Legacies of suffering, theologies of hope – ASAA thesis prize winner

Legacies of suffering, theologies of hope – ASAA thesis prize winner

Dr Gwyn McClelland was awarded the 2019 John Legge Prize for best thesis in Asian Studies, here he tells us about his work.

Can you tell us a bit about your thesis. What’s the problem it explores and what did you find?

My thesis, Legacies of suffering, theologies of hope: Nagasaki Catholics, the bomb and dangerous memory, engages with the discourse of the Catholic community of Nagasaki and their interpretation of the atomic bombing of 1945. I began with an oral history methodology and used a theological framework to analyse survivor testimonies in the composition of a collective biography. Between 2014 and 2016 I interviewed ten survivors in Japanese and the discussions from these interviews formed the major component in the initial development of the thesis. Additionally, I drew on two previous interviews carried out as part of my Master of Divinity completed in 2008. As you would expect, the transcriptions, translation and interpreting required after the fieldwork took considerable time and effort. After two early fieldtrips I noticed that symbolic memory including the ruins of a cathedral and fractured statues of Mary were significant in working through the damages of the atomic bombing, but also filtered memory from past experiences. I reflected on how survivors’ beliefs and thoughts about divinity, transcendence and God were varied, and did not tend to be static but transformed with time. As well as interviews, visual and secondary sources also proved helpful, especially because the community understood the atomic bombing through the lens of a public history which incorporated generational survival of two hundred and fifty years or more of persecution. A study grant from the National Library of Australia assisted me in taking time to understand the secondary sources (reading in Japanese) including the fascinating community histories of those persecutions.

How did you first become interested in this topic?

I was living in an Asian city aged twelve years, when my family befriended a Japanese family who gifted us with a manga-cartoon of ‘Barefoot Gen’, a fascinating fictional story which relates about a boy, Gen, and his experiences before and after the devastation of the Hiroshima atomic bombing. This was my introduction to the atomic bombings at the end of World War II, and my interest was galvanised when I was living and teaching in Japan and visited both Hiroshima and Nagasaki. My partner and I noticed how different Nagasaki was from Hiroshima in a number of ways, especially by the presence of a replica broken-down Catholic cathedral in the atomic bomb museum. My fascination stayed with me and I wrote my Masters thesis on the topic in around 2008. Later, Beatrice Trefalt encouraged me to take this topic further when I approached her about doing a PhD at Monash University in around 2012.

What was the most challenging aspect of doing this research?

One very challenging aspect was definitely the arousing of memories of trauma. Emotion is a very evident part of this kind of testimonial narration and I needed to tread sensitively in interviews for the sake of the survivors but secondarily to be aware of the danger of intersubjective transmission of trauma for myself. I discuss this in my thesis and I found scholarly work within trauma studies to be a very helpful area with many insights for memory studies. Interestingly, feminist theologians such as Shelly Rambo and M. Shawn Copeland have frequently drawn on trauma studies in their own work and this is an area I have begun to explore further since completion of my thesis. I recently presented at the Japanese Studies Association of Australia on the topic: ‘Nagasaki, lament and feminist theology’.

Do you have a favourite anecdote, moment or insight from doing your research?

Yes, it was my final interview of an atomic-bomb survivor which began in a hair-studio and finished with my own face published on a Japanese blog. Ozaki, who was 88 years old at the time, arranged to meet me at his haircut. So I showed up at the right place and was ushered into the hairdresser where he proceeded to step up and his hairdresser began the cut. Ozaki quickly said, ‘…fire away – start the questions’. I got my recorder going, and thus his story of his life prior to the bomb and his experience of the actual bombing is recorded with the sounds of the hair studio and other customers entering in the background. Following this, we caught a taxi together and he sat me down in his compact room in a Franciscan nursing home north of Nagasaki city. The next moment, the interviewer became the interviewed! Ozaki took a photograph of me, and proceeded to ask me a number of questions, taking careful notes. A few days later, I discovered his blog and there was his blog-post with his impressions of me (Picture above). I discuss this experience in my thesis as demonstrating intersubjectivity, my ‘locatedness’ within the research and the subjectivity between the interviewer and interviewee as a strength which provides clues to meanings and opens up relationships between past and present.

Ozaki’s blogpost, with permission, 27 February 2016

What are your hopes for the influence of your work?

My hope is I have presented appropriately the stories of those survivors I met. In literature about the atomic bombings a frequent commentary is that Hiroshima is dominant, and Nagasaki the forgotten afterthought. In my thesis I discuss Nagasaki’s complicated sociological composition and how the impacts of the atomic bomb were uneven compared to Hiroshima, further ‘fissuring’ a population which was already divided by religion and class. The Catholics, who were found in the area around Ground Zero, tended to avoid talking about the bomb for many years afterwards, a likely contributor to the lesser nature of Nagasaki memory of the bomb. As I discovered, the Catholics were already survivors of bitter persecutions over two-hundred and fifty years during the proscription of Christianity. Their forebears were a remnant community of ‘Hidden Christians’ who returned to Catholicism after the return of foreign missionaries in the 1860s. I came across a family tree in the course of doing my research which describes the family descendants and relatives of a patriarch named Takagi Sen’emon. He survived the exile, although eighteen percent of his family died or disappeared during this era by torture and mistreatment in detention camps. Later, eighty percent of his descendants died in the atomic bombing of Nagasaki. The atomic bombing meant a struggling community, the Catholics, were marginalised further. My hope, therefore, is that my research helps to gain a better understanding of the Nagasaki experience of the bomb, from the point of view of the community found around Ground Zero.

What are you working on now? What can we expect to see next?

I am teaching in East Asian History and the Japanese language, with a number of ongoing collaborations and upcoming publications. My book is due out in early September with Routledge under Mark Selden’s ‘Asia’s Transformations’ Series. It is based upon my thesis, and entitled: “Dangerous Memory in Nagasaki: Prayers, Protests and Catholic Survivor Narratives”. All would be welcome at a book launch to be held at Monash University on 31st October at 4pm – a registration page is available – contact me if interested. Dimity Hawkins (AM) from ICAN and Associate Professor Beatrice Trefalt will be guest speakers. I am still weighing up possibilities and funding streams for a second project, but one possibility is an oral history project on the Goto islands, one hundred kilometres from Nagasaki city itself. These islands have the highest proportion of Catholics of any region of Japan today and have a history as a liminal location, inviting transregional contacts, including mixed Korean, Chinese and European impacts and influences.

Featured image with Miyake Reiko, at the Nagasaki Atomic Bomb Museum

Gwyn McClelland is lecturing in Chinese History and Japanese language at Monash University.

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