Bringing your research full circle

Oral history projects do not have static after lives, as this travel journal from Gwyn McClelland demonstrates. He reflects on his recent visit to Japan, where he returned to share the results of his research on the trauma resulting from the atomic bombing in Nagasaki. Meditating on his role as an outsider, he shares what he learned by bringing his research full circle.

By Gwyn McClelland

Place of fire.
Oh I’m waiting here…
Yes, I’m waiting here back home.
In the light of this place of fire.
(Archie Roach, 2019)

In November 2019 I travelled to Japan, as I had five times during my doctoral studies, but this time taking with me four copies of my new book, Dangerous Memory in Nagasaki: Prayers, Protests and Catholic Survivor Narratives. I was attracted as well by the visit of the Pope, only the second Pope to visit Japan. Perhaps it does take a touch of daring to carry out oral history in a language which is not your mother tongue, to believe in such an endeavor leading to new knowledge, and willingly inserting yourself as a listener into this research. Returning to the field, I have come full circle. When the subject is trauma, returning to Japan appears as an invitation to open up the pain once more. Surely, I should rather let it rest. But, as listening to the audio of my interviews reminds me, my participants are themselves not at rest, and so, a part of this new journey is returning the results of the research to the place from whence it came. The final step of this project is to take these stories home, where they belong. I returned to Japan, to talk of the darkness of modernity, a pain not easily understood, a suffering continuing close to 75 years later, still raw, complex, and dissonant.

Oral history, of course, places the interviewer in the picture, as I noticed on this “book-tour” of Japan, where I deliberately included interview audio in my presentations. Of course, I intended for the interviewees’ voices to be front and center, but my voice is present, contributing to the dialog. These audio elements needed no translating—they stood out clearly to the audiences, legitimating the new voices uncovered in this study. But hearing the interviews made me keenly aware of the translation process. Returning to Japan necessitated a reverse translation of my analysis. First, in the writing process for my thesis and book, I had painstakingly translated interviews into English as I interpreted them. Now, in backward gear, I translated my analysis into Japanese, discussing my translations and the difficulty of the process.

Two main concerns bubble to the surface as I returned to speak about my book at six universities throughout Japan. My own identity is, of course, a part of my return to the place of research. What influence have my own biases had on the interview process let alone on the results? One bias is my home country, Australia. I am still reflecting on the extent of my own country’s traumas due to our ‘settler-colony’ culture, not yet extirpated, and I bring this tension to Japan, a colonizing country itself in the early twentieth-century. Inasmuch as in Australia today I acknowledge my work on an unceded land, I am myself a descendent of colonizers, coming from a land of trauma, a land of unspoken war, where the indigenous exist in a state of disinheritance. Australia is itself a place of shadows, where the traumatized and the haunted live alongside each other, and a legacy of intergenerational trauma is often palpable. Returning to Japan, I found myself listening to a song by an Indigenous Australian aware of these issues: Archie Roach’s, “Place of Fire”. I reflected on this haunting song and the stories of ‘fire’ I carry back to Japan.

I asked myself how could I understand my own responsibilities as I returned this research to Japan? There is an essential risk in returning to the place of research, even in opening myself up to my own change, through my encounter with those who I have observed, and have moreso been engaged with. How do I communicate appropriately back to the community itself? But as the trip continued, I realized that this question was a starting point, much like my own research. By interacting with the local community, I realized how much more I have to learn! As at the onset of my research, I remain an outsider.

And yet, as a result of this very intimate work I have been involved in, I sensed during this trip that my own story—my outsider status—is in some way inverted. My personhood intersects with the story of Nagasaki. I make a trip to meet Ozaki Tomei, atomic bomb survivor, now 91, once more, and he confirms: “I think that by this work you will be changed.” Essentially, I am changed by my relationship with those with whom I have interacted. Oral history does not only observe change among the people interviewed, but the interviewer is also changed by the interaction.

Figure 1: Ozaki Tomei holds the section of the book where his story is told

Japanese audiences asked me many questions about the book, about translations, about this intricate history. Repeatedly I heard the question, “How did you come to be involved in this research?” I had various answers: I received a manga at the age of 12 about Hiroshima; I grew up in Asia; I came to Nagasaki first in 1999; and I saw the broken down Cathedral as I entered the museum.

I was asked:
“Are you playing the audio of the interviewees at various places around the world?” Well, yes.
“Is listening again a painful process?” Yes!
“Why do you call this dangerous memory?” (you have to read the book)

And finally, while in Nagasaki—overwhelmed by museums, people, talking—I travelled to a hot springs, an onsen, to take time out. This onsen happens to look out over the Urakami Valley and standing out in the middle I could see a baseball stadium where the Pope would hold a mass the next day. Here I cannot completely leave behind my research. Just beyond the stadium is the Urakami Cathedral rebuilt in 1959 after the trauma of the atomic bombing. As I sat in the outdoor baths looking down to this valley, I remembered once more the ravaged ‘Valley of Death,’ as photographed by U.S. troops. From the rotenburo, the stories of the interviewees flashed through my head as a looked around the hills: Ozaki in a northern tunnel factory, Matsuo on the mountain in the northeast, Nagase near Ground Zero in Shiroyama, Nakamura finding a dying boy in a cemetery and teacher Miyake’s horrible memory of visiting her elementary school. I took time to sit, breathe, and close my eyes.

The following day, the Pope was greeted by heavy rain;  I was a part of all the crowds and was caught up in it, and reflected on Twitter shortly after his speech against nuclear weaponry and nuclear power at the ‘Hypocenter’ as follows:

Later, I went to the Mass where I could look out from the stadium on the hills of the valley, listening to the voices of the Urakami choir, as the Pope moved through the crowds in what appeared like a large golf cart.

Figure 2: Inside the baseball stadium

Figure 3: Kataoka Chizuko at Junshin University

I had at least three more occasions for connection in Nagasaki: One at Junshin University where I donated a book to the Junshin University Library via Kataoka Chizuko, one of my interviewees. Secondly, I spoke at an ‘atomic bomb historians’ group’, where attendees included academics and a novelist, Seirai Yuichi, previous Director of the Nagasaki Atomic Bomb Museum. Finally I gave a book to the Nagasaki Atomic Bomb Museum, where I interviewed the great majority of survivors.

Figure 4: Japanese Manga Special in the week of the Pope’s visit

Assuming that the most difficult part of my tour was over, I travelled north for three more speaking engagements at Kyushu, Nanzan, and ICU Universities. However, there was at least one more surprise to come. At Nanzan University, I spoke to a group of Religious Studies scholars at the Nanzan Institute for Religion and Culture. One of the young academics shared a name with two of my interviewees. This was no accident;  she too was at the Pope’s mass and hailed from Urakami itself! As it turns out, my speaking on this occasion to her as if I was talking about her life. This young scholar offered to introduce me to at least two new interviewees, relatives of those of whom I have spoken, illustrating once more the unfinished nature of the work which I had, in some way at least, brought home.



Gwyn McClelland holds a Master of Divinity from the University of Divinity, Melbourne, Australia and a Doctorate of Philosophy in Japanese history from Monash University. He is the winner of the 2019 John Legge prize for best thesis in Asian Studies, awarded by the Asian Studies Association of Australia (ASAA).

Images and captions provided by Gwyn McClelland.