Nagasaki, the Catholic city

By Rachel Naughton, 27 August 2019
The Scene of the Memorial Service Held at the Urakami Roman Cathoric Cathedral, November 23, 1945. Image: Nagasaki City Office/Wikimedia Commons.


This August marks the 74th anniversary of the atomic bombings of Hiroshima (6 August) and Nagasaki (9 August). Rachel Naughton explores the history of the Catholic Faith in Nagasaki through the story of a local Catholic, Dr Takashi Nagai, who was present during the bombing.

St Francis Xavier brought Christianity to the Nagasaki area on 15 August 1549, the feast of the Assumption, making Nagasaki the birthplace of Christianity in Japan. He was impressed with the Japanese people and their sense of honour. St Francis and the Jesuits who followed him insisted on respect for the language and culture of the people they worked for. The Japanese absorbed the values of Christianity readily, as they had Shintoism, Buddhism and their own folk religion. But in 1603 a new regime was established that unified the nation. By 1614, the Shogun issued a national ban on Christianity. In an attempt to hold back the colonising West, all missionaries, priests and Christians were banned. Nagasaki was particularly targeted because of its proximity to the chief port accessed by European ships.

During the next 250 years, 40,000 Christians were executed, many dying horrible deaths. In 1597 the 26 Saints of Japan were crucified in Nagasaki. Finally, in 1873 the ban was lifted and religious freedom was proclaimed. Christian communities had survived in remote farming areas, in small coastal villages and on the islands. They had secretly transmitted their faith to their descendants. The elders proclaimed they would know the first priest when he arrived because he would not be married and he would have a love for Mary, the Mother of Jesus.

French priest Father Bernard Petitjean built the Oura church in Nagasaki in 1865. The hidden Christians verified with him that he was a priest of their Catholic faith. Finally, 30,000 came out of hiding after 1873, returning to Nagasaki in a state of poverty. But by 1895 they began to build a cathedral. The French priest was an amateur architect. Together they built the Urakami Cathedral of stone and brick and made the statues for the church. It was completed in 1917 and named after the Immaculate Conception, or St Mary’s. It had two bell towers which were completed in 1925 and from which the bells rang at midday and at 6pm. It was the largest Christian Church in East Asia.

In the emerging democracy of 1930s Japan, less than half the population had the vote. There were three main power bases. The Emperor Hirohito was the figurehead. His role was to ‘reign but not rule’. The second power base was composed of the politicians, financiers and industrialists. The third and most powerful base was the Militarists. Japan fell increasingly into the grip of a military dictatorship.

Takashi Nagai was a local Nagasaki man, born in 1908, who became a doctor. He boarded with a Christian family and fell in love with both Catholicism and Midori, the daughter of the household. Nagai was twice called up for military service and served as a doctor on two fronts, the Manchurian front and the Chinese front. He had a great respect for Chinese culture, regarding it as the mother culture to his own. He also abhorred the cruelty and oppression that he witnessed. He and Midori married and had two surviving children. Nagai became a pioneer in X-ray work and a specialist in radiology and radiation research. He taught and lectured on the subjects, becoming a professor at Nagasaki University Hospital. By April 1945, Nagai was diagnosed with terminal leukaemia caused by 13 years of exposure to X-rays. He was 37 years old.

By 1945, the Second World War was in its final phase. The Japanese refused to surrender despite the horrific American firestorm bombing of Japanese cities and towns. The buildings were built of wood and bamboo with rice paper walls, and the American pilots knew to work with the prevailing winds to create maximum destruction and loss of life. More Japanese people died in this way than as a result of the two atomic bombs. The Allies demanded total surrender, and the Japanese feared this would mean unbridled colonisation and the abolition of their royal family. They were aware that the British abolished the royal families of Austria and Germany after WWI. They had also inexplicably abolished the Burmese Royal Family in 1885. American businessmen had deposed the Hawaiian royal family. So the Japanese vowed to fight to the end.

By July, President Truman had signed the order to drop the atomic bombs on Japan, as many as needed. Hiroshima was a coastal city, a manufacturing and military centre. On 6 August the Enola Gay found its target, the junction between the Ota and Kyo rivers of Hiroshima. The weather was ideal for the maximum effects of the bomb to destroy the city. 80,000 were killed immediately and over 237,000 would eventually die. But the Japanese military would not allow newspapers in Japan to carry the story—news spread only by word of mouth. And Japan still did not surrender.

