Nagasaki physician Takashi Nagai’s religiously oriented writings about the deaths of atomic bombing victims, which included his wife, sometimes raised difficulties for others. It’s no wonder, in part because his outlook could easily be seen as glossing over the sufferings of those in the bombing.
In Leaving My Beloved Children, Nagai recounts the loss of students and teachers from two middle schools, popularly known as “Junshin” and “Josei,” in the heavily Catholic Urakami district. “Both were run by the convent, and their principals and teachers were almost all nuns,” he writes. “The students of Junshin had been mobilised to work in a factory, and they perished one by one, singing hymns as they succumbed to the flames and turned into ash. This was just like in ancient days, when undefiled lambs used to be burned as a sacrifice on altars to please God. Ah! The huge sacrificial fire that was lit on the last day of World War II on the holy ground of Urakami in Nagasaki!”
He has a similar depiction of the deaths of 27 nuns from Josei school “called to heaven.” Referring to the immediate aftermath of the Aug. 9, 1945 bombing, he writes, “That night I had sent my assistant, Mr. Osasa, to take care of some patients, and he reported that he could hear, off and on, some Latin hymns being sung in unison in the middle of the night at a point on the bank of the river about two hundred yards east of the school. The next morning, the nuns were found dead en masse. Was it they who had been singing the hymns the night before? Or was it a group of angels who been sent down to carry their souls to heaven who were singing? I could not help thinking this way because the faces of the nuns in death all looked so pure and peaceful.”
Most survivors and witnesses to the horrific scenes of suffering in Hiroshima and Nagasaki would find these accounts jarringly idealized if not insensitive. It all stands in stark contrast to the graphic descriptions routinely heard from many survivors, who are honest about their own horror decades later. Yet Nagai himself was a survivor of the Nagasaki bombing and, until 1951, of the leukemia that he attributed to his own medical and research work with radiation. It is surely fair to question his optimism about nuclear science, especially in light of Japan’s post-Fukushima problems with radiation, or fault him for playing into the hands of those who wanted to silence criticism of nuclear weapons. Nagai also writes, however, from a realm of personal conscience and belief that has to be respected.:“That same day, I became an emaciated, weak old man with no worldly possessions, and had to stand in the ruins of our house with my two children. But, strangely enough, I had no doubt that this, too, was somehow a manifestation of God’s providential love.”
Nagai goes on to say that he became able to experience true happiness. And, looking ahead to what was then the inevitable end of his fight with leukemia, he turns more realistic about the actual process of dying, perhaps implicitly acknowledging the pain of Nagasaki’s bombing victims in their deaths, while emphasizing his faith, and perhaps theirs. “The death that will soon visit me, too, must be a gift to me from God, in God’s endless love,” he writes. “Therefore, I am prepared gladly to accept the spiritual agony and bodily pain that must precede death as things necessary for the manifestation of God’s glory.”
Earlier stories: Lessons from Takashi Nagai, an early leader of survivors