2016 (Archive)

Ground Zero: Urakami Cathedral, Nagasaki

14 November 2016 | Nagasaki, JAPAN

The most destructive weapon ever employed (in war) in human history: the plutonium bomb detonated above Nagasaki. Ground Zero was the Urakami Cathedral (St. Mary's), where several hundred worshippers were attending mass the moment the blast occurred. This wall portion and a few other stark ruins are all that are left.

One Bomb = a third of Hiroshima's population incinerated

11 November 2016 | Hiroshima, JAPAN

...and two-thirds of its buildings destroyed or rendered unusable.

Interesting, too, that (a) the most destructive weapon ever used during war was deployed against civilians, both times, and (2) the most destructive weapon ever used during war was deployed by a country whose people consider it the most free, most humane, most liberty-loving on earth. Something's not right here.

And the more you look into the bomb, the more you wish you hadn't.

Turns out, it wasn't even necessary. Americans are spoon-fed a narrative dating back to the 40s, one that claims the bombs were what finally compelled Japan to surrender, that without the bombs a million Americans would have died in a Japanese-home-island invasion, etc. We've all heard these arguments. But Japan knew it had lost months before the bombs, and the Japanese had approached the Americans about conditional surrender multiple times. The war was over, especially since American bombers had been wreaking havoc on over sixty Japanese cities (civilian centers), killing hundreds of thousands of non-combatants, for months. Game over.

Don't believe me? How about the mastermind of the American firebombing campaign, Air Force General Curtis LeMay? His take: "The war would have been over in two weeks... The atomic bomb had nothing to do with the end of the war at all."

Or you might value the opinion of Fleet Admiral Chester Nimitz, Commander-in-Chief of the Pacific Fleet; the man probably knew a thing or two. His view: "The Japanese had, in fact, already sued for peace... The atomic bomb played no decisive part, from a purely military standpoint, in the defeat of Japan."

Need more? There are the findings of the U.S.-backed United States Strategic Bombing Survey (1946), for starters: "Based on a detailed investigation of all the facts, and supported by the testimony of the surviving Japanese leaders involved, it is the Survey's opinion that certainly prior to 31 December 1945, and in all probability prior to 1 November 1945, Japan would have surrendered even if the atomic bombs had not been dropped, even if Russia had not entered the war, and even if no invasion had been planned or contemplated."

Maybe the bigger question today is this: Why do we feel the need to make excuses for the vaporizing/boiling alive/incineration of hundreds of thousands of innocent Japanese men, women, and children?

Red pill, blue pill.

The day a tenth of Japan's total Christian population perished

8 November 2016 | Shimabara, JAPAN

The last great event before Japan's Christians were forced underground for 250 years: the Shimabara Rebellion of 1637-38. I visited the site of the revolt today. Stunning Shimabara Castle (pictured below) was besieged by the rebels for a time, after which they in turn were besieged about 15 miles down the coast in Hara Castle.

To put the rebellion down, the Tokugawa Shogunate sent an army to Shimabara bigger than any European state could have mustered at the time; in the end, they outnumbered the rebels six-to-one--yet it still took three months of siege, starvation, and bombardment by the anti-Catholic Dutch to finally quell the revolt.

Burning alive, beheadings, and deportations followed.

[NOTE: the title of this post could work just as well for 9 August, 1945, when around a tenth of all Japanese Christians were either incinerated instantly or died later as a result of a single atomic blast--a bomb dropped, ironically, by an allegedly "Christian" nation on Japan's most Christian city; ground zero for the drop: the Urakami district, Nagasaki's most heavily-Christian district and home to East Asia's largest church, completely destroyed. Most Nagasaki Christians died in this last great U.S. bombing.]

BELOW: The castle entrance--which I had to include on account of the fantastic forest-covered hills in the background. Rugged Japan is covered in them.

BELOW: View from the top of the castle.

Miyamoto Musashi: Greatest Swordsman Ever?

6 November 2016 | Miyamoto (Okayama Prefecture), JAPAN

Visited the grave of Miyamoto Musashi (d. 1645), possibly the greatest swordsman to ever live--anywhere. Over sixty one-on-one duels, some to the death, all victories (and usually over in seconds).

He also happened to participate (probably) in several of the most transformative battles in Japanese history.

Musashi--and the era he lived through--is the subject of my latest NP mini-lecture.

RIGHT: The grave (one of them; the other is on Kyushu) of Musashi.

BELOW: This shrine, dedicated to Musashi, sits next to his gravesite. I dropped my phone and shattered its screen right here.

