A Step Towards Heaven

Written by Jacinta Plucinski, Be Movement issue 3 – JAPAN, published March 2014

On August 15th, the final day of the Obon festival during which the Japanese honour their ancestors, Nagasaki holds a spectacular festive event called Shoro Nagashi or “The Spirit Boat Procession’. Amidst boisterous gongs, drums, fireworks and firecrackers, the spirits of those departed over the past year are carried in lantern-lit boats through the town centre, given an extravagant farewell, and then sent on their journey to heaven.

“We enjoy the Obon festival in the graveyards, we have fireworks and enjoy the time with our ancestors,” says local historian, writer and illustrator, Midori Shimotsuma. “No other place celebrates with fireworks in the cemeteries. They think the graveyard should be sacred.”

“[Death] is part of life,” she continues, “it’s a step. We believe they are coming back.”

Shimotsuma’s love of Nagasaki stems precisely from this blurring between the spiritual world and daily life, and the way this is embodied in the city’s culture of accepting, embracing, and celebrating death.

A lifelong writer, Shimotsuma grew up in Nagasaki. For 20 years, she was the director of a programme introducing the history and culture of Nagasaki, and believes deeply that the intertwining of these two elements makes Nagasaki special.

“Nagasaki’s history is not straightforward. There are many layers,” Shimotsuma says. “There are many points that you can’t really study just looking at books.”

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Nagasaki’s history is complex indeed, irrevocably shaping the city and its people.

Close to China and the Korean peninsula, Nagasaki prospered in the 16th century as a gateway through which Japan traded and engaged with its neighbours. It grew wealthy and exotic, absorbing Chinese, Korean, Portuguese and Dutch influences, which today lie in distinct local dishes such as ‘Castella’ and ‘Champon’, and in its renowned festivals, such as “Shunsetsusai“ (Nagasaki’s Lantern Festival) that celebrates the Chinese New Year.

Through the city, foreign trade and influences entered Japan, giving rise to the ‘Christian Century’, the catalyst for Japan’s 200 years of self-imposed isolation, which was a response to the perceived threat of Christianity’s growing influence in a land strong with Shinto and Buddhism traditions.

When Japan reopened its doors in the 19th century, Nagasaki was industrialised. Its shipbuilding activities and wartime importance made it a military target, leading to its tragic legacy as one of only two cities on which a nuclear bomb has been dropped.

Though many historians study Nagasaki’s well-known historical events, Shimotsuma is a historian of a different kind.

Through her own illustrations and writings, Shimotsuma aims to reveal the history that exists in the daily lives of those living in the city. In doing so, Shimotsuma sheds light on the silent histories of Nagasaki, past and present, “You have to look very carefully, otherwise you can’t see the history.”

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“I want to look at [how] their daily life was [in the past], and see the connection [with] current life […] in Nagasaki,” Shimotsuma says. “From these perspectives we can really understand the history of Nagasaki.”

Shimotsuma believes understanding Nagasaki’s history through daily life, and accepting death as only one step along the road of life, are fundamental to understanding life itself.

“Thinking of this closeness of heaven and daily life in Nagasaki is very important right now,” Shimotsuma says, “because most Japanese people are missing this feeling. It’s important, especially after the earthquake, people are having difficulties in how to face those who died. Feeling death is one of the steps towards heaven, that’s why Nagasaki people feel the close[ness] to heaven.”

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