Atomic Bomb Museum, Nagasaki

  - darkometer rating:  10 -
The main A-bomb-related space in Nagasaki, near the Peace Park and only a few steps from the hypocentre. The present museum only opened as late as 1996 (in the wake of some 50th anniversary projects), so it is comparatively modern. Even though somewhat smaller than its better- known counterpart in Hiroshima, it's no less a premier dark destination (see top-20). In fact in some respects it even surpasses its Hiroshima sister institution.
At any rate it's an absolute must for the dark tourist in Japan.  

>More background info

>What there is to see


>Access and costs

>Time required

>Combinations with other dark destinations

>Combinations with non-dark destinations



Background info: see under Nagasaki.
What there is to see: First things first: many potential visitors will wonder: is it worth visiting this museum if I've already been to the Peace Museum in Hiroshima? Answer: absolutely yes! And the same applies vice versa, of course – although I can't really imagine any dark tourist would come to Japan and visit Nagasaki but not Hiroshima.
There is a certain degree of overlap in the content of the two museums, naturally, but not at much as you might think. The two museums do complement each other very well. Firstly, while the Hiroshima museum is a bit stronger on the history leading up to the atomic bombings, Nagasaki's museum scores points on being slightly better on explaining the physics, not just the workings of the bomb, but also as regards what happened exactly on the ground.
Hiroshima has a bit more on the medical details, some of them quite icky, whereas Nagasaki has the more gory footage from immediately after the bombing. Also: Hiroshima may have the better known, even famous artefacts. But some of Nagasaki's provide even more of a shock element – as well as educational illustration. Whereas Hiroshima is better on the prehistory and WWII aspects, Nagasaki is better on the post-war nuclear history (not just the Cold War) and esp. on the issues of nuclear testing and proliferation.
Overall, Nagasaki's museum, while more compact, is a little better organized than Hiroshima's – and there's less (internal) repetition, and more media variety, as well as a bit more interactiveness.
In detail: Nagasaki's exhibition doesn't waste much time on prehistory and comes to the point quickly. Just some brief footage of Nagasaki before the bombing, then a video of the mushroom cloud and a clock stopped at 11:02 a.m. – the time of the explosion – set the scene for the horrors that are the main focus of the museum.
The first large exhibition room is structured around some very large scale artefacts. At the far end, a reconstruction of the front of Urakami Cathedral, partly shattered by the blast, dominates the room. Opposite, and along the right-hand side of the room, twisted steel objects, rails, etc., and in particular a whole water tank on a steel tower, bent by the shock wave, give a good impression of what forces must have been at work. Smaller artefacts include half-melted rosaries found in the ruins of Urakami Cathedral, as well as some of its statues showing charred marks from the bombing. You get the feeling that Nagasaki is trying hard to make up for its lack of an internationally recognized iconic structure like Hiroshima's A-Bomb Dome by making such a point of the Urakami Cathedral … but it only works to a degree, though.
Videos including photographic footage taken shortly after the bombing include some very, very hard-core gory images, e.g. of whole charred, carbonized bodies lying scattered in the flattened rubble near the hypocentre, i.e. taken before anything was cleared away – you don't get any images of that sort from Hiroshima, early pictures from there always show at least some streets cleared.
In the next room, there's a brief section on the developments that led up to the atomic bombings, but the most imposing exhibit here is the model of the "Fat Man" bomb itself. This is open at the back to show a cross section of the interior of the bomb, with its plutonium core appearing rather small. The complicated workings of the "physics package" around it are explained on a detailed chart next to the model. (See also Los Alamos and Trinity.) Another larger exhibit in this room is an interactively lit diorama of Nagasaki with video monitors explaining the fireball, heat rays, blast, spread of fires and radiation.
Comparatively unspectacular, but intriguing, are the specimens on display of those flyers dropped over Japanese cities including Nagasaki to warn people of what happened in Hiroshima and urging the city's citizens to evacuate. Apparently many witnesses reported that these flyers were dropped after the bombing! Unfortunately, the display does not come with a translation back into English of the exact content of those flyers.
The next few sections of the museum concentrate on the damage caused by heat/fire, by the blast, and by radiation, in that order. The heat damage is exemplified by various artefacts like melted bottles, clumps of carbonized rice, watches stopped at the time of the explosion, and other such personal effects and everyday objects. Those roof tiles with bubbly surfaces from having melted in the heat form part of this section's artefacts too – there is unavoidably some overlap here with the exhibition at Hiroshima. Nagasaki also has a couple of hands-on displays: one, as in Hiroshima, of such a roof tile, and also one of melted glass bottles.
