Urakami Cathedral from 1949 to 1958. Due to the strict censorship especially over any visual image or description of ground-zero by the GHQ, Takahara had to sneak onto the site. When he was caught by an American soldier, he quickly handed in another camera; his photographs survived confiscation and destruction. Takahara took those photographs with the recognition that the remnants might be dismantled and disappear not only from our sight, but from memory. He kept his private collection of 300 photographs of the ruins of the cathedral in his own small photo studio for more than five decades.

In 2000, Nagasaki Broadcasting Company (NBC) produced a documentary entitled God and the Atomic Bomb—The Past 55 Years of the Urakami Catholic Hibakusha (神と原爆―浦上カトリックの55年). The central theme of the documentary is the juxtaposition of Nagasaki Catholic doctor Nagai Takashi’s interpretation of the atomic bombing as “divine providence,” and the disposition of the Urakami Catholic community. Yet the documentary also reveals that the mayor of Nagasaki at the time, Tagawa Tsutomu, changed his position regarding the preservation of the ruins of the cathedral after returning from a trip to the United States in 1956. The official purpose of Tagawa’s trip was to visit Nagasaki’s sister city, St. Paul. The sister city agreement was signed on December 7, 1955, the day commemorating the attack on Pearl Harbor. The documentary also discloses that Bishop Yamaguchi Aijiro, an influential figure in the Nagasaki Catholic community, was also invited to the United States in 1955, and that he too supported the dismantling of the ruins upon his return. During one scene of God and the Atomic Bomb, an interview is conducted with Nakajima Banri, an Urakami priest, who, in response to the question of why the Urakami Catholic community agreed to the dismantling of the ruins, reluctantly offered, “there were some external forces from the United States and international politics…” (NBC 2000). Nakajima also mumbled that, “the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Japan was also concerned…because the Urakami Cathedral was damaged by the United States…” (ibid). Similarly, Ikematsu Tsuneoki, a former Nagasaki city official and the first chief curator of the Nagasaki International Cultural Hall—the predecessor of today’s Nagasaki Atomic Bomb Museum—told his close friend that “the preservation of the ruins [of the cathedral] would have caused some problem to the United States” (Takase 2009: 27), so that a considerable amount of money was donated to the Nagasaki Catholic Church to reconstruct the Urakami Cathedral with a condition: the ruins were to be dismantled. Ikematsu, however, did not mention exactly where the money came from because, he said, “those who involved in the politics are still alive” (ibid). Until NBC’s documentary war aired, older residents in Nagasaki had remembered the dismantling of the ruins simply as an ‘unfortunate’ event, while many younger residents were entirely oblivious of the existence of the ruins. Nagasaki residents, especially the second and third generation of hibakusha, began to ask why Nagasaki dismantled the ruins, whereas Hiroshima has succeeded in preserving the Atomic Dome, which became the UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1996. They have lamented that the cathedral ruins could have been even more poignant and powerful icon of antinuclear movement than Hiroshima’s Atomic Dome if the ruins had been preserved.

In 2009, Kazuhiko Yokote, a literature professor at the Nagasaki Institute of Applied Science, began to approach thousands of Nagasaki residents to ask them if they had preserved any visual images of the atomic wasteland among their private collections. One of these residents he happened to contact was a friend of Takahara. The friend suggested to Takahara that he bring his private collection to Yokote. Takahara visited Yokote’s office at the university. Yokote was immediately taken aback by the high-quality images in Takahara’s collection. Upon receiving them, Yokote authored poignant captions and accompanying texts for the images of the ruins and opened a public photograph exhibition in Nagasaki called, “The World Heritage Site that Never Was.” Ultimately, the collection of Takahara’s photographs entitled Nagasaki Urakami Cathedral, 1945-1958: An Atomic Bomb Relic Lost was published in 2010.

Takahara’s photographs depict the remnants of the Urakami Cathedral following the atomic bombing of Nagasaki. Most of the children playing besides the ruins were born after the atomic bombing and grew up in Urakami’s atomic field [see: the first and third of Takahara’s photos in this issue]. As Yokote described, the broken walls of the cathedral and scarred statues of the saints seem to be embracing the children and listening to their laughter (Yokote 2010). Takahara’s photographs capture the remnants of the cathedral integrating into the postwar landscape and lives of people in the city.

