The Catholic Holocaust of Nagasaki—“Why, Lord?”

The witness of the Catholics of Nagasaki shows God’s providence in the darkest of times.

On August 9, 1945, God’s inscrutable providence allowed an atomic bomb named “Fat Man” to be dropped from a B-29 into the heavily populated city of Nagasaki. The epicenter of the blast was the Urakami district, the heart and soul of Catholicism in Japan since the sixteenth century. My purpose in this article is to share an insight into God’s purpose in allowing this horrible event, a discovery made from reading (the recent Ignatius Press reprint of) Fr. Paul Glynn’s marvelous book A Song for Nagasaki. The book is subtitled, The Story of Takashi Nagai: Scientist, Convert, and Survivor of the Atomic Bomb.1

Nagasaki is the oldest open-port city of Japan and one of the most beautiful, situated in the southernmost part of the country, on the western side of the island of Kyushu and only about fifty miles from South Korea. A natural harbor, the great port of Nagasaki is protected by several islands at its entrance, and consists of a heavily populated residential and commercial area extending a few miles up the valleys feeding the harbor and also along terraces up the hillsides. Though commercial activity declined in the twentieth century and especially after World War II (because of the closing of trade with China), industry increased greatly during the twentieth century as Nagasaki became the shipbuilding capital of Japan.

Nagasaki’s Catholic heritage

Nagasaki was first evangelized in 1549 by Jesuit missionaries from Portugal, led by the Spanish Jesuit St. Francis Xavier, who arrived in Nagasaki on August 15, the feast day of the Assumption of Mary.2 Providentially, perhaps, exactly four hundred years later in Nagasaki on August 15, 1949—and exactly four years after Japan surrendered on August 15, 1945—there would be a great celebration of Japan’s evangelization by this great preacher, with high Church officials and a delegate from Pope Pius XII in attendance. The coincidence of these three “Assumption events” is quite striking and, as we shall see, not isolated.3

Christianity spread quickly from Nagasaki, so that by 1580, just over thirty years, there were two hundred thousand converts in Japan. The multiplication of Christians proceeded despite the opposition of Buddhist priests and local rulers. However, in 1587, after a sizable number of Japanese feudal barons and a great number of samurai became Christians, along with the tens of thousands of peasants and townsfolk, Emperor Hideyoshi reversed his previous admiration for the Jesuits, ordering that they be banished and that all Japanese Christians renounce their religion. Nevertheless, in 1593 six Franciscans, led by the Spanish friar Fr. Peter Baptiste, also entered Japan and worked zealously amid persecution, converting many to the faith and even building some churches and a hospital.

In 1596 the Emperor cracked down on the Christians, ordering twenty-six of the leading offenders to be arrested in Kyoto, the capital city, and force-marched to Nagasaki for the penalty of death by crucifixion. The offenders consisted of three Jesuits, fifteen Franciscan Tertiaries, two other laymen, and the six Franciscan friars. Each had part of his left ear cut off before the forced march to Nagasaki, a distance of about five hundred miles taking thirty days, all in the midst of winter. In Nagasaki they were tied to crosses with their necks held in place by iron rings. As they awaited death, the singing of psalms broke out from the twenty-six. The great crowd that had assembled to watch the spectacle quieted and began to listen. Then one of the twenty-six began the Sanctus, a fitting oblation: for here, as in the Mass, they were offering themselves for the glory of God and were about to have their lives crushed out, just as the bread and wine offering is made by the crushing of wheat and grapes. Then one of the Franciscans, from his cross, began singing the simplest of litanies, “Jesus, Mary…Jesus, Mary….” The event is beautifully re-told in A Song for Nagasaki:

The Christians in the crowd took up the prayer, four thousand of them. Hazaburo Terazawa was the official in charge of the execution, and he would have to give a personal account to the dictator. He was growing apprehensive, as it was becoming a show of Christian strength rather than the bloodcurdling spectacle Dictator Hideyoshi had ordered.

One of the twenty-six asked leave to speak. He was the thirty-three-year-old Jesuit Paul Miki, son of a general in Baron Takayama’s army, an accomplished catechist and preacher. Dying well was tremendously important for samurai, and they often met death with ajisei no uta, or farewell song. Miki’s strong voice reached the edges of the crowd.

