Aug. 6 and Aug. 9 mark the 78th anniversary of the dropping of atomic bombs on the Japanese cities of, respectively, Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Between 129,000 and 226,000 people, most of whom were civilians, were killed on those days in 1945. Both cities, within the limits of the bomb sites, were reduced to rubble.

Takashi Nagai (1908-1951), a Catholic convert, Japanese doctor, radiologist, and survivor of the bomb, wrote the popular post-World War II book, “The Bells of Nagasaki.” 

In “A Song for Nagasaki,” biographer Paul Glynn, SM, charts Nagai’s spiritual evolution from atheist to ardent Catholic: a follower of Christ who came to believe that peace requires a radical turning of the other cheek.

Born to highly-educated parents in the western Japan city of Matsue, first son Takashi was the apple of his parents’ eyes. Steeped in the Shinto religion and the Japanese ethos that condemned surrender of any kind, Nagai studied medicine at Nagasaki Medical College.

The bells at the nearby Urakami Cathedral that rang the Angelus three times a day irritated him. How crass for a modern Japanese to be reminded not only of religion but a foreign religion at that! When a professor showed a corpse in class and opined that a human being is nothing more than physical properties, Nagai thoroughly concurred.

But upon the death of his beloved mother in 1930, Nagai began to read Blaise Pascal’s Pensées. “For five years,” he later wrote, “I was deeply troubled by a little voice I heard, waking and sleeping: ‘What is the meaning of our lives?’”

Looking for a home in which to board, he happened upon the Moriyama family, whose Christian roots extended back 300 years. Through frightful persecution, poverty, and exile, their Catholic faith had stood firm.

Poised to give a speech at his graduation from medical school, Nagai partied the night before, got soaked with rain, and developed meningitis. He almost died and lost hearing in his right ear.

Radiology was one of the few areas of medicine in which he was now equipped to practice, and he quickly became fascinated by the subjects of atomic structure and nuclear fission.

At a midnight Christmas Mass he attended with the Moriayamis, Nagai felt disturbed when the worshipers sang the Credo. Why? he wondered. “Was it because ordinary people could take an uncomplicated stand for goodness and truth, while he was a footloose academic and ethical dilettante who could not?”

He was particularly moved by the beauty, grace and religious ardor of the Moriyamis’ daughter, Midori. The two fell in love and when in 1933 Nagai went off to war in Manchuria, Midori was waiting for him upon his return, Rosary in hand.

Having continued reading Pascal, and the Gospels, Nagai also met with a priest. He was baptized on June 9, 1934 and confirmed that December.

Meanwhile, he and Midori married. The couple would go on to have four children, a boy and three daughters, the second of whom died shortly after birth. In another devastating loss, Nagai’s father died around the same time. 

Nagai was working in his office on the morning of August 9, 1945. Flying glass from the bomb severed an artery in his temple, and he began gushing blood. He nonetheless  immediately set about rescuing and organizing the wounded.

Returning to the family home, he found that Midori had been incinerated. Among the charred remains of her skull, hips and backbone, Nagai spotted a blob of metal: the chain and cross from the Rosary she had carried always.  

His children had lived. Many others had survived with burns, oozing wounds, and radiation-induced leukemia. He threw himself into helping them, and into writing the twenty books he would produce in his remaining five years.

By September 8, Nagai himself had begun to exhibit signs of extreme radiation sickness. He was given a death sentence and suffered chronic and ever worsening illness until the end of his life. 

Interestingly, however, he did not view the discovery of atomic energy as the fatal opening of a Pandora’s box: perhaps the energy could someday be used to light people’s homes. Nor did he engage in anti-Western sentiment.

At a Requiem Mass for the Dead said at the ruined Urakami Cathedral on November 23, 1945, instead he introduced the concept of hansai, the Japanese word for a burnt offering, or the Bible’s Holocaust. 