In August 2010, I had an opportunity to meet with Takahara in Nagasaki. I asked him why he had kept his collection from the public over the last decades. He replied that he did not want to remind Urakami Catholics of such a painful memory. By this, he meant not only the memory of the atomic bombing, but also of the dismantlement of the ruins of their cathedral, the symbol of Urakami Catholics’ martyrdom. Indeed, many Nagasaki hibakusha, residents and councilmen called for the preservation of the ruins; 10,000 Nagasaki residents signed the petition for the preservation. The ruins of the Urakami Cathedral were dismantled against the will of Nagasaki people’s collective cry.

Atomic Bomb Destruction Of The Cathedral And Debate Over The Fate Of The Ruins

The Urakami Cathedral was inaugurated in 1914 and completed in 1925 with the installation of the twin belfries. Its construction dates back to the late nineteenth century. In 1873, when the Meiji government finally lifted the ban on Christianity, approximately 1,900 Urakami Catholic villagers who had survived exile and persecution returned to Urakami. What they had left had been destroyed in their absence; they had to rebuild their land from scratch. In June 1880, they purchased a piece of property from the village headman and converted the house into a temporary church. The property had been the location where their ancestors had endured persecution. In 1895, about 5,000 Urakami Catholics decided to construct a cathedral. According to the oral history of the Urakami Catholic community, the construction of the cathedral was paid for by each parishioner’s donation of a portion of their scant wages. Many of them went to town to sell vegetables and purchased bricks on their way back with the money they had earned (Yokote 2010). They also physically contributed to its construction by manually carving stones and piling bricks. It took thirty years to complete the Romanesque cathedral. Every corner was adorned with carvings and statues of Christ, Mary, and the saints. The Urakami Catholics believed that the cathedral symbolized the reward of four centuries of faith and sacrifice for the freedom of religion. It was the grandest church in the Far East until its destruction.

On August 9, 1945, twenty-four Urakami Catholics were preparing for the celebration of the Assumption of the Virgin Mary. Father Fusayoshi Tamaya was hearing confession. At the same time, the American bomber called “Bockscar” was redirected from Kokura to Nagasaki due to the haze and smoke obscuring the city and the target site of the large ammunition arsenal. None of the twenty-five in the cathedral survived from the bomb explosion.

From April 1949 to March 1958, the Committee for the Preservation of the Remnants of the Atomic Bombing (Genbaku Iko Hozon Iiankai), a municipal advisory body, held twenty-seven meetings, nine of which were dedicated to the fate of the cathedral ruins. In all nine meetings, the committee members voted in favour of preserving the ruins. Likewise, many Nagasaki hibakusha and residents called for the preservation of the cathedral ruins as they were the only notable remaining vestige of the atomic bombing in the city.

On the other hand, Nagasaki Catholic leaders called for removal of the ruins and the reconstruction of a new cathedral on the same site on which the remnants remained. While the official reason of their support for the removal of the ruins was that the remaining walls would be an impediment to reconstruction, Bishop Aijiro Yamaguchi had noted that Americans may not appreciate the reminder of the atomic bombing preserved in those ruins (Takase 2009). To counter the increasing call for the preservation, Nagasaki Catholics formed The Association for the Reconstruction of the Urakami Cathedral (Urakami Tenshudo Saiken Iinkai), and launched a fund-raising campaign. The Association estimated that the total cost for the reconstruction would be over 60 million yen. They anticipated that half of the cost could be collected through donations from Japanese Catholic churches. In the midst of their search for the other half, Bishop Yamaguchi received an invitation to visit the United States and Canada. After the return from his ten-month tour of North American, Yamaguchi announced that Urakami Cathedral would be rebuilt and that the ruins had to be removed.

