Book Review: A Song for Nagasaki

A Song For Nagasaki
The Story of Takashi Nagai
Scientist, Convert, and Survivor of the Atomic Bomb
by Paul Glynn

I stayed up late a week ago to finish this astounding book, totally mesmerized.  I had never heard this story, or known almost anything about Christianity in Japan.  It is a tragedy that this man isn’t more widely known.

Takashi Nagai, born into a Shintoist family in Japan in 1908, became a medical doctor specializing in radiology.  He had become an atheist as he grew into adulthood, but through much seeking, and against the wishes of his beloved father, became a believer in Jesus Christ and a convert to Catholicism.   He was greatly influenced by the writings of Blaise Pascal, the French mathematician who had also embraced Christianity.

I was unaware of the beautiful story of how Frances Xavier brought the gospel to Japan in the 16th century, making Nagasaki the first Christian stronghold in the land, and how the church came under the persecution of the reigning government because tens of thousands were being baptized.  I was unaware of 26 Christians being arrested in Kyoto, the capital, and force-marched a 30 day journey to Nagasaki in the depths of winter, where they were publicly crucified in an effort to rid the land of this new religious movement.  Four thousand Christians turned out to encourage these martyrs. A thirty-three year old Jesuit being crucified was chosen to  address the crowd from his cross. He had only one dying request: that they believe. He said he forgave those responsible for this execution, and then “Lord, into your hands I commend my spirit. Twenty-six samurai then moved in with their steel-tipped bamboo lances and ripped into the twenty-six martyrs.

Persecution continued in Japan, but a remnant of Christianity never ceased to exist, although it had to go underground. In the late 1860’s, trade was increasing with Europe, and a French priest came and built a church in Nagasaki.  It was initially against the law for Japanese to enter these churches, but the underground Japanese Christians soon made contact, and the Japanese government was once again faced with the problem of what to do with these Christians.  They rounded up up over 3,000 of them and kept them in 19 concentration camps throughout Japan for five years.  Twenty percent of them died, but they were finally released into abject poverty as all their land and possessions were gone.  A generation later, they had recovered, and there was a strong, thriving Christian community in Nagasaki when Takashi Nagai was born.

Nagai’s search for God is beautifully portrayed in this book, which also reveals the beauty of the traditional Japanese culture, and their love for art and particularly poetry.  He read Pascal and sought truth even as he was drafted into the army and sent into battle in China, witnessing much atrocity and suffering.  He hated the war, and realized the Chinese were people much like his people.  A beautiful Christian girl prayed for Nagai every day back in Japan, and when he returned to Japan, he made the decision to become a Christian and receive baptism, against his father’s wishes.  He and Midori, the girl who prayed door him, were married.

The new Christian Nagai was as passionate about being discipled in the faith as he was about his medical practice.  He had worked hard and passionately in medicine–radiology was new to Japan, and tuberculosis was epidemic.  He and Midori were raising a son and a daughter when, early in 1945, he fell ill, and was diagnosed with acute leukemia and given two years to live, a result of exposure to so much radiation.  He was only 37 years old, and grieved the fact that he would leave his beloved wife a young widow, and his two children fatherless, never dreaming of the awful event that would change everything in just a few short months. (He survived an atomic bomb only to die later of radiation sickness, which he ironically developed BEFORE the bomb.)

Nagai was at work at the hospital on a beautiful morning in August when the atomic bomb was dropped on Nagasaki.  And Nagasaki became hell on earth.  The descriptions of what he saw and experienced must be read for themselves.  Days passed before he made it home, where he found nothing but some charred bones that had once been his beloved wife.   His children had taken a four mile hike to the mountain the day before with their grandmother, and they were unharmed.  70,000 others in the city died that day, and thousands more were terribly sick and injured and would die in the weeks and years to come.

Nagai’s life was forever altered.  In the months to come, what was left of the community struggled to survive.  Nagai built a drafty shack for his family to live in along with his mother and two homeless friends.  There was barely enough floor space for them all to lie down on the floor at night.  Within a few months his disease had progressed to the point he was bedfast.  No doubt the effects of the bomb and the trauma of his experience hastened the progression.

Friends eventually built another tiny hut next door where he could live alone.  In the six years he lived there up until his death, lying on his floor in constant pain and sickness, he wrote twenty books, most of which became bestsellers in Japan. A movie was even made in America based on his book, The Bells of Nagasaki, which is the beautiful story of the unearthing of the cathedral bells and how he and another man struggled to have them chime again on the first Christmas Eve after the blast, bringing comfort and hope to many of the survivors. He wrote beautifully of the forgiveness that Christ came to bring, and became quite famous as a “scientist holy man,” constantly preaching the love of Christ and the Christian’s call to imitate Christ as he laid down his life on the cross.  I was greatly inspired by his story, and though I finished it a week ago, I have not stopped thinking about it.

  • slynn

    Tonight I was searching your site for comfort. I found it in your blog on Nagasaki. If you have lived a life of pain and abuse there is so much ugliness in your life. I was thinking of the past and all I could think of was the pain but during the worst times God would bless me so I did not succumb completely. It was a dark time with no relief and I stayed up to be alone and pray. I was trying to go to college with an ill child and other obstacles. I was overwhelmed, exhausted, and discouraged. I picked up a book by Blaise Pascal, I don’t know why it was not assigned. That night in the ugliness and loneliness I found beauty in the numbers and patterns he found. I don’t know why but I could not stop crying. God gave me such a gift and I had forgotten that until tonight when I was searching and having a similar feeling. It helped to remind me to look for the beauty and patterns of life. After that night my passion returned and I found philosophy which affected me in the same way. I ended up back in school with another undergraduate degree. I know you move in cycles with your faith like everything else but I sometimes forget what is like to move out of the valley. I know God is working in the background and will bring beauty to my life. It helps to think of it like a tapestry that from the back looks tangled and out of sorts but turn it around and it is a perfect picture. These short glimpses of beauty remind us that heaven can be on earth. Thank you for reminding me that God has not forgotten me. 🙂

  • Peri Zahnd

    On the anniversary of the atomic bombs being dropped on Japan, I looked at my old blog. Was this really five years ago, and did I not see and respond to your note? Thank God for his continual faithfulness to give us what we need when we need it. Praying you are still sensing his presence and peace and continuing on the journey to know him.