NAGASAKI, JAPAN. In the Cartesian coordinates of local space and time, I am standing in the same spot on the “space axis,” at the hypocenter, where an atom bomb was last dropped on human beings.

One would never know it by looking at the city around me now. Afternoon trams are filled with schoolchildren and they rumble past bright shops and modern apartments. And just four miles away, nearer the harbor and the intended target, stand undamaged the 19th-century wooden houses built by Europeans when this city was the only port in Japan open to Western trade and ideas. By today’s standards, the atom bomb dropped on Nagasaki was a paltry thing. Nuclear bombs now are a thousand times more destructive.

Seventy-one years ago on the “time axis,” at 11:02 a.m. local time on August 9, 1945, the American bomber crew, flying six miles above where I now stand, glimpsed the breathing city through a rift in the clouds and pressed the release, and the plane banked away like a silver crane. 

The device they dropped, called Fat Man, fell and fell for one long minute, until — about as high above ground as the World Trade Towers once stood — the electrical engineering marvel of its simultaneously exploding spheres of TNT compressed a baseball-sized core of plutonium metal inward on itself until a small fraction of those atoms split apart and released an infinitesimal portion of the energy that fuels the sun and binds the world as we know it together. 

And that was that.

Those humans who were standing, or walking, or eating, or speaking, or reading, or nursing an infant, or working, or listening to the radio — anyone within a mile or so of this same spot — they were the lucky ones. 

The temperature at that moment, in that twinkling of an eye, at this place, was 7,000 degrees Fahrenheit. For those surprised and illuminated a bit farther away — occupying concentric circles and gradations of injury for several miles in radius — the effects of the heat and shock waves and radiation and fires that followed were just as mortal, but far less instantaneous. For them it was more like the experience of the cyclonic firestorms the Allies created with their incendiary bombings in Tokyo, and dozens of other “paper cities” in Japan, or in the German cities of Europe like Dresden and Hamburg.

And so the Japanese have built a museum here to remind the world of an event that distinguished their city. The visitor, among schoolchildren, moves slowly by exhibits such as a warped clock, some contorted steel girders, a concrete angel from a nearby Catholic church that is charred on one side of its face, and photos and newsreels showing utter destruction and human distress.

But as soon as the blue-and-white-uniformed schoolchildren emerge from the darkened exhibits, they are made by their teachers to stop and take notes by a map and timeline of the decades of war that Japan inflicted on Asia. December 1941 is Pearl Harbor. December 1937 is the Nanjing massacre, where probably a greater number of civilian Chinese men, women and children died — one by one, or in small groups, and cruelly, at the hands of the Emperor’s marauding soldiers — as Japanese civilians died in this city in August 1945.

The attempt to understand the whole truth about history, while never wholly possible, is a distinguishing mark of a civilized and decent society. And a civilized and decent person. How chilling, how ominous, how worthy of conscientious objection it is, whenever we see anyone, abroad or at home, knowingly and concertedly, suppressing the truth.

Leaving the museum, and before proceeding outside into the modest Peace Park, one is invited to fashion “origami,” small folded paper cranes, as symbols of peace. There are strings of hundreds of them suspended around the museum.

In the nearby countryside, you can often see the real thing: a single white crane, one of the most beautiful of birds, standing sentinel in the dark mud, surrounded by a green field of new rice.

The day before, near the epicenter of another contemporary Japanese city, we found ourselves suddenly within the walls of an ancient Buddhist temple. There was moss on the ground between the roots of old trees and it was very quiet. A cat slept on a bench.

There was a carved figure there, human generations old, with that gentle unchanging smile one sees on temple figures all over Asia. The face seemed to be looking past us, gazing upon all that takes place all the time, but still unmoved, never having known or lost a love. 

As if to say: “What else could you expect of me, a stone god?”