The debate over the fate of the cathedral ruins between Nagasaki Catholics and the Committee for the Preservation of the Remnants of the Atomic Bombing intensified after Yamaguchi’s announcement of the dismantling of the ruins in February 1956. The latter received support from non-Catholic Nagasaki hibakusha, who believed that the ruins of the cathedral were the only remnants that could adequately convey the horrific power of the atomic bomb to non-hibakusha both present and future. Nonetheless, Yamaguchi told a local newspaper that he would not change his mind because he did not believe that the ruins represented ‘peace.’ They represented instead a far too vivid link to a troubled and troubling past (Diehl 2011).

From his inauguration in 1951 until 1956, Nagasaki mayor Tagawa Tsutomu sought to ensure the preservation of the ruins of the cathedral. In the midst of the debate over the fate of the cathedral ruins, Tagawa received a letter from William Hughes, a member of the American philanthropic group, the “Friend of the World.” Hughes proposed to formulate a sister-city relationship between Nagasaki and St. Paul in Minnesota. The Nagasaki city archive documents that the original proponent for the sister-city project between the two cities was Lewis W. Hill Jr., the grandson of the founder of the Great Northern Railway. The archive documents that prior to the Asia and Pacific War, Hill Jr. had travelled to Nagasaki where he became fascinated with Nagasaki’s landscape and its warm-hearted residents. After the atomic bombing, Hill Jr. was convinced that peace could be achieved through mutual understanding and the cultivation of true friendship. This is said to be the motivation for Hill’s request that Hughes help him create the sister city relationship. A local newspaper claimed that the reason St. Paul was chosen was its large Catholic community (Nagasaki Nichi Nichi Shinbun September 4, 1955). Nagasaki was the first Japanese city to receive such an invitation from the United States. Tagawa and Nagasaki councillors accepted the proposal as they believed it was a very prestigious proposal.

In September 1955, St. Paul invited Tagawa to the ceremony marking the start of the sister city relationship on December 7, the fourteenth commemoration of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. Tagawa was not able to attend the ceremony, but went to the United States in August 1956. After his return in September 1956, Tagawa shifted his position from pro-preservation to the support for the removal of the ruins.

The American print media from 1955 to 1956 indicated that Yamaguchi and Tagawa had agreed that the remnants of the cathedral would serve as a reminder of the hostile history between the two countries, hence the demolition of the remnants and reconstruction of a new cathedral would be more appropriate to mark the first sister city relationship between the United States and Japan. On May 6, 1956, The New York Times reported Yamaguchi’s comment that “many Japanese people thought it ironic that the atomic bomb took the grandest proportionate toll of the Christian community in Nagasaki.” But, he continued that the Catholics regarded Nagasaki’s atomic bombing as a divine “trial” and its victims as “martyrdom to end the war, the final appeasement of God for wrongs done” (ibid). Yamaguchi reportedly went on to claim that “we felt that the sacrifice of Japanese at Hiroshima must not have been enough in the sight of Lord” (ibid). He then stated that he had received $40,000 for the reconstruction of the Urakami Cathedral throughout his trip to the United States. The article concluded with Yamaguchi’s call for further donations of $100,000 to help rebuild it.

Yamaguchi visited St. Paul soon after the St. Paul City Council signed the sister-city relationship on December 7, 1955. On December 11, 1955, St. Paul Sunday Pioneer Press published an interview with Yamaguchi in which he described the goal of rebuilding the Urakami Cathedral. He stated that given St. Paul’s desire to enter into a sister-city relationship with Nagasaki, he would favour dismantling the ruins of the Urakami Cathedral and rebuilding it anew to symbolize the mutual forgiveness, reconstruction and reconciliation between the United States and Japan.

Tagawa gave interviews too, during his stay in St. Paul. In August 1956, interviewed by St. Paul Dispatch, Tagawa noted that many Japanese people wanted to secure a close alliance with the United States, but that Japanese communists were seeking such a relationship with the Soviet Union (St. Paul Dispatch August 23, 1956). The question of the renewal of American-Japanese security alliance was a politically and emotionally charged issue in Japan in the mid-1950s, a time when many Japanese people believed it would entail their involvement in another nuclear war. The article, however, did not provide under which circumstances Tagawa made such a bold, excessively politicized statement. What is clear is that Tagawa and Yamaguchi recognized that the sister city relation between the two cities had to serve as the symbol of the forgiveness and reconciliation between the two countries.