“I am a Japanese and a brother of the Society of Jesus. I have committed no crime. The only reason I am condemned to die is that I have taught the Gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ. I am happy to die for that and accept death as a great gift from my Lord.” Miki asked the crowd if they saw fear on the faces of the twenty-six. He assured them there was no fear because heaven was real. He had only one dying request: that they believe. He said he forgave Hideyoshi and those responsible for his execution. Then with deliberation and a ringing voice, he gave his farewell song. It was the verse of Psalm 31 that Christ quoted from the Cross: “Lord, into your hands I commend my spirit.”

Terazawa gave a sign, and the samurai moved in with their steel-tipped bamboo lances. The samurai gave deep-throated cries, and their lances ripped into the twenty-six. The deadly silence of the crowd suddenly erupted into an angry roar, and Terazawa hurriedly withdrew to complete his report. The spectacle of humiliation had gone awry. The prestige of Christians rose dramatically, and baptisms increased.4

It was February 5, 1597, the day of Japan’s first martyrs, now celebrated in the Church as a memorial on February 6. Christianity continued to spread in Japan, especially after the Emperor died. However, in 1614 a new persecution began and Christians in great numbers chose death rather than renouncing the faith. Within a year all churches and missionary centers were destroyed. With government agents, soldiers and spies everywhere, priests and catechists were executed, and new priests arriving from Europe were easily identified by their foreign accents and executed. With the introduction of new and refined tortures to break the Christians, Nagasaki Christians migrated to offshore islands and inland, up the nearby Urakami Valley. They devised ways of handing on the faith without priests: they became farmers and fishermen and formed an underground church. They appointed a “waterman” to baptize, a “calendar man” to keep the dates of Advent, Christmas, Lent, Easter, and so forth, and a chokata, or “head man,” as overall leader.5

In 1858, Commodore Perry’s gunboats forced a commercial treaty on Japan with the United States. Though Europeans built churches in Yokohama and Nagasaki, the military leaders (shoguns) allowed only non-Japanese to enter. In 1864, Fr. Petitjean of the Paris Missionary Society, who since his seminary days had been an admirer of the Japanese martyrs, completed a church in Oura, a southern suburb of Nagasaki. On a busy market day, one of the Urakami Christians slipped into the Oura church undetected and saw a statue of Mary holding the Christ child. After questioning local officials and learning that the priest lived without a wife, the Urakami Christians realized that they had two of the necessary signs taught them by their parents. It was an oral tradition given by priests during the great persecution two hundred and fifty years before: “The Church will return to Japan, and you will know it by three signs: the priests will be celibate, there will be a statue of Mary, and it will obey Papa-sama in Rome.”

Disguised as a farmer, Fr. Petitjean visited the clandestine Christians and celebrated their first Mass in their hidden meeting place, a spacious cattle shed. Sensitive to the symbolism of the Christ Child’s actual birth in a cow shed after being refused a place to stay by townspeople, they gave the cows extra hay on December 25. But the peace did not last long after Nagasaki officials got word of the clandestine Christians and their visiting French priest, for the country was still ruled in 1867 by the Tokugawa dictatorship, the same dynasty that had wiped out Japanese Christians in the 1600s. Thus orders came to Nagasaki civic officials to stamp out these smoldering embers of Christianity. Considered traitors to Japan, the government sent them to prison camps scattered all over Japan to destroy their unity.

Less than a year later, the Tokugawa dictatorship was overthrown, and the Emperor, held in his “gilded cage” at Kyoto for centuries by the Tokugawa rule, was reinstated in the person of Emperor Meiji. This did not immediately help the Christian cause, however, because there was a movement for Japanese unity in the face of the great Western colonial threat to Asia. The efforts to de-program the imprisoned Christians became even more brutal, and many died. It was only after Europeans living in Nagasaki alerted the Western press that the Meiji government abandoned its policy in 1872. This was not out of sympathy for the Christians, but simply because the government wished to increase trade with the United States. Thus, after five years in prison, the Urakami Christians were freed. About 20 percent of the prisoners, 664 of the 3,414 taken in captivity, had died. Upon returning to their lands, they found everything gone—their farming equipment, boats, furniture—with their once-neat rice paddies overtaken by wilderness.

