February 26, 2010
Last Sunday I found a book at the church library. It wasn’t on my top ten for Lent, but it was about Japan and a Japanese holy man who transformed others’ lives by his gentleness and forgiveness. Since I am interested in Japanese history, especially in what transpired to cause the terrible aggression that drew so many into World War II, I checked it out. What I ended up with is a moving conversion story that brings Christ’s teachings to life in a unique way and that has enriched my Lenten prayer.
A Song for Nagasaki: The Story of Takashi Nagai-Scientist, Convert, and Survivor of the Atomic Bomb tells of Dr. Paul Takashi Nagai, an extraordinary man raised in the rural area of Mitoya according to the teachings of Confucius and the Shinto religion which imbued him with filial reverence for ancestors and heroic stoicism. His mother and father taught him a love of learning by their example, and generous giving by their care for the medical needs of the peasants and townspeople often without payment.
Nagai entered into a spiritual quest while he attended medical school in Nagasaki – a quest that led him from Shintoism to atheism to Catholicism and ultimately to marriage with the daughter of the family which had been at the heart of the underground Church for the centuries of government persecution of Christians. The biography reveals how Nagai’s medical studies, service as a medic in the Japanese army during the occupation of Manchuria, and his return to become a pioneer of radiology research at Nagasaki University formed his spiritual growth.
Before the bomb exploded over the city that fateful August day, Nagai already had developed leukemia from his radiation exposure, yet he had refused to quit working. The cancer did not stop him from caring for victims of the inferno although he was wounded himself, and to his surprise and that of his fellow medical practitioners, his disease went into remission for a couple of years because of his exposure to the bomb’s radiation.
Nagai lost his beloved wife in the bombing of Nagasaki on August 9th, 1945, but his children who were farther from ground zero survived. Not long after, he moved into the rubble of the ruined city to study the effects of radiation on all life forms, constructing a tiny dwelling on the ground where his house once stood. He called his little abode “Nyoko-do“, meaning “as yourself hall” taken from Jesus’s words: “Love your neighbor as yourself.” It was one 6×6 room with a porch built by friends. He lived there with his children until he died.
Throughout the book Glynn interweaves Japanese history and customs into Nagai’s story, giving the reader a good understanding of the depth of this man. He describes well how Nagai brought not only physical healing but spiritual healing to the suffering and war-weary people. Determined not to be bitter or vengeful, he wrote articles and powerful books as a legacy for his children that became best-sellers throughout Japan. During the last four years of his life, he accomplished this lying on his back because of weakness and abdominal swelling caused by the cancer.
This book above all, is a story of love and forgiveness, of sanctity brought forth from horror. Many people from around the world, including Helen Keller journeyed to meet this unassuming man, who gave most of his earnings for the education and care of war orphans. His example continues to inspire and he is considered a saint by many Japanese people of all faiths.
If you are attracted to conversion stories, this book will not disappoint you. It is filled with the wonders of God’s grace and inspiration to overcome all bitterness, resentment, and desire for vengeance that plague the human heart. Nagai truly suffered with joy.
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