Nagasaki: A Peace Church Rises From the Nuclear Ashes
By Jack Wintz, O.F.M.
Because thousands of Catholics were among the 70,000 destroyed in the A-bomb blast at Nagasaki, that city has been called "the place where Christianity first faced the bomb." Thanks to Pope John Paul II's visit to Japan, Nagasaki Catholics are now moving from a passive, martyrlike attitude toward the bomb to more active involvement in the struggle for peace.


Passive Tendencies Changed by Pope's Visit
Further Catholic Reaction to the Bombing
An Interview With a Franciscan Survivor
From Nagasaki to Chicago


Photo by Jack Wintz, O.F.M.

Tsuyo Kataoka, a devout Catholic from Nagasaki, met Pope John Paul II in Rome last summer and received a blessed rosary from him. It was the first time since 1945 that the tragedy-stalked woman was happy to be alive. She had been severely burned by the atomic bomb which fell on Nagasaki August 9, 1945, killing 70,000, and has carried its scars ever since.

"At the time of the bombing and for a long time afterwards, I wanted to die," confessed the 61-year-old survivor as she told her personal story to the tiny group of journalists packed into her small Nagasaki house and sitting on straw mats.

"I was working at the Mitsubishi ship factory a little less than a mile from the hypocenter when the bomb exploded. My face was whipped by the heat blast. When I came to, there were few people around. A woman crushed under the debris was crying for help, but I couldn't help her; I had to leave and work my way out of the factory rubble. Outside I saw people with bloody faces and corpses near the river. I could smell the burns on my own body and in places my skin was sticking to the remains of my burnt clothing. My neighborhood was sea of flames. Parents were screaming for their children."

When Ms. Kataoka reached her house, she found it completely destroyed, but fortunately her mother had been pulled out safely. For three days and nights they had to live outside without shelter. On the fourth day after the bombing, she was placed on a door used as a stretcher, and carried up the hill to the grounds of the bomb-wrecked Urakami Hospital (part of a Franciscan theology school at the time and now called St. Francis Hospital). Hundreds of wounded had been brought there and were groaning in agony. For weeks Ms. Kataoka suffered temporary blindness and lay near death on a straw mat on the concrete floor. She was unable to walk for three months. "When I was finally able to take a few steps, I went to the corner of the hospital grounds and looked down over the bombed city. When I saw the destroyed cathedral, I wept and wept.”

For the past 37 years since the bombing, Ms. Kataoka’s life has generally been filled with misery and poverty. She was 24 years old when the tragedy struck. Her face, as well as her arms and legs, was badly scarred by burns, clouding prospects of marriage. She suffered a broken eardrum from the blast and was left hard of hearing. Her life has been plagued by health problems and consequent unemployment much of the time. Like many hibakusha (those injured by the atomic bomb) who suffered burns and radioactivity, keloids (thick fibrous lumps) formed on the scar tissue around her mouth and had to be removed by surgical operations.

It was not until she visited the Pope last summer that she felt any advantage to having survived the atomic bombing. Tears of joy streamed down her face as she told how overwhelmed she was at meeting Pope John Paul II and how for the first time her pain-ridden life seemed to have a meaning. As she spoke there was hardly a dry eye among the journalists and interpreters who listened to her tale.

Surrounding Ms. Kataoka in her small living room were signs of her fervent Catholicity: traditional statues and pictures of Christ, Mary, the Sacred Heart, the Last Supper, as well as at least three photos and a cloth banner of the Pope.

Her admiration for the Pope, however, goes deeper than her joyful audience with him in Rome. Like many of her fellow Catholics, she was profoundly affected by his visit to Hiroshima and Nagasaki in February 1981. In fact, he brought about a revolution in her thinking that is symbolic of the change in viewpoint experienced by the whole Catholic community in Nagasaki and Japan as a whole.

Passive Tendencies Changed by Pope's Visit

To understand the change in thinking among Nagasaki Christians, one has to know a bit of Catholic history in Japan and the victim-mentality which the Church developed through centuries of persecution.