As Tagawa became reluctant to comply with the Committee’s recommendation for the preservation of the cathedral ruins, Nagasaki city councilmen were compelled to ask the mayor to communicate his intention. On February 17, 1958, an emergency meeting was held at the Nagasaki City Council. Natsuo Iwaguchi, the youngest member of the council, called for the preservation of the ruins, stating that “we want political leaders and visitors from all over the world to witness the horrific power of the atomic bomb and the baseness of war!” (NBC 2000). Tagawa responded to Iwaguchi, saying:

It is undeniable that the ruins are valuable as a tourist attraction, but I do not believe they serve to promote peace. The horrific power of the atomic bomb has already been studied and documented scientifically, so even those who have never experienced its power can understand that such weapons should neither be used nor produced. Consequently, the existence of the ruins is superfluous. The question at hand is whether the ruins of the Urakami Cathedral are appropriate physical materials to convey the tragedy of the atomic bombing. Frankly speaking, my answer is no. The preservation of the ruins is not necessary to the pursuit of peace. Therefore, I will fully support for dismantling of the ruins and reconstruction of a new cathedral at the same site to respond to the wishes of the Catholic people. (Cited from Takase 2009, pp. 141-142)

Tagawa argued that while atomic weapons were widely viewed as an absolute evil, that characterization was little more than ideological posturing. In practical terms, the possession of atomic weapons by the Soviet Union, the United States and Britain could be construed as a necessary condition for peace.

Tagawa’s comment on the idea of nuclear détente shocked the councilmen. Iwaguchi once again rose and questioned Tagawa:

Let me ask you then. Why are you going to erect a memorial statue for the twenty-six martyrs? Why are you going to replicate the Dutch House? Isn’t it because you want to convey the history of Nagasaki as Japan’s window to the West and how Western culture came to Japan? Isn’t it because you want to let the architecture silently speak to the viewers about such history in the present? We have been collecting tiles, bamboo, and other small objects exposed to the radiation of the atomic bomb as artefacts of the tragedy. Do you really believe that those little pieces will adequately convey the horror of the atomic bombing? We are asking you to preserve the ruins not as a symbol of hatred, but as a symbol of the baseness of war, as the spiritual cross of our sins! (Cited from Takase 2009, pp. 146-147)

Another councilman Araki Tokugoro countered Tagawa, too, asserting that:

[The ruins] are invaluable because they will forever call out to humankind that never again should such ruins be produced. All the citizens of Nagasaki want to preserve the ruins! If they are removed, how will your successors, the mayors of Nagasaki in 100 or 200 years judge our decision? They must be preserved! Those ruins, please preserve them! Please preserve them! Mayor! Please! (NBC 2000; Takase 2009, p. 148)

The following day, the Council voted unanimously to preserve the ruins of Urakami Cathedral. Moreover, approximately 10,000 Nagasaki residents signed a petition calling for the preservation of the ruins. Furthermore, even within the Urakami Catholic community, some members urged Banri Nakajima, the Urakami chief priest of the time, to preserve the ruins. However, Nakajima characterized the ruins as ‘trash,’ which was already destroyed, so the preservation of the ruins was meaningless (Takase 2009).

In the final meeting in March 1958, the city council voted to leave the ultimate decision to Mayor Tagawa. Iwaguchi and hibakusha addressed three proposals as the final attempt to convince the mayor and Nagasaki Catholic leaders to preserve the ruins. The first proposal was to hold surveys all over Japan to discuss the fate of the ruins at the national level. The second proposal was to invite the National Commission for Protection of Cultural Properties (Bunka Hogo Iinkai) and ask their opinion. The third proposal was to provide financial support not only for the preservation of the ruins, but also for the reconstruction of a new cathedral (Diehl 2011). Iwaguchi, his ally, and Nagasaki hibakusha believed that the Japanese public would support their call for the preservation of the silent testimony of the nuclear catastrophe. However, Tagawa dismissed their final plea.

