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The Story of the Catholic Convert Who Survived Nagasaki

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Michael Cook - published on 08/11/15 - updated on 06/07/17

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 Ghandi 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.

Michael Cook is editor of MercatorNet, where this article originally appeared. 

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