|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.
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
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
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
“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
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
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.
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
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
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.
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
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
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