Christianity first came to Japan in 1549 with St. Francis Xavier. By 1597 a clear anti-Christian spirit and persecution had emerged. That year marked the crucifixion of the 26 Holy Martyrs on a hill in Nagasaki (where a public shrine in their honor now draws many visitors annually). This group of martyrs, composed of six Franciscans, three Jesuits and 17 lay persons (Secular Franciscans), had been forced on a month-long march from the city of Kyoto, where their faces were mutilated. Then, paraded from city to city, they were led to Nagasaki and crucified. From this period until 1889, Christians of Japan suffered recurring persecutions, compelling great numbers to go underground. In fact, large concentrations of “secret Christians” lived in the Nagasaki region.

By 1945 the Nagasaki community of Roman Catholics, the descendants of these hidden Christians, formed the largest Catholic colony in Japan. Ironically, they inhabited the Urakami valley, which is the district of Nagasaki over which the atomic bomb exploded. The bomb killed nearly 9,600 of the 12,000 Catholics who lived near the hypocenter of the blast, leaving 70,000 people dead altogether. Their beloved church, the Urakami Cathedral, the largest Catholic church in the Orient, was utterly destroyed. Two priests hearing confessions at the time, along with dozens of penitents, were killed when the church collapsed on top of them.

Given the Nagasaki Christians’ long history of being a martyr Church, it is not totally surprising if many looked upon the bomb itself as part of their ongoing martyrdom.Father Jose Aguilar, a Mexican Jesuit who has spent some 20 years in Nagasaki and teaches at Nagasaki University, explained that the "martyr interpretation" of the bombing was greatly influenced by the teaching of Takashi Nagai, a Catholic doctor and writer who died from leukemia six years after being exposed to the Nagasaki bomb.

Father Aguilar summed up that teaching in this way: “Whatever happens, happens with the approval of God. Why did God approve of the deaths of Nagasaki Christians? The answer is simple, according to Dr. Nagai: God was looking for victims of reparation for the atrocities of WWII. And who else coold play that role better than the Lord’s well-known martyrs of Nagasaki?”

This sense of being sacrificial offerings for the sake of peace and to compensate for the sins of others seems to have led the Nagasaki Catholics to a kind of passive attitude toward the bomb and even toward their Christian call to be peacemakers. Pope John Paul II’s visit to Hiroshima and Nagasaki completely turned this around, in a dramatic way, the Nagasaki Christians—and others—were set free from this passive-martyr stance by the Pope’s peace statement.

At Hiroshima’s Memorial Cenotaph, February 25, 1981, the Pope delivered a peace appeal which made a tremendous impact on the Japanese nation as a whole and upon Nagasaki Catholics in particular. John Paul II’s address opened with the words: “War is the work of human beings.” Those words had a truly liberating effect on those who might be tempted to idenhfy the atomic bombings as the work of God, The Pope insisted further that “human beings who wage war can also successfully make peace” and that all should “renew our faith in the capacity of human beings to do what is good,... to turn disaster into a new beginning. In face of the man-made calamity that every war is, one must affirm again and again that the waging of war is not inevitable or unchangeable. Humanity is not destined to self-destruction.”

The Pope’s words had a strong effect on people like Ms. Kataoka, transforming them from a passive to active attitude regarding war and peace.

“Until the Pope said, ‘War is the work of human beings,”’ admits Ms. Kataoka, “I accepted war as the providence and will of God and felt that I had to offer myself to the will of God. I thought that we Catholics were like sacrificial offerings for the sake of bringing peace to the world and atoning for the crimes of war, But when the Pope said war is from man and not from God, I started to see that the world is at the brink of a nuclear crisis, and that I must make my own active contribution to peace.”

She came forward as a hibakusha and began appearing in films and TV interviews, speaking to the press and voicing her feelings about nuclear warfare. The dramatic significance of her speaking out can only be fully grasped in light of the fact that many hibakusha are psychologically unable—even 37 years after the fact—to share publicly the horrors they experienced in 1945.

No longer did Catholics in Nagasaki and throughout Japan consider it sufficient to simply pray for peace. The Pope had laid the groundwork for active participation in the peace movement, making it clear that, if warwas the work of human beings, then so was peace.

But the Pope also gave a major boost to the peace movement in Japan in an entirely different way. Lip to the time of his peace declaration at Hiroshima, the peace movement in Japan was largely identified with the communists and socialists. Generally speaking, bishops and Church leaders hesitated to come out for the peace movement and nuclear disarmament because they would be labeled as communists or tools of a political movement. A religious minority with a long history of persecution, Japanese Catholics have special fears of appearing unpatriotic.

