Lessons from Takashi Nagai, an early leader of survivors

Nagasaki’s Urakami Cathedral (Joe Copeland)

More than six decades after his death, Dr. Takashi Nagai remains relevant to how we look at the pursuit of peace today.

In the immediate aftermath of World War II, Nagai became one of the most famous survivors of the atomic bombing in Nagasaki. He lived a little less than six years after the bombing but managed to write about a dozen books that reflected powerful religious faith, broad compassion for all victims of war and deep humanity.

Most or all of his works have been translated into English although it appears on Amazon that there is only very limited availability in the United States. A 1989 biography, A Song for Nagasaki, by Fr. Paul Glynn, remains readily available from Ignatius Press, including in electronic versions.

In Japan three ago, I picked up a copy to Nagai’s Leaving My Beloved Children Behind, published in 2008 English by St. Pauls Publications with what seems to be a very readable translation by the late Professor Maurice Makoto Tatsuoka and Tsuneyoshi Takai. (An earlier version, under the title Leaving These Children Behind, a good but very direct translation of the Japanese title Kono ko o nokoshite, この子オ残して, lists as $532.77 as a used paperback on Amazon.)

Nagai was deeply Christian, an adult convert to Catholicism in a country that was, at the time, deeply suspicious of any Western religious influences. His writings, including his best known book internationally, The Bells of Nagasaki, are very spiritual.

Reading the opening sections of Leaving My Beloved Children Behind, I’m struck by the power of Nagai’s thinking about the world around him, his ability as a physician to explain the science of radiation, his sense of humor about himself, and his loving concern for his two children as his death approached. Before World War II had ended, Nagai learned that he was suffering from leukemia, which he attributed to his work as a radiologist.

His wife, Midori, died instantly at the family’s home in a predominantly Catholic area near the city’s Urakami Cathedral in the Aug. 9, 1945, atomic bombing of Nagasaki. Takashi Nagai. Nagai, according to a Wikipedia account that seems to be based largely on Glynn’s biography, felt early in the conflict with the United States that Nagasaki could be destroyed. After learning of the bombing of Hiroshima, they took their two children to stay outside of the city and returned home. Dr. Nagai continued working hard treating the ill and injured after the bombing, but in September he was found to be seriously ill, the Wikipedia entry notes. By July 1946, he was confined to bed, spending most of his remaining time in a small hut at his home in Urakami, which is now the site of a powerful little museum that my wife and I visited in 2009. She remembers us as being the only non-Japanese there at the time.

Nagai’s writings were widely acclaimed in the years before his May 1, 1951 death. After Pope John Paul II’s visit to Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1981, it was clear that there was a gulf between Nagai’s early view of the bombing’s victims as, in essence, victims whose lives had been sacrificed for the peace that God wished and John Paul’s powerful speech in Hiroshima that began, “War is the work of man.” Visiting Nagasaki for the first time in 1986, I was struck by how freeing one of the very active Catholic hibakusha, the late Tsuyo Kataoka, found it to know that the pope regarded the bombings as a horrible act of men, not something willed by God on sacrificial victims.

There are two readily available accounts of some of the differing religious interpretations. There is a pdf version of a Japanese Journal of Religious Studies paper from DePaul University. And there’s an early 1980s article from Fr. Jack Wintz, a Franciscan priest, on Nagasaki’s Catholics move from passivity to more active efforts on behalf of peace.

Kataoka was a lovely woman, a mix of propriety, directness and energy who reminded me of one of my aunts. Anything that gave her comfort is good by me. And the active pursuit of peace makes perfect sense, morally and politically.

But reading the start of Nagai’s Beloved Children, his writing and thinking will still seem relevant to those who long ago embraced a determined the quest for world peace — something that the prolific nature of his writings while sick would seem to suggest he also was engaged in. Two British-based filmmakers certainly think it’s relevant.

Ian and Dominic Higgins have started production of a movie based on Nagai’s life, All That Remains. Their production blog is here and their Facebook page is here. There is a lot of emphasis on his Christian faith but, from what I have seen so far, there is also a strong focus on the search for peace.

(Note: There’s also an excellent reflection on Nagai posted just Sept. 26 on the web site of a Catholic peace group, Pax Christi USA, by Scott White, a member of the group’s national council. His article is about the threat of a U.S.-led war against Iran. He quotes Nagai as writing: “Men and women of the world, never again plan war! With this atomic bomb, war can only mean suicide for the human race. From this atomic waste the people of Nagasaki confront the world and cry out: No more war! Let us follow the commandment of love and work together.”)

More on Nagai is here.

Leave a Reply