By 1895 the Urakami Catholics had saved enough to build a stone and brick cathedral under the direction of their amateur architect priest. It was a colossal effort, all done by poor people who had to learn everything, from the making of cement to the sculpture of statues. The project was stopped several times as money ran out. Finally, twenty-two years after the first foundation stones were dragged up the hill, the cathedral was completed. The year was 1917. It was 230 feet long, accommodating five thousand worshippers—the largest cathedral in the Far East, with two bell towers more than one hundred feet high. It was named St. Mary’s Cathedral.

Among the central features of St. Mary’s Cathedral in Nagasaki were statues of Jesus and Mary together. As in every healthy Christian culture, this was greatly appealing to the Japanese, for the mother is central to the Japanese family, where maternity and femininity are especially honored and treasured. This strong Japanese appeal to the motherly and the feminine—in the virtuous sense of tender, selfless care for others—was manifest in Japan by the popular images portraying the Buddha, a masculine figure, as the maternal, feminine figure Kannon. Thus, in the two and a half centuries when Christianity was outlawed, the Hidden Christians had in their homes statues of Mary, but made in such “Kannon likeness” that they would be mistaken by non-Christians as images of Kannon.

This fullness of Catholic doctrine was vigorously re-emphasized for Japanese Catholics in the twentieth century by the great Marian-Franciscan evangelist Fr. Maximilian Kolbe, whose magazine The Knight became the largest Catholic publication in Japan, with a circulation in 1933 of 50,000.6 Japanese Catholics knew, therefore, that by God’s holy will, Mary suffered tremendously with Jesus for our salvation. Thus devotion to Mary among the Urakami Catholics was based on a great and proper respect for the Mother’s suffering for them, as her children. This was clearly manifest by the statue outside the entrance of the Urakami Cathedral—Mary standing beside her Crucified Son. Most significantly, devotion to Mary as Mother of God and their Mother was manifest by widespread, daily devotion to the Rosary.7 These facts—that the Urakami Catholics of 1945 had a correct understanding and a deeply devoted practice of their Catholic faith—are quite central to our understanding of what follows.

The atomic event

The atomic bomb dropped on Nagasaki on August 9 was considerably more powerful than the one dropped three days earlier on Hiroshima, where 140,000 of the city’s 255,000 inhabitants were quickly killed. However, technical and weather-related difficulties confined the Nagasaki count to 35,000 dead. Of the 12,000 Catholics in the Urakami district, 8,500 were killed. Many of those not killed, as in the case of Takashi Nagai’s two young children, were spared simply because, by anticipation of the firebombing that came on nearly all the large cities of Japan, they had gone to the countryside; others were serving in the military. Of those who died in the bombing, some were actually worshiping in St. Mary’s Cathedral. Besides these immediate deaths, an estimated 200,000 people of Nagasaki and Hiroshima died from the effects of atomic radiation. Of those who survived, a high percentage lost family members or suffered permanent disabilities.

Hiroshima suffered the greater death toll, but with relatively less physical damage to the city’s infrastructure compared to Nagasaki, because the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima, though less powerful, was intentionally exploded at 1,850 feet in the air above the city. Nagasaki, on the other hand, suffered a direct hit in its Urakami district, the historic Catholic area, so that much of the surrounding city and population were relatively more protected by terrain. Spared from the Nagasaki blast, for example, was the famous Catholic mission church founded by St. Maximilian Kolbe in the 1930s, the seedbed for Kolbe’s proposed “City of the Immaculate” in Japan, which he built, providentially, in the foothills facing away from the blast. Interestingly, Kolbe called the friary there the “Garden of the Immaculate.” Another interesting fact is that four Jesuit priests stationed in Hiroshima at the Church of Our Lady of the Assumption, which was only blocks from the epicenter of the Hiroshima explosion, were spared when virtually everyone around them was killed. The miraculous nature of their preservation was widely explained as due to their solid devotion to the Blessed Mother, manifest by faithfulness to praying the Rosary.8