“Being a neutral figure,” points out Father Aguilar, who served as a TV commentator during the Pope’s visit, “Pope John Paul II could take up the flag of the peace movement and clearly separate it from political and communist ties.”

Indeed, the Pope gave a tremendous impetus to the peace movement, In addition to his peace appeal in Hiroshima, he instructed the Catholic hierarchy of Japan that it should not be silent on this important moral issue. The Pope’s bold pleas for peace encouraged other groups as well, including large Buddhist sects, to become more active in promoting peace.


Further Catholic Reaction to the Bombing

While in Nagasaki last August, I attended the Memorial Day Mass on the morning of August 9 at the Llrakami Catholic Cathedral, which has been rebuilt on the same spot where it stood before the bombing.

In his homily Auxiliary Bishop of Nagasaki Joseph Matsunaga encouraged the congregation to remember their relatives and friends who had died from the bomb, with whom “we are still tied together.” He also echoed specific themes from the Pope’s message of 1981. “As the Pope said,” Bishop Matsunaga pointed out, “war is from ourselves, Human beings are the ones who kill other human beings. How inhuman that is! We must do away with the massacre of war...human effort is needed to achieve peace....

"We can be missionaries of peace. But peace cannot be achieved by hating or blaming others. And we can only attain peace by recognizing and acknowledging that we ourselves might be sinners...."

A few days earlier, I should add by way of footnote, I was in Hiroshima for Memorial Day observances there and witnessed the Catholic community’s participation. On the evening before August 6, there was a citywide Catholic service at the Hiroshima Peace l’ark followed by a long public procession through the streets of Hiroshima to the Catholic cathedral, where a special Mass was celebrated, This cathedral is now known as the Memorial Cathedral for World Peace because it was erected (over the ashes of a small A-bomb-destroyed church) in memory’ of all the victims of the August 6, 1945, bombing of that city.

Nagasaki has a much larger Catholic population than Hiroshima. The archdiocese of Nagasaki, the largest in Japan and headed by Cardinal Joseph Satowaki, has some 80,000 Catholics, while the diocese of Hiroshima has less than 20,000. There are 40,000 Catholics at present in the Nagasaki metropolitan area, compared to some 6,000 in Hiroshima, (The Catholic population of Japan is 398,000, a mere 0.3 percent of a total population of 116,780,000.)  Being an international port city, Nagasaki has generally  been more open to Western trade and Christianity, despite intermittent persecutions. The current mayor of Nagasaki,  Hitoshi Motoshima, is himself a Catholic. With a small team of journalists, I met with him last August. He spoke of the favorable effect the Pope’s visit had made on the local Catholic community. “The Catholics in Nagasaki,” he said, “have a history of persecution and do not usually come out and assert themselves. I belong to a family whose Christian roots go back 300 years, hut who for a long time were secret Christians. Many relatives and friends have had a difficult time speaking out. The Catholics here were very much encouraged by the Pope’s visit, and I believe now they will be an important part of the peace movement, broadly speaking.”

Mayor Motoshima also felt that working for peace requires the two-prong approach of both prayer and action.Nagasaki Catholics, it should be noted, have been accused ofvbeing long on prayer but short on action. Says the mayor: “To offer prayer to God is extremely important for any human being. Prayer means to rellect honestly on oneself and to avoid being overconfident in one’s human abilities. It means that you seek the guidance of God. At the same time, however, to only rely on God’s providence goes precisely against God’s providence. As our old proverb says, God helps those who help themselves, I believe Catholics in Nagasaki must stand up and make further efforts, and only then leave the rest to God.”

Another prominent citizen of Nagasaki who is happy about the Catholic Church’s more active stance regarding the anti-nuclear movement since the Pope’s visit is Dr. Tatsuichiro Akizuki, He is the authorof Nagasaki 1945, which is the first full-length account of the atomic bomb attack on Nagasaki. The book describes the doctor’s grim task of treating the patients under his care at the A-bomb-smashed Urakami Hospital, as well as the hundreds of severely injured who were brought to the hospital grounds after the bombing. Dr. Akizuki is still director of that hospital, now St. Francis, which is presently operated by Franciscan Hospital Sisters whose U.S. base is in Springfield, Illinois.