“It was not the American crew, I believe, who chose our suburb…Was not Nagasaki the chosen victim, the lamb without blemish, slain as a whole burnt offering on an altar of sacrifice, atoning for the sins of all the nations during World War II?”

It’s an astonishing notion: perhaps only a follower of Christ could have conceived it.  

Along with his soldier friend Ichitaro Yamada and other workmen, Nagai also helped to unearth the buried French Angelus bell. The church was eventually rebuilt and is now known as Immaculate Conception Cathedral.

Avoiding easy platitudes, Nagai continued to aver that peace is a noble ideal—and also an arduous one.

William Johnston, a specialist in Japanese Zen, noted that in the end Nagai was a mystic. “He attempts a theology born of cruel suffering and painful conversion of heart…with his message of love he takes an honored place beside…great prophets.”


  1. Phillip Aller says: Reply

    Another great article Heather! Thank you!
    Where there is evil there is always great love and faith that endure, never to be extinguished despite the evil that we do.

  2. Ruth Ann Pilney says: Reply

    Recently I fortuitously discovered Takashi Paul Nagai when I found this quotation online:
    “Just imagine if one fine day an invitation arrived that you have been waiting for for a very long time, from someone you have been waiting to meet. A person with whom you have longed to stay, to spend a long time talking together. On the day that invitation arrived, how great would be your joy?

    Death is God’s invitation, and it is with this joy in my heart that I await it. I know well how good and beautiful God is and how tenderly He takes care of me. For this reason, when I finally receive His invitation, I will be very happy to accept it.” Takashi Nagai, Thoughts from Nyokodo ~ via Julie Davis

    I am almost finished reading A Song for Nagasaki. It’s riveting. I recommend it and Thoughts from Nyokodo to everyone.

  3. I loved this book!
    I’m praying prayers of reparation for my country for using weapons of mass destruction on innocent civilians.
    We used a Catholic Church for the target in Nagasaki which had the highest population of Catholics.
    Japan had started negotiations with Russia when we dropped the bombs.
    Bishop Sheen had said that America lost her soul that day.

  4. Anonymous says: Reply

    Thank you so much for this piece on Dr. Nagai. I am glad to learn there is an English-language biography of him. I read and was deeply moved by his book “We of Nagasaki,” a compilation of survivor testimonials that he edited. It’s difficult to read but extremely powerful.

  5. HEATHER KING says: Reply

    Yes, thank you all. Thanks for sharing the further reading suggestions, “We of Nagasaki” and Nagai’s “Thoughts from Nyokodo” which I had come across in my reading and earmarked for purchase when I return home.

    I’ve been thinking about the people who justified the civilian carnage in Hiroshima and Nagasaki by maintaining that those deaths saved thousands or hundreds of thousands of other lives. I think that is the kind of calculation that simply doesn’t enter in for a follower of Christ. “Better that one man die than so many others,” said those who tortured Christ to death. Better that the child die than that the mother, the father, the child suffer, say those who lobby for the “right” to abortion. Better the elderly, diminished person die than…really what we are thinking is than be a “burden” on society. Better to kill someone else rather than suffer ourselves, all these arguments boil down to.

    Christ doesn’t enter into such calculations. He willingly offers up his own life. And he gives us the martyrs and saints. St. Maximilian Kolbe, whose feast is coming up later in August. Takashi Nagai, and so many others. Servant of God Adele Dirsyte, Fr. Willie Doyle,

    The calculators, those who to me play God with human lives, seem to me to have avoided considering the martyrs and saints. There is no explanation if that’s the word for them. They just are. “Before Abraham was, I AM.” They’re not an argument or a response or proof or evidence of anything. They just are. But if you don’t consider them, you’re not being fully honest. You’re not being thorough. You haven’t risked going deep enough into the mystery and the call of existence.

    So let us bow down before those like Nagai who shine like tiny lights in the darkness, and lead us toward the altar.


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