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Nagasaki Day and the Politics of Dark Tourism

August 9 is Nagasaki Day, a day set aside to memorialize the 70,000 killed when the U.S. dropped an atomic bomb on the Japanese city in 1945, prompting Japan’s World War II surrender.

When we travel, we’re often focused on visiting destinations that are festive and fun, that bring us great joy. But Nagasaki Day reminded us that many destinations are focused on more painful history. We visit the Vietnam War Memorial in Washington D.C., the Waterloo Battlefields, the Normandy American Cemetery and the Auschwitz-Birkenau Memorial and Museum.

Some of these destinations not only call attention to a disturbing past, but also celebrate our ability to rise above it. Robben Island, where Nelson Mandela was held for 18 years, is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Chosen, according to the UNESCO Web site, because the buildings “bear witness to its somber history” and “symbolize the triumph of the human spirit, of freedom and of democracy over oppression.”

We visit such sites to learn from history, much of which we must be certain to never repeat. We honor those who have fallen. We feel connected to humanity — at its best and worst. Some of it is just so uncomfortable, though. It evokes the phrase “to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.” Through the lump in our throat that these places may form, we find strength and hope.

There are elements of so-called “dark tourism” in mainstream travel as well, though we often forget that fact. Who winces at the pain inflicted within the crumbling walls of the Coliseum or the majestic Tower of London? Do we consider the loss of life required to build the Great Wall or the pyramids when we snap photos of ourselves smiling in front of them?

And is there a point at which we should we draw a line? Do we visit Chernobyl, Saint-Laurent of “Papillion” fame and its neighbor, Devil’s Island? Even seemingly innocuous sites such as Salem, Massachusetts, have a murky history.

We may visit macabre sites to pay homage to courage and perseverance. Perhaps sometimes it is more exploitative — a titillating, glad-it-wasn’t-me experience. Either way, we know we’re visiting someplace important, someplace where events changed the course of history. And, if we’re lucky, we walk away a little more human for the experience.

Do you make pilgrimages to sites with dark or painful histories? And are you comforted or afflicted by your trip?

— written by Jodi Thompson

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