Unfortunately, on the other side of the world, Kolbe’s great Polish City of the Immaculate was fiercely dismantled by the Nazi holocaust, with Kolbe himself martyred at Auschwitz. Interestingly, Kolbe, whom witnesses say died in a state of ecstatic joy, was killed on August 14 and his body vaporized in the Auschwitz ovens on August 15. Again we have the feast day of the Assumption of Mary in our liturgy of signs. But any less a gift to Kolbe would be quite incomprehensible, since he was, like Christ, so mystically united to Mary, radiating her sweet gentleness to such a profound degree, that he was known to literally “breathe Mary.”9 The brutally atheistic Nazis also completely destroyed Kolbe’s famous Christo-Marian-Franciscan apostolate, the largest Christian publishing operation of the world to that date—operated by nearly eight hundred fervent friars in his City of the Immaculate, which was the largest Christian monastic community the world had seen since the great Benedictine monasteries of medieval times.

These two facts taken together—the destruction of Kolbe’s Polish epicenter for Catholic evangelization of Europe and the Americas, and the destruction of Catholic Nagasaki—have led many to ask: “Why, Lord? Why, did you permit the horrendous bombing of this illustrious Catholic epicenter in Japan, which, after the war, would have been central to the Catholic evangelization of Asia?” Of course, the same “why” may be asked regarding any number of difficult circumstances that seem, at first glance, opposed to God’s good providence. However, I shall confine our question to Nagasaki because we have a satisfactory answer in the story of Takashi Nagai, a survivor of the Nagasaki bomb. It is an answer more profound than the answer given by God to Job.

When the Nagasaki blast occurred, Dr. Nagai was working in the x-ray department that he had helped found at the Nagasaki Medical University, a half-mile from the epicenter. Though the blast did not completely level the reinforced concrete hospital, 80 percent of the occupants were killed. Nagai’s wing was in the southeast corner, furthest from the blast. Nevertheless, he was blown completely across his office and quickly suffered severe loss of blood from cuts made by flying window glass. He also began suffering greatly from high exposure to radiation and was later told by doctors that he had only a short time to live. Curiously, Kolbe enters our story again as Nagai hears a voice in his mind, perhaps from his guardian angel, telling him to pray to Fr. Maximilian Kolbe. He understood this strange guidance to mean that he should pray to the holy Franciscan priest who, in the 1930s, had been so well loved by the Nagasaki Catholics. Kolbe had left Japan nine years previously in 1936, and Nagai had, because of the news blackout in Japan, no knowledge of Kolbe’s death at Auschwitz in 1941. But, curiously, he had known Fr. Kolbe well in the early 1930s and had actually x-rayed him to determine the extent of his chronic tuberculosis. Nagai prayed to Maximilian Kolbe and was cured. As physicians, he and the others knew it was an obvious miracle from God. He attributed it to the friar’s intercession.

A truly biblical holocaust

Meanwhile, and for the next five years of his life, Nagai lived with his two young children in a primitive hut, and spent these years devoted to helping the victims of the atomic bomb, partly by writing books on the topic. One of his books, The Bells of Nagasaki, evoked an extraordinarily deep response in the hearts of the Japanese people and became a national bestseller, despite its Christian tone, and a famous movie was based on it. The Japanese people rediscovered in this book something they had long lost through war—love.

The unique message that Takashi Nagai communicated, both in his writing and by the way he conducted himself, was peace. It was the peace of Jesus Christ, obtained as a great gift, finally, through the colossal suffering he experienced and accepted, without bitterness, as God’s holy will. These are cheap words—“accept your cross”—easy to say by someone who has not experienced great suffering and loss. Indeed, many who heard Nagai remained bitter. But because of Nagai’s books and lived example, many gained an astonishing peacefulness through this holy understanding and acceptance of suffering. The difference between the two groups of people is still noticeable today at the annual A-bomb anniversaries in Hiroshima and Nagasaki. One of the regular participants in 1985 expressed the difference in this way: “Hiroshima is bitter, noisy, highly political, leftist and anti-American. Its symbol would be a fist clenched in anger. Nagasaki is sad, quiet, reflective, nonpolitical and prayerful. It does not blame the United States but rather laments the sinfulness of war, especially of nuclear war. Its symbol: hands joined in peace.”10

