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Peacemaker’s words still echo from debris of Nagasaki

Ripples continue to spread from our Dec. 31, 1999/Jan. 7 editorial about last century’s peacemakers. There are many candidates who for various reasons are not as well-known as they deserve. Joseph Nabi writes from Leonardtown, Md., to suggest Takashi (TAK-a-she) Nagai of Nagasaki, Japan, as “a foremost prophet of peace, especially for Americans.”

On that fatal Aug. 9, 1945, Nagai, a doctor who had converted to Catholicism at 26, was working in the hospital when the atomic bomb flashed death across the city. Lest we forget, Nagasaki was not the primary target that day, but clouds saved another city. And other clouds saved the Mitsubishi iron works, so the pilot targeted the Catholic Cathedral in the Urakami district.

As luck would have it, Nagai was an expert in radiology, so he recognized what the bomb was doing to its victims, though in thousands of cases the vaporized bodies left little room for doubt. Nagai’s two children escaped, but his wife, Midori, a descendant of Japan’s “Hidden Catholics,” was a charred corpse in the ruins of their home. About 90 percent of the staff and patients of the hospital where he worked were killed.

In another coincidence, Nagai had been diagnosed with leukemia before the Nagasaki bomb. He became, according to Nabi, “a world-famous saint of peace and reconciliation in the few years left to him.” He followed an old Japanese tradition of men and women living as hermits in tiny huts. He wrote The Bells of Nagasaki, which was made into a Japanese movie, and 20 other books, including The Chain of the Rosary.

Robert Ellsberg, writing about Nagai in All Saints (Crossroad, 1997), describes how he “expressed a most unexpected attitude, namely, gratitude to God that his Catholic city had been chosen to atone for the sins of humanity.” This perspective derives from the traditional Christianity of Nagasaki’s population. “Since the time of the early Jesuit missions,” writes Ellsberg, “the city had been the center of Japanese Catholicism, and consequently the scene of extensive martyrdom.”

Writes Nabi, “the inexplicable ignorance of Americans about the saint of Nagasaki is odd and, frankly, suspicious.”

As he fought to save survivors afterwards, Nagai realized that “if I did not take a comprehensive view … we would all be engulfed in the flames.” He found understanding by relating the event to the Christian cross. He wrote: “Men and women of the world, never again plan war! … 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. The people of Nagasaki prostrate themselves before God and pray: Grant that Nagasaki may be the last atomic wilderness in the history of the world.”

-- Michael Farrell

National Catholic Reporter, February 18, 2000