On March 14, 1958, the ruins of the Urakami Cathedral were dismantled. Very few people—other than those who were in charge of demolishing the remnants—were present at the site during the demolition process. Only the statues of St. Mary in Mourning and St. John the Apostle, and a portion of the southern wall were preserved from the demolition after a last desperate plea from hibakusha groups.

On the day of the dismantling, Nagasaki Press read:

[The dismantling] began with the remnants of the front walls. Those remnants, however, made for extremely difficult work. The sturdy ropes meant to pull them down were cut. Nevertheless, by mid-afternoon, the wall collapsed. About thirty tons of ruins were pulled down by early evening. (Nagasaki Shinbun March 14, 1958)

The article indicates that the ruins were fairly robust, despite the Urakami Catholic church’s claim that the remnants had posed a physical threat of collapse. On March 29, two weeks after the demolition of the ruins, Nagasaki City Hall caught fire and was largely destroyed. Along with the building itself, much of the municipal archives were destroyed, including the materials detailing Tagawa’s trip to the United States. The fire occurred on Saturday; few people worked in the city hall. The cause of the fire remains unknown.

The construction of the new Urakami Cathedral was completed in October 1959. The question of how they eventually collected another $10,000 also remains unknown. The Urakami Catholic leaders described the new cathedral as a symbol of the recovery and reconstruction of their community. However, Nagasaki perpetually lost its most powerful symbol of the dawn and suffering of the nuclear age. Only photographs remain to testify to its destruction.

Resurrecting Memory Of The Dismantled Ruins

Takahara brought his photographs into the public, while the memory of the dismantlement of the atomic bomb ruins in Nagasaki has been recovered from ‘taboo’ and transformed into public knowledge. One retired Nagasaki official I interviewed in August 2010 in Nagasaki admitted that the city workers had known some kind of politics played a part in the dismantlement of the ruins of the Urakami Cathedral, but discussion of the topic had remained ‘taboo’ among them. This former administrator expressed surprise with the fact that the taboo had become publicly known more than five decades later. Six decades after the explosion of the second atomic bomb, the ghostly remnants of the ruins of the Urakami Cathedral have been given shape.

The question of what forces determined the fate of the ruins of the cathedral may never be never fully answered. Both Nakajima and Ikematsu passed away. As Yokote notes: “certain facts may remain undisclosed in the hearts of the people involved.” (2010, p. 89).

When I was about to leave Nagasaki, Takahara gave me the copies of his photo collection of the ruins, saying that his photos are no longer his property, but belong to the next generations. He said to me, “You show them wherever you like.” I leave you with Yokote’s statement as follows:

I hope that Takahara’s photographs prompt the viewer to ask why the ruins of the cathedral were lost and what Nagasaki’s atomic bombing and subsequent catastrophe signify to us. I also hope that those photographs shed light on the memories of the countless of anonymous people, who had lived and who wished to stay alive in the land of Urakami. (Yokote 2010, p. vi)


Diehl, Chad R. 2011. PhD Dissertation: “Resurrecting Nagasaki: Reconstruction, the Urakami Catholics, and Atomic Memory, 1945-1970.” New York: University of Columbia.

Takase, Tsuyoshi. 2009. Nagasaki—Another Atomic Dome Lost ナガサキ消えたもうひとつの原爆ドーム. Tokyo: Heion-sha.

Yokote, Kazuhiko (text) and Itaru Takahara (photographer) 2010. Nagasaki Urakami Cathedral, 1945-1958: An Atomic Bomb Relic Lost [長崎旧浦上天主堂, 1945-1958]. Tokyo: Iwanami Shinsho.


Nagasaki Nichi Nichi Shinbun, September 4, 1955

St. Paul Sunday Pioneer Press, December 11, 1955

St. Paul Dispatch, August 23, 1956

The New York Times, March 6, 1956

—Documentary Film—

Nagasaki Broadcasting Company (2000) “God and the Atomic Bomb: Urakami Catholic Hibakusha’s Last Fifty-Five Years” (神と原爆―浦上カソリック被爆者の55年)