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The Story of the Catholic Convert Who Survived Nagasaki

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Takashi Negai may eventually be declared a saint

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.

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