Nagai fully discovered this profound message of the Cross three months after the holocaust. Asked by the bishop to speak at the funeral Mass for the victims held in the courtyard of the bombed cathedral, Nagai prayed for guidance on something meaningful to say. Then he remembered two strange stories, one by a nurse and some others in his radiology department telling of some women singing Latin hymns on the midnight after the blast. The next day they found the twenty-seven nuns from the nearby Josei Convent. The convent was demolished and all were dead, horribly burned to death; and yet they died singing! The other incident concerned girls from Junshin, a school where his wife Midori had taught, run by nuns that he knew well. During the dark days of 1945, when the people worried of being firebombed, the girls had been taught by the principal nun to sing, “Mary, my Mother, I offer myself to you.” Remarkably, after the bombing, though many of the Junshin girls were instantly killed, Nagai heard several reports of different groups of Junshin girls who had been working in factories, fields and other places, singing, “Mary, my Mother, I offer myself to you.” Many would be dead within days, but they were heard singing.11 Nagai now knew what he must say to the people:

“At midnight that night, our cathedral suddenly burst into flames and was consumed. At exactly the same time in the Imperial Palace, His Majesty the Emperor made known his sacred decision to end the war. On August 15, the Imperial Rescript, which put an end to the fighting, was formally promulgated, and the whole world saw the light of peace. August 15 is also the great feast of the Assumption of the Virgin Mary. It is significant, I believe, that the Urakami cathedral was dedicated to her. We must ask: was this convergence of events, the end of the war and the celebration of her feast day, merely coincidental, or was it the mysterious Providence of God?

“…It was not the American crew, I believe, who chose our suburb. God’s Providence chose Urakami and carried the bomb right above our homes. Is there not a profound relationship between the annihilation of Nagasaki and the end of the war? Was not Nagasaki the chosen victim, the lamb without blemish, slain as a whole burnt offering on the altar of sacrifice, atoning for the sins of all the nations during World War II?”

Nagai used hansai, the Japanese word for the Bible’s “holocaust,” or whole burnt offering. The angry reaction of some mourners is well captured by the famous director Keisuke Kinosita in Children of Nagasaki, the most recent movie on Nagai’s life. Some of the congregation stood up and shouted in protest that Nagai should try to dignify with pious words the atrocity perpetrated on their families. Nagai showed neither anger nor surprise. Having traveled through the dark valley they were in, he was sympathetic to their response. He continued with a quiet authority that compelled silence.

“We are inheritors of Adam’s sin…of Cain’s sin…. Hating one another, killing one another, joyfully killing one another!… but mere repentance was not enough for peace…. We had to offer a stupendous sacrifice…. Cities had been leveled, but that was not enough…. Only this hansai in Nagasaki sufficed, and at that moment God inspired our Emperor to issue the sacred proclamation that ended the war. The Christian flock of Nagasaki was true to the Faith through three centuries of persecution. During the recent war it prayed ceaselessly for a lasting peace. Here was the one pure lamb that had to be sacrificed as hansai on His altar…so that many millions of lives might be saved… Let us be thankful that Nagasaki was chosen for the whole burnt sacrifice! Let us be thankful that through this sacrifice, peace was granted to the world and religious freedom to Japan.”

When Nagai finished and sat down the silence was deep. His finding of God’s Providence at work even in the horrors of August 9 had a profound effect on his listeners and, when repeated later in his books, on non-Christians in Nagasaki and throughout Japan.12

When Nagai addressed the A-bomb mourners at the Nagasaki funeral Mass, he used the startling word hansai, telling them to offer their dead to God as a whole burnt sacrifice. Many were shocked and even angered by this. Sensitive Nagai examined his conscience about this in a book he wrote not long before he died. He concluded he was right in urging people to accept the deaths as hansai. The proof? The peace of heart this acceptance brought. Nagai had become a Word-of-God man, discerning major matters according to the words of Scripture. He concluded that the hansai insight was authentic because it brought him and many others “the fruits of the Holy Spirit.” For Nagai, Gal. 5:22 said it all: “The fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control; against such there is no law.” Nagai, standing at the crossroads of death, averred that hansai spirituality had brought great peace.13

In Nagai’s final book, which he completed in great pain before being carried on a stretcher to his alma mater, the Nagasaki University Hospital, his last line was a quotation from the third-century North African theologian, Tertullian: “The blood of martyrs is the seed of Christians.” Nagai died shortly thereafter on May 1, 1951, the first day of the month of Mary. He prepared for death by repeating, “Jesus, Mary and Joseph,” in Japanese Nenbutsu style, the Buddhist mantra style used as the mainstay of samurai in dire straits. Then he quietly uttered the last words of Christ: “Into your hands I commend my spirit.”

