Takashi Nagai - Life

Life

Takashi Nagai was born in 1908 on February 3 (February 2 according to occidental time) after a difficult birth that endangered both his own and his mother’s life. His family included doctors. His father, Noboru Nagai, was trained in Western medicine; his paternal grandfather, Fumitaka Nagai, was a practitioner of traditional herbal medicine. His mother, Tsune, was the descendant of an old family of samurai. In Japanese, Takashi means “nobility”.

Nagai was raised in the rural area of Mitoya according to the teachings of Confucius and the Shinto religion. In 1920, he commenced his secondary studies, boarding at his cousins’ home, not far from Matsue. Occidental science and the materialistic spirit were dominant among his professors. He became impregnated with the surrounding atheism.

In April 1928, he joined the Nagasaki Medical College. It was during these studies that he embarked upon the spiritual journey that eventually led him from atheism to Catholicism. The university is located 500 meters from the Cathedral, but Nagai had faith only in man, patriotic values, science and culture. He belonged to a group of poets and the university basketball team (he measured 1.71 m).

In 1930, a letter from his father informed him that his mother was seriously ill: a victim of brain haemorrhage, she was conscious but did not speak any more. He went to her bedside. She looked intensely into his eyes and died soon after (March 29). Takashi remained upset and believed in the existence of the soul; his mother remained present in his mind. One of his professors spoke about the philosopher and scientist Blaise Pascal, quoting a sentence from the Pensées: "Man is only a reed, the weakest thing in nature; but he is a thinking reed." He began then to read the Pensées and think about human life. Gradually he changed, becoming more sensitive. In his third year of medical school, he was surprised by the stiff attitude of the professors at the bedsides of their patients.

During 1931, he constantly read Blaise Pascal and wondered about the life of Christians and prayer. He became interested in Christianity while boarding with the Moriyama family, who for seven generations had been the hereditary leaders of a group of Kakure Kirishitans in Urakami. Sadakichi Moriyama lived with his wife. Their only daughter, Midori, was a primary school teacher in a nearby city. Takashi learned that the construction of the cathedral was financed by the poor farmers and the Japanese Christian fishermen.

In 1932, he passed his examinations. But a disease of the right ear (signs of meningitis) saddened him and made him partially deaf. He could not practice medicine and agreed to turn to radiology research. At the time, as he was aware, safety standards were poorly understood, leading to a high casualty rate from radiation exposure among practitioners of the field.

In the evening of December 24, Midori Moriyama invited him to participate in midnight mass. In the packed cathedral, Takashi was impressed by the people in prayer, their singing, their faith and the sermon. He would later say: "I felt Somebody close to me whom I did not still know." The next night, Midori was struck down by an acute appendicitis. Takashi made a quick diagnosis, telephoned the surgeon at the hospital and took Midori there in his arms, through the snow. The operation was successful; Midori was safe.

In January 1933, Takashi began his military service. Before leaving for the campaign of Manchukou, he did his training in Hiroshima during which a package was sent to him: it was Midori who offered him gloves and a Catholic catechism. During this period in Manchuria, Takashi took care of wounded persons and of the sanitary service. He was strongly shaken in his faith in Japanese culture when he saw the exactions and the brutality of the Japanese soldiers on the Chinese civil population. On his return, he continued his reading of the Catholic catechism, the Bible, and the Pensées of Blaise Pascal, and met a priest, Father Moriyama. Midori continued to pray for him. Eventually, his progress took a decisive turn when he thought attentively about Blaise Pascal's words: "There is enough light for those who wish only to see, and enough darkness for those who have an opposite mood."

On June 9, 1934, he received baptism in the Catholic faith and chose the Christian first name, Paul. Thus he joined the Catholic community, among whom the life of the Japanese saint Paul Miki strongly marked him. Then he asks Midori's hand in marriage and she accepted. In August 1934, a Wednesday, at 7 a.m., during the usual first mass in the cathedral of Urakami, their wedding was celebrated in the presence of the priest and of two witnesses. Maria Midori Moriyama and Paul Takashi Nagai started their common life on the road to Eternity. Of their union were born four children: a boy, Makoto (April 3, 1935 - April 4, 2001) and three daughters, Ikuko (July 7, 1937 - 1939), Sasano who died shortly after her birth and Kayano (born in 1941).

Takashi received the sacrament of confirmation in December 1934. Midori was president of the association of the women of the Urakami district. Takashi became a member of the Society of Saint Vincent de Paul (SSVDP), discovered its founder and his writings (Frédéric Ozanam), and visited his patients and the poor, to whom he brought assistance, comfort and food.

From 1931 to 1936, Brother Maximilian Kolbe resided in a suburb of Nagasaki, where he started a monastery. Takashi met him several times. The day after the birth of his daughter Ikuko, the war between Japan and China was declared. Takashi was mobilized as surgeon in the service of the 5th division. He suffered from the harsh winter in China but also in view of the distress of all victims of this war (civilians and soldiers, Chinese and Japanese), taking care of wounded persons and thinking about justice and peace. In 1939, he received by mail news of the death of his father (in February 4) and that of his daughter Ikuko. He remained in China until 1940. On his return, he went to the grave of his parents. On the station platform of Nagasaki he found his son, accompanied by a friend. He had difficulty in recognizing him: Makoto had changed! Then he began again his researches and his courses at the university.