“I strongly believe,” says the doctor, “that those in religious circles should be more active in the work of peace.” Athough Nagasaki Catholics are generally conservative and often hesitant to be visibly active in the peace movement (he has not yet seen priests and sisters there in public demonstrations, for example), he does support a greater visibility.

As a radiologist, Dr. Akizuki is keenly aware of the impossibility of coping with large numbers exposed to radioactivity if a nuclear war broke out today, not to mention all the other kinds of injuries.“Prevention is the only way to help,” he insists.

Formerly a Buddhist, Dr. Akizuki became a Catholic eight years after the atomic bombing. Since he has worked and lived closely with Catholics for many years at St. Francis Hospital, it was quite natural for him to become Christian, he said, But he cited an additional reason for his interest in Catholicism: the Christian idea that “someone’s sacrifice can save others.” Like many fellow citizens, he had grappled with the meaning of the bombing in which thousands of innocent people died. The notion of redemptive suffering—of an innocent person suffering for others—had some bearing on his becoming a Christian.

Last summer, Dr. Akizuki accompanied Ms. Tsuyo Kataoka and others to Rome on their visit to Pope John Paul II.

An Interview With A Franciscan Survivor

In Dr. Akizuki’s book there is repeated mention of Brother Joseph Iwanaga, O.E.M., and a theology student by the name of Mr. Yoshimi Noguchi, who is now Father Felix Noguchi, O.F.M. Although both were thrown by the A-bomb blast to the floor of Urakami Hospital where they worked, neither was seriously injured. Both Franciscans became involved in rescue efforts in the bomb-ravaged city and are still familiar faces at St. Francis Hospital. Although I was unable to interview Brother Joseph, he took me on a tour of a nearby Franciscan parish church, pointing out that the mountain behind it had been a favorite hiding place of the “secret Christians,” He also showed me a statue of Our Lady that he had carried safely out of the burning hospital after the bombing. He further disclosed that he had attended the farewell party of Conventual Franciscan Father Maximilian Kolbe in 1936 just before the famous one­time Nagasaki missionary and recently canonized saint was leaving Japan.

With Father Felix, however, I was able to sit down and have a lengthy interview. Currently the chaplain of St. Francis Hospital, he described in detail what it was like when the bomb exploded over Nagasaki:

“At 11:02 that morning, I was fixing a water pump on the first floor of the hospital when there was suddenly a blinding white flash and the building was jolted by a massive explosion. Thinking the building itself had been directly hit by a big bomb, I dove under a table. Broken mortar, brick and wood came falling down all around me. Pieces of glass flew into my arms, but the injuries were slight.

“When I stood up and took a look outside I saw that the whole city was flattened. All the farmhouses and trees between the hospital and the Urakami Cathedral were destroyed, as well as the church itself, Because of the mushroom cloud, the sky grew dark all around as if dusk were falling.”

The hospital roof had caught fire and young Noguchi and Brother Joseph began moving some 70 tuberculosis patients to the hospital garden, carrying some of the patients on their shoulders. Because the patients had been inside the thick concrete building, which was a little over a mile from the blast, none of them sustained any serious injuries. But many of the people walking outside near the hospital were killed instantly. Within days after the bombing, some 200 injured people fled to the hospital grounds in search of help, many with serious burns all over their bodies. Dr. Akizuki was the only physician available to care for them, and most medicines had been destroyed. The doctor and the theology student oversaw the cremation of many of those who died.

For the first few days after the bombing, Noguchi went to other hospitals in regions of the city that were not destroyed in search of supplies and food for the injured. Because the city of Nagasaki was spread out in different valleys, parts of the city were shielded from the blast and not damaged.

Unaware of the dangers of radiation, young Noguchi also went into the part of the city directly below the blast. “In each burned-down house,” he related, “I would see two or three dead bodies, so swollen that I could not tell if they were men or women. I saw thousands of charred and grotesquely deformed corpses along the riverbanks.”

He encountered many of the injured and dying. Some of those groaning in pain were Catholics and they commonly cried out, “Jesus, Mary, Joseph.” “I would pray with them,” Father Felix said. “There was not much else to do or say in terms of comfort. Many of the injured were calling for priests so they could go to confession.” But priests were in scarce supply, he explained, because many had been mobilized as soldiers. Others were confined in concentration camps because Christians were perceived as potential spies.