  1. Glynn, Paul, S.M., A Song for Nagasaki: The Story of Takashi Nagai (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2009), 51–52. Takashi Nagai (1910–1951) was a Japanese scientist, convert to Catholicism, and survivor of the atomic bombing of Nagasaki. 
  2. The Assumption of Mary, August 15, is the ancient Church feast day celebrating Mary’s final rapture with God in which she ascended, like Christ, bodily into heaven, where she is found in Rev. 12:1 crowned with twelve stars. The Assumption is the final reward for “the woman” of Gen. 3:15 who remained always “full of grace” (Luke 1:28)—a sign of great hope for us, especially in times of suffering when we may be tempted to despair. The doctrine of the Assumption was infallibly defined by Pope Pius XII on November 1, 1950, in his apostolic constitution Munificentissimus Deus
  3. A Song for Nagasaki, 227. One may also note that there are 396 years between the Assumption events defining the birth of the Church in Nagasaki in 1549 and its 1945 holocaust. And that 396 = 33 x 12—the age of Jesus Christ when he was made a holocaust—times 3 (the perfect Trinitarian number)—times 4 (the numerical sign of the cross). 
  4. Ibid., 51–52. 
  5. A Song for Nagasaki, 53. 
  6. Kolbe, Saint of the Immaculate, ed., Bro. Francis M. Kalvelage, FI (New Bedford, MA: Academy of the Immaculate, 2001), 62. 
  7. In the context of speaking of the white rose as Nagai’s favorite flower and the term “Rosary” as derived from the term rosarium, “rose garden,” Fr. Glynn says: “Prayer to Mary {via the Rosary} had been one of the essentials in the spirituality of the Hidden Christians of Nagasaki, and it became the same for Nagai” (A Song for Nagasaki, 239). There is no doubt that the Rosary was introduced to Japan in a major way by the early Jesuits and Franciscan missionaries, because the Feast of the Holy Rosary on October 7 was officially added to the Church calendar in 1571 by Pope Pius V, added precisely after Christians won the great Battle of Lepanto. Here it is worth mentioning a new book that I believe is destined to be a modern classic for restoring the Rosary: The Secret Power of the Rosary (Herndon, VA: St. Dominic Media), a series of 111 short meditations supplied by our Blessed Mother to the Polish mystic, Barbara Kloss, with her bishop’s approval. 
  8. The miracle, with the names of the four Jesuits, is reported by Fr. Albert J. M. Shannon in his booklet “The Power of the Rosary,” CMJ Marian Publishers, Oak Lawn, IL, 1990, 29. This interesting booklet also features a photograph on the back cover of the French test of an atomic bomb on the Pacific Island of Mururoa in 1989 in which there appears the clear figure of Jesus Crucified in the cloud with an outline of the Blessed Mother bent over Him. 
  9. Cf. Manelli, Stefano M., FI. The Marian Vow. New Bedford, MA: Academy of the Immaculate, 2010, ch. 6. 
  10. A Song for Nagasaki, 257–8. 
  11. Ibid., 186. 
  12. Ibid., 188–190. 
  13. Ibid., 257. 
Br. Anthony Josemaria About Br. Anthony Josemaria

Brother Anthony Josemaria is a member of the Third Order of the Franciscans of the Immaculate, a new Franciscan Order of Pontifical Rite founded under Pope John Paul II in 1998 according to the instructions and example of St. Maximilian Maria Kolbe. Brother Anthony teaches the Catechism of the Catholic Church and has most recently compiled and edited a two-volume book titled The Blessed Virgin Mary in England: A Mary Catechism with Pilgrimage to Her Holy Shrines, iUniverse, 2008 and 2009.