On 9 August, the second and more powerful bomb, a plutonium implosion bomb, was on its way to historic Kokura. There were seven Mitsubishi war plants close to Nagasaki, including a big shipyard. Nagasaki is still today the shipbuilding capital of Japan. The plane carrying the bomb had a malfunction that prevented access to its reserve fuel. The weather had deteriorated so the area over the Kokura Arsenal was obscured, and there were bursts of anti-aircraft fire. So the plane flew over its secondary target, the city of Nagasaki. It was obscured as well, so as soon as the bomber sighted the city’s sports stadium the bomb was dropped. It was 11am. The epicentre was 500 metres from the cathedral and reduced it to rubble. It was also where most of the Catholic population lived. There was intense heat, atomic winds and widespread instantaneous combustion. Exposed human skin was scorched off up to four kilometres away. Human beings were burned into misshapen monsters that staggered around until death. 70,000 died immediately and up to 140,000 would die more slowly.

Nagai was working at the University Hospital 700 metres from the epicentre. He was saved by the concrete construction. An artery in his right temple was severed and he was trapped under debris, but he was alive. Nagai was rescued but 80 per cent of the patients and staff perished. The survivors worked quickly to save those they could from under the fallen masonry before the fires took hold. Many of the trapped died bravely, singing. Nagai hoisted a makeshift Japanese flag to rally the survivors. What remained of the cathedral caught fire at midnight and Nagai watched as it burned. Some of the religious statues survived and are still in use today at the re-built cathedral.

As they looked out over the nuclear wasteland of their once lovely city, the survivors were determined to defend their country from the invading Americans with bamboo spears if need be. The scientist in Nagai couldn’t help but be impressed that the Americans had managed to split the atom. He discussed with his colleagues the names of European scientists who may have been involved. For the survivors, the sinister presence of the radiation was soon felt. Those who appeared to be unscathed became debilitated with radiation sickness. Nagai and the hospital staff began to burn the bodies.

It was reported by hospital staff that at midnight on the night the bomb dropped, women could be heard singing Latin hymns. The next morning, the bodies of 27 nuns from Josei convent were found. The explosion had demolished the convent, killed some nuns outright and left 27 horribly burned. These latter obviously died in agony clustered around the little stream nearby, yet they died singing.

When Nagai found his home, his wife Midori was dead, her melted metal rosary beads in her right hand. Their children had been sent to her parents in the countryside and so survived. Nagai travelled there to see them. Suffering atomic sickness as well as leukaemia, he drifted into a coma. His mother-in-law prayed over him using water from the Lourdes Grotto established by the Polish Franciscan Maximilian Kolbe when he visited Japan in 1930. (Although they were unaware of it, Kolbe had already been martyred in Auschwitz by the Nazis.) Nagai was miraculously pulled back from the brink.

On 15 August, the feast of the Assumption of Mary, the Emperor of Japan overruled the military leaders and personally broadcast Japan’s unconditional surrender. Before the bomb, Urakami Cathedral had two 50-metre-high bell towers. Each had a cupola that housed two big bells. The cupola on the north side was hurled many metres away by the bomb, cracking the bell. But the cupola on the south side had dropped right down, taking the bell with it, and was buried. Nagai and his friend Yamada, who had lost all his family in the bombing, dug for the buried bell. They began early on 24 December, and by late morning they could see the top of the bell, which seemed to be unharmed. They used a block and tackle to raise it, and by 6pm they had it hanging securely on a tripod of cypress logs. It was almost dark so they rang the Angelus. It sounded like a miracle of new life as it rang across the nuclear wilderness, all the clearer for the absence of any buildings, announcing Christmas.

Between 1945 and 1951, Nagai wrote 12 books and many articles and letters. As he lay ill, he was visited by the Emperor, by Cardinal Gilroy of Australia and by many other dignitaries.

Dr Takashi Nagai finally died in April 1951. His funeral was held in the temporary cathedral, attended by 20,000 mourners. Just as the funeral was concluded, it was midday and the Angelus bells boomed out. At the same time, bells in steeples across Nagasaki, including the Buddhist temples, all rang together; factory whistles and horns and sirens on every boat in Nagasaki Bay joined in. The city then stopped for a minute of silence as a great friend passed from them. It is said that with regard to the bomb, ‘Hiroshima rages, Nagasaki prays’. For this we can thank Nagai and the many Christians like him.

The story of Dr Takashi Nagai has been taken with the author’s permission from A Song for Nagasaki, by Father Paul Glynn SM, available from the Marist Mission Centre, Hunters Hill NSW.

Rachel Naughton is the archivist at the Catholic Archdiocese of Melbourne.

This article was originally published in the August 2019 edition of the Melbourne Catholic Magazine.

With thanks to Melbourne Catholic Magazine and the Archdiocese of Melbourne.


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