However, a couple of exhibits stand out as being exceptionally macabre: a) a helmet with the remains of a skull embedded in the inner surface, and b) a clump of melted glass in which the bones of a human hand are enclosed!
The "photo effect" caused by thermal rays is covered too, esp. through a photograph that shows an astonishingly sharp shadow image of a ladder and a man next to it – although this still can't quite compete with Hiroshima's Peace Museum's famous shadow-of-a-man-on-a-bank's-doorstep exhibit.
Blast damage is mostly illustrated through photographs (some quite spectacular!), although the better artefacts on this aspect were already displayed in the first main exhibition room (esp. that water tower). A most touching exhibit, however, is that of a cross section of a tree trunk: pieces of glass and ceramics are embedded in the middle – apparently the tree, though charred and showered with such debris, recovered and proceeded to grow around those fragments, encapsulating them in the process. They were only found when the tree was felled 33 years later.
Medical effects, from burns to radiation-induced deformities, are graphically illustrated, though not quite as in-depth in the explanation of medical details as in Hiroshima. One particularly striking specimen is that of an enormously enlarged spleen – weighing four kilograms as opposed to the normal weight of 110 grams ... a normal specimen is displayed for comparison in the same box.
The next section concentrates on the relief efforts after the bombing – again mainly through photos. But one subsection concentrates (a bit disproportionately maybe) on one particular person's valour – that of Takashi Nagai, a local professor at the Medical College, who apparently was a very important figure in the both the relief efforts and in pioneering research into radiation sickness. And he looked almost like a saint, at least on the one picture that shows him in devout posture, rosary in praying hands, eyes submissively raised … could have been a catholic priest.
More revealing are the survivors' testimonies. Some in the form of works of art, others in writing. And there are also videotaped taking heads. Hiroshima has all this too, but what stands out here and is different to Hiroshima is the fact that there are also testimonies by foreign victims of the bomb – notably Westerners.
Unlike Hiroshima, Nagasaki had a POW camp (a branch of the main Kyushu POW camp at Fukuoka – which for that reason was never considered as an A-bomb target). Some 200 Westerners, mostly Dutch and Australian, but also a few Britons, were in Nagasaki as POWs, working in the arms-industry related Mitsubishi factories, when the bomb hit. The testimonies from some of the survivors of this category are particularly captivating as they, of course, offer a whole different perspective. For them, the immediate horrors of the bomb may have been just as agonizing, but the bomb also sent a sign of hope that things would soon be over. Indeed, one survivor stated that the bomb, nasty as it had been for so many innocent people, secured his own survival – as he was sure he would not have survived another six months or so of Japanese POW internment and forced labour. It's an interesting angle that is hardly ever touched upon in other accounts of the A-bombings.
In the next exhibition room, there is first a section that looks a bit out of place or sequence (in an otherwise excellently organized exhibition), namely a timeline of the Sino-Japanese war from 1931-1945. The main text here is in Japanese only, with merely a few short captions in English – a bit out of keeping with the museum's otherwise consistent bilingual coverage. However, touch-screens give details on various aspects of the unfolding stages in this conflict, and these have English versions throughout.
As it's always a kind of litmus test of the neutrality and balanced-ness of the view propagated in Japan, I looked up the coverage of the Nanjing massacre. It is indeed mentioned, including the explicit word "massacre", though details or actual figures are avoided. On the other hand, other atrocities perpetrated by the Japanese Kwantung Army are mentioned, like chemical/biological experiments carried out on POWs in Manchuria. These are often swept under the rug in other places – esp. of course at the infamous Yushukan in Tokyo. So Nagasaki's museum's score on this controversial territory is quite good on balance.
A comprehensive final section deals with the post-war developments of nuclear weapons, proliferation despite warnings, the Cold War, etc. – this section is markedly better than the equivalent section in Hiroshima's museum.
Apart from the coverage of the technical and political issues involved, it also has a comprehensive section on the effects nuclear testing and other atomic arms related issues had on the people involved, including civilians near such sites.
For instance, there's a subsection on Semipalatinsk, Kazakhstan, including videoed testimonies by people affected by the tests there. One exceptionally tragic case is that of a man who, while out fishing, was affected by Soviet nuclear tests on Novaya Zemlya in the 1950s, then went to work in Semipalatinsk/Semey near the test site where he was exposed to radioactivity from tests/fallout again, and to top it off he was then also sent to Chernobyl to help in the clean-up operations there in 1986. Not quite on the same scale, but the irony of this case can almost compete with that of Tsutomu Yamaguchi's case, the double hibakusha – see Nagasaki (under more background info).