Since he had been exposed to radioactivity through his proximity to the blast and moving about in the bombed-out area, Noguchi came down with radiation sickness about a month and a half afterwards. “Spots appeared on my arms. My gums began to bleed, and my hair came out if I pulled on it, Soon my body turned yellow from jaundice. I took Dr. Akizoki’s advice and got some rest outside the city.”

After giving his account of the days following the bombing, Father Felix shared personal reflections on Catholic attitudes in Nagasaki, as well as on the morality of nuclear warfare and other questions.

As we sat in a small visitor’s lounge at St. Francis Hospital, I asked if he thought Nagasaki Catholics saw the atomic bombing as a punishment from God. “I am not aware that such an idea was held by Catholics,” he responds. “There was an idea, however, that by means of the bombing the Catholics of Nagasaki were sacrificed for the sake of bringing peace...and the notion that when human beings commit crimes, compensation must be made for them. Catholics who went through such a persecution [the A-bombing] might have seen it as a compensation not only for personal sins but also for those of others....It was not seen as a punishment for sin, and I do not think it’s a good idea to look at it that way.

“God never gives us pain,” says Father Felix, “Every evil and suffering and persecution that exists is caused by the ignorance and malice and indifference of human beings. I don’t think the people of Nagasaki believe that God inflicts pain.”

Father Felix believes the Church is right in becoming more active and forthright in working for peace. He feels that Francis of Assisi would have been strongly opposed to nuclear weapons, to the indiscriminate taking of life such as happened in Nagasaki, as well as to the war in general. He argued against those who defended the A-bombing because it shortened the war and reduced the number of casualties that might have resulted from a U.S. invasion of the mainland. “Such a justification of the A-bomb amounts to saying that the end justifies the means, which has never been morally acceptable. Even if the war were brought to an earlier end, this is still not justification for such bombing.”

This is an application of the traditional Christian prohibition against mass killing of innocent civilians to the Nagasaki bombing—a prohibition confirmed by Vatican II: “Every act of war directed to the indiscriminate destruction of whole cities or vast areas with their inhabitants, is a crime against God and humanity, which merits firm and unequivocal condemnation.”

If people in the U.S. or in Japan still hold grudges against each other, suggests Father Felix, “forgiveness and mutual forgiveness should be promoted between them. This would certainly contribute to world peace and be in the spirit of Francis of Assisi. This forgiveness and reconciliation should be promoted among all nations—not just the U.S. and Japan, but between Japan and China, the U.S. and the U.S.S.R.”

And his message for America? “As leader of the world,” Father Felix said thoughtfully, “the United States has a great responsibility in working for world peace.

From Nagasaki to Chicago

The bombing of Nagasaki in 1945 represents the first time a sizable Christian community had to confront—literally—the reality of nuclear war.

That community, already crippled by a frail self-image from centuries of persecution and further devastated by a nuclear attack, is moving from a passive to active attitude toward peacemaking. Although the change in attitude has understandably not yet flowered into full-blown action for peace, the change is nonetheless dramatic and important and echoes what is happening in Catholic communities around the world.

The Church as a whole seems to be moving toward more active participation in the struggle for peace. This is certainly apparent in the United States. In Chicago on May 2 and 3, for example, the U.S. Catholic bishops are expected to finalize a momentous peace statement that promises to be not only a condemnation of nuclear warfare but also a call to active peacemaking.

Chicago, in a way, is an appropriate place for the final approval and promulgation of this statement. It was at the University of Chicago 40 years ago that the first controlled nuclear chain reaction was set off. Also, since the United States was the first and only country to use an atomic bomb in battle, it seems fitting that Americans, under the aegis of the U.S. bishops, take dramatic steps to reverse what was started here.

By moving from a passive to active role as peacemakers, the American Church can join hands with brothers and sisters in Nagasaki—as if to bear witness to the Pope’s words that “human beings who wage war can also successfully make peace.” In so doing, American Catholics and others can help see to it that the sufferings of the Nagasaki hibakusha become truly redemptive.

Jack Wintz is a Franciscan priest, ordained in 1963. He has an M.A. in English literature from Xavier University Cincinnati, and has taught English in the U.S. and the Philippines. He is an associate editor of this publication and editor of Catholic Update.

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