The Sign You Don't Want to See...

4 November 2016 | Sekigahara, JAPAN

...when you walk into a deep, dark Japanese forest on the mountains around Sekigahara.

In Japan, But Russia on the Horizon

1 November 2016 | Wakkanai, JAPAN

Spent a frigid day on the extreme northern tip of Hokkaido. Why did I come here? Just off this coast is where Korean Air Flight 007 went down after being attacked by Soviet fighter jets. Fisherman from Wakkanai who were out for the daily catch saw the flash, heard the boom, and could smell fuel in the air. A 1980s Cuban Missile Crisis scenario; NP mini-lecture coming.

Tomorrow I head to southern Hokkaido to make a video about the Ainu.

Photos, from top to bottom: (1) picturesque ruins, (2) view from Wakkanai's northern edge (if you look hard you can see Rishiri Island with its extinct volcano), (3) the most oft-mended wall-flap in the world?, (4) the long, icy road--which I walked for miles.

Beheading Mongols = Vengeance Cometh!

30 October 2016 | Fujisawa, JAPAN

I walked the beach at Fujisawa today. These days people surf and play volleyball here. I wonder if they know that during the military-government-led Kamakura period, this was an execution ground. There were lots and lots of big, black crows on the beach, perched on turned-over boats or just wandering in packs away from the water; have they and their ancestors haunted these sands for a thousand years, when they were originally drawn by fresh meat?

This is where five Mongol envoys lost their heads in 1275. A few years later, the Kamakura bakufu chopped off the heads of five more Mongol envoys. It had been pretty well established at that point that if you mistreat (or kill) a Mongol envoy, a terrible revenge will follow (entire cities--indeed, countries--could attest to this). In this case, the Mongol response was the largest overseas assault ever launched to that time.

I knew that the original Mongol envoys' graves were located at a local Buddhist (Nichiren) temple. The sources I had pointed me in the wrong direction, however, and I ended up in a different temple--an incredible place, very large, with perfectly manicured gardens decorated with scores of stone statues. When I asked the attending priest about the Mongols, he seemed confused, but eventually his eyes lit up ("Mongol!" he exclaimed); I quickly produced GoogleMaps on my phone, zoomed in to the neighborhood, and was grateful when he pointed to another temple, on the other side of the hill, tucked away in a little neighborhood.

A few wrong turns later I was there. This temple was pristine like the first, but devoid of people and much smaller. I wandered through the place for a while, past a massive bell hanging impressively underneath an elaborate wooden roof and through a well-kept garden. Suddenly there were hundreds of graves, packed together, and in the back against the wall there was a plaque that was a little bigger than the rest--and underneath it five stone figures. This was it: the grave of the five beheaded Mongols, hidden away from any tourist track.

I filmed the last part of one of my NP mini-lectures right in front of it, chatted with a monk who subsequently wandered in, then snapped this picture. For a history nerd like me, this was an exciting find.

In Japan's First "Permanent" Capital

28 October 2016 | Nara, JAPAN

Whisked through Osaka with just enough time to visit the city's great castle before heading to Nara, where I walked almost 20 miles all over the city in order to complete another NP video. This is a town that demands several full days at the very least, but all I've got is an afternoon.

Tomorrow: Ise and the Grand Shrine.

Nara Park and environs is filled with deer--all more or less tame. People are petting them, feeding them "deer cookies," and watching where they step. I snapped this photo unaware that the deer behind me was getting frisky.

A Little Serenity on a Rainy Day

25 October 2016 | Kyoto, JAPAN

Spent the day in Kyoto, Japan's imperial capital for a thousand years. This Shinto shrine (name: Shimogamo) predates Kyoto's capital status by several centuries, however. I took this in the outer courtyard, just before it stopped raining. A few minutes later I recorded a segment in this same courtyard for an upcoming video on the Heian Period.

Kobe from the mountainside

24 October 2016 | Kobe, JAPAN

World's skinniest house?

23 October 2016 | Kobe, JAPAN

I love these skinny Japanese buildings. They're everywhere. Some are houses, some are high-rise apartments or 20-floor office buildings. More to come, I'm sure.

What does a 12-year-old do at a Japanese fortress? Castle steps, headphones, music...

23 October 2016 | Akashi, JAPAN

Kobe at Night

22 October 2016 | Kobe, JAPAN

Marching Across America

22 October 2016 | Kobe, JAPAN

This summer we survived a 12-week, living-in-a-tent, 15,000-mile road trip across much of North America. In this video, my kids provide a sampling of the places we visited:


2017: January to June




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