Video testimonies were also gathered in the USA, e.g. relating to the NTS and arms factories in various places; Bikini is covered too, of course, and also the lesser known cases of the uranium mines in the former GDR. These videos are either in English (with Japanese subtitles) or other languages (then with subtitles in English, e.g. for the Russian bits, although the subtitles do not appear to be quite complete here). The focus is mainly on medical issues and how the people in the videos feel betrayed by their respective governments …
The exhibition also covers, naturally, the appeals for peace and calls for the abolition of all nuclear weapons and their testing that have been coming out of Nagasaki and Hiroshima ever since the A-bombing of these cities.
Upstairs from the main museum proper, video screenings complement the exhibition. There's a cinema room in which two films are screened, alternating throughout the day some 18 times. One is called "August 9 in Nagasaki" and is mostly a 10-minute anime cartoon, with some real-life stills thrown in. The other film, entitled "The A-bombing of Nagasaki" (20 minutes), is more worthwhile. Both films are in Japanese, but the images speak pretty much for themselves.
Outside the cinema room stands a large flat-screen TV on which two additional short videos are shown in a constant loop, these are subtitled in English and cover a) the effects of nuclear weapons, and b) nuclear testing, disarmament and peace. Furthermore, there are some interactive computer stations providing more information – but these are in Japanese only and obviously aimed at schoolchildren.
From here a corridor leads back out into the foyer. And just as you think that this was it, right by the exit, one last exhibit on the wall to the right has one final emotional assault in store for the visitor. It's a photo of a "Boy Standing at a Crematory" taken by Joe O'Donnell not long after the bombing. As indicated by the title, it shows a boy, of about eight years or so, carrying a small child, (presumably) his baby brother (or sister) on his back in a kind of papoose (this was a normal sight at the time), the baby's head lolling to one side as if asleep. But the description of the photo goes on: it then became clear that the baby was not asleep but dead … it was taken from the boy and put on the funeral pyre. The boy stood by quietly, biting his lip so hard that blood became visible on it; then as the baby's corpse got caught in the flames, he turned and just walked away. … it's hard to explain why exactly, but after all the graphic and taxing exhibits downstairs in the main museum, it was this last photo and its story that got to me most. After this I really needed a quiet moment for myself to get to grips with my emotions again.  
Adjacent to the museum proper is a newer memorial space, under the official name of "Nagasaki National Peace Memorial Hall for the Atomic Bomb Victims". Like the new Memorial Hall for A-Bomb Victims in Hiroshima's Peace Park, this is a sombre, but much more abstract affair. Its heart is the underground Remembrance Hall, at the base of a row of illuminated columns (not dissimilar to the Gates of Peace in Hiroshima). The tops of these protrude through the ceiling into a sculpted basin at ground level (lit up and eerily glowing at night). At the far end of the underground Remembrance Hall, beyond the columns, is the register of the (known) names of the victims. Other rooms of the complex contain screens with further survivors' testimonies, portrait photos, and a library. Mournfully sombre as this place may be, it doesn't add much in information that the museum doesn't cover better. But it is worth going to for the atmosphere.
In the museum exhibition, (nearly) all displays are labelled and all text panels translated into English (but not some Japanese text exhibits themselves, such as those flyers – see above). The quality of the English is mostly fine except for the odd grammatical or stylistic slip.
Audio guides are available at the ticket counter (for 150 Yen) in five languages: Japanese, English, Chinese, Korean and Spanish – not as impressive a range as at Hiroshima's museum, but still; at least the inclusion of Spanish is remarkable … given Nagasaki's history I would rather have expected Dutch or Portuguese.
The small bookshop outside the exhibition by the foyer doesn't have as much in English as the museum shop in Hiroshima, but there are a few publications worth looking out for ... in the shelf section marked "English".
Firstly, there's the "Nagasaki Peace Guidebook", a 106-page booklet for only 300 Yen with a ground plan of the museum in the front and one of the surrounding area with the Peace Park and other sites in the back, a brief historical chapter about Nagasaki before and during WWII, followed by a fairly detailed description of the museum, with small black & white photos of some exhibits, and finally there's a highly valuable outline and gazetteer of all the other sites around the museum, not just including the Hypocenter and Peace Parks but also the more "exotic" sites further afield, such as the tilted gatepost by the Medical College (see Nagasakiwhat there is to see).
