Our coronavirus coverage is free for the first 24 hours. Find the latest information at Please consider subscribing or donating.

  1. Archive

City awaits its terrible destiny

For more than a century, almost no one in this ancient seaside town ever paid much attention to the Anyoji Temple, a quiet Buddhist sanctuary built in memory of the 15,000 people who died here in 1792, when a volcanic eruption swept Shimabara into the sea. "It was something they mentioned in school, but nothing that could ever happen again," said Manabu Ogawa, 40, a city official who remembers when his school teacher led hikes up to the crater of Mt. Unzen for picnics. "We never even thought about it."

But the Anyoji Temple has become one of Shimabara's makeshift morgues for the volcano's latest victims, killed on Monday when what began six months ago as a relatively harmless eruption of lava turned into a deadly flood of superheated ash and toxic gases.

All Thursday, trucks pulled up to the temple's old wooden entrance and soldiers unloaded the latest remains recovered from a valley on the edge of town, where a farming village called Kita-Kamikoba disappeared on Monday. So intense was the heat and the eruption that many of the victims _ there are 37 confirmed dead _ are being identified only by the shoes they were wearing.

For the 45,000 people who live here, about 40 miles from Nagasaki, the gray volcanic ash sifting under their doorways is not only a reminder of Shimabara's history, but, many fear, its destiny.

Already, 5,000 people living in the direct path of the lava have moved into the center of town, camping out on mats in local elementary schools. Every day the evacuation area expands, bit by bit.

Experts say that the mountain has spewed only a tenth of the lava that it did 199 years ago. No one thinks this eruption is over.

With little conviction, officials say they trust that a smaller mountain between the volcano and the town will shield it from calamity. No one is willing to discuss the possibility that Shimabara may have to be abandoned for months.

"Everything in the valley was destroyed," said Akitami Kojima, a city employee who is staying at a community center with his family. "Now, there is nothing we can do, except wait to go back."

Kojima's family has lived by Mt. Unzen for generations, and he says he has no intention of moving away. That requires little explanation to Japanese.

Shimabara is in many ways a model town, with quiet tea plantations and tobacco farms that feed Japanese fantasies about simpler days, when young people did not leave for cities jammed with fiber-optics and French restaurants. The threat of disaster completes the drama, because it reinforces a deep national insecurity.

No matter how economically powerful Japan seems from the outside, it is taken as accepted wisdom here, especially among older Japanese, that the country is a fragile island, subject to natural and man-made destruction.

The hot spring resorts here that lured tourists until Mt. Unzen began oozing lava six months ago were used in the 1630s to boil Christians. That contributed to the Shimabara Uprising in 1637, when peasants, tired of persecution, famine, poverty, and high taxes, tried to overthrow the feudal lords who controlled the area.

The lords massacred 37,000 insurgents and closed the country to foreigners for two centuries.

Then came the 1792 eruption.

Like the most recent disaster, it began more as an amusement than a threat. "It bubbled up slowly, and people went up the mountain to drink sake and watch the lava flow," said Kazuya Ohta, a professor of Kyushu University who has spent the past quarter of a century studying Mt. Unzen as the director of the Shimabara Earthquake and Volcano Observatory.

The parties ended abruptly when earthquakes shattered a second, smaller volcano, the same one that the city hopes will divert Mt. Unzen's lava. If anyone survived the landslide, they were wiped out by the ensuing tidal wave.

"It could happen again that way," said Ohta. "Even if you live in Shimabara, it is easy to forget how powerful a volcano can be."