It is often the case that global events are best understood when viewed through the prism of the individual lives caught up in them. With the the 70th anniversary of the bombing of Nagasaki, the life of Takashi Nagai, as told in Fr. Paul Glynn’s A Song for Nagasaki (Ignatius Press, 2009), does just that, with the events of August 9, 1945—their repercussions, consequences, and even their spiritual meaning—explored in a way that few would have imagined or even dared do.
Fr. Glynn is an exceptional writer. He takes the reader—the Western reader, that is—into a world hidden from many of us, namely Japanese society. His book, or rather the subject of his book, is on one level unremarkable. A young man grows up in a traditional bourgeois Japanese home. He is educated and cultured. In due course, he becomes a doctor. Then something quite remarkable commences. There is an inexplicable attraction to Christianity, and it grows. Eventually, the young doctor lodges with a Catholic family in Nagasaki. This city is to be a place of transformation, and in more ways than Nagai could have ever imagined.
A Catholic family in Nagasaki was not such a novelty at the time. Catholicism had been brought there by Jesuits in the sixteenth century and had survived, albeit underground for many centuries, through years of suffering, persecutions, torture, martyrdom even—but survive it did. By the 1930s, the city had a Catholic cathedral, with indigenous priests watching over a devout and active community of believers. It was into this world that Nagai entered.
The picture painted of this young man is far from flattering. He was typical of young men of his generation and background. Thus it is all the more interesting to read of his encounter with a very different culture within his native land, a culture that could be summed up as both attracting and baffling him in equal measure. At the center of this attraction was not simply an ‘ideal’, such as what Shintoism or Buddhism could have supplied; instead, he was propelled forward by observing the lives and goodness of those around him living what many Japanese considered a foreign religion.
In this encounter his life was changed completely. First, in a very human way, through human love. The woman who became his wife, Midori, was an exceptional person. She was his Catholic landlord’s daughter, and was charming and tender-hearted, beautiful and refined—attributes that many of her countrywoman also shared. But she had a quality different from most. This other ‘quality’, however, is something only glimpsed by ‘eyes that can see’. It was piety, certainly, but it was more than that; it was holiness. Unknowingly, Nagai was being drawn to this as much as to any of her other qualities. Theirs was not to be simply a union of bodies and minds, or even wills; it was instead two souls that found each other, and then walked a spiritual path together, one that for all eternity had been mapped out for just these two. In short, it is what constitutes a Christian marriage.
The book, like the life of its subject, is shaped around the events of August 9, 1945. Like some psychic whirlpool the events of that morning drew all to it, and then haunted those so affected ever after. This was never more the case than in the life of Takashi Nagai. Nevertheless, the book is not a polemic about the bombing of Nagasaki nor is it about the War in the Pacific, and all the rights and wrongs of such conflicts. It is the story of a soul, and how earth-shattering events transformed the very ordinariness of the lives of Nagai and his family, producing an extraordinary reaction. The way in which Fr. Glynn reports the events of that August day is as shocking as it is moving, precisely because of the details concerned: the little things of a family, of a married couple, the getting ready for a ‘normal day’, the ‘good-byes’ that were transitory and yet became fixed as a course of events began to overtake them in ways they could never have foreseen, had never asked for, and would never return from—and yet all this started through an accident.
Nagasaki was not the intended target that day. Such facts are sobering: life can be as random as that. In this case, a miscalculation, a mistake, and one resulting in the death of tens of thousands with the survivor’s lives changed irreparably, and all in a mysterious flash that seemed to come from nowhere. Nagai, who by then was a respected husband, father, doctor and Catholic convert, was there on that day. His life would henceforth be bound up with this city that would never again release him.
