Saturday, September 15, 2018

Takashi Nagai's Journey to Christ

I am republishing my blog post from March about Takashi Nagai, and adding to it a photo reproduction of my article about his early life and his encounter with Jesus Christ in the Catholic Church. Some may have seen the article in this month's issue of Magnificat. This post will fill in a few details about the rest of his great life.

Dr. Takashi Nagai (1908-1951) was a Japanese medical doctor, a scientist and pioneering researcher who specialized in radiology, a highly respected professor, a beloved husband and father, and a convert from atheism to Jesus Christ and his Church. My article about his conversion appears in Magnificat's September 2018 issue.

But there is another story, the story of a more profound conversion, a radical change in Dr. Nagai's whole life that set him on the road to a greater faith, but also involved his passing through an almost unimaginable horror that began at 11:02 AM on August 9, 1945.

First, here is a copy of the article about his early life that just appeared in print:


I can only say that the story of this great man, his wife, his family, his colleagues, and his community is one of the most intense and heart-wrenching and terrifying and beautiful stories I have ever come across in the twentieth century Church.

It is a story he lived long enough to tell, in a book called The Bells of Nagasaki. 

The Catholics of the Urakami district of Nagasaki, the disciples of Francis Xavier, the survivors of three centuries of persecution, were not specifically the intended target of the second atomic bomb. But because of various circumstances including weather conditions and wind, the very heart of Christianity in Japan--home to some 30,000 Catholics and their cathedral--became, literally, Ground Zero.

Many thousands of people were immediately reduced to ashes, including an estimated 8,000 Christians at the epicenter who were going about their morning routines, living, working, and praying. The cathedral was packed with worshippers praying for peace when the bomb exploded in the air above it. People in the vicinity of Ground Zero died where they were standing, sitting, or kneeling, in a flash.

The Nagai children were outside the city with their grandmother on that day. But their mother Midori Nagai was in the kitchen of their home in Urakami near the cathedral. The old home was built over a cowshed where her ancestors, the secret Christians, had gathered to pray and pass on their faith for seven generations without any priests, with only a basic catechism and the sacrament of baptism.

Days later her husband found remnants of her skeleton in the midst of the ruins, and some melted metal in the remains of the bones of her hand where he could barely make out the outline of a crucifix. Like so many of the Christians at Ground Zero, Takashi Nagai's wife had a deep devotion to Mary. When the awful fire fell, she had been praying the rosary.

Dr. Nagai was working at the Nagasaki University hospital on that morning. He was pinned under the wreckage of his laboratory, seriously injured but alive. Eventually the handful of doctors, nurses, and students who survived were able to reach him, stop the worst of his bleeding, and bring him to his feet. They formed a team that for several days worked heroically to treat whomever could be rescued from the flames and the scorched ground where there had once been a city.

As doctors, they did what they could to help the wounded, without medicines or supplies. As scientists, they discussed among themselves with horror and wonder the phenomenon that had occurred. They didn't know of the attack on Hiroshima, but they were able to see that this was a wholly new kind of bombing. Dr. Nagai and his colleagues were aware of the trajectory of atomic research, and had heard rumors that efforts were being made to use that research to make a horrible weapon, a nuclear bomb.

Their experience convinced them that these efforts had succeeded, and that they were living through a nuclear holocaust. And it wasn't over yet.

In the hours, then days, then weeks that followed, many people who had survived the blast developed strange and often fatal illnesses from radiation poisoning. Still others would succumb to their injuries. After a month of exhausting labor caring for the wounded and struggling to stay on his own feet, Dr. Nagai himself collapsed and was on the verge of death. His colleagues gave up hope of saving him as he moved in and out of a coma.

He recalled that he was prepared to die, but felt the desire and the need to live for the sake of his children (who had already lost their mother). Then he had a very unusual experience, which he reported to be something like a voice prompting him in a very specific way. In order to understand the significance of this prompting, we should note that Saint Maximilian Kolbe had lived in Nagasaki from 1930-1936 and was well known and much loved by the Catholic community. He had even been one of Dr. Nagai's patients. Fr. Kolbe had, of course, returned to Poland where the final act of his own drama awaited, and all news of him was blocked by the war.

But as Dr. Nagai lay dying, a voice seemed to urge him to "pray to Fr. Kolbe" for healing. No one in Japan knew that Fr. Kolbe was even dead, much less that he had died a martyr, but Takashi Nagai prayed for the intercession of the beloved friar. Soon after, he emerged from the coma, and the injury causing immediate danger to his life was inexplicably healed.

His fellow doctors said it was a miracle.

Unfortunately, his overall health was broken by radiation-induced leukemia, which eventually rendered him an invalid. From his bed, he turned to writing. In the light of his deepening faith, he wrote about the events he had experienced and their implications for the future. He wanted to record all he could for the sake of his native Japan and its reconstruction, for future scientific research, and as an advocate for peace in the world. He lived until 1951 and wrote 20 books, including The Bells of Nagasaki.

He is held in great esteem in Japan by Christians and non-Christians, and his story deserves to be more widely known. As I continue my literary (and film/video) "tour" of East Asia, you will hear more about him from me. His story is deeply Catholic, sorrowful, mysterious, and marked by the distinctively Japanese cultural character that we need to understand better.

But you don't have to wait for me. Fr Paul Glynn, an Australian priest who lived many years in Japan, wrote a very accessible biography that was recently reprinted by Ignatius Press, which you can get HERE. It is not an easy story, but it is one that needs to be heard, and that is very important for our troubled world today.