At 11:02 on the morning of August 9, 1945, an atomic bomb exploded over St Mary’s Catholic Cathedral, in the Nagasaki suburb of Urakami. The brick neo-romanesque building collapsed instantly, vaporizing, incinerating and crushing two priests hearing confessions and an unknown number of worshippers.
Other buildings within a kilometre of the blast included Nagasaki Prison, Mitsubishi Hospital, Nagasaki Medical College, Chinzei High School, Shiroyama School, Blind and Dumb School, Yamazato School, Nagasaki University Hospital, Mitsubishi Boys’ School, Nagasaki Tuberculosis Clinic, and Keiho Boys’ High School.
The explosion killed an estimated 70,000 people, about one-third of the population of Nagasaki. This figure was more than half of the 106,000 American servicemen who died in the Pacific Theatre in all of World War II – but the Japanese casualties at Nagasaki were nearly all civilians. Only about 130 of those who died that day were soldiers.
Why Nagasaki? Historians tell us that it was just bad luck. The B-29’s goal had been the city of Kokura but since that city was obscured by clouds, it flew on to Nagasaki.
This explains where the bomb fell, but for Japanese Christians, the question “Why Nagasaki?” remained. In the 16th century Nagasaki was the centre of Japanese Christianity. But after a severe persecution in which many died as martyrs, Christianity was all but obliterated. Only on a few remote islands near Nagasaki did “hidden Christians” preserve their faith. Having suffered all that, why did Nagasaki and its tiny Christian community have to endure the bomb? Was there meaning in all that pain? Were they cursed by their God?
These are not questions for historians. An historian’s business is facts, not meaning. Meaning is the province of theologians or saints. Amazingly, there was a saint in Nagasaki who was brave enough to search for answers.
His name was Takashi Nagai, a soldier, doctor, university lecturer, husband, father, and A-bomb survivor who may become a saint in the Catholic Church. Although almost unknown outside Japan, he was a major figure in post-War Japan. His only biography in English, A Song for Nagasaki, was written in 1988 by an Australian priest who worked for many years in Japan. It is an extraordinary story of a man of immense spiritual and intellectual depth.
Takashi Nagai was born in 1908 and studied medicine in Nagasaki. He was a top student and was supposed to give the graduation day address. But, after a drunken celebration, he woke up with meningitis. He lost his hearing in his right ear. Unable to do clinical work, he decided to specialise in the exciting new field of radiation medicine.
Nagai was drafted into the Japanese Army in 1933 where he saw at first-hand the violence and brutality of its campaign in Manchuria. These horrors – and his deeply Catholic sweetheart — led him away from atheism and towards Christianity. In 1934 he became a Catholic and later that year married Midori in the Urakami Cathedral.
On August 9, Nagai was at work in Nagasaki Medical University, 700 metres from the centre of the blast. Many of his colleagues were killed immediately. A splinter of glass severed his temporal artery but he managed to stanch the bleeding and take command in the chaos. Squeezing the blood from his bandage into a red circle on a white sheet, he raised a crude Japanese flag to rally his staff in midst of the hell that Nagasaki had become.
Two days passed before he could return home to see what had happened to his wife Midori. She had been incinerated. All that was left were ashes, a few charred fragments of bone and the melted Rosary she had been saying when the bomb exploded.
These were experiences which would have crushed the strongest among us and made the most fervent question the justice of God. Nagai pondered the disaster. Was it completely senseless? Had it exposed the indifference of God? As a leader in the local Catholic community, Nagai was asked to speak at a requiem Mass for the dead on November 23. What he said was astonishing:
“It was not the American crew, I believe, who chose our suburb. God’s providence chose Urakami and carried the bomb right above our homes. Is there not a profound relationship between the annihilation of Nagasaki and the end of the war? Was not Nagasaki the chosen victim, the lamb without blemish, slain as a whole-burnt offering on an altar of sacrifice, atoning for the sins of all the nations during World War II?
Some of his listeners were outraged: his sanctimonious words could not erase the atrocity of the deaths of tens of thousands of innocent civilians. But Nagai continued:
“Only this holocaust in Nagasaki sufficed and at that moment God inspired the Emperor to issue the sacred proclamation that ended the war. The Christian flock of Nagasaki was true to the faith through three centuries of persecution. During the recent war it prayed ceaselessly for a lasting peace. Here was the one pure lamb that had to be sacrificed as a holocaust on His altar … so that many millions of lives might be saved.”
Nagai spent the rest of his life reflecting on the notion of redemptive suffering which is at the heart of Christian life. His first book, The Bells of Nagasaki, centres on an event from the first Christmas after the bomb. How could Japanese Christians possibly celebrate? Nagai and some friends dug in the rubble of the cathedral and uncovered its bell. They hoisted it up on a tripod and its peals filled the suburb of Urakami on Christmas Eve. Not even an atom bomb can silence the bells of God, he wrote.
Despite his amazingly productive work as a writer about the meaning of the disaster and the medical effects of radiation poisoning, Nagai was a bed-ridden invalid from 1946 until he died. Like thousands of others in Nagasaki he was suffering from radiation poisoning – but not just from the bomb, but also from exposure to hospital X-rays.
His hut among the ruins, where he lived with his two surviving children, which he christened Nyokodo, became a place of pilgrimage. (It is now a small museum.) His best-selling books, which combined poetic insight, Christian reflections and earthy humour, inspired despondent Japanese readers. Newspapers began calling him “the Gandhi of Nyokodo”. Visitors streamed in: Helen Keller, the Emperor, a legate from the Pope, Cardinal Gilroy of Australia… A Japanese director turned The Bells of Nagasaki into a film. But Nagai was indifferent to his growing fame – and in any case, had precious little time to enjoy it. He died on May 1, 1951 at the age of 43.