A more richly illustrated 50-page A4 brochure entitled "Records of the Nagasaki Atomic Bombing" is outstanding (and at 500 Yen great value for money) as far as the quality of the photography inside is concerned, including some of the more important contents of the museum, while being rather brief on the textual descriptions (in Japanese and English). These two works complement each other perfectly.
A third book to look out for is heavier, in more than one sense: it's a proper hardback in A4 format, in a yellow slipcase containing on 150 plus glossy pages hundreds of black & white photos taken in Nagasaki immediately after the bombing and in the aftermath, including some of the most graphic ones that are also displayed in the museum. There is a certain amount of overlap with the museum's A4 brochure, but it's still an impressive additional collection for those more deeply interested in the subject matter – and at 1000 Yen still quite a bargain. Unless there's a copy on display flipped open, the book may not be easy to identify as from the outside it only has Japanese characters on it – inside though all captions are translated into English too, as is the very brief section in the back with information about the bombing and the photographers.
Before moving on after the visit to this museum, you may first want to just unwind a bit in the spacious foyer area … you may need it.
Location: in the Urakami district of Nagasaki, a few miles north of the city centre.
Google maps locator: [32.7726,129.8645]
Access and costs: quite easy and cheap.
Details: to get to the museum from Nagasaki city centre, it's best to get a tram: the blue line No. 1 (from the centre e.g. Dejima or Tsukimachi); from further north of the centre (e.g. Kokaido-mae) get the red line No. 3 – both also pass JR Nagasaki Station. You just hop on the tram through the back or side doors, then get out at Hamaguchimachi (the stop is also marked for "Atomic Bomb Museum"), dropping the flat-rate 120 Yen fare in the box by the driver.
From there, cross the road and walk up the road branching off the main street at the bottom of the valley. After about 200 yards uphill you get to the car park and side entrance to the museum. Most of the museum is underground – under a science-fiction-like glass dome. Note: it is NOT the big red-brick building that you can see from afar and that is sometimes erroneously identified as the Atomic Bomb Museum in some sources – in fact a completely separate institution. But from a side entrance a corridor connects to real Atomic bomb museum). The museum's main entrance is round the corner facing the Hypocenter Park (see Nagasakiwhat there is to see). If doing the Parks first, the tram stop to get out at is Matsuyama. The museum is reached from the Hypocenter Park by wide steep stairs passing numerous monuments and statues.
Admission to the museum is 200 Yen (the same as at the Hiroshima's Peace Museum) schoolchildren and students get in for half the price). Audio guides (incl. English) are available for a fee of 150 Yen.
The museum also offers guided tours (though they seem to be aimed more at school trips) – guides are clad in uniform attire with "Nagasaki Peace Guide" written over the back. Audio-guides are also available. 
Opening times: 8:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m., to 6:30 p.m. from May through to August.  Closed December 29-31.
No photography allowed in the exhibition or the Remembrance Hall. (But good photos are included in the museum's comprehensive booklet "Recordings of the Nagasaki Atomic Bombing", available from the shop for only 500 Yen).
[UPDATE: I've heard that meanwhile this ban's been lifted]
Somewhat astonishingly (for me at least), there seems to be no age restriction, despite the extremely disturbing nature of many of the museum's exhibits … I saw (Western and Japanese) families with children, from little toddlers to ca. 10-year-olds, at the museum. And the museum's signs and brochure even explicitly say: "admission free for children under elementary school age"! Astonishing that they're let in at all!
Time required: a good few hours. If you want to read and watch absolutely everything you could probably spend up to a whole day in here. For a reasonably in-depth visit, esp. after already having been to Hiroshima (which will presumably apply to most foreign visitors), three hours will probably be enough. As with Hiroshima's Peace Memorial Museum, don't be misguided by what some guidebooks say, nor by the speed with which some of the tour groups are whisking through the exhibition (some in less than 30 minutes … absolutely not enough for even a cursory impression!). This museum requires serious time – but it is well worth it.  
Combinations with other dark destinations: see Nagasaki.
Combinations with non-dark destinations: see Nagasaki.
  • Nagasaki Atomic Bomb Museum 1Nagasaki Atomic Bomb Museum 1
  • Nagasaki Atomic Bomb Museum 2 - central hallNagasaki Atomic Bomb Museum 2 - central hall
  • Nagasaki Atomic Bomb Museum 3 - west entranceNagasaki Atomic Bomb Museum 3 - west entrance
  • Nagasaki Atomic Bomb MuseumNagasaki Atomic Bomb Museum


©, Peter Hohenhaus 2010-2019

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