Japan having declared the war on the United States, on December 8, 1941 Professor Nagai had a somber presentiment: his city could be destroyed during this war. He obtained his doctorate in 1944. On April 26, 1945, an air raid on Nagasaki left numerous victims. The hospital was overwhelmed. Takashi spent his days and nights serving wounded persons in his radiology department. In June 1945, he was diagnosed with leukemia and given a life expectancy of two to three years. This disease was probably due to his exposure to X-rays during radiological examinations which he performed by direct observation, since films were not available any more during this war period. He spoke with Midori and Makoto. With their faith in God, they remained united to live together this event.

In the evening of August 6, Doctor Nagai learned that an atomic bomb had been dropped by the Americans on Hiroshima. With Midori, he decided to take their children away to Matsuyama, 6 km away in the countryside, accompanied by Midori's mother. In the morning of August 8, under the smiling glance of Midori, Takashi left for his work and night duty at the hospital. Having forgotten his lunch, he returned home unexpectedly and surprised Midori in tears. They said "goodbye"; it would be a "farewell"…

On August 9, 1945, at 11:02 am, the second atomic bomb launched by the Americans on Japan struck Nagasaki. At the time of the atomic bombing, Dr. Nagai was working in the radiology department of Nagasaki Medical College Hospital. He received a serious injury that severed his right temporal artery, but joined the rest of the surviving medical staff in dedicating themselves to treating the atomic bomb victims, and later wrote a 100-page medical report about his observations.

On August 11, Takashi Nagai found his house destroyed and, among a heap of ashes, burnt bones: Midori and her rosary close to her. Her maiden name was Maria Midori Moriyama. Paul Takashi Nagai had her married name inscribed on the cross at her grave: "Marina Nagai Midori, died on August 9, 1945, at age 37" (Marina being a diminutive of Maria).

On September 8, 1945, Takashi Nagai was found to be seriously affected by leukemia. He was confined to bed for a month, with death for a time seeming close. He returned to the district of Urakami (the hypocenter of the bomb) on October 15, 1945. He had a small hut built from pieces of his old house and named it "Nyokodo" (如己堂, Nyoko-dō to, literally "As-Yourself Hall", after Jesus' words "Love your neighbor as yourself"). He remained there with his two surviving children (Makoto and Kayano), his mother-in-law and two other relatives. This hut measured a little more than six tatami, and was built for him in 1947 by a carpenter related to the Moriyama family. When the local Society of Saint Vincent de Paul (SSVDP) offered to build him another house, he asked them to slightly enlarge the existing hut to accommodate his brother and his brother's family, and to build a simple two-tatami teahouse-like structure for himself. He styled the smaller hut a hermitage and spent his remaining years there in prayer and contemplation.

For six months, he observed mourning for Midori and let his beard and hair grow. On November 23, 1945, a mass was celebrated, in front of the ruins of the cathedral, for the victims of the bomb. Takashi gave a speech filled with faith, comparing the victims to a sacred offering to obtain peace. In the following years, Nagai resumed teaching and also began to write a number of books. The first of these, The Bells of Nagasaki, was completed by the first anniversary of the bombing; although he failed to find a publisher at first, eventually it became a best-seller and the basis for a top box-office movie in Japan. In July 1946, he collapsed on the station platform. Now disabled, he was henceforth confined to bed.

In 1948, he used 50,000 yen paid by "Kyushu Times" to plant 1,000 three-year-old cherry trees in the district of Urakami to transform this devastated land into a "Hill of Flowers". Even though some have been replaced, these cherry trees are still called "Nagai Senbonzakura" (1,000 cherry trees of Nagai) and their flowers decorate the houses of Urakami in spring.

On December 3, 1949, he was made freeman of the city of Nagasaki, in spite of protests due to his Catholic faith. He received a visit from Helen Keller. He was also visited, in 1949, by Emperor Hirohito and by Cardinal Gilroy, emissary of the Pope.

On May 1, 1951, he asked to be transported to the university so that the medical students could observe the last moments of a man preparing to die from leukemia. But he died shortly after his arrival: it was 21:30 pm. He died at the age of 43. On May 3, 20,000 persons attended in his funeral in front of the cathedral. The city of Nagasaki observed one minute of silence while the bells of all the religious buildings rang. On May 14, an official ceremony took place in memory of Doctor Nagai and his remains were interred in the Sakamoto international cemetery.

He left behind a voluminous output of essays, memoirs, drawings and calligraphy on various themes including God, war, death, medicine, and orphanhood. These enjoyed a large readership during the American Occupation of Japan (1945-1952) as spiritual chronicles of the atomic bomb experience.

His "Nyokodo", with the addition of a library, became a museum in 1952: "Nagasaki City Nagai Takashi Memorial Museum". After restoration in 2000, it is managed today by Tokusaburo Nagai, grandson of Takashi Nagai and son of Makoto Nagai.

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