In many ways, this book is a portrait of a marriage—and it is far from an idealized one. Nagai struggled with his own selfishness; his growing professional advancement came with an equally pronounced obsession with his various medical researches. Initially, the emotional cost was borne by his wife and children. As he grew in his newfound faith, he became aware of this, and never more so than when he lost his wife that August. On that day, having stumbled through the rubble to their home, he found her charred remains. Still clasped in her hands was a rosary—she had prayed it constantly to convert her future husband, and it was to be the last thing he saw held in her hands; her prayers for him and her orphan children were now to be elsewhere.
Nagai lost much in the summer of 1945, but, thereafter, he gained a priceless gift: the Cross. Unexpectedly, it came to meet him, and recognising it, he embraced and kissed it.
Here is the curious secret of this book, one known to people of faith: life has an outer visible reality wrapped around a much deeper, often hidden, spiritual core. Just as the atom bomb left ‘negative’ images around the streets of Nagasaki so too it uncovered for Nagai the ‘negative’ of life itself, namely the supernatural significance left by all events and indeed everyone. It was this transformation more than anything else that was now to begin the last and most mysterious part of his life.
Nonetheless, what happened next proved controversial. Nagai also maintained that had taken place that August, as well as being so intensely personal, had a deeper significance for the whole of Japan. The horrors visited upon that land were linked to earlier actions and the spirit of militarism its leaders had fostered. This was not some sort of ‘curse’, however, but instead, viewed through the lens of eternity, became a mystical foreshadowing of the Apocalypse and, therefore, paradoxically, a preamble to the coming of the Lamb. Now Nagai understood events only in these mystical terms. Such sentiments were met with hostility, at least by many, for others thought they were to prove the beginning of a healing, both for themselves and their wounded nation.
Nagai’s later years, those few granted him, were ones of witness, filled with prayer, contemplation and what care he could give to his two children. They too figure in this biography, not least in the photograph on the cover. Taken shortly before his death, Nagai and his daughter, Kayano, stare at the camera, he with eyes that have looked beyond death to the Infinite, whilst his daughter, perhaps surprisingly, looks out with eyes filled with trust and peace. Their faces speak of the family, of human and supernatural love, surviving still in spite of the very worst that any war could inflict.
An excellent biography, this is a singular book about an man unremarkable in many respects who was caught up in remarkable events, and who was, in turn, was changed radically by them. In the end, Nagai was to view all through the eyes of faith, not with some Eastern detachment, but with ‘eyes’ that had been ripped open, emotionally and spiritually, by that unexpected flash of blinding light. Although never sentimental, the book is still deeply poignant in what is ultimately a thoughtful and thought-provoking read.
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The bomb destroyed Nagasaki’s Urakami Cathedral, that building becoming, like the city around it, little more than ash and rubble. There was one structure that had remained despite the Atom bomb. At the front of the former Cathedral there stood still a statue of Our Lady of Sorrows. In hindsight it is easy to conclude that no more fitting a representation of the Mother of God could have looked out upon what was left of that city—a literal ‘vale of tears’.
On Christmas Eve, December 1945, as Nagasaki’s Catholics prepared for an impoverished and somber Christmas celebration, Nagai and a friend discovered in the debris the cathedral’s original bell—a reminder of a sound that had rung out across the city marking the hour of the Incarnation. It was a bell that had fallen silent with the falling to earth of that which had silenced all within its reach, and, for some, that the hope that those tolls had come to symbolise. Nagai and his friend dragged it clear and began to build a makeshift ‘tower’.
On that eve of Christmas night—a night when all Christians are conscious of the entry of the Prince of Peace into this world—once again the bell sounded the Angelus across the city. Now, however, it did not ring out for Nagasaki alone but for the whole world, and with a reverberation as ancient as it was new, for it was the echo of a reality, namely that the Word was made Flesh and dwelt amongst us and did so in a manner that no darkness, no matter how blindingly bright, could ever overcome.
image: Urakami Cathedral after the Atomic Blast, Nagasaki.
Editor’s note: This article originally appeared on Catholic World Report and is reprinted here with kind permission.