Nagasaki’s Christian Hero
Paul Takashi Nagai came to Christ, then lost everything, but died praising Christ
Sixty-eight years ago yesterday Paul Takashi Nagai, scientist, professor, convert, and poet, left this world.
Born in 1908 and raised in rural Japan in traditional Confucian and Shinto religion, Takashi imbibed the materialist assumptions of his professors while studying to be a physician. “I was so sure that there was no such thing as a soul,” he wrote. But when his mother died, “my mother’s eyes told me that the human spirit lives after death. I could not but believe this. All this was by way of an intuition, an intuition carrying conviction.”
A Living Presence
He started medical school in Nagasaki in 1928. He found Christ through the Moriyamas, a family of Japan’s “Hidden Christians,” Catholics who had maintained the faith for two and a half centuries of persecution and isolation from the rest of the world. He had been struggling with Christianity, intrigued by the cathedral bells rung at noon to call people to prayer and having read the great Christian mathematician Blaise Pascal’s Pensees. In the scientific spirit, he tried the experiment of living like a Christian.
On a trip home for Christmas, the Moriyamas’ daughter Mori invited him to the midnight service at the cathedral. “I felt instinctively there was a living presence in the community,” he wrote later.There was “a living Someone present in the Urakami Cathedral.”
The priest talked about the Son of God’s humility in becoming man, and made him feel with shame the selfishness and materialism inside himself. “Here is the humility that our minds know is the truth to make us free. Here is the salvation for which our hearts yearn. How can we complain about hardships when the Holy Family accepted the darkness and pain of this night because it was the Father’s loving plan?”
He was baptized in 1934. He took “Paul” as his baptismal name, after after Paulo Miki, one of the twenty-six martyrs of Japan who were crucified for their faith in Nagasaki in 1597. Becoming a Christian cost him his friendship with his father, still a traditional believer in Shinto.
Poured Out His Life
A few months later, he and Midori married. They had a son the next year and a daughter two years later. A pioneer in radiology and professor at Nagasaki Medical College, he poured his life out in service to the sick and to training young doctors, despite the known risks of exposure to gamma radiation. The equipment leaked radiation and radiologists died young.
In the 1930’s he knew the young Fr. Maximilian Kolbe, who was founding a monastery nearby. A few years later Kolbe gave his life for a stranger at Auschwitz.
In 1945, Takashi learned that, as a result of his work, he had incurable leukemia. He would soon leave his beloved Midori a young widow and mother. Her response: “We said before we were married … that if our lives are spent for the glory of God, then life and death are beautiful. You have given everything you had for work that was very, very important. It was for his glory.” He said, “Midori’s acceptance has freed me. I can now face death because Midori is beside me.”
But she died first. Two months later she was gone, taken in the flash that leveled their city and marked the end of the Second World War. The hospital was only a few hundred yards from ground zero. Dr. Nagai was injured but survived — ironically, because the radiology department was the most strongly walled part of the hospital. He was wounded in the chest.
Unless You Have Suffered
The surviving nurses and doctors set up a tent hospital in a field near the hospital. They did what they could caring for the stricken, though, as he wrote, “All we have left is our knowledge, our love, and our bare hands.” He used his own blood to make a Japanese flag to mark the way to the new hospital. A little later he and others found one of the cathedral bells and set it up to ring again.
Only two days later could he go looking for his wife. He found their home obliterated. Then he found some of her charred bones, her hand clutching her rosary. He prayed: “Dearest God, thank you for allowing her to die praying. Mother of Sorrows, thank you for being with faithful Midori at the hour of her death. … Ah, gracious Jesus our Savior, you once sweat blood and bore the heavy Cross to your crucifixion. And now you have shed peaceful light on the mystery of suffering and death, on Midori’s and my own.”
Later, he wrote: “Unless you have suffered and wept, you really don’t understand what compassion is, nor can you give comfort to someone who is suffering. If you haven’t cried, you can’t dry another’s eyes. Unless you’ve walked in darkness, you can’t help wanderers find the way. Unless you’ve looked into the eyes of menacing death and felt its hot breath, you can’t help another rise from the dead and taste anew the joy of being alive.”
An Apostle of Peace
For the few years he had left, Takashi was an apostle of peace and reconciliation. His first book, The Bells of Nagasaki: A Message of Hope From a Witness, was published in 1949, after the allied censors suppressed it for three years. Though bedridden, he continued to write and to receive visitors. They included Emperor Hirohito, Helen Keller, and a cardinal sent by Pope Pius XII.
Takashi spoke repeatedly against war, especially nuclear war. “Men and women of the world, never again plan 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.”
In 1951, with the end clearly approaching, he penned his farewell song: “Good-bye my flesh. I must now journey beyond as the fragrance must leave the rose.” On May 1st, at the age of only 43, he went to his reward and was laid to rest, his epitaph chosen from the Gospel of Luke, a fellow physician. “We are unworthy servants; we have only done what was our duty.”
Robert Corzine is vice president of programs for the St. Paul Center for Biblical Theology. He hosts EWTN’s Genesis to Jesus program with Scott Hahn, and also hosts St. Paul Center Presents on Relevant Radio. Before coming to the St. Paul Center, he worked at the Heritage Foundation. Some of this article is taken from Paul Glynn’s biography of Takashi, A Song for Nagasaki.